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Friday, April 27, 2012

Southern Utah, Home of Spectacular National Parks

A bentonite hill, which is made up of ash layers from ancient volcanoes
 at Capitol Reef National Park

all photos by Olga Bonfiglio except those marked

Utah is no place for the faint of heart whether plant, animal, or human.  In this land of weathered rock amid sagebrush, yucca, cactus, juniper, cottonwoods and pinyon pine, travelers gain a new appreciation for wind and water’s role in shaping the landscape.
The majestic landforms of the Colorado Plateau will set your imagination on fire—along with the 100-degree dry heat—in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. 

These parks offer visitors an uncanny beauty and an experience of nature’s “sculptures” that result from tremendous geological changes dating back 2 billion years ago—and counting.  

Rivers, seas and desert winds have shaped this land and you can witness the different geological eras at the canyons’ and cliffs’ outcroppings. 

The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square-mile swath covering the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.  Sixty-five million years ago the region experienced uplift, tilting, and erosion of rock layers to form the Grand Staircase, a series of colorful cliffs stretching from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon and including the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef.

The landscape of the parks and surrounding areas, which are not crowded at all, will look familiar.  Of course, this was the land of the cowboys that you saw in the movies.  Walk on the land and you hear and feel the crunch of the scrubby plants underfoot, endless dust, the winding paths around the sweet-smelling sagebrush and haunting rock formations that used to be good hiding places for outlaws. 

The desolation and silence of the desert also allow you to witness its majesty and enchantment as well as to feel an eerie connection to the Western pioneers, Native Americans, and prehistoric peoples who once settled or traversed this land.  It’s really much the same as they saw it.

The national parks in southern Utah preserve this natural landscape for you and millions of visitors, as they have been doing for about 100 years.

Zion National Park
Observation Point -- photo by Zion National Park
The area that became Zion National Park was largely ignored until 1908 when Leo A. Snow, a U.S. deputy surveyor from St. George, Utah, did a general land survey and suggested that the land here be set aside and preserved as a sanctuary for wildlife and natural and cultural resources found nowhere else on earth.  In 1919 Zion became a national park with the Kolob section added in 1937. 

This place got its name, meaning “place of refuge,” from Mormon pioneers who sought sanctuary after being kicked out of Illinois, Ohio and Missouri because of their “strange” religious beliefs.  The Children of Israel are an “Old Testament people,” says author Wallace Stegner, “inheritors of the blessings of the tribe of Joseph.”  Inspired by their prophet, Joseph Smith, and led by Brigham Young in 1846, they moved and settled in this “land that nobody wanted.”
Zion National Park

The biblical names in the park reflect the Mormon influence:  Court of the Patriarchs, the grotto at Angels Landing, Watchman Trail, Mt. Carmel Highway.  But whatever your religion, you’ll marvel at the wondrously high cliffs and deep valleys which have been cut by the slow-moving Virgin River—and God’s hand in nature. 

A single road through Zion’s canyons takes you on numerous switchbacks and a long dark tunnel through a mountain.  You’ll see yellow, red, white and green striped mesas (flat-topped mountain tops), long fingered rock formations, summits, and cathedrals.

Slickrock, huge blocks of smooth-surfaced, flat sedimentary rock (sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone), comprises the high cliffs and deliciously cool overhangs that shield you from the hot sun.  This rock is so soft you can rub it off with your finger.  Large, weather-beaten boulders will tickle your imagination into seeing animal and human shapes. 
Zion National Park

Indeed, human habitation on the Colorado Plateau has been sparse.  The earliest records of human life go back 10,000 years when the Paleo-Archaic Indians roamed this land.  The Anasazi People, the first permanent settlers here 2,000 years ago, lived in small, scattered farmsteads but left around 1300.  The land was not occupied until the Paiute People came 800 years ago.  On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived

To get an overview of the park, take the road leading through it or the free shuttle that takes visitors on a 90-minute scenic tour stopping at trailheads, the Museum of Human History, Zion Lodge.  The shuttle goes in some places where cars may not go.

Bryce Canyon National Park 
Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon
In mountainous areas you generally look up at the scenery.  At Bryce Canyon, you look down—at the hoodoos, those pillars of rock that look like whimsical earthen obelisks. 

