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Colorado Plateau
MAY 2005
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Colorado Plateau @ National Geographic Magazine
By Mike Edwards
Photographs by Frans Lanting
Time carves stone into spires on the Colorado Plateau, spread across four states, where wind, water, and weird rule.

Bizarre. Is that the right word for the Colorado Plateau, this thirsty sprawl of gaudy-hued stone festooned with such names as Hell Roaring Canyon, Scorpion Gulch, and Horsethief Point?

Edward Abbey began his classic Desert Solitaire with the simple "This is the most beautiful place on earth." Fiery rock can do that to a man. Others trying to understand the seductive pull of the plateau country apply adjectives like "amazing" and "awesome." Which aren't incorrect, merely inadequate. In truth, a single adjective may not suffice. All the same, as I fly over the plateau on a May morning, looking down on whalebacks of slickrock, on crashing waves of rock, on minarets and pyramids of rock hewn by water and wind—how could any word fit better than "bizarre"? Especially in Utah, the bizarrest precinct of this Great State of Rock, which is almost as big as three Ohios and sprawls into Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Desert this is, but water's tattoo is everywhere. Spidery little arroyos coalesce into bigger arroyos that plunge into the still deeper groove of a river, maybe into the thousand-foot-deep canyon of the Escalante, a scalpel-cut in red rock, so narrow that the stream and its fringe of willows and tamarisks are invisible unless you're dead-on overhead.

Most of the collected runoff, if it hasn't vaporized or died in a mudflat, swells the Colorado River. By the time the river courses into Arizona and roars into the plateau country's most dazzling feature, the Grand Canyon, it is plowing a furrow more than a mile deep. Pretty impressive digging, this, considering that the precipitation in parts of the plateau averages only six inches a year.

Water was also present at the creation, in far greater abundance. Tens of millions of years ago, seas, swamps, and rivers deposited dozens of layers of rock: limestones, mudstones, shales, many reddened by traces of iron. In those eons the plateau country was flat and much lower than its heights today, which are typically 5,000 feet above sea level. Winds also contributed raw material, the makings of sandstone layers hundreds of feet thick. The whole shebang was thrust upward by forces within the Earth. Colliding tectonic plates tilted and bent layers like cardboard. Omnipotent then as now, water attacked the soft stones, carving canyons. That's Plateau Geology 101, slightly abbreviated.

Winging 2,500 feet over this rockscape, I feel a tenuous kinship with John Wesley Powell. On his scary hundred-day journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, that indefatigable adventurer-scientist surmounted cliff tops to reconnoiter the uncharted territory he had penetrated. Of course, I'm riding shotgun in a Cessna while Powell had to pull himself up one-armed from a riverine chasm to a lookout; he lost his right arm at Shiloh in the Civil War. But we gaped at the same sights. "The landscape everywhere . . . ," he wrote, "is of rock—cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, crags of rock—ten thousand strangely carved forms."

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