Copy and Paste: Canyonlands Week 1

An email I wrote to my family and close friends after my first week at Canyonlands (abbreviated, if you can believe it):

Hey all!

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about and requests for information and pictures from my time here out west, so I thought it might be a good idea to send out a mass email of sorts to let everyone know how I’m doing. Feel free to forward this to anyone you think might be interested in reading. So much has happened in the last week that I’m really feeling the need to write it all down anyway to process it all, so I figured I might as well share it with you lovely inquiring people (and a few who didn’t inquire, but who I thought might be interested anyway).

First of all, I don’t get internet (or cable) out here in my little trailer, which is why I’ve yet to upload photos to facebook. My housemate is looking into getting a dsl connection which may or may not be set up by Monday (the 14th). Also, I am writing this letter on Friday, June 11th, though it probably won’t be sent out until I can get to a solid connection. So any reference to ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’ or whatnot, really means Friday the 11th, Saturday the 12th, and so on…

So where to start? I guess it’d be easiest to start with the facts. I’m working in Canyonlands National Park, about 33 miles outside the town of Moab, UT. Canyonlands is an enormous park, and has three districts – The Needles, The Maze, and The Island in the Sky – that are more or less divided by the Green and Colorado rivers, which merge inside the park.

The Needles is a popular camping and hiking destination named for needle-like formations that are abundant in the area. It sits on the southeast side of the park, on the east side of the Colorado.

The Maze is the smallest district, but is also the most isolated. It is an area of intricate, tightly woven, maze-like canyons, hence the name. The only way to get to the Maze is by 4-wheel-drive vehicle or through the Green river, which runs through it, though most of the district sits on the west side of it. Even though it is the least visited district of the three, it was the only one I had previously visited, which is completely opposite to most people’s experiences. Within the Maze is a section called Cateract Canyon, which is world-renown for its rapids. This is the area we traveled through on our family vacation in the summer of 2006.

I am working in the Island in the Sky district, which we usually refer to as ‘The Island’ or ‘I-Sky.’ It is the most accessible and most popular area of the park. It sits in the center portion, in-between the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is basically a giant mesa top that rises miles above everything around it, and when you are on it, you get exactly why it is called the ‘Island in the Sky.’ It’s pretty incredible, with views everywhere you turn, and lots of really cool features – which I’ll have to get into later, because there are just too many to list out here.

So on to my week! Dad and I drove three VERY long days and arrived in Moab early. Last Friday I dropped him off at the airfield and made my way up to the Island. Canyonlands is super isolated from the outside world. Even after turning off the main highway, it takes another good twenty minutes or so to climb up the mesa top and into the park. It takes forty minutes just to get to the grocery store, but I don’t really mind. The view is incredible the entire way, and the rocks seem to completely change with the light, so every drive offers different scenery, even if it’s technically the same road. I didn’t notice any of that on my first drive though, as the second I saw the first marker for the park I started having a minor panic attack (What the hell am I doing? I don’t know a single soul for 2,000 miles. I’ve never done anything like this my entire life. I’m an ocean girl surrounded by rocks. I’m completely out of my element. God there are so many rocks. I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT ROCKS! AHHHHHHHHHHHH).

The first person I met at Canyonlands was Tom, an older guy with gray hair and pierced ears who was working the fee booth when I arrived. I nervously told him I was the new SCA, and asked if I should pay the $10 entry fee. He laughed and told me no way, that he knew what they paid me (just room and board, in case you were wondering), and that I wouldn’t be able to afford being here if I had to pay the entry fee every time I came in. He was so friendly that I was feeling a little better by the time I pulled into the parking lot, but panic struck again as I realized I had no idea what to do from there. My only directions were to announce myself upon arrival, and I assumed the visitor center would be the place to do that. So I walked in and found the first person in uniform.

