Fiery Furnace is a mind game

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The crazy Entrada sandstone fins of Arches National Park, in front of the La Sal Mountains

In every national park I can recall, hiking trails are well marked. In Arches, one trail is not.

Fiery Furnace has 12 directional arrows on a tiny white-on-brown plaque stuck to rocks over a distance that can’t be conventionally measured, and maybe three or four blink-and-you’ll-miss “dead end” signs. I find a dead end within minutes, having missed the sign. I miss many of the arrows the first time around, forcing me back to find my way again. And again.

Pretty soon, this know-it-all control freak is annoyed. My powers of observation suck. And then I notice my annoyance and laugh that the joke is on me. You can’t really get lost in Fiery Furnace. But it’s a great opportunity to observe how you react to veering off the path.

At Arches, there are a ton of people on the path in early May. The cars are pouring in before the visitor center opens at 7:30 a.m., and by mid-morning the parking lots are full for nearly every hike along the 18-mile main road and its branches. I was enraptured by Arches when I visited in December three decades ago and we had the place to ourselves. Since then, Moab has mushroomed from a uranium mining town with a few diners to a tourist hub (and a Superfund site) between two of Utah’s Big Five national parks. (Canyonlands, to the west, is where the Green joins the Colorado to gouge what becomes the Grand Canyon.) As the season warms up, the town is mobbed.

This must create a dilemma for the Park Service. Its mission is to serve us, but it is also to educate us and prevent its domain from being overrun. I wonder if Fiery Furnace could be a model. Seventy-five permits a day are dispensed ($6) to hikers eager to stumble through the maze. Before you get the permit, you get a video and a lecture emphasizing the delicate environment and how not to damage it: walk on paths and boulders, and not on the “biological sand” that is its own micro-environment; don’t leave so much as an orange peel, much less your poop.

In all the parks I’ve visited on this trip, the main message (contrary to what comes out the Trump administration) is preservation – reducing pollution (including light) and finding clean energy. I observe that a lot of people don’t get it, and I pick up their trash – and then I find myself walking on biological sand. In our numbers, we can’t help but wreck the place. After all, that’s what we humans do: leave footprints.

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John Ford’s West, plus Utah Route 95, east of Glen Canyon

Some parks have fewer visitors. After two glorious days roaming among the eroding fins in Arches, I drive away at dawn. A hundred miles southwest I have breakfast at Theodore Roosevelt’s Natural Bridges National Monument, three arches in a tributary canyon of the Colorado. From here I have a good view to the east of Bears Ears, an area sacred to the Navajo. After years of lobbying by Native American groups, Barack Obama designated the surrounding area as a national monument of 1.4 million acres. In December Donald Trump shrank it to 200,000 acres. Whether a president can undo a predecessor’s conservation under the Antiquities Act is a question in litigation.

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The shrinking Colorado at Hite, behind Glen Canyon Dam

Farther along, I cross the Colorado at Hite, a former mining village and now a modest resort in the Park Service’s Glen Canyon Recreation Area. The dam submerged the original settlement in 1964 but it has reappeared, as flow in the watershed has shrunk Lake Powell.

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Grazing pasture at Fruita, settled in 1880

It’s mid-morning, and I’ve been almost alone on the road until I hit the middle jewel in the crown. Capitol Reef’s unique geological feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a monocline in which the west side of a fault lifted 7000 feet and then folded over the fault. From the oasis at Fruita, where Mormon pioneers planted orchards along the Fremont River, the Waterpocket Fold runs south a hundred miles to Lake Powell. It is a dramatic spot for lunch, but there’s no room at the campground.

I continue south, by now decided that I’ll pitch my tent beside some Forest Service dirt road. I stop on Boulder Mountain for a nap. Utah Route 12, linking the towns of Torrey and Boulder, was paved over a 9600-foot summit only 33 years ago. Beyond the mountain to the west is the Grand Staircase-Escalante, a Bill Clinton national monument. Now that I’ve driven through it, I understand its name: up and down through many rifts of many colors in the earth’s crust, an astonishing array of microclimates and flora developed over 300 million years. Explains the Bureau of Land Management, consistent with the Interior Department’s mission under every other president:

Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres of America’s public lands, GSENM is a fantastic outdoor laboratory offering scientists . . . insight into what sustains, maintains and explains our world.

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A speck of the Grand Staircase-Escalante

Trump’s other Interior-related order, which also is in litigation, would shrink the designated area to 1 million acres and break it up into three areas.

West of the town of Escalante and up against the edge of Bryce Canyon, the land has been stable long enough for grassland and pine forests to take root. Here I drive up a steep red-dirt road to a plateau with a 360-degree view, the sun setting over the varied landscape.

The stars illuminate my footsteps. In the distance is the ambient light of the avenue approaching Bryce Canyon and more distant towns. I hear the trailing thrum of airliner, carrying more people than I have seen pass by since afternoon, and I am alone in my mind game.

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