Landscape Of Desire
Publication Year: 2003
Landscape of Desire powerfully documents and celebrates a place and the evolutions that occur when human beings are intimately connected to their surroundings. Greg Gordon accomplishes this with a tapestry of writing that interweaves land use history, natural history, experiential education, and personal reflection. He tracks the geomorphology of southern Utah as well as the creatures and plants his student group encounters, the history lessons (planned and unplanned), the trials and joys of gathering so many individuals into a cohesive will, and his own personal epiphanies, restraints, insights, and disillusionments.
Landscape of Desire examines the plight of the western landscape. It discusses a wide range of issues, including mining, grazing, dams, recreation, wilderness, and land management. Since recreation has replaced extraction industries as the primary use of wilderness, especially in southern Utah, Gordon addresses its impactful qualities. He overviews the history of the conflict between preservation and development and places these issues in a cultural context. The text is presented in a narrative format, following the individuals of one field course Gordon lead that explored Muddy Creek and the Dirty Devil River from Interstate 70 to Lake Powell. Though each chapter focuses on the geologic formation the group is traveling through, the plants, animals, ecology, and human impacts are all tightly woven into the narrative. Not only does the land affect the members of the field course, but their attitudes and insights affect the land.
In Landscape of Desire Gordon achieves a vision of wholeness of this popular and contested region of Utah that centers around the implications of being human and also stewards of the wild.
Published by: Utah State University Press
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Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the following publications in which portions of this work first appeared: “The Landscape of Desire,” The Road-Riporter. January/February 2002. (The Road-Riporter is the quarterly newsletter of the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads— Wildlands CPR. This small, but dedicated organization has effectively raised...
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Preface: THE RIM
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Everyone remembers the first time. It attains a degree of mythological importance out of proportion to the actual event. I was eleven or twelve, in the midst of those buoyant days before adolescence, when my father convinced his wife, two bratty kids, and his parents to undertake a camping trip to southeast Utah, places he had known in his youth. In Arches National...
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John Muir was probably the first to confront the conservationist’s conundrum so eloquently articulated by Aldo Leopold half a century ago: “But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Muir knew the only way to save the Sierra Nevada was to publicize...
i. MANCOS SHALE
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Just north of Moab, Utah, the River Road meets Highway 191. A line of RVs and pickup trucks towing chrome-studded Jeeps funneling into Moab creates a long wait before we can turn left onto the highway. Entering Moab I feel a constriction around my heart. Another multi-story chain motel has appeared during my absence, bringing the total to thirty-three in this town...
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We set up camp at a bend in the creek where a few old cottonwoods stand like sentries against the emptiness. In this bleak country we seek harbor near the trees; we need something larger than ourselves to provide a sense of scale. We break into groups of three to cook dinner. Each group’s meal looks remarkably like the next—a steaming pot of starch.Our stoves have two settings...
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The next day while the students finish their oatmeal and morning duties, I draw a grid in the sand about fifteen feet by twenty feet. I divide it into one foot squares and collect some sticks to lay across the grid. I ask the students to gather a pile of small stones. This gets them moving around and sparks their interest. We leave the grid and stones for the time, and we begin a...
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I begin the day in a funk. Seaweed, who for some unfathomable reason thinks everyone wants to hear the complete works of Joan Baez first thing in the morning, sings with a dreamy look on her face and gazes into the distance while everyone else stands around waiting for her to finish packing so we can leave. I wonder if always being the last to get ready is a subtle form...
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In the morning I awake to the songs of a half dozen yellow-rumped warblers in a nearby cottonwood. The birds dart about gleaning insects off the leaves. That they are feeding in a small flock indicates they just arrived and have not yet staked out territories. “Perfect,” I think. All the students have to do is see one of these little guys close up, and they’ll be hooked for life. These birds aren’t skittish, and...
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With the students now leading the hikes, I can drop back and enjoy the scenery. We soon enter the cream-colored Navajo sandstone, which affords dramatic contrast from the grey of the Carmel. Now we are hiking through a real canyon, and the walls tower above us as we descend downstream. Metta and I have been desperately keeping our eyes open for flowers,...
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Last week Metta and Seeker dropped the truck off at Tomsich Butte and then rejoined us with the van at Interstate 70. Excitement pervades the air as we break camp.Today is the day of our resupply. We will hike to the truck and pick up another bag of food that will carry us for another ten days, while the drivers spend the afternoon on a lengthy car shuttle. They will drive back...
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The hike to our next campsite takes us past a sign posted by the BLM. “Wilderness Study Area. No motorized vehicles,” it reads, with red slashes through a jeep, ATV, and motorbike. “What’s up with this?” asks Seeker angrily, pointing at the motorbike tracks that run right past the sign. This image—a sign posted by the federal government containing the inflammatory word “wilderness” and the ORV tracks in flagrant disregard—...
ix. WHITE RIM
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The next morning we walk downstream to have class under a big cottonwood. Metta leads the group in a short meditation to which Yucca takes exception. We follow with a guided meditation. “Lie down, close your eyes and feel the earth beneath your body. Sink into the ground and let the sand cradle you,” I say to get everyone fully relaxed and in a slightly hypnotic state. “Now, recall the very first nature memory that enters your mind, not...
