National Geographic : 2012 Feb
• mid-plateau. at sand (ancient enough, grain by grain) is derived from prehistoric sand---the Navajo sandstone that forms the plateau and cli s. is sandstone, in turn, is the remains of a vast erg, a windblown sea of dunes that for millions of years covered most of what is now the Colorado Plateau. e geology is hard to imagine. It becomes even harder if you're lucky enough to come upon the Wave, hidden away in the northwest corner of the monument in a place called Coyote Buttes. e Wave is a tumult of striped, fossilized dunes that look like petri ed surf, forever ris- ing and curving, towering just short of breaking. What's been le behind by long ages of erosion--- rogue waves of smooth, banded sandstone in a bowl of light---is a record of chemical reactions taking place as the sandstone developed, with patterns of bleaching and the depositing of iron oxide and other minerals. In its sinuousness, the Wave forms a wind siphon, its geometry accel- erating the wind the way a high, curving track accelerates a skateboarder. Try to say the names of the colors you see glinting in the stone. ey shi before you can do so. e sun pinwheels across the sky, clouds burgeon and fade, and the Wave evolves mo- ment by moment without ever changing. To safeguard this extraordinary formation, the BLM admits only 20 people a day to the Wave, so you're le nearly alone in a wilderness containing a geological "Mona Lisa." is isn't the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a scenic view shared with thousands. Here is the inti- macy of the senses: the abrasion of stone, the scent of rain on rock, a kaleidoscopic light that can leave you bewildered by the minute speck of time you occupy in the presence of so much frozen time. The geological processes that shaped the Wave, as well as the cliffs and canyons and myriad landforms, continue unabated, of course. And yet they're hidden by the present. One a er- noon I followed the dry creek bed of Buckskin Gulch on the west side of the monument, from a trailhead just o House Rock Valley Road. On the low hills around me lay bulging sandstone are no place for the fainthearted or unprepared. "Exit the car, enter the food chain," quipped one o cial with the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the monument. e preda- tors here are sun, heat, thirst, ignorance, and isolation. (Also rattlesnakes and scorpions.) ere are almost no marked trails, only a few signposts, and none of the assurances, warnings, or rangers found in national parks. Here your cell phone doesn't work, you camp where you can, and the only water is what you carry. The cliffs proper have been protected as wilderness since 1984. ey form an irregular upside-down horseshoe, abrupt and sheer on the east side near the Colorado River, curving severely around to the south and shallowing on the west as they run up into Utah along House Rock Valley Road, one of the most beautiful dirt drives in the American West. Follow the arc of that horseshoe and the cli s peer over you all the way, forbidding and beckoning at once. But drive across the northern bench at the top of the horseshoe, heading from Page, Arizona, to Kanab, Utah, and you would never guess the cli s are there. Hike out onto the Paria Plateau and you feel as though you're walking across an island in the sky. e cli s are invisible be- low you, but you can sense their presence. is is what the world would be like if it were at and ended precipitously at an edge in space. But when you come to the end of the plateau--- high atop the Vermilion Cli s---you see that the world still goes on, stepping its way shelf by shelf down to the Grand Canyon and beyond. e Paria Plateau and its hem of cli s were named a national monument by presidential proclamation in the year 2000, primarily in rec- ognition of the exquisite archive of erosional forms---timescapes, windscapes, gravityscapes, and waterscapes but above all, sandscapes. ere is the sand of the present day: the grit in your teeth, the slip-sink footing, the slither- ing tire-bog along the tracks in the Sand Hills Verlyn Klinkenborg is a frequent contributor. Richard Barnes has photographed Egypt's ancient whales and animal mummies for the magazine.