In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell set out on a remarkable westerly mission—to explore and study the unchartered waters and canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Powell, a distinguished geologist, ethnologist, and one-armed Civil War veteran, began the journey with nine novice oarsmen and four wooden boats. As they entered what is now Canyonlands National Park, Powell wondered, “What shall we find?”
They found a unique, remote and rugged wilderness. Powell’s journal describes a “weird, grand region of naked rock with cathedral like [sic] buttes towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.”
Two weeks ago, I set off with nine new and old friends to retrace part of Maj. Powell’s route beyond the 100th meridian in four fiberglass canoes and a kayak. Launching on the Green River at Mineral Basin after a nerve-wracking drive down a dirt road full of switchbacks, we paddled the last 52 miles of calm water through Stillwater Canyon on through Canyonlands National Park to where it meets the Colorado River south of Moab.
Canoeing, hiking and camping in one of the most remote sections of Canyonlands, our group had an opportunity to reconnect with nature and rediscover peace. In our hectic normal day lives we tend to lost that; in our journey we found the healing of solitude. We explored amazing geography, discovered ancient artwork, gazed at the cosmos, listened to the sound of silence, and strengthened friendships. (And marveled at each other’s backcountry culinary talents.)
We devoted two and half days to hiking. Our off-river exploration included Fort Bottom, Turks Head, the Doll House and the Maze, Canyonlands most remote district.
At a time when the unceasing headlines and tweets of the day blare the doom and gloom of global economic volatility, concern about tumbling markets, partisan debates of job loss and creation, the persistent threat of terrorism, the continuation of war, and the constantly fluctuating events that dull our senses, there is one thing that remains steadfast. Places that only change with the seasons and can always be counted on to inspire a sense of wonder and beauty — our National Parks. A gift and treasure we Americans are all able to enjoy without political perspectives and regardless of economic net worth and social status. Pulitzer Prize-Winning author and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
These are lands, forests and reserves set aside by previous generations for all future generations to enjoy. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, a noted conservationist and great outdoorsman, signed legislation establishing five national parks. In his second term, he signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, allowing the President to set aside certain valuable public natural areas as park and conservation land. The Act has been used more than hundred times since its passage.
Our river adventure in the amazing outdoors provided us endless exploration of magnificent canyons, and discovery of ancient Indian ruins and remote pictographs and petroglyphs. We witnessed nature’s beauty on the grandest of scales. The finest superlatives are not adequate to describe the peace, grandeur and richness of this area.
The most unexpected benefit was the refuge we all had from the ever-present, ever-demanding technologically-driven world. For eight days we were disconnected — figuratively and literally unplugged. No web, no wireless world, no deadlines, no commitments and no expectations. The one satellite phone we had in case of an emergency never left its waterproof case. Being in the moment in that beautiful natural place with friends hydrated me; replenishing a soul thirsty for an interruption from the grind. It was rustic, adventurous and therapeutic.
Canoeing on still water is a minimalist activity. You can enjoy the simplicity and beauty of a boat, the rhythm of the oar stroking the water. And the appreciation for tent, campfire, camaraderie and food prepared riverside at the end of an unfettered day. I do admit taking a few more provisions than Powell and his pioneering party.
Disconnecting from smart phones and laptops is downright liberating. It is the re-integration that is proving to be challenging and confining. I just want to be outside and enjoy the gorgeous fall weather painted on a canvas with an artist’s palette of colors of the changing and falling leaves.
Venturing to Southern Utah may not be easily accessible for everyone. But such a break can be found in nature close to where people all live and work–in municipal parks and forests or just a drive in the countryside. Empirical evidence suggests these smaller scale urban green areas not only provide important environmental and ecological roles, but also provide important restorative physiological functions such as reducing stress and creating a sense of peace and tranquility.
In the challenging and difficult times we live in, we need to take breaks. Nature calls us, invites, reenergizes and restores us. She also puts us in our place and reminds us that we are only part of a larger macrocosm. We are stewards, not owners of this land.
Powell’s voyage nearly a century and half earlier was one of scientific discovery and grand adventure. Our trip, while not of scientific significance was one of personal discovery and what we sorely needed. While I love my iPhone and Mac Book, I do not want to be available 24-7. Some people (the President, on-duty ER doctors and emergency personnel) need to be reachable at a moment’s notice. But we, not in those professions, should chose to not always be there “on demand.” Set boundaries for yourself. Take the time to disconnect, unplug, and get off the grid and step away.
What will you find if you step off the grid for a few hours or days? You might find more of yourself and a closer connection to what’s really important in life: family, friends, and an appreciation for the beautiful things in our world.