Sculpted by wind and nightly freezing desert temperatures, the hoodoos got their name from Native American lore where the coyote turned the evil people to stone.  The “painted” pink, white and red (iron), purple (manganese), and white (limestone) “faces” serve as evidence of the myth.
Hoodoo of Queen Victoria on the Queen's Way
Geologists say that 10 million years ago forces within the earth created and then moved the Table Cliffs and Papunsaugunt Plateaus.  Ancient rivers carved the colorful Claron limestones, sandstones and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes, and exposed the edges of these blocks creating the Paria Valley. 

Walk the Queen’s Way and you instantly get an idea of how the eroding winds work as you cover you eyes and close your mouth to protect yourself against the swirling airborne sandstone. 

Get tickets for a horse or mule ride through the canyon at the park’s lodge or two-hour or half-day tours through the various levels of the canyon floor and among these giant sand castles. 

I only stopped at Bryce Canyon on the way from Zion to Torrey, but you will want to spend more time at this incredible showcase.

Grand Staircase/Escalante

If you haven’t already gotten a sense of gigantism in southern Utah, you will if you take the blue highways from Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park.  Around the town of Escalante, this 200-mile trek winds through country that either looks like the Flintstone’s village or a huge rock garden. 

Boulders mix sparingly with vegetation and the mesas resemble altars to the gods.  You’ll suddenly notice that there are few traces of humanity in these parts except for a single power line or the road you’re driving.  You’ll feel humbled by your own smallness amid these open and desolate spaces and realize that Western-style individualism has been greatly mythologized.  No one could have survived these lands unless they worked together, which is what the Mormons did. 
Grand Staircase -- Escalante

Construction engineers who built these winding roads over immense expanses of sedimentary rock, must have marveled at these mountainous scenes, too.  (Some roads climb 300 feet at 6- to 8-degree grades.)  They have left a few scenic turnouts for travelers to stop and gaze at the yellow rock that looks like a moonscape with trees and sagebrush.

Huge stone piled onto stone offers a vista of endless scenery, one view more beautiful and more magnificent than the other.  Halfway to Torrey, you’ll see what look like gray beehives.  No, these landforms are not the origin of the state’s nickname, the symbol of the industrious Mormons.  These landforms are part of the Grand Staircase/Escalante, named after Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Spanish priest who accompanied Fray Francisco Atanasia Dominguez.  They traversed southwestern Utah in 1776 searching for a passable trail to Monterey, California. 
Grand Staircase -- Escalante

Drive further north and you see one more surprise:  Dixie National Forest.  This area features unusual green vegetation nestled among the yellow rock mountains.  You’ll see ranches with wire fences for cows and horses as well as signs for uniquely Western-style names:  Hell’s Backbone, Salt Gulch, Circle Cliffs, and Burr Trail. 

Nearing the 9,400-foot summit, you pass pine, spruce, Douglas fir and aspen trees and get an overview of the “staircase.”  So much greenery after all that rocky wilderness even inspires a few bicyclists to brave the steep heights.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef allows you to interact with millions of years of geologic history and thousands of years of human history at the same time.

The 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold formed when the Pacific Ocean plate bumped into the North American continent about 65 million years ago and created the Rocky Mountains.  About 200 million years ago, the ocean layed down red and later gray sediments. 

Other remnants of geologic activity are the black boulders scattered over the land 20 to 30 million years ago.  They came from the lava flows of the volcanic Boulder Mountain 50 miles away.  Glaciers later eroded them. 

Round holes of many sizes line the rock walls.  This “honeycomb weathering” formed by the circular motion of tidal flats, sometimes gouged out caves due to the uneven density of the rock. 

The park features layered multi-hued cliffs, soaring spires, twisting canyons, graceful arches and stark monoliths that inspired the Native Americans to call this area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”  The white sandstone domes (prehistoric sand dunes) resemble the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington.  Hence, the park’s name.
Temple of the Moon (L) and the Sun (R) in Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef

The geologic history of Capitol Reef provides an unforgettable experience of the land.  However, to gather the unique spiritual quality of this place, take the unpaved road to Cathedral Valley where you’ll find the Temples of the Sun and Moon.  These stately, stone monoliths give you a feeling of permanence in much the same way cathedrals do in a city.  Their awesome power amid the dense quiet of the desert puts you in an altered state of mind as you gaze on the dry and dusty world around you.  The bumpy road to get there allows you to move only 20 miles an hour and requires a high-clearance or a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  Tours on the road are available in Torrey.
Dinosaurs once roamed this area and you can easily find traces of them in the gastropods scattered around the Morrison rock.  Gastroliths are smooth, round rocks the dinosaurs ingested and excreted much like the chickens do with their gizzard stones. 

