What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
Escalante is a wizened town with many old houses that stand empty. The terrain as I drove north on Utah Highway 12 is rock; whalebacks of rock painted white to dried-blood red and bare as a baby's bottom save for a few piñons and junipers clinging to handfuls of earth. Everything looks desperate. Desperate and awesome.
Gradually the highway climbed. Ahead I saw—could it be?—forests. At about 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) above sea level, I was in stands of fir and Engelmann spruce and groves of aspens leafing silvery green in May sunshine. It was the kind of scenery that made me want to pull over to the roadside and go walking, which I did.
I noticed boulders of lava poke through the new grass. Spewed from a volcano in some past eon, the lava held the soil here, while in other parts of the Colorado Plateau nothing stopped the soil from eroding away. It was a great contrast, this soothing forest and the harsh rockscape below, and it made for a great morning's ride.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Sudden cloudbursts spell trouble on roads that twist, climb, and plunge. A creek that's ankle deep can suddenly become a raging torrent. But I hadn't reckoned on another hazard of plateau country: the landslide.
I was purring along in my SUV one afternoon, threading a one-lane road that hugged a cliffside, when I came around a bend and saw rock raining down. I stopped just in time. Had I been a few seconds faster, my SUV would have been squarely beneath that bouldery shower.
"Get the hell outta here" was my first thought, of course. But backing up on a narrow, winding road isn't easy. Slowly, I edged back, looking for a space wide enough to turn around. An agony of time seemed to pass before I was able to turn and drive out from beneath that unstable cliff.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
To many people the spectacular Colorado Plateau is God's country, but for a few decades it seemed more like Hollywood's country. Westerns reigned supreme on the plateau, and beginning in the 1940s Utah towns such as Kanab and Moab accommodated many of Hollywood's greatest stars: Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Maureen O'Hara, and—most importantly—John Wayne.
By no means the first movie cowboy, Wayne came to epitomize the role from 1939, when he starred in the classic Stagecoach, shot in Arizona's Monument Valley. Many other films brought Wayne back to plateau country. So it was no surprise to me as I wandered from town to town to find Wayne's photograph hanging in restaurants, motels, and shops. One night, seeing a life-size photo of Wayne in a restaurant, I said to the hostess, "In Washington, D.C., where I live, a lot of restaurants hang pictures of the President."
She considered that for a moment, then replied, "Out here, John Wayne is President." Which, incidentally, also tells you something about the region's politics.