I was a clueless California city girl when the professor leading our field trip pulled our van to a stop along the highway that leads through Zion National Park in southern Utah. We spilled out of the vehicles and followed our fearless leader to the base of a sandstone mesa. Doc pointed. “Go up there,” he said and scrambled up the slope.
I didn’t know cross beds from conjugate joints, but I climbed after him and the other enthusiastic students. The slope went from comfortable to “I might fall and die” by the time I’d taken a couple dozen steps. I looked up. The mesa was vertical above me. My heart beat quicker, not from exertion but from the unfamiliar feeling of danger. I didn’t know if I could make it. Our professor had come to a stop not far above. Other students clustered near him.
I gritted my teeth and took the next step. If they could do it, so could I. My hands steadied me against the rock. Even through my shoes I could feel the grit of the stone adding friction that allowed me to climb the steep slope. The rock was warm under the palms of my hands.
I reached the professor and found a ledge, camouflaged in the cliff. “Take a seat,” he said.
I leaned against the rock, my backside catching on the narrow ledge. That and the grit were all that kept me from sliding down to the valley floor.
“This is the Navajo Sandstone,” Doc lectured. “200 million years ago, right where you are sitting there was a desert…”
The professor continued on, telling us the story of the sand. These grains of sand had once been part of enormous sand dunes that covered the state of Utah, in a desert that had endured millions of years. Dinosaurs had crossed the dunes, had touch the sand that now rolled beneath my fingers.
These grains had then been buried under an ocean, and rivers, and more deserts, and more oceans. Pressure and time fused the tiny grains of quartz together into rock before unstoppable forces collided and force them up, up, up, shedding the oceans and deserts that buried them, until the Sandstone was resurrected.
I looked out across the valley where thunder clouds piled on the horizon. The stone warmed my back even as the first breath of the storm hit my face. I could almost feel the Jurassic wind whipping sand across the Navajo sand dunes 200 million years ago.
Thunder cracked. I looked down. Rain gives life to the desert, but it is a harsh mother. Stone becomes slippery. Floods rip through canyons. Canyons like Zion. After all, this rock had been resurrected to begin life again and the first step on that journey is erosion. My breath grew short as I realize the coming thunderstorm might just erode me if we were still on this cliff. Yet I didn’t want to leave. I’d never experienced the present and the past combine into one real moment like it was right now. I held my breath hoping to make it last.
Like all things in life, it didn’t. The first rain drops hit the rock as we scrambled back down.