Splendour by the spans


The grand stone `bridges’ of the Arches National Park, Utah, are awe-inspiring.

Symbol of Utah: Delicate Arch. Photo: K.V. Krishnan
I WAS truly in a land of contradictions.

Around me jutted eerie expanses of reddish rock on one side but pockets of lush greenery on the other. There were glittering pools of water yet dry arroyos amidst grasslands splayed with the choicest wildflowers as far as my eye could see. Ahead of me were stone statuettes sculpted by Nature’s untiring craftsmen. There were fins and arches, buttes and canyons amidst the glorious background of the La Sal Mountains.

High above me loomed a long ribbon of stone bridging the yawn of massive rock walls on either side. I stood drowned in an otherworldly silence broken only by the squawk of a careless raven or the crackle of a shy kangaroo rat.

The biggest of them all
I felt like a speck under the span of the Landscape Arch — tucked away in the rugged terrain of the Arches National Park in southwestern United States. Spanning 306 endless feet, Landscape Arch loomed as the second or probably the longest natural arch in the world. Two years ago, I had hiked the 14 miles to the Kolob Arch at nearby Zion National Park which boasted the longest natural arch — but rangers say the Landscape Arch is probably longer based on an esoteric equation including the inside and outside spans with average thickness taken into consideration.

“Any natural arch needs to exceed a span of three feet or more,” ranger Clark studiously explained to me later by the visitor center. “In Arches National Park, we have close to 2,000 discovered arches, with many tucked away within those impregnable rocky crevices.”

These natural arches were in fact evolving sculptures being chiselled away continuously. From what I gathered, arches — like all beings — really lived and died over time.

To me, 300 million years was indeed inconceivable eternity. In that era, constantly receding oceans in the Colorado Plateau had created a massive salt basin. Over the last 100 million years, silt, combined with the mysterious movements of the earth, had created an interesting sculpting platform of rock over salt. Nature’s sculptors, wind and ice, had relentlessly chiselled away at this unending sandstone canvas. Underlying salt moved under the weight of the heavier rock, creating stony domes that were sculpted into what were called “fins”. “Fins” over time became arches, and the arches over time would crumble into the dust as if they never were.

It was early morning that I had survived the three-hour airplane ride to Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah. Four hours of driving and 240 miles later, I walked around the small town of Moab, five miles south of Arches National Park. The Park yawns with its 76,000 acres teeming with arches of all shapes, forms and sizes. Of those 2,000 arches that the ranger had mentioned, 20 or so could be seen from viewpoints along the 20-mile paved road often combined with short hikes.

In this Park, arches go by several interesting sobriquets. Past what is known as the “Courthouse” is a road that winds towards the Windows. These are aptly termed the North and South Windows, for, the two arches span along the same rocky face from where the rocky desert scenery unwinds itself for miles. Nearby loom the twin spans of the Double Arch — two massive stone bridges emanate from one base, splaying forth in two directions, kissing the rocks farther away.

Majestic sight

That evening I had arduously trekked a mile and a half towards the most photographed symbol of Utah — probably the most popular arch in this park. For, Delicate Arch is majesty in itself. Unlike most of the other arches, it loomed lonely upon a tall ridge, facing the quiet beauty of the La Sal.

Later that evening, I walked into a “Gem and Fossil” shop in the quiet bustle of the Moab neighbourhood. In carefully marked display cases were an unimaginable array of agates and amethysts, Mosasaurus teeth and Allosaurus claws. In another corner was encased a bucketful of snail and trilobite fossils — creatures that had lost the battle with Time and Nature’s army of wind, seas, ice and snow.

In this godless terrain, arches have been born and have crumbled over the march of Time. With each dying arch its legend was lost forever — but there was always a secret span taking shape somewhere, keeping that circle of life in eternal motion…

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