The Land of Rock and Cactus, Part II: Canyons and Culture

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Park, Utah

This second week of our trip finds the intrepid southwestern travelers braving the trails through Santa Fe and northeastern Utah. I thought about entitling this Canyons, Cuisine, and Conversation because we had the chance to visit with so many good friends and eat good food… or Canyons and Chiles … or Canyons and Calderas … or Canyons and Calamities, but I couldn’t think of a good “C” word for the art. And Santa Fe had so much art!

Santa Fe: More Artists per Capita

According to something called the Location Quotient at the website Citylab, Santa Fe is the second largest mid-sized U.S. city for art. In other words, there was an awful lot of art for a city of only 85,000. So much art that every other building downtown is a gallery. The famous Canyon Road boasts over 120 galleries along its six blocks. The community garden across from our hotel entrance began with an arch made out of wheelbarrows, and the nearby railroad stop was fronted by a football field-sized canvas with twenty separate photography exhibits. So much art that even the orange traffic cones are turned into artwork.

We also sampled the fine art of Southwestern cuisine, liberally sampled it. Highlights were: Harry’s Roadhouse (thumbs up on the Buddha Bowl and Asian tacos); Maria’s (tamales, sweet & spicy short ribs, and sopapillas); and Cafe Pasqual (smoked trout hash, marscapone polenta with chile sauce, and the dessert sampler). After this, we’ll need to eat soup for a while. Oh, except for the cooking class.

Holy Trinity of the Southwestern Natives

A class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking is highly recommended if you visit the area. The teacher, Chef Lois Ellen Frank, has a Ph.D. in culinary anthropology, and she shared tidbits about the food culture as she demonstrated the preparation. People know the Cajun holy trinity, but the native southwest also has a holy trinity: corn, beans, and squash. Each food lacks certain amino acids that the other two have; eating all three provides all essential nutrients. Also, chiles have a jillion medicinal purposes, or is that a chillion purposes?

Chef Frank explained how the magic eight foods found in the Americas were brought back to Europe: corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, cacao, squash, and vanilla. That’s right. Italian cooking had no tomatoes; Ireland had no potatoes; French pastry had no chocolate or vanilla. Europeans did bring domesticated animals for meat and dairy to the Western Hemisphere as well as wheat and grapes, though they originally only used them in Catholic sacraments.

Mole sauce– here’s the thing. The mole sauce is the entrée. We had it on smoked chicken and, of course, it pairs with other meats, but it contains enough separate foods to stand on its own. Our recipe included green apples, onions, garlic, chiles, pecans, sesame seeds, pepitas, brown sugar, roasted tomatoes, dried apricots, and Mexican chocolate.

We ate the mole over rice flavored with roasted green chiles, alongside a bean salad dressed with honey and lime, red chile-glazed carrots and pickled onions, and a Mexican chocolate torte that would make you sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl. So much for the Cuisine. On to the Canyons!

Canyons 101 — The Geology Lesson

A canyon is a rift between rock walls carved by a river, deriving from the Spanish word: canyon, so… not a lot of canyons in Greece. Europeans and Asians tend to call them gorges or ravines, and the British military also refers to them as defiles. Canyons form when the river water is going from high to low, as when the Colorado River flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, finding the stone that offers the path of least resistance. Canyons are the photograph negative to the river’s light; they stayed while the water blazed its trail of eons through the shale and sandstone.

The process of carving, just like the process that creates the spires, monuments, bridges, arches, and canyons across this land, is virtually the same even though the National Parks vary in appearance. Water and wind wear away the softer rock.  Frozen water seeps into cracks in the harder rock, expandin and contracting until chunks peel away. Hence, Canyon de Chelly and Canyonlands; therefore, Monument Valley.

Three Sisters, Monument Valley, Arizona
Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands, Utah

Besides the Landscape…

It should be noted here that I am omitting details about the recurrence of the bedbug incident, the origin of which I refrained from mentioning at Joshua Tree but required a visit to Urgent Care in Phoenix. The pesky little f*ckers! Things we thought were adequately heated and laundered in Arizona had to be pitched in Utah. I have now nearly gone through an entire bottle of calamine lotion.

On the plus side, we did manage to set the telescope up outside our Bluff, Utah motel and aim it correctly the very first time. I still need to learn how to switch from the flashlight and star chart to the night sky without blinding myself. However, using NASA’s Spot the Station website, we leanred that the International Space Station might be visible from 10 degrees NW to 34 degrees E around 7:52 pm on that very Friday evening. Sure enough, an unblinking bright object flew for four minutes right above the Mokee Motel, so I think we saw the International Space Station. I  may need to add that to my resume.

Even More Culture of Sorts

Blanding, Utah is a pretty small town (population 4,036), but it did have a quickie laundromat and a pharmacy where I could acquire more Benadryl because of the…you know whats. While my wife opted to stay with the laundry, I went off to Blanding’s biggest attraction, The Dinosaur Museum. This is not the first time I have been ditched when it comes to seeing more dinosaurs (see trip to Alberta, Canada October 2016), but we did go through the Natural History museum in Albuquerque, so I think I had used up my trip quota of dinosaurs. Still, this museum was not the cheesy single room sporting a fossil that I expected. (Moab Giants fit that niche.)

