A Geologic Instant


Fall had already come at 9,000 feet elevation. As I stepped outside, closing the hotel room door softly behind me, the cold bit at my bare legs and I couldn’t have stopped them from running even if I’d wanted to. My head was less enthusiastic, as it ignored the sounds of my two-year-old twins waking up. It was too early for them. And last night had been too late. But right now, my husband could deal with the kids.

I looked at the time as my feet hit the parking lot asphalt and began to move of their own accord. I didn’t really have a plan. I didn’t know any good trails. We were in the tiny tourist outcrop outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. There wasn’t much besides the few hotels that lined the highway leading into a canyon the color of creamsicles that in another geologic instant would be gone.

I ran along the highway only for a short distance. At this hour and inordinate number of large trucks were heading into the national park and the shoulder was almost non-existent. I turned on the first forest service road that intersected my path. Off the highway, it was startlingly quiet in a way you never get when surrounded by civilization.

My legs were thrilled, but my lungs less so. After all, we were at the top of a staircase for the gods that stretched all the way down into the depths of the Grand Canyon where the layers of rock could tick off their ages in billions of years. You could just imagine, standing on the edge of Bryce Canyon, watching the titans with their giant feet stepping up the staircase that stretched a hundred miles in distance and 7,000 feet in height to reach this top layer born a mere 30 million years ago. My lungs felt less like those of the titans and more the size of the silent birds I ran past, whose occasional hop from one branch to another was the only evidence I saw of their existence.

I wove my way across an intricate maze of dirt roads, horse trails, and trials created by inhabitants that had called this place home long before our species invented conservation tourism. In between the pines, in a clearing my path almost intersected, I spotted a buck and his harem, majestically watching the morning awake.

In the trees, I was shielded from the not just the noise of the highway, but from that life altogether. It was just me and the forest on top of a billion years of history, only waiting for the right person to come along and read it. But my watch just couldn’t let me forget. It beeped at me to let me know it was time to go back to the hotel room on the highway, the twins who would be bouncing off the walls by now, and the husband who had a conference to get to.

My feet didn’t want to go. They slowed but didn’t turn and ahead I sensed an opening of the forest. Just a little farther. I ignored my watch, imagining I was John Wesley Powell, seeing this landscape before modernization had changed it so starkly. Would Powell turn back with the promise of something ahead?

I broke out of the trees at the exact instant the sun broke over the horizon on the edge of a creamsicle cliff. A frothy waterfall shot down through the hoodoo pocked crevasses of the cliff, sparkling in the first light of the day.

My feet stopped.

The stream bounced vigorously down the friable rocks carrying them away to form new chapters in the history of our Earth. The sun illuminated a sea of rock and trees. The little, divinely lit stream had already removed countless tons of rock and history from the valley below. I stood on the edge, poised on a geologic instant and a human one as well.

And then the instant—at least the human one—had to end. Civilization called. Tired two-year-old twins called. I had to get back so that I could take them to stand on the edge of Bryce Canyon. To bare record of this geologic instant before the hoodoos could crumble in to dust and be born again somewhere far away.

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