Utah’s Desert Paradox

Utah's Desert Paradox: Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Upheaval Dome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Have you ever wondered why the redrock landscape of Southeastern Utah ebbs and flows, why the exposed layers of sedimentary rock seem to rise and fall in crests and troughs like so many waves across the surface of the sea? Well, the answer, surprisingly enough, can be found through investigating the ancient seas that once covered vast swathes of Southeast Utah more than 300 million years ago.

Utah's Desert Paradox: Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com
Salt Diapir
Courtesy Geology.com
Back then, the allotment of Earth’s crust that would one day become the Beehive State was located along the western edge of a chain of islands that rose above a shallow, equatorial sea. 15 million years of sea level rise, recession, and evaporation left behind layer upon layer of salt deposits that would eventually measure nearly a mile thick. These salt deposits were subsequently covered and crushed by vast layers of sediment, rock, and debris eroded from the flanks of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Under the tremendous weight of these additional layers, the now lithified layers of salty stone softened and squirted west like toothpaste through a tube until they collided with deep tectonic faults. Here, they erupted upward, forcing the younger, denser rock layers into anticlinal arched domes, called diapirs, resembling the crests of waves. This phenomenon works much like a waterbed across the landscape: heavier rock layers squirting salt into thinner layers of rock that then bulge upward before they are subsequently squashed downward again by even more sediment, rock, and debris. The subterranean movement of salt through rock layers becomes a game of geologic whack-a-mole.

Utah's Desert Paradox: Cane Creek Anticline Canyonlands National Park Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
Cane Creek Anticline
Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
I recently visited Dead Horse Point State Park between the town of Moab and Canyonlands National Park. On the eastern edge of the rising mesa on which the park is located, one can look out across millions of years’ worth of sedimentary deposits toward the Cane Creek Anticline, an obvious salt diapir that seems to rise straight out of the Colorado River. Perhaps the most famous (and most contested) salt diapir in the area, though, is that of Upheaval Dome, located in Canyonlands National Park. An alternative theory to the creation of Upheaval Dome maintains that an ancient meteor impact created the crater where Upheaval Dome is located. However, the fracturing of the younger Wingate Sandstone that occupies the higher rock layers is indicative of a salt diapir formation. Yet, debate rages on!

Utah's Desert Paradox: Paradox Basin Overview Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Paradox Basin Overview
Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Funnily enough, the discovery of this layer of ancient salt deposits that wreaks so much havoc below the Earth’s surface was made in the collapsed center of an ancient salt diapir. In 1875, geologist and surveyor Albert Charles Peale, at the time yet unaware of the salt tectonics at work beneath the Colorado Plateau, noted the paradoxical course of the Delores River. As Peale and his colleagues would find out, the geography of the collapsed salt diapir caused the river to chart a perpendicular course through its valley as opposed to a parallel course as is most often taken by rivers. This paradox of fluvial geomorphology gave the place its name, Paradox Valley. Likewise, the subsequent discovery of an entire basin of ancient salt deposits borrowed the name “Paradox.” Now, we know the salty layer as the Paradox Formation of rocks found throughout the Paradox Basin of the Colorado Plateau.

Paradox Valley Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
Paradox Valley
Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
This paradox of fluvial geomorphology can also be found where the Colorado River cuts a perpendicular course across the Spanish Valley of Moab and is indicative of a vast layer of ancient salts below the surface, waiting to further morph the landscape into crests and troughs of rocky waves that ebb and flow across the landscape. The next time you venture into this part of our great state, stop and consider the remnants of ancient seas below your feet that project their image into the surface of the redrock above.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Paradox Basin Overview, Courtesy and Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UpheavalDomePanorama.jpg
Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/
Paradox Valley Courtesy GJhikes.com, https://www.gjhikes.com/2017/10/long-park.html
Cane Creek Anticline Courtesy USGS (Photo id: 249988 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Cane Creek anticline, looking northeast toward the La Sal Mountains from Dead Horse Point. The Colorado River cuts across the crest at the middle right, above which is Anticline Overlook. A jeep trail and part of Shafer dome lie below. Figure 13, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1327. – ID. Lohman, S.W. 10cp – lswc0010 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image)
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Davis, Jim, Glad You Asked: Why Does A River Run Through It?, Glad You Asked, Utah Geological Survey, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/why-does-a-river-run-through-it/

What is a Salt Dome?. Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/

Rock Art

Rock Art: Fremont Petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon, UT: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Fremont Petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon, UT: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
What did we do before radio—before cell phones, television, newspapers, and books? How did we tell stories, share news, warn of danger, or otherwise communicate with anyone beyond those around us? What did we do with words and thoughts when there was no one with whom we could immediately share them? The wilds of southern Utah can provide one answer—if you’re willing to look.

