They say it will be crowded, but it isn’t, not this early, not on this cold day. My car is one of just a few slowly making their way up the road into a world of uncanny sandstone formations, red-brown against the sky.
The road winds up and around, and the rock sculptures grow and shrink and change form, clustering together or standing boldly alone. Some are majestically tall, others round or spiky, and they go on and on and on. We few off-season visitors, ensconced in our cars, drive past them in awe. Some look like they should topple over, if the laws of physics applied. Some are lumpen yet finely wrought, like ancient fertility statues. They populate a dry, dusty land, but they were made by water, and though it now returns only for brief flash floods, the ground undulates like a seabed. In some places, it is more spectacular than the famous arches we have come to see; it spreads out beyond the roads and trails into forbidden gentle hills, painted in the pale rainbow shades of the earth laid bare.
Past knobs and bobbles and needles rising from the uneven ground, past red cliffs and rock faces with improbable apertures, I stay mostly on the road, because this is a place that eats hours. But sometimes I wander on foot, following the worn pathways to those views deemed most amazing in a landscape that piles one amazement on another. I hike up a trail that is essentially a sand staircase on which a thousand sneaker tracks have laid down an inscrutable cuneiform in the pink dust. In about a half-mile, it climbs a few hundred feet, and I am reminded that I come from sea level and this is a strange, high land, where what should be a simple walk becomes a test of endurance. But I continue, breathless, to the top, where you can stand on a sort of platform and look out at Delicate Arch, the one from the Utah license plate and a trillion Instagram pictures. Off in the distance, it looks like a collectable miniature of itself, like you could balance it on your palm.
Arches deserves a constant state of awe, but it is impossible to remain steadily amazed for three or four or however many hours it takes to wind my way through the park. Perhaps the early explorers of this land managed it, but I am too easily distracted, my brain fragmented by a million intruding thoughts. And so the astonishment fades, just as anger and fear eventually do, even when you know there’s constant cause to be livid and afraid. Eventually, even in this red rock wonderland, even in this terrifying world, mundane observations and worries creep in.
But there is one thought that takes hold in a moment of clarity somewhere between the sheer strange beauty of it all and the little distractions. There is construction going on in Arches, one phase of a lengthy project to improve the roads. And as we sit in a tiny, absurd traffic jam in a vast and surreal landscape, waiting for workers to usher our vehicles past their trucks and orange cones, this strikes me as both ridiculous and encouraging. Even as nearby National Parks are facing destruction, even as the country’s institutions and value systems are fighting to survive, even as unforeseen calamities seem to await each time I glance at Twitter or a TV screen, some of us have come today to see how spectacular America can be, and others are working to make it more spectacular still.