Nature up close: Arches National Park

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

One of the major illuminating moments of my life was reading “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. It literally changed my worldview, and thus my life. One of the reasons it made such a big impact is I first heard Abbey’s words in a beautiful setting, around a campfire in Arches National Park.

I was on “The Great Circle Field Trip” led by my ecology and geology professors from Sam Houston State University. The “Great Circle” included the national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah. It was 1981, and the desert southwest was not as popular with tourists as it is now. We walked all over that country.

During one early morning hike our geology professor stopped at the top of one of many mesas we climbed and broke into song: “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” We were already hot and tired and I wanted to slap him for being that perky. But he was right — the rocks, the cactus, even the feel of the place were incredible.

One of the places we visited on that trip was Arches National Park. It was my first trip to the desert. It took me a while to appreciate its stark beauty, but once I began to learn about its amazingly well-adapted plants and animals that not only survived there, but thrived, I learned to love it all.

I already knew I loved biology, and every critter I could catch, but “Desert Solitaire” solidified my thoughts and made me realize I wasn’t alone.

Simon & Schuster

Abbey (who died in 1989) was a wholehearted admirer of all things natural while also being irreverent, prickly and thought-provoking. He was a ranger in Arches National Monument (now a national park) in 1956 and 1957, and much of “Desert Solitaire” came from the journals he kept during those two seasons.

One of the slightly older guys on that trip brought along a copy of “Desert Solitaire.” He took it out one evening and read aloud:

“What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener. Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines … lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it. Dusty? Of course it’s dusty — this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins ……

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