At the heart of the arid stone wilderness that is Canyonlands National Park is a watery place called the Confluence. Here, between rock walls more than a thousand feet high, the waters of the Green River pour into those of the Colorado. From this point on, the Colorado–already a powerful force upon the land–becomes one of the great rivers of the world. Tumbling and raging in a white-water display that has weakened the resolve of many a boatman, it sets out through the echoing depths of Cataract Canyon on a long and tumultuous journey to the Gulf of California.
If the wide, rolling Mississippi is indeed this continent’s Old Man River, and the cool, deep Hudson it’s mature Merchant Prince, then hard-driving Colorado must be the Young Turk of American rivers. In the few million years since its birth, it has carried away the remains of solid rock nearly two miles thick, from an area almost the size of France. With the abrasive force of all this rocky sediment, it and its rushing tributaries have gouged out deep canyons and shaped stark landscapes, the likes of which exist nowhere else on earth.
Standing on Grand View Point, 2,300 feet above the Confluence, you survey one of the starkest of these landscapes. The view is grand indeed–, especially at sunset. Orange mesas, red buttes, maroon towers and pinnacles, their intense colors made even more vivid by the last rays of a setting sun, create a strangely surreal scene, not unlike those amazing television transmissions from the surface of Mars. Softly rounded mounds of rock that look like melting ice cream add their own touch of other worldliness. It seems to be a world just ending–or one just beginning. Long black shadows creep into the creases of the land, giving even greater relief to an already rugged terrain. No part of this awesome panorama is without steeply incised canyons; all converge grandly into the Y-shaped abyss that radiates from the Confluence.
The three great gorges that form the Y cut the park into three pieces, each with its own distinct character. Unless you descend into a canyon, cross the river at the bottom, and scale the wall on the other side, you can’t get from one piece to another without leaving the park–without traveling, in fact, nearly 100 miles.
Grand View Point is in the northern piece, the aptly named Island in the Sky region between the arms of the Y. This is a land of high, flat-topped mesas that do indeed rise like islands from a sea of tortured rock. Averaging a mile or more above sea level, these tablelands are but remnants of the high plateau that was worn away ages ago by the Green and Colorado rivers and their tributaries. Although there are some grasslands here and “pygmy forests” of stunted pinyon pine and Utah juniper, this is mostly bare slick rock country, where your feet slip on naked stone, covered at most by a few inches of sand.
Still, those who look and watch carefully will discover much to marvel at in this land. The very soil can tell a fascinating story. In places, the sand is covered by a dark gray crust that crunches audibly underfoot. This is cryptobiotic soil, a delicate entity in which a dramatic process is taking place. Colonies of cyanobacteria, mosses, and lichens are gradually creating nutritious, life-bearing soil. Growing amid sterile grains of sand, these organisms bind the tiny bits of rock together, retarding erosion; in the process, they add the organic matter without which plants cannot thrive. Because of cryptobiotic soil, an empty desert can one day support a diversity of life. But the process is an extremely slow one. It may take 50 years or more for a small patch of soil to develop. And it is extremely delicate; with one footstep, a child can undo the accomplishment of decades.
Some areas sport luxuriant growths of stipa grass, tall and resilient. Each seed of this plant is a remarkable example of biological adaptation to a parched country, where the eight-inch annual rainfall often occurs in one or two drenching thunderstorms. Between storms, the saturated soil bakes and its surface hardens into another kind of crust, penetrable by the seeds of few plants. But the seeds of stipa grass, enclosed in hard, pointed shells, are equipped with threadlike tails up to 10 inches long. The tail has two functions. First, it allows the seed to travel a long way on the wind. (This is not unusual–the plumed seeds of many plants, such as dandelions and thistles, travel even farther.) More important, and far more special, is what the tail does after the seed lands: it coils tightly under the drying sun and uncurls with the moisture of morning dew, literally screwing the seed through the surface crust deep enough to sprout and grow when the rain falls again.