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We camp at the mouth of Chimney Canyon, so named for the red Moenkopi spire that rises above Muddy Creek. The tent caterpillars feast on the leafed out cottonwoods in a race between the tree and the insects. Will the tree photosynthesize enough energy to live another year before the caterpillars eat all the leaves? Unlike most plants, cottonwoods flower and...
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Although most famous for his first descent of the Colorado River in 1869, it is the scientific contributions of John Wesley Powell that have proved most enduring. In his exploration of the Colorado Plateau, Powell noticed that rivers paid little regard to topography. The Colorado River flows across uplifts unexpectedly, leading Powell to speculate that the Colorado Plateau was still...
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As soon as the sun rises above the far rim of the world, the clear desert air transmits its heat immediately. I’m already sweating as I pack, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. It promises to be a long, hot, miserable hike across tamarisk flats and rolling badlands. Looking over our camp, I have a hard time imagining what this place might have looked like before all the introduced species: horses, cows, cheat-...
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Set in the former Mormon settlement of Fruita, the campground at Capitol Reef National Park is laced with cottonwoods and surrounded by orchards. Deer nap contentedly under the trees. Songs of robins, warblers, and finches drift through the foliage. A weathered barn and old farmhouse accent the pastoral scene. Irrigation from the Fremont River supports this incongruous...
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We rejoin Muddy Creek where we left it, at the old bridge near Hanksville on a muggy overcast morning. Banjo runs ahead and splashes into the water, glad to be free of the constraints of the campground. She bounds through the mud and joyfully laps up the murky water as if greeting an old friend. Minutes downstream we cross the mouth of the Fremont River. The...
xv. NAVAJO REVISITED
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The Dirty Devil flows wide and imperial like an abandoned Nile wandering through sand dunes and statues of pharaohs and sphinxes. The river winds lazily back and forth in a undulating rhythm, alternating between concave salmon-colored cliffs that bend in and receive the river and long protruding tongues of rock or sand. Sometimes these tongues form gently sloping benches...
xvi. MORE NAVAJO
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We take a break at the mouth of Robbers Roost Canyon. On the other side of the river, an impressively smooth cliff rises five hundred feet to the skyline. Textured-red stripes on the cliff face look as if someone knocked over a giant bucket of paint on the canyon rim, and it slowly dribbled down. Thin black streaks also taper down from the rim. These black and red tapestries draped over canyon walls were long...
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To avoid the heat of the day, we decide to hike to Beaver Canyon in the evening. By the time we leave, however, ominous dark clouds fill the sky. As we hike back down Robbers Roost, a strong wind begins to blow, bending the willows at right angles and swirling the sand. The wind sandblasts our exposed skin and makes walking difficult. I think we should find shelter, but...
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I awake at dawn in a sleeping bag soaked with dew. Strange, since a few feet above the river bank, all is dry. The color of chocolate milk, the river runs thick with suspended sediment and flotsam. The storms of the past two days have raised the water level and flooded the mud flats. A cloudy day, a cool breeze, strange weather—something moving up from the Gulf of Mexico?
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The students want to get an early start to avoid the heat and decide to get up at 5:30 A.M. We shoulder our packs as the sun first tinges the canyon rim. The mercilessly blue sky promises a long, hot day. The river strips away the rocks as we descend, opening up layer after layer of cuticle for our inspection. With each bend in the river, we cut steadily through the Wingate as...
xx. WHITE RIM
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We leave Twin Corral early and cruise along the old roadbed at a good clip. The miles flow by as we hike along the Moenkopi bench while the river drops farther and farther below, cutting a narrow canyon through the darkred formation. Everyone has quieted down and discovered that hiking doesn’t require constant banter. The mining track stays even with the Chinle, and...
xxi. ORGAN ROCK SHALE
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Today’s hike takes us eighteen miles downstream. Luckily it’s not too hot, and we knock off the miles despite a few grumblings here and there. A few miles below Happy Canyon, the Dirty Devil opens to wide sloping benches covered with tamarisk and rabbitbrush. The river alternates between sheer cliffs and low rounded hills covered in cheatgrass. We leave the abundant...
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A few bends beyond Hatch Canyon, we climb up on the Cedar Mesa bench and hike in a straight line while the river loops and twists below, cutting deeper into the cross-bedded sandstone. We break in the shade of an enormous solitary juniper, the only tree in sight. As we pass mudstone pinnacles topped with blocks of white sandstone, the students debate whether these...
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Publication Year: 2003