From our little cabin at Sevier River Ranch we can look down into the Sevier (pronounced “Severe”, the locals informed us) Valley at Hatch Station, a town split in two by Utah scenic highway State 89. 20 miles east lies Bryce Canyon National Park, and 40 miles south west lies Zion National Park.
I’m here with my sister. The husband is home in Seattle with the two dogs and two cats, as he has an aversion to plane travel, high desert country, and Utah in general. From the cabin’s back window we can view a sagebrush and mormon tea section of the 300 acre Ranch, and beyond to the long dark smudge of the Paunsaugunt Sunset Cliffs Plateau.
There is so much to talk about. I can follow several threads into thought-land; how I felt the first time I saw Utah: Moab, Arches, Canyonlands in 1987 in my thirties, thrilled by the magic of Horseshoe Canyon and towering petroglyphs; the mystery and magic of Death Valley in 1988, and more, 1991 Mesa Verde, Santa Fe, Canyon de Chelly, Chaco. The glory of the Grand Canyon in 2006.
And how I feel now. Quietly respectful and awed by the long, long southeast view from the Bryce Canyon rim down the Grand Staircase to shadowy mesas shrouding the iconic Colorado River.
The West is in my blood; there is no filtering it or a bypass machine that will erase it. I live in Seattle now, but the Pacific Northwest is all part of a whole from the cedar wetlands of Vancouver Island, Olympic peninsula, Oregon coast, to dryer Redwoods. Humboldt, Mendocino, Monterey-Big Sur, to the habitat-strewn desert valleys of the L.A. basin.
East to the Mojave, Panamint Mountains. Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Sedona. Then on to New Mexico, Albuquerqe. and northward to Monument valley and the vast Navajo Nation.
Not to mention Nevada and finally Utah.
The Grand Staircase, thousands upon thousands of hectares of canyon and mountain, is protected from mineral, gas and oil exploitation by the Escalante National Monument. In thinking about today’s turbulent political setting, I doubt the visitors to this place of Southern Utah, coming here from Germany, Japan, Great Britain, South America, China, and anywhere else in the world, or anywhere else in the United States—North Carolina, Texas, California, Virginia, Michigan, Florida—would come here to see open zinc mines or fracking towers tucked up next to the Vermilion Cliffs or Squaw Bench or the Devil’s Backbone.
And the people who are the archival custodians of the landscape, Paiute, Ute, Navajo, Hopi, fight for the few rights left to them.
Serendipity played her hand, and for my air-travel reading to and from Las Vegas, I brought David Owen’s absorbing book “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death along the Colorado River”. The East Fork of the Sevier River carved the valley our cabin looked down on, and is a tributary of the Colorado, as are all the rivers feeding the West’s thirst. Mormon farmers and ranchers live well here, cultivating field after field of hay. They used the water first by digging outlets and canals to bring the water to these fields. The Sevier River Ranch owner haled from Ventura, California. A retired engineer, he explained his complex and baffling water rights, the same puzzle I was trying to grasp in Mr. Owen’s book.
Along with Timothy Egan’s “The Good Rain” and “The Big Burn”, Mr. Owen credits Teddy Roosevelt with the idea that the West should belong to the people of the United States, and the belligerent President took on the greedy barons of minerals, oil and gas. He wrested Yellowstone, Yosemite, and millions more acreage from them, and we can thank him for it, even though his idea of wildland use included water for farming and ranching and recreational hunting.
The West is in my blood. It is all wind and rain, grass baking in the summer sun, mossy odor of cedar. I wanted to grow up to be Annie Oakley, a cowgirl on dusty horseback.
I suppose I am still that girl, standing on a rise watching the sun set over the Pacific.
Next week, Butch Cassidy.