In addition to great visuals about Pangaea and the fossils of the American Southwest, The Dinosaur Museum had an entire room devoted to the origin of birds and another all about dinosaur freeways (tracks). Plus there was an interesting debate about whether velociraptors were feathered and another about whether stegosaurus’ two sets of plates were attached in pairs or alternating along the vertebrae. There were posters of dinosaurs in the movies and the replica bones used in the movie Bringing up Baby. It had a poster of Teenage Caveman, a film I could tell a whole separate story about, if you know anything about the movie, Manos, Hands of Fate. The Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah had more antorbital fenestrae than you can shake a stick at.

Velociraptor: Feathered or Scaled? Discuss amongst yourselves…

Meanwhile, the laundromat in Blanding, Utah was across from a local burger joint called the Patio Drive In, which had the Best Patty Melt ever designed. It was a grilled cheese sandwich that included a burger slathered with special sauce, mushrooms, and a roasted green chile. Oh. My. God.

Short, Tall, Grand, Venti Canyons

Let’s discuss canyon size. Using the Starbuck’s system of classification, in comparison to the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly would be considered a Short Canyon, while Canyonlands would be a Tall Canyon.  Venti Canyons are outside the United States — the Indus Gorge near the Himalayas and also Valles Maneris on Mars. Supposedly, there may even be the world’s biggest canyon hiding underneath the Greenland ice sheet; climate change will help us confirm that fairly soon.

We didn’t do the Grand Canyon this trip because that’s the opposite corner of the area we’re traveling, but I have to mention it for comparison. What’s problematic about the Grand Canyon is that options are limited. You can stand at an overlook and take a photo or — with months or years of advanced planning – you can walk rim to rim, go rafting, or ride a burro. There are no short little walks perfect for older pudgy women who can hike “a little.”  What’s great about Canyonlands in Utah is the plethora of hiking trails, ranging from mildly strenuous to difficult to you-need-to-be-under-35-and skinny levels. We traipsed all over the mildly strenuous hikes in Islands of the Sky, seeing one spectacular view after another.

Upheaval Dome, Islands of the Sky, Utah

***A hiker’s Haiku***

Whoever first mixed
Rice Krispies, marshmallows, and
Butter was genius!

Bridges and Arches

Let’s go back to the National Park Service brochure-level understanding of geology. 250 million years ago, there was a single continent, Pangaea. (You could also have read about this at The Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah.) Most of the section that would become North America was covered with an inland sea just as the fish started figuring out how to breathe on land. Amphibians and reptiles got bigger until they walked upright, became dinosaurs, and started wandering over the entire single landmass, which is why you find sauropod fossils across all the continents. The landmass began to split off, the sea started to drain off, and swampland afforded a hospitable environment for more dinosaurs. Over time, the Pacfic plate started shoving into what would be the North American continent and the Rocky mountains started shifting upward, hence, the sea drainage and the tectonic uplift.

Further analysis of canyons starts to discuss the distinction between isostatic responses to uploading, orogenic uplift, and nappes. OK, Wikipedia, this is upper division geology and it’s starting to go over my head. But the results are beautiful.

The other simple force at work in the Moab parks is salt. Inland sea, lots of salt. The land is uplifting but also evaporating, both as the water runs off and from general global drying from 200 million years ago. Some of the salt gets buried under heavier rock, simultaneously getting crushed and draining off by seeping water, so valleys continue to form. In some cases, like at Upheaval Dome, the collapsed rock over salt looks like a volcanic caldera.  Meanwhile, the salt, water, wind, and sloooooow tectonic movement cause rock to chip off to create fantastical shapes. Holes form in the rock, bigger and bigger holes, until… bridges and arches.

Natural Bridges in Utah had great picture overlook spots, although the walks down to stand beneath the bridges were mostly too advanced for us. One involved ladders *shudder* and the other required walking around some curved steps above the rock ledge. With nothing to hold on to. So, we managed the third, out to Owachomo Bridge (pictured at the top).

At Arches, many hikes were much easier, which probably explains why the park was full of tour buses and motor homes. It is a lot more accessible, so more crowded. October was a good time to go. We’re going to have the Happy Problem of too many pictures to merge when we get home.

By the way, if you trip and fall in the piles of sand on these walks at Arches National Park, be aware that the stone underneath the sand is quite hard. Also, the dirt is full of stickers shed by all the cactus, so they tend to burrow into your clothing. Duct tape comes in handy. And, once more to the laundromat.

City on the Edge of Forever?


Greenwood Haaaaaaaahhhhhhht Springs

Colorado is the last state we’re visiting, and one of the last vacation stop per se is Glenwood Springs. There apparently was another dinosaur museum in Fruta, Colorado, but we didn’t stop. We were headed for the hot springs. Glenwood boasts a giant pool (400 by 100 feet) which is kept over 90 degrees, except for the therapy section that is 104 degrees. Last night, we lay floating in the mineral waters, bathing sore hiker’s knees, and trying to pick out constellations above the trees. I think we saw Cygnus and Lyra, but I wasn’t carrying the star chart at the time. We have a few more days with a friend in Colorado before heading home, bug bites nearly faded, cactus stickers removed, cameras full of photos, and suitcases sequestering a few native horsehair pots and sandstone sculptures. And we decorated O’Hara, our brave little red Subaru that trekked us all over these lands.

When we started this trip through the southwest, the only sticker was the one with the bear in Banff National Park, from last October’s trip to Canada.

How many Octobers before we fill up the back of the car?

Today’s Daily Post word: brave

0 Replies to “The Land of Rock and Cactus, Part II: Canyons and Culture”

  1. You have an amazing story telling abilities. Your imagery jumps off the movie projector of my mind and onto my soul. Informative and thoroughly entertaining! Thank you

Leave a Reply