Elegy for an Arch

August 12, 2008

On July 30, Nancy, the girls, and I hiked the Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park.  We got up early to avoid some of the heat (at least as much as you can in the Utah desert) and took all of the side trails so that we wouldn’t miss a single arch.  It was a terrific hike — six miles or so through some of the most beautiful country you can find anywhere in the world.

Five days later, one of the largest of the Devils Garden arches, Wall Arch, collapsed.  No one was injured, thank goodness, and no one actually saw it fall.  But at dusk on August 4th it was there.  The next morning it was gone.  All that was left was a pile of rubble and two very unstable rock spurs on either side.  That part of the trail is now closed until the rest of the arch falls and the danger of falling rock is passed.

We were lucky that we got to see the arch at all — my photographs of Wall Arch are probably among the last ever taken.  Sure it was five days.  But in geological terms, we missed the collapse by the blink of an eye.  

In a way, this was a very sad event in the history of the park, which has long been one of my favorites.  (I first visited Arches in 1985, returned there in 1987, and then finally got back again this year.)  Each of the arches is like a museum piece:  unique, irreplaceable.  On the other hand, the fall of Wall Arch is illustrative of something fundamental to the personality of this park, and, in a larger sense, the entire Moab area.  The desert appears static at first glance.  It’s rock and sand and stunted trees.  But Arches and Canyonlands, as well as Zion and Bryce and Capitol Reef and all those other desert parks in southern Utah are constantly changing.  Wind, rain, snow, temperatures that range from winter lows in the single digits to summer highs in excess of 110 degrees are continually reshaping the landscape.  When you look at the fragile beauty of Landscape Arch, the graceful curve of Delicate Arch, the complexity of Double Arch, you start to realize that these things could come down at any moment.  It’s not surprising that Wall Arch fell.  What’s truly amazing is that these others are still standing.  The same processes that created the arches destroy them.  And these same forces are constantly creating more arches.  That’s a slower process, of course, but it’s happening all the time.

For my Aussie friends, it’s much like the collapse of one of the 12 Apostles a few years back.  We got to the Ocean Road too late to see that one, and also too late to see London Bridge (another coastal rock formation) in its original glory.  Those cliff faces are constantly eroding.  There will be more apostles to replace those that are lost.

I’m sad that the arch is gone, that I’ll never see it again.  But I also find it reassuring in a way.  I want to go back to Arches — I intend to return there again and again.  It’s kind of cool to know that a place that seems to be utterly static year after year, is actually changing all the time.


3 Responses to “Elegy for an Arch”

  1. Steph said

    We lived in St. George, Utah, for a couple of years and your description of the Utah desert is wonderful. Makes me nostalgic for those days. It’s an amazing place, harsh and fragile at the same time. And even though you understand why something like Bryce Canyon exists, it seems impossible when you look at it. I’ve never seen Arches though and hope someday we’ll get back there to visit.

  2. Brian said

    I felt the same way when the “Old Man” fell in NH a few years back. They are constructing a memorial now: http://www.nh.gov/visitors/oldman.htm

  3. davidbcoe said

    Thanks to both of you for the comments. Several people have mentioned New Hampshire’s “Old Man” in this context. I wish I’d seen it.

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