Vast, majestic and ever changing

In October 2016, my partner and I spent several wonderful days hiking in three of Southern Utah’s parks. Each offered a special geological wonderland to explore. Layers of sedimentary rock were formed over millions of years when today’s inland desert region was under water. About 13 million years ago, the sea bed was uplifted to form a series of plateaux broken by fault lines. Over the centuries, water and wind have sculpted exposed rock layers of varying hardness and mineral content into fantastic formations in rich shades of red, purple, yellow and white.

Bryce Canyon features giant rock amphitheatres lined by mazes of pinnacles nicknamed “hoodoos.” True to native Paiute legend, they look like weird creatures which have been turned to stone, standing as sentinels over the passage of time. Along the trails snaking from the rim down to the floor, we saw trees and shrubs adapted to harsh conditions, anchored on exposed sandstone hillsides or thrusting upward toward the light between steep rock walls. We marveled at how some trees become eerily twisted when they die slowly in portions as their roots are exposed. On the Peekaboo Trail, we randomly asked a passing couple to take our photo and discovered they were from Auckland. Facing the maze of spires, I understood why Ebenezer Bryce, the Mormon pioneer for whom the park was named, referred to the landscape as “a hell of a place to lose a cow.” We lingered in a cold wind to watch the sunset from the rim. A nearby chipmunk appeared to do the same, perched at the very tip of a tree root jutting out over the chasm.

Kodachrome Basin was only a short drive from Bryce Canyon but offered a very different experience. The rounded slopes of the basin reveal distinct sedimentary layers dating as far back as 180 million years. The park contains nearly 70 sandstone “pipes.” We hiked the Angel’s Palace Trail, and took short side trips in the setting sun to the Shakespeare Arch and Chimney Rock. We had much of the trail to ourselves. We felt a nervous thrill as we walked to the edge of rocky outcrops to get an eagle’s view of the panorama and take photos – digital, of course. Kodak gave permission for the park’s name decades ago but its groundbreaking Kodachrome film has since been consigned to history. We drove into the desert after dark to admire the Milky Way far from city lights, and were unsettled by the howling of coyotes.

We skirted the edges of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, which features the stepwise progression of plateaux extending toward the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We hiked through the slot canyon at Willis Creek, which felt other-worldly with its tall, undulating walls etched in red and black. We also ventured to the Calf’s Creek waterfall. Much of the trail was soft sand and it meandered alongside lush creek-fed marshlands flanked by sandstone cliffs. Embedded in the cliff faces were the remains of granaries as well as life-sized pictographs (perhaps dating back to 1000 AD) created by the Fremont culture. The frigid pool at the base of the falls offered a welcome break from hot sandstone. We finished with a short walk through a petrified forest near the town of Escalante. Trees buried in sediment had become mineralised, preserving even traces of bark and distinct tree rings in glistening jewel tones.

As a child growing up in Utah, I took the southern parks for granted. Returning as an adult, I was awed by the immense scale, ancient history and harsh beauty of the terrain. Blissfully happy to be trailside once again, I also felt humbled by the shortness of my life in geological time; the mighty power of stone, water and wind; and the resilience of life in the desert.

The beautiful words of Chief Seattle are to “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.” The greenhouse gas emissions generated by my travel will linger beyond my lifetime. Estimates for the flight and vehicle emissions for this trip ranged from about 4-6 tonnes CO2eq, depending on the calculator and accounting for radiative forcing. (I’m not confident on the numbers, given the range and lack of detail on methodologies across calculators.) For context, global average emissions per person are 6.36 tonnes CO2eq for a whole year (2012 data from WRI CAIT, excluding forestry and international travel).

How can I reconcile my desire for a stable climate with my desire to be with my family overseas and explore more of the world? I chose to compensate by funding others to reduce emissions and taking steps to reduce other aspects of my emissions footprint. I also continue to work for an accelerated transition toward zero-net-emission energy sources that hopefully will make travel more sustainable in the long term. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a manageable solution for me for now. My future decisions to travel will continue to be weighed against the climate consequences. Our generation’s progress toward zero-net-emission energy will be a vital key to balancing the quality of our life journey with that of future generations.

A short video with more photos of the magnificent scenery from my trip is available here.

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