National Geographic : 2012 Feb
• adding that "when he speaks it is in a slow, quiet way that inspires great awe." Hike down the Paria River Canyon, 38 wet- footed miles and at least four days from the trail- head to the Colorado River, and you come to the place where Powell and the battered remains of his rst expedition camped on the night of August 4, 1869: the mouth of the Paria River, which Hamblin had described to Powell a year earlier. Preparing for his descent of the Colo- rado, Powell studied the terse account of Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who, in 1776, tried to travel with his party from Santa Fe (in what is now New Mexico) to Monterey, California. He too camped near the mouth of the Paria River, hoping to nd a more direct route back to Santa Fe. Powell described the cli s in exuberant prose. Father Escalante said merely that the country had "an agreeably confused appearance." Overwatching all these humans---itinerant or resident---would have been the birds now known as California condors (Gymnogyps cali- fornianus), which lived on the cli edges high above. Generation a er generation, they would have kept watch at intervals for at least the past 20,000 years---perhaps for as much as 100,000 years---diminishing as large Pleistocene mam- mals vanished. Condors have been missing from the Vermilion Cli s since the early 20th cen- tury, but they are present again, reintroduced in 1996, their very small numbers supplemented by annual releases. From the condor viewing site on House Rock Valley Road, you're sure to see rocks high on the cli s stained by their droppings. How long until you see a condor? e good news is that the wait will take place in biological time, not geological time. While you're waiting--- the Vermilion sun drying your esh---you can imagine the sound of the wind in a condor's ears as it rises on an updra and the view in its eyes as its head tilts from side to side, overwatching the plateau again. j formations that looked like the pupae of some unaccountable insect. Tumbleweeds huddled in the creek bends like tired gray sheep. Buckskin Gulch is famous for its slot canyon, but before I reached it I came to a high, perfectly undisturbed slope of loose red sand, as rm and uniform as the sand a wave leaves behind when it withdraws from a beach. Every grain seemed to know its place. It was sandstone in the mak- ing, uncongealed and awaiting diagenesis, the chemical transformation that would turn it into a slab of rock. It's easy enough to see the stratigraphy in the layers of stone exposed on the cli face, but there is also a stratigraphy of life-forms here, as well as a layering of human experience. Reach back far enough---190 million years and more, when this was a very di erent world---and you come to the ancient species, some crocodilian, some birdlike, that le their traces in the Navajo sandstone and in the formations that underlie it. On the plateau, there are signs of more recent inhabitants in the few gnarled ranch structures up beyond a wire gate and into Corral Valley, high in the piñon and juniper. is landscape is not as spectacular as Coyote Buttes---almost nothing is---but it has its own private grace. Shallow basins in the sandstone catch every drop of rain. ere are swales of arid grass and remnants of fence line that seem to exist only to keep the tumbleweeds in. ousands of years ago this landscape be- longed to native hunters and gatherers, who must have passed through again and again. ey were succeeded by the ancestral Puebloans, and later by the Paiute, who shared some of their knowledge of this country with a Mormon mis- sionary named Jacob Hamblin. Hamblin, who settled in the House Rock Valley, knew the Ver- milion landscape better than any other white man of his time. Explorer John Wesley Powell described Hamblin as a "silent, reserved man," Condors disappeared from the Vermilion Cli s region during the 1920s. Now they are back: More than a hundred have been reintroduced over the past 15 years. In the wilderness area northwest of the monu- ment, the creek-bed trail through Wire Pass (right) starts out wide and shallow but narrows to a deep, tight slot. Seasonal dangers for hikers range from dehydration to drowning in ash oods.