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A Wrinkle In Time

Deep thoughts in a deep canyon

Image taken at Capitol Reef National Park.

Hiking across the valley bottom, awash in hues of terra cotta, sandstone and brick, I feel like the tallest thing around. Prickly pear cactus, yucca and sagebrush dot the desert floor. Tiny tracks of canyon mice crisscross the trail. A game of hide-and-seek would be difficult here for humans. But as I move deeper into this valley, pinyon and juniper trees tall enough to offer shade begin to punctuate the landscape. Hoofprints of mule deer and the hopping pattern of jackrabbit feet parallel my path. Boulders big enough to hide behind are strewn on the ground. Now I feel appropriately proportioned. But not for long.

At the entrance to a canyon, towering walls of rock serve as a gateway between right-sized me and about-to-be-humbled me. I cross the threshold into a massive wrinkle in the Earth’s crust and enter the Waterpocket Fold, the defining geologic feature of Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah. Stretching almost 100 miles, this one-sided fold—called a monocline—was created between 50 and 70 million years ago. An ancient fault was reactivated, lifting 10,000 feet of limestone, sandstone and shale rock layers. The layers to the west of the fault rose 7,000 feet higher than those to the east. Instead of cracking, the layers folded over the fault line. Ever since, the forces of erosion—water, wind, gravity and freeze-thaw cycles—have been sculpting canyons, domes and bridges in the uplifted rock.

As I penetrate the canyon, the steep sides block the sun, and the temperature drops in this naturally air-conditioned environment. I pull on an extra layer and rest on a “windowsill” of a shallow opening in a honeycombed stone wall. The once seemingly tall pinyon and juniper trees appear puny at the base of the canyon. The deeper I go, the narrower the way becomes. The walls close in tight. I can no longer see the path forward or daylight above me. Turning sideways and crouching to squeeze through a slot in the rock, I’m grateful that I’m not claustrophobic.

The stone passageway widens, and I step into the imposing heart of the canyon and through a portal in time. What did this area look like millions of years ago? Which were the first animals to pass through here? Who were the first people to squeeze through this slot, and why? How is it that I’m here now? More than 70 million years ago, dinosaurs once roamed this part of the Earth. The desert where I am today could’ve once been a swamp, river or inland sea. Petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep, lizards and snakes were made by people who lived here from about 300 to 1300 CE, the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and Paiute. Geologic time makes my head spin and reminds me that my time on Earth is but a blip.

Swallowed by the immensity of this fold of rock and the unfolding of time, I feel small. Insignificant. Yet full of awe. And questions. Why do I feel wonder? Why am I seeking knowledge? Turns out that I am following in the footsteps of all Homo sapiens, who have always searched for understanding. We’ve evolved to wonder. Knowledge is a prerequisite to survival. But what propels us to push the frontiers of knowledge, expanding our minds and capabilities to explore our Earth home and beyond? The answer is simple—we feel joy in understanding, that “aha!” moment when the lightbulb blinks on, illuminating a new neural connection that helps us live. But I think it’s the quest for understanding that is just as fulfilling as making those connections.

Today, it could be argued that we don’t have to leave home to learn about the world. Facts, scientific discoveries, philosophy, literature, art and more are all available with the touch of our fingertips. I’ll argue that typing keywords into a search engine isn’t the same as exploring a canyon. The joy of discovery comes through the woodsy citrus smell of juniper, voices ricocheting off rock walls and cool water quenching parched lips in the desert air. Being in nature taps into the depths of being human, evoking our innate curiosity and ability to wonder. 

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.