From that moment on things were easy. I’ve never been in a place filled with more sincere, genuinely kind people. Most of the staff lives in government housing on-site (there are 18 of us on the compound, which is mostly made up of newly built duplexes, a few single houses, and one very old trailer that I call home). I guess when you’re living and working in such a small community, you can’t really afford to be ambivalent towards new coworkers – which has been the case in most of my transitional experiences – as they will also be your neighbors and main form of social interaction/entertainment. But even with that, I get the feeling that most of these people would be just as amazing in any other setting.  It takes a certain kind of person to voluntarily live in the middle of nowhere and work long hours for next to nothing.

I could write for days about each individual person I’ve met here, and how amazing they are on their own. Unfortunately I doubt either you or I have the time for that. But they’re definitely a group worth talking about. People here come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Most of them are white and college-educated, but that is pretty much their only similarity. They range in age from, well, me (at 21, I am the baby of the group), all the way to retirement age (both of my housemates are in their 50s-60s). I’d say the average age is mid twenties though, and even the older folks have endless energy, so the feeling for the most part is pretty young and exciting. Their backgrounds are really diverse. Some of them always knew they wanted to wind up in the service, and some of them just fell into it. But everyone is really passionate about what they do. And how many work environments are there where you can honestly say that’s the case? It makes for a really awesome energy.

Anyway, back to my week. When I first arrived the previous SCA was still living in my room in the trailer, so I had to move into an extra room in one of the duplexes for the first two nights (where I got my own bathroom! Score!).  I was so exhausted on my first day that I fell asleep before the sunset, and didn’t wake up until 10am the next day. At that point I decided I should do some exploring, so I packed my bag and headed out for my first Canyonlands hike.

On Sunday I was able to move into my room, so after taking a few online classes in the morning (we have to take 5 online courses in addition to our 3 weeks of training. And don’t get me started on the reading list!) I packed up, rolled my suitcase down a little hill, and unpacked again. Our trailer is like something straight out of the 70s, with either hideous wallpaper or wood-paneled walls in every room. It’s also a treasure trove of things left behind by previous tenants. Sleeping bags, books, board games, even a giant, fully functional telescope – if you need something, odds are you can find it stacked up against the wall in our common area. Since I’m the youngest and was the last to move in, I got the smallest room. But the trailer is actually pretty big, and I haven’t had trouble with space at all.

I’d say 3/4ths of the people working in the parks are seasonal, meaning they work as rangers only from March to October, which is the high season. Permanent positions are hard to come by, and most of the time you have to work several years as a seasonal before getting one. A LOT of the rangers out here started as SCAs.

On Tuesday night Katherine (my housemate), Jess (last year’s Canyonlands SCA who was visiting on her way to a job in California), and I decided to sleep on the basketball court behind our trailer under the stars. The stars out here are incredible. We made a deal that we couldn’t fall asleep until we saw at least 3 shooting stars, and that took less than ten minutes. The best star came later though, in the middle of the night when I awoke randomly because of a sudden change in the wind and opened my eyes just in time to see the most amazing, clearly defined star moving slowly across the sky, a long, glowing white tail following behind, before it dissolved right before my eyes. It was incredible.

Wednesday we headed down to Arches for training with their new employees for some more general orienting and some information on the history of the NPS, and our partner organizations the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and CNHA (Canyonlands National History Association – basically the book store). After training a group of island folk went down to Moab to check out the local brewery. Moab is a pretty neat little town, made up mainly of tourists and transients, the ‘locals’ are mostly rednecks and hippies who don’t get out much.

Thursday we trained again with the people from Arches, this time up here on the island. This was my favorite day of training so far as it was the cultural history day, and a bunch of the most experienced interpretive rangers came up to talk to us about all of the people who have spent time in the area. In the afternoon we did a ‘scavenger hunt’ to familiarize ourselves with the local campgrounds and other spots popular with visitors to ISKY, so that we could better answer questions when we were asked. After training I went with Jess and Nate – the only member of our training group assigned to the Maze – to climb a giant sandstone formation called Whale Rock. We got to the top right at sunset and really, there are no words to describe what we saw (don’t worry, I took pictures).

