June 6, 2014

Silent Rainbows

Monday June 1

Dad came to visit for a couple days. We hiked the hoodoos, attended Ranger talks, sampled the wares of some local eateries, and on Saturday night got to peer into the wonders of the night sky.

Yesterday we drove out of the park and east on highway 12 enjoying the scenery of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. After Escalante, the road winds like a snake over a landscape of solid rock. Glaring white sandstone crossbedded in sweeping layers hint at an immense passage of time. Shrubby vegetation clings to life here and there and erratic boulders litter the low areas between rock-solid dunes.

On the way out we'd driven through Tropic, Cannonville, Henrieville, and Escalante—and aside from a couple gas stations, each town was all closed up for sunday. We'd almost relegated ourselves to trail mix, pop-tarts, and V8 when we discovered the Burr Trail Grill on the outskirts of Boulder. A big neon sign blared “Open” and we pulled in to a parking lot full of cars—other travelers likely as relieved as we were to have found something other than road food to get them through the afternoon. Our meals—a sandwich and a burger with sides of coleslaw and roasted potato wedges—were fresh and extremely well prepared. Dessert—a made-from-scratch “mixed-berry, ginger” pie with fresh whipped cream—was perhaps the best pie I've ever eaten. I vowed to recommend the place to everyone I could.

Afterward we visited Anasazi State Park Museum, just a couple miles further east. On display were beautiful examples of pottery that had been recovered from a small excavation in the area. Instead of spinning pottery wheels, they used a process of coiling ropes of clay—delicately molding each finished piece and adorning surfaces with striking geometric sgraffito. I could almost imagine the hands that had made them—slight imperfections betraying the curve of a fingertip, the palm of a hand.

On our way back to Bryce, we made a brief visit to Petrified Forest State Park on the borders of the Grand Staircase. A short hike carried us around a loop along which ancient logs and stumps, painted and bejeweled like “silent rainbows,” occasionally erupted from the ground in between stands of juniper and prickly pear. 

Thin pieces were translucent when held to the sun, and looked a lot like the material used by ancestral pueblo to fashion arrow and spear tips. 

A few of the cacti were in bloom, their delicate papery flowers heavily visited by tiny flying insects of all stripes.

Thanks Dad for your visit!

Tuesday June 3

Yesterday, Radar and I hiked to Lower Calf Creek Falls in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. What a beautiful hike—truly an oasis in the desert. Towering cliffs adorned with long streaks of multicolored desert varnish line a river valley dense with vegetation. I was reminded of a slightly smaller and less developed Zion National Park. 

Desert flowers were in bloom all along the trail—Globemallow, Prickly Pear, Paintbrush, Primrose, Wild Rose, and a host of others I couldn't identify.

Huge pictographs loomed majestically on a distant wall, and ancient granaries were tucked away atop high ledges.

Though I'd seen pictures of the waterfall at trails end, I wasn't prepared for its true size and beauty. Plummeting 126 feet over a lip of Navajo Sandstone, Calf Creek Falls cascades over stained and mossy walls and into a wide emerald pool at its base. Hanging gardens cling to moist sheltered alcoves of solid rock, and the thin leafy trees at the forest's edge sway gracefully away from the spray of the falls.

I snapped a few pictures just before some other hikers braved the cold water for a swim. I watched one woman as she walked into the pool. The ground fell away quickly and, unfazed by the water's icy chill she dunked her head underwater and enjoyed a brief swim. Not long after, a big chocolate lab came bounding down the trail and leapt into the pool. He gleefully retrieved a thick tree branch and was delighted when other hikers threw it back into the water for him to retrieve again and again.

Back to Bryce Canyon...

Geoff—my real boss—arrived on the first. My days are likely to be much more structured and well organized. New employees and volunteers have arrived in many departments, including astronomy. The place is beginning to feel a little crowded, but it's a crowd needed to manage the even more prolifically growing crowds of visitors. My impression has been that up until this point a majority of visitors have been from overseas. Europe, Asia, India, Russia, the Middle East, the lands “Down Under.” Now that school's out across the U.S. I wonder if that proportion will change as the numbers of vacationers rises..

I admit to feeling a good bit of trepidation about the arrival of Richard—the self-titled “Star Geezer.” An astro volunteer who'd been coming to Bryce for several years, Richard's tough, extremely regimented, and occasionally abrasive reputation preceded his coming. As person after person cautioned me to put on a thick skin and remember to take everything with a grain of salt, I worked myself up into a nervous tizzy worrying over whether our system of setting up and running nighttime observing would be met with a barrage of no-holds-barred criticism.

Everyone was finally introduced at a Welcome-Richard dinner Geoff hosted on Monday evening. We each went around the room and told our stories—where did we come from and how did we make it to Bryce. Richard assured us all that he'd achieved a series of specific mile-markers on his way to becoming a genuinely nicer human being, and his care for the park and especially for its dark-sky mission was obvious. Still—EXTREME worry wart that I am—I left the gathering even more concerned that there would be some kind of explosion at our Tuesday evening observing session. I resolved to swallow as much of that worry as I possibly could, and do my best to be helpful, flexible, respectful, and accommodating.

Whether helped by my attitude or not, our Tuesday night observing session went off without a hitch. The five of us cooperated to set up, collimate, and align eight scopes, cut power to and shield all building lights, charge everyone's glow-in-the-dark tape with a UV flashlight, and create a red-light “walkway” down the center of the parking lot between the two rows of scopes. We each picked a couple initial observing objects to focus on—I chose Jupiter and the beehive cluster—and the masses entered...perhaps around 200 people. Later in the evening I moved to the Sombrero (a little washed out in the waxing moonlight, but still interesting with a little interpretive introduction), M81 and 82, Mizar and Alcor, and finally a new object for me: NGC 4565, “the Needle”—a razor thin, but fairly bright edge-on galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices.

After our last visitors left and we were tearing down the scopes, Richard remarked that it had been a successful and enjoyable night. He said it was a pleasure to work with volunteers that clearly knew what they were doing and didn't need to be coached and directed all along the way. I breathed a BIG sigh of relief! We'd done well. Hopefully we can keep it up!

Wednesday June 4

Day off. Went to Kolob Canyon—the quiet corner of Zion NP—with Radar for a hike along Taylor Creek. The moderate trail ends under an incredible grotto streaked with desert varnish and edged with lush green gardens. The land and rock here is far to big to capture in a photograph. Everything is too tall, too wide, too detailed. For me these images spark a memory of actually being there. I hope they make you want to go yourself.

Passed through Cedar Breaks on the way home. A lot like Bryce, but 2000 feet higher in elevation! Quiet and serene—it's a place I want to visit again for more than just a quick look over the rim.

Back home, I hiked the rim between Sunset and Bryce just before sunset. I'm feeling more in shape now, and find myself craving even more activity. It feels good to breathe deeply and work my legs on the trail. The colors of evening here are incredible. Swifts swoosh through the air in pursuit of insect prey, sometimes coming so close I can hear the rush of air over their wings.


  1. Yes, oh yes I definitely want to come and take in the beauty of your world. You do give such delicious descriptions.

  2. Loved this journal entry, Kelly! My hiking group did the Kolob Canyon Taylor Creek trek last year. It was wonderful. Fun to visualize you making the same trip. Glad your dad could join you for a few days. Annalee