Lessons from Solitary Roads

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It is easy to feel dwarfed by the landscape in some of Southern Utah’s red rock canyons.

Utah State Highway 95 on a bright February morning would have to be one of the less-traveled roads in the country. In 30 miles we met only one car and passed none. It seemed we had the beauty and majesty of the area almost to ourselves.

The road is solitary—but not necessarily lonely. As we drove through the cedars near Blanding, climbed up over Comb Ridge, appreciated the view across a canyon, there were magnificent vistas around every bend in the road. There were also the inevitable traces of humanity—notably in the multiple white jet contrails crisscrossing the bright blue sky, like some gigantic game of tic tac toe. And there were ghosts.

We found the ghosts at a small Indian ruin just off the highway. Once a family or a small group of families lived there in the dwellings whose ruins still stand, and apparently used the kava for worship. Somewhere among the nearby cedars they planted maize and other food crops. It is easy to imagine small children playing around the walls of these dwellings while a mother grinds corn nearby. How long ago? For how many generations? Were the people here part of an extended family—relatives, perhaps, of the people who lived at another site about a mile away?

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A hole carved through solid rock leaves a natural bridge, one of many in the area.

A few miles farther on, we came to Natural Bridges National Monument. It is an area worthy of years of study. And yet in only an hour on its scenic loop road we had the opportunity to appreciate dozens of nature’s wonders—huge natural bridges and other sculptures in stone. What might we gain by spending time here among the work of eons—by slowing down the pace of our lives?

Farther along, we crossed the Colorado River at Hite, on a steel span arching over the river’s deep gorge. From the scenic overlook a few miles beyond, the bridge down in the canyon looks almost like a toy.

At the overlook, we met a couple giving their retirement years to charitable work. The trailer behind their pickup was full of donated items to be distributed to needy families and children in small towns and settlements of Southern Utah. We had to admire the way they are using their time in this life. It gave us the opportunity to reflect on our own efforts to help others: Are they equally useful?

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Ancient etchings on a canyon wall obviously were meant to convey information. Was it a story about a hunt?

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Three generations of schoolchildren etched their names into this boulder behind the Fruita School.

In Capitol Reef National Monument, we were once more dwarfed by towering stone monuments. Here, too, we found traces of humanity from generations past, in ancient Indian petroglyphs etched on canyon walls, apparently telling the story of some long-ago hunt. We saw the human touch in the names of schoolchildren etched on a boulder behind a rural schoolhouse; their etchings are dated between the beginning and the middle of the last century. Rock etchings were social media long before there were Internet sites and smartphones—a way for people to record their passing, their temporary inclusion in this landscape.

Somehow we found comfort in seeing the world on this scale—on a scale where we were only very small parts of a much larger scene. There was enjoyment, and some fascination, in meeting a few of the people who cling to a vanishing lifestyle in lightly populated places like these. Some have deliberately chosen to take themselves away from the congestion, from the more hectic lifestyle, from the intellectual and spiritual impact of urban areas.

And we had to wonder: Are we, living in the state’s most densely populated, most frenetic area, more in touch with the real world, or are they?

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