A Hell Of A Place To Lose A Cow
First Published in SunFlyer
National Park consists of a collection of horseshoe shaped amphitheatres on the
edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. Erosion carved a myriad of
majestic and eerily shaped rock columns from the natural Claron Formation. These
are known as hoodoos. Located at well over 8 000 ft, visitors to Bryce Canyon
will mostly look down on the hoodoos and into the canyons.
The Pink Cliffs
of Bryce Canyon form the northernmost and highest part of the USA's Grand
Staircase, a series of cliffs that extend from the Kaibab Plateau in the south.
hoodoos soon cast their peculiar spell. They speak of a timescale of millions of
years, endurance beyond the human comprehension of three score and ten. Through
their imposing presence, the hoodoos tell tales of an Earth we never knew.
65 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and mammals were still
small, when birds were only just starting to evolve and flowers grew instead of
grass, Earth's ancestral continent, Pangaea, transformed herself into
Gondwanaland and Laurasia (also referred to as Larussia).
time a broad, shallow sea advanced over parts of Laurasia that were later to
become North America. As continents continued to drift and heave, perhaps even
influenced by the fall of the Yucatan asteroid that is believed to have ended
the era of the dinosaurs, this sea receded again, leaving behind a thick layer
of marine deposits. These marine deposits now, aeons later, form the lowest and
oldest rocks of the fantasyland that is Bryce Canyon.
As time passed
the sediment was deformed by horizontal compression and covered with volcanic
flow from the North that, to this day, protects the softer under-layers. Mother
Earth's stormy heart bubbled and frothed. With a great seismic hand she broke
apart her protective layers and displaced huge chunks of herself, forming
amongst others, the High Plateaus of Utah. Streams flowed over the upturned
blocks, washing away the younger, weaker layers to uncover the resilient, if
drably-coloured former marine sediment, now side by side with brightly coloured
deposits from freshwater lakes and streams.
These layers of
sediment and stone are today exposed in shades of geological history as the
hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. It is a common misconception that the hoodoos were
formed through wind erosion. The distinctive rock formations of Bryce Canyon
are, in fact, the result of a very long, multi-faceted argument between Water
takes place in two ways. Mechanical
water erosion occurs through fast moving water that causes scouring, abrading
and gullying. The Paria River and its many tributaries contributed in this way
to the formation of the Bryce Canyon hoodoos. Chemical erosion occurs when water
enters porous rock and dissolves the cement that holds the rock together.
And then there
is frost wedging. The plateaus surrounding Bryce Canyon receive on average 100
inches of snow and 19 inches of rain every year. The area is in an almost
perpetual state of either freeze or thaw. As the ice melts, water runs into the
rock joints and freezes overnight, forming an expanding ice wedge that forces
the joint apart. The wedge grows as more water gathers and freezes. Eventually
the force of the wedge is large enough to break off pieces of rock. This is how
the wily ways of Water sculpted an enchantment of pinnacles, fins, domes,
temples and mazes from the earth.
relatively late to the area surrounding Bryce Canyon. There is evidence in the
wider vicinity of human habitation as much as 12 000 years ago. When
Euro-Americans first arrived in Utah, Paiute Indians inhabited the area.
According to the Paiutes, the hoodoos were "legend people" turned to
stone in anger by the mythical Coyote when the people spent too much time
beautifying the city Coyote had intended for them.
In the early
1870's the Kanarra Cattle Company used the adjacent plateau for grazing.
Ebenezer Bryce, a skilled carpenter, arrived with his family in 1875 to harvest
timber. The canyon behind his house became known as Bryce's Canyon. When asked
about the canyon, the Scot is reported to have said rather pragmatically:
"It's a hell of a place to lose a cow." Although the Bryces stayed for
only five years before moving to Arizona, the name has endured.
Millie Syrett were also early settlers, with their house just outside the
current park boundaries. They invited their friends and family to see the
intricately eroded rock formations. Word spread and soon there was popular
demand for a lodging facility, which the Syretts built and named "Tourist's
Rest". In 1923 the area was declared a national monument and development
began on more lodges and inns. At around this time Reuben Syrett also became the
first postmaster of Bryce Canyon.
Today the sharp
edged, jagged tops of Bryce Canyon still captivate visitors. It is far more
accessible, more welcoming than it was in the late 19th century, but
in the depths of the canyon, looking up along towering rock cliffs to a tiny
patch of blue sky, desolation still finds its way into the human heart.
The mind grows
still and respectful before the majesty of these ancient spires. For some it is
reminiscent of a dreamlike cityscape. For others it becomes a deeply spiritual
experience, man and earth united in imagination and form, a reminder of God's
awesome power and timelessness.
It is a territory that lends itself to myth and legend, prompting visitors to invent their own. Looking down into the primordial depths of terrestrial history, or up along the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon, the spirit of Coyote and those who went before him still stir in the breeze. The vast passage of time that so artfully arranged the hoodoos becomes meaningless, as the present moment stretches on into eternity.