Wednesday, July 27-Thursday, July 28
Let’s hear it for southern Utah! Before this trip the only time I had set foot in Utah was about ten years ago to attend the wedding of Kamini , the daughter of our long time friend and former nanny, Punam. The Mormon wedding was in Salt Lake City and a splendid occasion since we consider Kamini and her sister and parents part of our extended family. Next to the festivities (Not being Mormons we could not attend the actual wedding ceremony, but a more conventional reception followed), the thing I remember most was ordering a martini and being presented with a martini glass with so little gin in it that it did not even touch the olives, which dangled on toothpicks above the liquid. One swig and it was over. Oh well, I thought, I will just order another, but this time it will be a double. The waiter somewhat apologetically informed me that doubles were not permitted in Utah, and that it was not until the Winter Olympics a few years before that alcoholic beverages of any type were allowed. Strict state laws, if not followed to the ounce, could land a bartender in jail. I decided to switch to beer.
That was my first encounter with Utah customs, heavily influenced by Mormons. Since that time we have attended a Mormon naming ceremony and a baptism and have observed how important their faith is for Kamini and her husband, Brandon. To put it simply, there is something tangible and real going on with lessons for all—especially with regard to family values and religious commitment. This time in southern Utah, we find ourselves amongst some of the friendliest and warmest people we have encountered on the Big Trip, and my assumption is that this is due somehow to their being Mormon or at least the influence of the LDS church.
The other thing about southern Utah is that it is drop-dead beautiful, not just in the national parks, but everywhere. And there are no billboards or road signs to be seen outside of the occasional villages we drive through. The countryside is similar to the purple mountains, red cliffs, beige sand and grey sage we have seen in Nevada and Arizona; but for the first time since we left Las Vegas, we see a few green pastures and fields of green crops, due, I presume, to irrigation.
We arrive in Bryce National Park mid afternoon and make our way to the lodge where we check in despite the fact that the lodge is full and that our reservation was for another day (again!). After they scramble around, the lodge staff manages to find one unit that has not been spoken for and sign us in. Embry’s guardian angel is at work again.
The special feature of Bryce are the hoodoos. Hoodoos are ancient people who have been turned into stone by coyotes because they acted badly. At least this is the legend of the Paiute Tribe that has lived in the area for centuries. A hoodoo rock formation looks sort of like a giant, drip, sand castle you might find on an ocean beach. Most are tall and thin and pink. Many take on forms of animals or buildings like cathedrals or castles. Most are hundreds of feet tall. All are stunning; and when you get thousands of them clustered together like you do at Bryce Canyon National Park, the effect is truly magical.
The park is situated on a rim at an elevation of between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, looking down upon a vast valley at an elevation of around 4,000 feet. Technically it is not a canyon but rather an “amphitheater,” with the hoodoos forming a giant wall along one side of the mountain. There are numerous steep trails allowing visitors to hike down among the hoodoos (which Embry did), but most visitors drive or walk along a 15 mile rim trail, permitting spectacular views of the rock formations and the valley below. We spend the first afternoon mostly driving and the next morning walking along the rim for a couple of miles and gazing at the hoodoos along with a cast of hundreds of gawking, fellow visitors. The heavy crowds are the great achievement and the great shortcoming of the national park system.
We attended two ranger talks, one on understanding tree rings, the second on advanced life in the universe, a topic of special interest to me ever since I was nine years old and living on Sunnybrook Drive in Nashville, when my 12-year old neighbor, George Singleton, observed a space ship landing in his back yard at 3:00 a.m. The topic is especially appropriate here at Bryce because there are few places in the U.S. with less light pollution. You can see stars here that are not visible most other places, and this makes you aware of how big and vast the universe is and how small we are. So it is only natural to ask the question, “Are we alone?” and this is what the ranger attempts to answer.
Here are the highlights:
- Our sun is one of about 400 billion stars in our galaxy.
- There are about 400 billion other galaxies in the universe.
- With new technology astronomers are able to detect whether planets exist around other stars. So far thousands have been documented, and it appears that virtually all stars have planets.
- Life on Earth occurred because of a lot of moving parts coming together at the right time: being the right distance from a star so that water did not evaporate or freeze, having a warm core, gravity to keep an atmosphere from evaporating, tectonic plates to push rock up from the sea to form land, ozone to keep out damaging rays from our star, and two mass extinctions to permit the evolution of mammals—just to name a few.
- The question is how many of these other planets exist in the “Goldilocks Zone”—not too hot and not to cold, not too close and not too far from their “sun,” and about the same size and age of our own planet. So far thousands have been observed and more are being found every year.
So what are the chances that among these trillions and trillions of other planets that there is advanced life? Well, in my view they would seem to be pretty high, like close to 100%.
But here is the rub. The first is that “advanced life” might not have all that much time on the stage of their respective planets. The dinosaurs were around a couple of hundred million years, and human-type beings have been around for about a million years, but “advance life”? We are talking only a few thousand years of historic human life and a couple of centuries of technologically advanced life. And we already have the ability to blow ourselves up and are trashing the planet. We may only be around a pretty short time. In other words there is probably a pretty small window of opportunity for catching these other beings before they wipe themselves out.
The second rub is the distance factor. The closest star to us (except for the sun) is 4.4 light years away. Using the current space flight technology, it would take a space ship over 74,000 years just to get there. Any volunteers for making the voyage?
So this is where science and religion come together. Scientists basically all agree that this all started with a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago and that our solar system is about is about 4.5 billion years old, about half the way through its natural life when the sun will eventually give out. Science does a pretty good job in exploring the “what” but has no clue to the “why.” The role of religion is to explore the “why.” We humans look up to a cloudless night sky with little light pollution like you find at Bryce Canyon and you can’t help asking why? Certainly these trillions upon trillions of other stars and planets must have some purpose. Or do they? Such is the question in my mind as we depart for our next destination— Arches National Park.