Once upon a time not so long ago, all roads leading to Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah were dirt.
Only the hardiest of visitors ventured out here. But now the roads are firmly paved and it’s a sort of main route between Lake Powell and points north down toward Monument Valley and Four Corners.
Even so, progress hasn’t completely overtaken this place. Rangers living here no longer must depend upon radiotelephone for contact with the outside world. Satellite dishes can bring television to those who want it. (And campers, too, for that matter.) Yet there are still no power lines strung along the roads. No wires to mar a photo. A silent half-acre of photovoltaic cells has replaced the continual roar of a couple of diesel generators with quiet. (Although the batteries that store the sun’s energy are elderly and now can hold only about one night’s worth of electricity. Dwindling budgets may force Natural Bridges to return to the roaring diesels if nothing is done soon.)
A relatively new campground graces the place not far from the visitor center. It contains only 13 campsites and has no flush toilets. There are no lights in the campground other than those campers bring with them. It’s still a place where silence and sunlight pass the days and some of the darkest skies anywhere grace the night.
I was struck by the cleanliness of the entire park during a recent visit. Either visitors are becoming much better at taking care of places like these, or the staff here is a very dedicated bunch. In all my stay here, I found only two pieces of litter. There aren’t even cigarette butts lying around!
There’s a nine-mile loop drive that carries visitors past the largest concentration of natural bridges anywhere. Sipapu, Owachomo, and Kachina stand sentinel deep within a winding canyon where meandering streams, captured in their old beds by earth forces pushing a plateau upward, had no choice but to cut downward in intricate loops. Loops that left tall, narrow, standing fins between meanders. The streams finally managed to cut through the fins to produce the three bridges.
Trails lead to the bottom of the canyon below the bridges, but most visitors seem content to stay at the top and look downward onto the tops of the bridges and the intermittent stream that still flows below two of them. Those who only look down miss the real grandeur found by those who trek into the canyon to look up and frame the bridges against the sky. Those who stay at the top mutter and grumble in frustration as they try to take decent photos in a place where nature seems contrived to defeat anyone who tries to be a serious photographer. There are simply no places looking down where light and rock can combine for the perfect photo.
That’s just the way it is. Other than the visitor center, which offers standard visitor center fare -– a book store, exhibits, the video in the auditorium -– and the campground, Natural Bridges is just that. Natural.
But that’s probably just fine with most visitors, because it seems for many that this is merely a short stop-off as they travel from and to bigger and better(?) destinations. Lake Powell, Capitol Reef (a real "national park") and other spots made more famous by chamber of commerce brochures.
In September, the monument's limited staff had shut down interpretive offerings outside except for the twice weekly Night Sky program. That Night Sky program, however, is well worth making the trip to Natural Bridges for it alone and nothing else. In fact, the first night I enjoyed Ranger Gordon Gower’s program, about half the group of 20 were repeat star gazers.
Several had driven in from Bluff, Utah – some 57 miles south of here. Another group had been told by a parent of one of them that they absolutely had to take in the night sky at Natural Bridges. So they drove up here from Kayenta, Arizona, and had to drive back down there after the program ended. Just a short round trip of 172 miles!
Ranger Gordon warned them as they left to be especially careful driving back toward the highway south of Blanding. It’s open range and sparse grasses grow just a bit better on road shoulders where water draining from the pavement provides a little more nourishment. Grass attracts cows. And black top is nice and warm on a chilly night. That attracts cows, too. Nights are black. And so are most of the cows. You get the picture.
Ranger Gower is a laid-back kind of guy. Wearing the flat hat is a second career for him. He had retired after teaching junior high English and history. He shared with us his personal story of how he, as a young seventh-grade student long ago, had discovered a book on a top shelf in his school’s library. A book on astronomy that had caught and held his young mind.
Captivated by what he’d found, Ranger Gordon took off on a life that included not only teaching during the day, but exploring the sky at night. He bought telescopes. He learned. It became a passion. And so, when he retired from the classroom, he and his wife looked for something else to do. They wound up as "Volunteers in the Park" in Canyonlands National Park. After a summer of presenting Night Sky programs at Island in the Sky, the supervisory ranger there urged him to apply for a seasonal ranger job. He did and landed it. Then, he fell into one of only two permanent ranger slots at Natural Bridges.
So here he is, introducing people like me to one of the darkest chunks of star-studded black sky anywhere. All because he was once a boy intrigued by a book he found on a shelf. Fifty years ago.
Out in front of a dark visitor center, Ranger Gordon led us through the sky above. Using a laser to point out objects and constellations, he introduced us to a place that is unfortunately unknown to many in the world today. We learned the basics of how astronomers determine distances to stars and galaxies and other celestial objects.
We learned of the big telescope, custom built for Ranger Gordon and Natural Bridges by a master telescope maker in Kansas. The $12,000 instrument was purchased with funds from Canyonlands Natural History Association and some of its accessories were bought by money from entrance and camping fees here. He pointed out that none of it came from our taxes.
We looked at a couple of clusters of stars, a nebula, a galaxy, and then we all had a chance to become members of what has to be a very small and select group of Earthlings when he trained the big scope on the planet Neptune. It’s not very impressive. Just a small blue globe. But how many others out there can say they’ve seen Neptune in person? The ranger kept the whole group fascinated and spellbound for two-and-a-half hours on a chilly fall night in the desert.
Our national parks and monuments preserve natural and historic places. But it’s the people who work to keep them preserved who make the second half of the National Park Service’s mission possible. It’s knowledgeable people like Gordon Gower who take on – and meet – the challenging task of interpreting the things we see and experience into a tapestry that becomes understandable and enjoyable in a bigger context.
And that, friends, is what it’s all about, isn’t it?