“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” - Oscar Wilde.
Last week in Kanab, I filled the car’s gas tank, and then went into the store to buy a trails map of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“Just a whole lot of nothing up there”, the clerk replied, not even responding to my request. “Excuse me?!” I said, quite a bit taken aback.
He repeated, “A whole lot of nothing up there”, and added nothing else. Clearly, he was not a fan.
“Well, I’ve been there, and I like it!” I said, and left the store to continue driving towards the monument.
I had not been to southern Utah in years, and Nancy had never been, so we rendezvoused with a college friend of hers, and spent a great week seeing the usual sights. At Grand Staircase, we did the most predictable of things, and hiked up the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail. I had walked it before, so I sent my two companions on up ahead of me, so as not to skew their experience with my observations. The falls are perhaps a little too-well publicized, having graced the cover of the Utah state highway map some years ago. One hundred and twenty five feet of clear water cascading down a slick rock wall, into a tree-encircled pool perfect for wading.
After a while, I stopped and sat down in the shade of an alcove, and simply looked out east at the canyon walls and streamside. The wind was swirling through thickets of coyote willow, and the effect was mesmerizing. It was quiet in that all I heard was rustling leaves and running water. However, I was not alone for long, since the trail is very popular. But “popular” is a relative term; in this case, every few minutes, some small group of hikers would walk past and say “hello.” There were families carrying babies on their backs, and couples, and mixed groups of men and women, and the occasional solo hiker. Zion and Bryce National Parks, in contrast, had been swarming like human anthills; it was possible to be alone with the scenery, but you had to walk a ways off the trail. Wading up the Narrows of the Virgin River had been like entering a crowded subway.
All these people at Calf Creek were beaming, happy, excited. They seemed truly glad to stop and say “Hi!”or “Boy, this is great!” Or something equivalent. I don’t remember anyone unpleasant, like the scowling clerk in Kanab. It also became apparent that many, perhaps most of them, were not Americans. They were from all continents, from all corners of the world. I learned how to say “Goodbye!” in Turkic, and then in another half-dozen random languages.
I have long believed that Utah’s beauty is the source of its fortunes, and that this truth will only become clearer with time. Not only do visitors from Turkey and Belgium come over and empty out their pockets, but young professionals move here because Utah’s public lands are so beautiful. But for the first time, it occurred to me that national parks and monuments generate a lot of goodwill towards America, kind of like the Peace Corps. The difference of course is that foreigners who can afford to travel to the U.S. are the most affluent group, and the Peace Corps serves the most needy. Nevertheless, where else do Americans rub shoulders with so many world citizens, in such a pleasant and friendly setting?
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument did not disappoint any of us, as far as I could see. Every pullout on the hair-raising drive along the Hogback to Boulder, Utah, there was a sweeping view of mesas, canyons, and mountains all the way to the horizon. You would have to be blind, one way or another, to consider it “a whole lot of nothing”. My hope is that most Utahns and Americans, the true owners of all that “nothing,” see its value and protect it from the political winds swirling around it.