Rock Art: The Great Gallery Pictograph Panel in Horseshoe Canyon, UT; Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
The Great Gallery Pictograph Panel in Horseshoe Canyon, UT; Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
As far as pictograph panels go, Horseshoe Canyon’s Great Gallery isn’t terribly difficult to find. It’s also one of the most spectacular and well preserved panels of rock art in the state. Naturally, then, it’s fairly well-known and has seen an increasing number of visitors in recent years despite its remote location. Incidentally, I happened upon it by accident—had no idea it was there and would have passed right by if not for a chance glimpse of a ghostly set of eyes peering at me through cottonwood boughs. The Great Gallery’s ‘Barrier Canyon’ style of rock art is characterized by haunting silhouettes of human, semi-human, and animal figures painted on and pecked into the canyon walls of the Colorado Plateau. They are surviving remnants of an unnamed and unknown culture of hunter/gatherers that roamed Utah’s canyon country between 7,000 and 1,500 years ago—pieces of information whose meaning is lost to us now. We may never know why these people painted the “Holy Ghost”—the 8-foot-tall figure with empty, gaping eyes that startled me out of my hiking stupor.

Newer panels of rock art produced by more familiar cultures are a bit more discernible, though. The nameless wanderers who produced the Barrier Canyon style were followed first by the Fremont whose artwork appeared around 1,500 and 2,000 years ago and then by the Pueblo peoples we now refer to as the Anasazi. Both the Fremont and Pueblo styles portray relatively clearer themes—stories of hunting parties and the game to which they gave chase; spirals and directional glyphs which indicate water; people, animals, and the elements whose interactions are now carved into the canyon walls for us to find, decipher, and celebrate.

The author, adventurer, and local rock art expert Jonathan Bailey refers to rock art as “a vision of a…cultural landscape”—a story continuously told by people who lived close to the land long after they’ve passed. Some stories are secret, hidden away in forgotten crevices of the Colorado Plateau, meant only for those who already knew their meaning. Others are more democratic: a water glyph is meant for me as much as the hunter/gatherer that pecked it into the sandstone. It beckons every traveler to come and sate his or her thirst.
Einstein said time is relative. Looking up at the Holy Ghost, the artistic center of the Great Gallery, I felt I could reach through time and connect with the people who wandered this landscape before me—to see it and experience it the way they did.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Mozdy, Michael, Bold Figures, Blurred History: The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Natural History Museum of Utah, October 2, 2016, https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/09/29/bold-figures-blurred-history-great-gallery-horseshoe-canyon

Nine Mile Canyon, Natural History Museum of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/places/nine-mile-canyon

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny: Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/planyourvisit/index.htm

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

The River

The River: River Rapids Per Josh Boling See: https://pixabay.com/photos/river-rapids-gulch-water-stream-1209025/
River Rapids
Per Josh Boling
See:
https://pixabay.com/photos/river-rapids-gulch-water-stream-1209025/
“There isn’t a mathematical formula to describe how water moves here. It’s just impossible to predict,” he told me. I was visiting Utah State University’s Water Research Lab; and a grad student had just unleashed an impressive torrent of water into a 4-foot-square, 20-foot long, hollow plexiglass column for my viewing pleasure. He was trying to demonstrate for me the physics of the Venturi Effect. The Venturi Effect in hydrology is the reduction of water pressure after water is forced through a constriction. There’s a formula for it. Likewise, there is a formula for the increase in water’s velocity upon entering said constriction according to the principle of mass continuity—which basically states that, because water is incompressible, it inevitably moves faster as it’s continually forced through tight spaces. I understood all that, but I was more interested in the frothy madness happening in the middle of the column—the wild torrent threatening the bolts and seals of the plexiglass; the phenomenon, I was told, for which there is no formula, no predictability.

There were three of us in the boat, friends who had met guiding rivers back east nearly a decade before. We had brought an 11-foot bucket-raft against one of the gnarlier western rivers at high spring runoff—a dinghy taking on a white whale. You can always hear the whitewater before you finally see it, especially the big rapids. We had come upon it faster than anticipated. Limestone outcroppings constricted the river into a bottleneck here where it makes a dog-leg to the left; and, at 20,000 cubic-feet-per-second, the river curls back onto itself at the crest of a frothing wave. There is no formula for it; no predictability. “What do I do?” the one in back steering shouted at me. “I don’t know!” I shouted back. We tilted down into the trough of the wave.

A river is never the same twice. Fluvial geomorphology says so. Fluvial geomorphology is the study of the ways in which a river moves, changes, and interacts with its channel and the landscape around it. People who study this sort of thing talk about the character of a river and how it changes with the smallest variability. A misplaced cobble of the riverbed causes a riffle where there once wasn’t one previously; an eddy develops, changes directional flow; the river is never the same again. I have always been fascinated by this. The fluid mechanics at work in a river must be respected and understood, even if they can’t always be predicted.

We rode the wave to its frothy crest where we were thrown like rag dolls, luckily, to the center of the boat rather than overboard. At the apex of the wave, we were stuck like glue to the water as it boiled in all directions—inward, outward, upstream, and back down. “Paddle hard!” one of us shouted as we scrambled back into position, jamming our paddles into the teeth of the wave. We spun this way and that and almost back down the wave before the river released us. We shouted in triumph for the sheer thrill of experience, and because we had all managed to stay in the boat. Something I wouldn’t have predicted.

If you could freeze time and analyze the cross-sections of a whitewater wave, you might come up with a formula to explain water’s frozen movements; but the formula would never be the same twice. The river says so.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Image: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound: Courtesy Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Josh Boling, 2019, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Water Research Laboratory, Utah State University, https://uwrl.usu.edu/