Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend was an interesting stop on our trip because it’s a relatively new destination. Well, the natural feature is millions of years in the making, but now this odd and beautiful place has gone viral. Once this place was just a small sign on the side of an empty road that one might stumble upon. That’s almost how it went for us: we just happened to drive past it, but it’s no longer just a small sign. Last year images of Horseshoe Bend hit the tipping point on social media and now people from around the world get dropped off by the busload. At first they don’t see much but the red sand of the desert and the snaking trail.

Technically this is part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, the stretch of the Colorado River coming out of man made Lake Powell before it enters and shapes the Grand Canyon. But as the number of yearly visitors have exploded into the millions, the park service is hard at work building a large parking lot, toll station, viewing platforms, and an ADA accessible paved trail where until recently there was just a dirt lot and trailhead. For now you have to park half a mile away and pay for a shuttle, Kate and I got there early and already the place was crowded. A woman walking a pig added to the carnival atmosphere.

The woman seemed a little exasperated at the pig’s slow pace, and said he enjoyed all the attention and stopped to get its picture taken whenever people passed. Projection? Quite possibly. Or maybe this woman and her animal companion have been walking this path since they had the place to themselves. It’s not my place to say. We made it passed all the people and the pig and saw what all the fuss was about.

Boom. It’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. It’s not everyday you see a river change its mind and turn around in a beautiful curve technically called an entrenched meander. Isn’t that lovely? The next time I’m feeling stuck and need to change course I’m going to call it an entrenched meander. Maybe you’re in the midst of an entrenched meander right now and you didn’t even know it.

The light wasn’t all the way down into the canyon yet, and we’re not in the perfect spot because a hundred other people were vying to grab the perfect spot, and still that picture is epic. Kate gets a lot of the credit, she started this trip as a great photographer and has had a lot of practice and inspiration. But go back and look at that rock face that launched a thousand Chinese tour groups. The images get compressed when they post, but can you see the three little boats at the base? Here, I’ll zoom in and crank up the light:

The Grand Canyon was a million times the size of Horseshoe Bend, going way deeper and stretching for miles and miles. Because of that all sense of scale gets lost and your mind can’t get a handle on it. We look at a sky full of stars and feel overwhelmed and small, but we can’t help connecting dots, naming constellations and making things more manageable so we can really feel the impact. Horseshoe Bend let’s you feel the impact. Especially if you push a little further than the crowds and climb a bit.

The red Navajo Sandstone is an essential part of this formation, and is pretty stunning in its own right. Jurassic era sand dunes shaped by prehistoric winds, compressed into layer after layer of sedimentary rock and tilted in major uplifts from tectonic shifts. We climbed into this Martian landscape that was slowly turning back to sand from erosion.

We discovered that people had carved their names into the rock up there. And just recently, some of them were dated 2019. That sucks. I understand the impulse, but it’s simply selfish. This place is not anyone’s to claim, it is for all of us to share. We are responsible to preserve it for those who come after us. It really makes me think about whether it is a good thing that this place has become known, is being made easier to reach. I’m trying to stay optimistic about it, which is admittedly easier living in places of beauty.

Upon reflection I do believe it is ultimately a good thing that more people get to experience nature, as long as we keep it as natural as possible. This world would be a better place if we all took more time out and got outside more. Natural beauty can fill you with peace, wonder, and stillness if you quiet down and let it. It’s fun to take pictures and write about it, it’s deeply human to try to identify yourself with it but also to share it with the world. But there’s nothing like being out in it, ideally alone or with a select few. It is a pretty rare occurrence for most of us, but not long ago evolutionarily that was our day to day experience.

Go outside. You don’t have to travel to the other side of the country or take half a year off. You don’t need any special gear. You don’t need any money. You don’t need permission. Take an afternoon and go to the park. Or go out in the yard one night and take a look at the night sky. Drive for a while and reach the mountains, or the woods, or the ocean. Maybe you’ll see things clearer. Maybe you’ll gain a different perspective, and get a sense of scale. Maybe you’ll change course. Maybe you’ll start an entrenched meander. Maybe you’ll meet a pig, or some interesting people. Maybe you’ll just feel a little happier; a little more peaceful. You belong out here.

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