Fear, exploration, and discovery on the way to Deep Canyon Arch

A few weeks ago, with an arch in Deep Canyon as our destination, Ted, Oggie, and I drove across the Causeway to Elk Ridge.

A friend had described the arch’s location, so Ted pulled off the road at the designated spot, and we donned our backpacks and hats and started down the steep decline.

Some of the ponderosas in the area had died in a fire, and charred bark was scattered across the landscape.

The surviving trees had blackened trunks but green crowns, and the bushes and grasses had grown back.

We hiked 100 yards to the bottom of the canyon and then another 100 yards to a magnificent sandstone arch large enough to drive a van through.

Scientists have long thought that wind, water, salt, snow, and freezing temperatures create natural arches, hoodoos, fins, and pedestals.

Certainly, erosion plays an enormous role in sculpting the formations, but a team from the Czech Republic recently discovered that the astonishing shapes are stabilized by “critical stress.”

Jiri Bruthans, a hydrogeologist and the lead scientist in the study, visited Stralec Quarry in his home country where sandstone requires dynamiting to mine it.

After being blasted, the remaining stone forms arches. Bruthans’s observations led to laboratory experiments where researchers found the weight at the top of an eroded formation causes the sand particles to interlock, creating a structure that Alan Mayo, a hydrogeologist at Brigham Young University, describes as “incredibly stable” and erosion resistant.

Despite its curvature, the Deep Canyon Arch did indeed look stable. A rock mushroom and small junipers sprouted from its top, and it shone in the sun with the rich red, orange, and apricot colors of San Juan sandstone.

After we admired the arch, we spotted a nearby cave, so we waded through manzanita, oakbrush, and wild roses until we came to a small stream and then hiked up a steep bluff to the “cave” which turned out to be a crevice in the side of the cliff.

After exploring the area, we climbed over shale to the very top of the butte, thinking we might find a way out, but the formation dropped off on all sides, so we started back the way we had come.

Once we crossed the stream again, we started the climb out. Oggie scrambled after Ted like a mountain goat, but about halfway up, my legs started shaking and I gasped for air.

We took a break under a huge ponderosa and then began the final ascent. Within moments, Ted and Oggie swarmed up a sheer rock face and disappeared.

I started after them, but I couldn’t get any traction on the rock and slid down to its base.

I scrutinized the wall. It didn’t look that steep. Afterall, Oggie and Ted had gone up it like it was a walk in the park.

I tried again and slid down again. One more time I tried, but I still couldn’t find any footholds.

Overwhelmed, I paused. Rationally, I knew Ted would soon be down to help me, but the feeling of overwhelm hijacks rational thinking and releases cortisol into the body, causing the fight-flight-freeze response.

I’m no stranger to overwhelm, the emotion dogging me since childhood, but I took a few deep breaths, said a prayer for strength and guidance, and, since I’d been practicing being present, focused my attention on how the fear felt in my body, the tightness in my throat and chest, the sense of hopelessness, the urge to cry.

After a few minutes, the anxiety lessened, so I looked for another way out.

Next to the cliff was a channel of earth with plants that could serve as hand and footholds. I crawled along the escarpment to the channel, dug in my boots, and pushed and pulled myself up.

Before long, I found a faint trail, stood, and followed it up. Ted met me as I climbed out, offering to carry my backpack, but by then the way seemed easy – just a stroll through the manzanita.

A huge horned toad waited sphinxlike near the Jeep. Some native peoples believe horned toad lizards are “Grandfather, the creator, in animal form.”

While Ted photographed it, I climbed into the Jeep, glad to rest my backside. After looking at my Fitbit, I discovered we had hiked only two-and-a-half miles, but finishing those few miles felt empowering.

I’m not alone in feeling
overwhelmed during these unprecedented times, but often painful emotions are like fretful, fearful children and simply need our attention and compassion.

I often hear my friends repeating the mantra, “We can do hard things,” Bonnie H. Cordon’s strengthening words.

Perhaps, like the critical stress that shapes crumbly sandstone into magnificent arches, the stress in our own lives can sculpt us into our full potential.

As we headed across Elk Ridge, Ted drove down a trail by the Chippean Rocks. A fire had swept through that area as well, but we bounced along until we came to a forest of living ponderosas where we stopped for lunch.

While we were eating, the clouds darkened, thunder rumbled, and rain began to fall, the air becoming soft and moist after the intense heat of summer.

As I sniffed the pungent smells of sage and pine, I felt we had entered heaven, a realm of grace, coming from the creator who no doubt hears all our prayers.

San Juan Record

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