Many billions of lifetimes ago, sedimentation begins to take place here. For sixty million years a great seaway sloshes northwestward into this region, depositing sediments of varying thickness and composition. The water invades, retreats, and repeats the process. Finally retreating to the southeast, the sea leaves gray brown sediments thousands of feet thick. Rivers trickle out of the highlands. They deposit iron-rich, limy sediments into a freshwater lake system. These will someday give the Pink Cliffs their brilliant and unusual colors.
A desert creeps onto this piece of the earth’s crust, which is a thousand miles south of where it rests on the mantle during human occupation. Sand dunes shift with a million years of windy climatic changes. As a granule of sand crests a dune, it tumbles down the backside, to rest there with its brethren, collecting, joining, lithifying into overlapping layers of the eponymous sandstone.
Uplift! The earth pulls apart, moving and tilting great blocks along north-south trending fault lines. Layers, once connected, displace vertically by several thousand feet. Older layers lay side by side with younger ones. Streams begin to remove sediments deposited by their bubbling ancestors. Arroyos widen, exposing rock layers that breathe the surface air after millions of years. The water erodes this rock mechanically and chemically. Scouring, grading, and gullying occur when fast moving water scrapes its silt, gravel, and rock debris against firmer bedrock. Steep slopes increase water speed and energy, which is influenced by faults and joints from ancient compressional forces. Slow moving water enters minute rock pores and dissolves the cements that hold the rock together, leaving loose grains to wash away.
At what is today Bryce Canyon, softer Cretaceous rocks were loosened and carried away from the upthrown block by the Paria River. The resulting valley is carved out of rocks that lie deep beneath the Paunsaugunt Plateau, whose edge is now exposed to erosion. As gullies widen to become canyons, fins of rock are exposed to further erosion along vertical cracks. Layers peel off, leaving vertical columns, which are the wonders that humans snap photos of by the millions. My brother is one of these humans, and who can blame him? The formation looks like some red desert god-creature had chewed the side of the mesa for a while and then let the toothy edge melt in the Mesozoic sun. As we stop for these photographic moments, the rental car makes its slow, methodical way down the length of Bryce, really a sequence of amphitheaters and not a canyon at all.
We reach Rainbow Point and walk down an orange trail, skirting snowdrifts and muddying our feet. After taking a short-cut through a stand of conifers we reach the edge of a long cliff. Off to the right is the official “point,” but we head the other direction. Bristlecone pines perch on the edge, loving the cold wind. The strange trees are twisted and ancient. A few lay on their sides, knocked over by erosion and some terrible storm. I touch the cracking bark reverently. Compared to the age of this rock, these trees are as green as I am. And yet here they stand, nearly two thousand years old, watching the earth spin around the sun like a human watches the spinning of a car tire.
The landscape in the distance looks ordinary, mortal. Far off to the southeast, we can make out Navajo Mountain. We head back to the car, ready for a longer hike. After zipping back along the ridge, stopping at the Lodge to fill our water bottles, and resting in the cool lobby, we head down into the valley. Scratched ruby walls and pinnacles rise around us. The occasional pine tree makes a home in the rock. Natural arches and spiraling fingers give the place a fragmented geometry. At the bottom, the surface levels out, tufts of grass and spiny plants joining the pines.
A chipmunk follows us, begging for our granola bars. I watch him scuttle alongside as we wander down the trail. In a few years he will be dead. In several more, perhaps I will be. A nanosecond compared to the time scale working all around me. Nevertheless, someday even this seemingly unyielding stone will dissolve. My whole life I’ve come to places like this and wondered about the nature of the universe. Often, I liked to believe that existence was essentially bittersweet, that linear time and freedom of choice led to the elimination of alternatives, and therefore the wonderful essence of things as they are was tainted by the things that are not. Today, I realize that this was egotism, that only human perception gives this illusion. The universe has no nature, no structure as we understand it. Meaningful or meaningless? Truth or lies? Accident or design? These are concepts that just don’t apply. Humans created them, carved them the way time carved this valley. All thoughts, all ideas, all human experiences simply do not register outside of themselves. As soon as we apply them universally, they fall apart. This is not nihilism. There is no such thing. At least, as far as these stone pillars are concerned.
Some stray traveler comes along the path and calls these stony wonders “hoodoos.” A small name. Nevertheless, the hoodoos change color as the soft sun dips low. Shadows shoot across the valley, creating pockets of surprising darkness. Bizarre formations still tower above us in orange majesty. The trail bleeds gravel and hot dust, while gradations of rock mark our upward journey. Hard to believe that snow waits again at the top. My brother and I stop for a moment, feeling the gritty sandstone with our hands. I measure the distance between us and Sunset Point. Not that far to go. So, we take a moment to absorb the surroundings, a moment to be glad to be simply alive, functioning in the present tense. Someday we’ll reach the waiting plateau, but not here, not on this page.