The astounding Double Arch, Arches National Park, April 25, 2012

(Moab, April 25, 2012) There’s an equation Marc taught us during our program in Utah’s national parks, and it goes something like this:

(Stone + Sand + Sediments)/(Water + Time + Gravity) = Spectacular Natural Beauty

Cousins Bonnie McAdoo and Janey Trawick enjoying their first Road Scholar program together. Their next one will be to Washington, DC

Okay, it’s not exactly what Marc would have said, but it’s hard to deny that the results of eons of geological forces are easy on the eyes. Today, we saw dozens of arches on several hikes in landscapes that defy imagination. Some of them are fragile ribbons of stone, and we’re told we are among the lucky ones to see them before they fall. Even in geological time, sometimes you just have to hurry.

Landscape Arch in all its fragile beauty, April 25, 2012

At one point, we stopped alongside Landscape Arch, the thinnest, most elegant rock formation in the park, for a discussion about global warming. It’s a debate we’ve all had, but when it comes to lifelong learning, context is everything. We’ve seen evidence of previous epochs of global warming — and cooling — in the rocks around us all week. And we’ve also seen acid rain stains that are no more than fifty or so years old. So the question of whether we are causing or merely experiencing climate change is complex.

Geologist Marc Deshowitz pointing to clues in the rocks, Arches National Park

All the while we walked through and looked up and down at the most spectacular scenery on earth, we listened, watched, and learned. We now know that wind and water don’t just wear down stone – they build it. We now know that, when you think of time in terms of millions of years, stone really moves, and even flows. And we know that geologists get really excited about these things, because Marc, and Chrystal, and Keith, and Marcia, got excited when they talked about how the rocks we saw got here, and where they are going.

How many of us have friends who are geologists? And, how many of these geologist friends will go hiking with us, and explain all that we see in new and inspiring ways? How many of them bring an endless supply of jokes, or know the best places to share a meal or find the best home-made salsa in town? These are all good questions, and they have a common answer: you can find them on any of Road Scholar’s Desert Southwest Programs. See you under the arches!

Turret Arch is one of the otherworldly landscapes in Arches National Park


The Trail into Echo Canyon, April 19, 2012

(Zion National Park, April 19, 2012) Our second day in Zion takes us up into the canyons we saw yesterday from on high. The hike is the same – we still need to climb 1,200 feet or so to get there, but instead of views downward toward the Virgin River, we walk into a canyon that towers above us on both sides. So much for us hiking nearly to the top of Zion; that’s an option for those of us who want to see the canyon from Observation Point, 700 feet higher than Angel’s Landing.

Our immediate destination is Echo Canyon, a place where wind and water have carved intricate patterns into the sandstone walls beside us. They’re beautiful, and looking up at them is a different kind of inspiration.

Mary Ellen and Doug Bates

Today is also about choices. Marcia has given us an open schedule, and if we want to choose any of three different trails, they lie before us, each promising its own reward. I chose Echo Canyon.

Donna Clark at the base of Hidden Canyon Trail

When I arrived, a half-dozen other participants were already there, enjoying the views and more insights from Keith about how our little world had formed.

Road Scholars along the Virgin River


Our afternoon hike led us up the canyon along the Virgin River, named, as legend has it, because “it runs just fast enough.” The rapids are still too fast to attempt The Narrows, a trail that eventually requires hikers to walk in the water as they climb. We’re fine with the views, and with another spectacular day in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

At dinner, we bid Zion a fond farewell as we contemplate what Bryce Canyon will bring, with its floor equal to the ceiling of Observation Point, a place that towers 2,200 feet over the Virgin River.

Zion Canyon at Sunset

The Virgin River upstream from Angel's Landing

(Zion National Park, Utah, April 18, 2012) According to geologist Keith Norlin, the top of the Grand Canyon is the floor of Zion, and the top of Zion is the floor of Bryce. Today, we hiked Zion’s most famous trail from the floor to nearly the top. It’s a strenuous trek, and we start at 10 am. Gradually, the trail steepens until we arrive at Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 switchbacks named after Walter Ruesh, Zion’s first superintendent. The switchbacks lead to Scout Lookout, with amazing views below into the canyon, where the Virgin River flows through a plain that eventually narrows upstream to steep cliff banks that force hikers into the water. It’s April; we won’t venture there.