When I first got here I was kind of alarmed at the prospect of going without cable and internet. I had no idea what I would do with my free time in the afternoons. But I’m finding that time easily filled (in fact, it was really hard for me to put aside the time to write this email!). Whether it be with social gatherings or little adventures, people are always up for doing something, and I’m really enjoying all the activity. It’s hard to believe only weeks ago I would regularly spend eight hours a day behind a desk and then come home and sit in front of the tv or computer. Now I come home and start whipping something up for the potluck later that night, or head out for a sunset hike. It’s really nice to have my days filled.

Another interesting thing about being up here is that noone really uses their phones. I started collecting cell phone numbers in the first few days, but the service is so spotty that most people don’t carry their phones on them. And that means face time. When people want to do something, they come to your house and knock on your door. At first I felt kind of weird showing up at someone’s house unannounced, without knowing what they were up to or if they were even there. But I’ve gotten used to it now, and for some reason I’m finding my relationships feel much more legitimate this way.

Today was my first day off since training began, and I started it with lunch in town with Faith, a TRT down at Arches who I’m in training with, and Sharon, an LE ranger here on the island. Afterwards we decided to head up to mill creek, a little river that runs through a canyon nearby. It has a bunch of waterfalls and a few deeper pools that are popular for cliff diving, but if you climb far enough up you can find a pool for yourself and just lay out on the rock or go for a swim. I’m also told that there are some pictographs in the canyon, though I didn’t know that until later. It was so nice to relax for a bit – and a bit is all we got, because maybe a half an hour later, the sky opened up.

It happened fast, and most of the trail to our little private place was made of slickrock, which is really great for hiking when dry, but as the name implies, quite slick when wet. So we decided it would be best to hide underneath a natural overhang in the rock until the rain passed before making our way back. But as the rain continued, something incredible happened – little waterfalls started forming all around us, pouring off the top of the canyon walls and making it all the way down to the river. Because most of the mesa top around here is made of rock, very little water is absorbed in the ground, so when it rains almost all of the water eventually makes it into a canyon. This is how flash floods happen, and we did worry about that as a possibility, but we were in a position where it would probably be more dangerous to run then to stay, and we were high enough on the rock that a flood would have had to be pretty substantial in order to get to us. The whole ordeal lasted maybe a half an hour, but it was really a magical moment. On top of everything, the smell of rain in the desert is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The closest thing I can compare it to is fresh baked oatmeal cookies.

We waited a little while after the storm passed to give the rock some time to dry, then made our way back. Something I’ve started doing since coming out here is driving with the windows down instead of using a/c. This drive back was especially beautiful. It seems to me that everything is a little more colorful after a good rain in the desert. It’s like all of the plants are opening up as wide as they can to absorb every last inch of water.

And that brings me to this moment, writing now to you. I can’t believe it’s only been a week since I’ve been here. I hope the rest of my time passes so slowly. I feel like a kid in a candy store. Every second is filled with some new, amazing experience. And every time I learn something new (which is just about every second), I feel this overwhelming need to share it. I am literally bursting at the seems with information and anecdotes and stories I want to tell, and dozens of places I want to show off, and a long list of things I want to do. And all of this with still two weeks of training left! I’m hoping once I actually start working this bubbling over feeling will be relieved a little bit, as sharing this place with others will become my full-time job. Still, I have to encourage anyone who is able to get here to visit when they can, whether I am around or not, and to drive through the desert with their windows rolled down, then get out of their car and explore. With every new thing I learn or try I want to learn and try something else. I am completely infatuated with everything around me. I can’t wait to see where this summer will take me.

Anyways, thanks for reading. Hopefully you received some sort of enjoyment from this endless email, sorry if it was just tedious. I don’t know if I’ll continue on with this kind of detailed documentation, but as long as I keep having weeks like these, and as long as someone wants to hear about them, I’ll try to find time to keep up.

I love and miss you all! And of course let me know if you have any questions or comments on the area, or if you need help planning a visit 🙂



Whale Rock at Sunset

2 thoughts on “Copy and Paste: Canyonlands Week 1

  1. Pingback: Your Garden

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