John and Alina MacFarlane on the way up the trail

Zion’s peaks tower above us along the way, red, jagged, and beautiful. They have names like Cathedral Mountain, the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and the Great White Throne. It’s hard not to be inspired by them, or to understand why the park’s founders gave the mountains these names as we enjoy the fruits of our labors at Scout Lookout.

Joan and Steve Jennings at Scout Lookout

But Angel’s Landing Trail doesn’t end there; it continues up a dizzying, narrow path with steep drop-offs on both sides, with a chain to grab for dear life on the way up and down. A few of us made the white-knuckle decision to head for the top. Note that while this blog includes images from there, it does not include any visual reference to the chains. Thank you for not asking me why.

A muledeer watches from Emerald Pools Trail

The afternoon continued with a short walk along Lower Emerald Pool Trail, with great views of a waterfall, the first of three pools, and, of course, more geological insights that could only be learned via the combination of Zion’s spectacular rock formations and a professional geologist alongside to answer questions. Road Scholar has taught me more about this subject in 48 hours than I learned in my entire life.

After dinner, falconer Martin Tyner delivered a presentation on Zion’s birds of prey, complete with his co-presenters Thumper the hawk, and an anonymous but beautiful golden eagle. A grand first day ends with the added satisfaction of knowing that tomorrow will bring more strenuous and rewarding adventures.

(St. George, Utah, April 18, 2012) After our geology lecture, Marcia Cooper and Keith Norlin take us just outside of St. George for our first outdoor experience of the week. Our destination is Snow Canyon State Park, where we test our legs, cameras, and newfound knowledge of the forces that created the unique topography of southern Utah. It’s an easy trek, and a few of us suspect we’re being tested by our guides to make sure we don’t just look good “on paper.”

Ed Camp, retired banker and avid bicyclist, on the Snow Canyon Trail.

Not surprisingly, all of us pass the test. And so does our destination.  Snow Canyon is beautiful, and our short hike leads us to a peak with great views in all directions, and all kinds of rocks to identify. Best of all, we get a chance to meet each other along the way, and learn where we call home and what we do when we’re not exploring the world with Road Scholar. It’s a great afternoon, with even greater promise of what’s to come.

Geologist Keith Norlin shows us his beads.

A highlight is Keith Norlin’s brief departure from his geology curriculum to describe his ghost beads, given to him by local Native Americans to ward off evil spirits. So far, they’ve worked well for him, and, thanks to Marcia’s invocation of the “all in” rule, they have been enlisted in making sure our week in Zion and Bryce Canyon will be spectacular.

No doubt.

A snow shower over the mountains outside Kingman, Arizona

The Hualapai Mountains and Kingman, Arizona, April 15, 2012

(St. George, Utah, April 18, 2012) The people of the Southwest live with nature in their backyard. A weather forecast of “partly cloudy with a chance of showers” back in Boston might prompt us to bring an umbrella. Here, open skies and nearby mountains can put on quite a show. Small rain showers race across the landscape, while bigger clouds hover over the peaks, bringing snow in April or even May.

The Grand Canyon, April 16, 2012

With our fellow Road Scholars, we make our way to St. George, Utah, where our journey to Zion and Bryce Canyon will begin. It’s a short drive from Las Vegas, but we take the long way, through Flagstaff, Arizona, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The extra miles pay dividends in spectacular views, made even more dramatic by the fresh snow. Several other hikers we meet in St. George agree.

Is it St. George Tabernacle or a very red Old North Church?

St. George Tabernacle

St. George is a gem. Founded in 1861, it’s modeled after a New England town. The Historic District looks just like one, built with red sandstone. Our headquarters, Dixie State College, is home to 80 Road Scholar programs this year. Program Leader Marcia Cooper has a joke for all occasions, and Geologist Keith Norlin starts our day with a lecture on how the lands we will trek formed over the ages. His “Ages of Rocks” list ends with a cross-section of the scenery we will enjoy for the rest of the program. Nice.

Douglas Alder as Erastus Snow.

Professor Douglas Alder, former President of Dixie State, follows with a rousing history of the town, including a performance inside the St. George Tabernacle as Erastus Snow, who helped found St. George in 1861. Later in our tour of the city, he channels Judge John MacFarlane, and presides over an 1880 trial of a local water thief, generously portrayed by participant John MacFarlane (no relation).

But above all the charms of St. George, Dixie State, and our Road Scholar hosts, the canyons of Zion and Bryce beckon. We are all eager to get there.

“If you are old, go to Zion by all means, but if you are young, stay away until you grow older…It is not well to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.” – Henry Gannett, US Geological Survey (1846-1914).