You will find Devil’s toenails, too, which provide more evidence of the ocean that once covered the land.  The “toenails” are petrified seashells much like fossils only without the rock around them.  However, park rangers ask that souvenir hunters pick up these geological gems only outside the park.  And there’s plenty of them.
Pictographs at Capitol Reef National Park

One exciting link to the human history at Capitol Reef is through the petroglyphs (etched) and the pictographs (painted) on canyon walls.  They give you a glimpse of the Fremont People who lived here from 700 to 1250 A.D.  Their mainstay was bighorn sheep, which they proudly displayed with trapezoid-like images of themselves.  The park provides free interpretive tours of this ancient artwork but make friends with the locals who can take you to see other groups of them outside the park.

“Hobbit Land” is another place outside the park that the locals can show you.  In sight of Boulder Mountain, the largest flat-topped mountain in the United States, these globular red rocks are good for climbing for experts and novices alike.  Moving about them invites you to “commune” with the land by becoming a part of it—literally.  Wear your old clothes, though, when you climb these rocks.  The soft Entrada sandstone that rubs off on you is impossible to remove.

Capitol Reef also features a look into the Mormon culture that was established in 1879 along the Fremont River (also called the Dirty Devil).  First known as Junction and nicknamed “the Eden of Wayne County,” the Fruita settlement flourished through irrigation of sorghum (for syrup and molasses), vegetables and alfalfa.  The orchards which were famous a hundred years ago still stand today with a variety of apples, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, English and black walnuts and almonds.  Eight to 10 large families sustained this community until the late 1960s when the Park Service purchased Fruita property.   

Travelers can visit Fruita’s one-room schoolhouse, which also served as a town hall and church from 1884 until 1941.  In 1900 the public schools adopted the building until it closed in 1941 due to lack of students. 

If you go:
You can best get to Utah’s national parks by flying to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and renting a car. 

Warning:  Drink a lot of water, bring sun block and wear a hat.  There is little cloud cover in Utah, which provides protection from the hot sun.  The mornings and evenings are cool enough for a light jacket.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic Exhibit at Henry Ford Museum

Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
The Titanic has long held a prominent place in the human imagination and commemorations abound during this year’s 100th anniversary of its sinking.
Among them is Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition hosted by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Similar exhibitions are also appearing in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Diego with upcoming shows scheduled in Columbia, SC, St. Petersburg, FL and Philadelphia.
The 10,000 square foot exhibition reflects the size and grandeur of the world’s largest and most luxurious ship of its time.  Room re-creations of a first class hallway and cabin as well as a full-scale replica of the Grand Staircase reveal the ship’s splendor while the passengers’ accommodations, menus, china, even the recovered tile floors of the bathrooms illustrate the attention given to social class distinctions in Edwardian England.
First Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
“The ship is like a palace,” says Hugh Woolner, first class passenger in one of many quotes highlighted on the walls of the exhibit.  “My cabin is ripping.  Hot and cold water, very comfy-looking bed—and lots of room.”

The exhibit captures the human tragedy of the event by featuring small fragments of people’s lives with many of the objects probably handled shortly before the ship met its fate on Monday, April 15 at 2:20 a.m.
Third Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
This includes chinaware (a cobalt blue border with interlocking gold trim for first class and plain, white with only the White Star Line insignia in the center for third class), sherry glasses (congratulating the Captain at a party), cut-glass butter dish (indicating second class rather than first class crystal), cooking pots tarnished from the sea one with food burned on it and the other with a hole burned through it.
Many personal items were found in leather suitcases including a brooch, star pendant, gold lapel pin, cuff link, gold filigree barrette, hair dye bottle, shoe brush, toothpaste jar, trousers and vest, shoes, postcards, letters, an arithmetic book, playing cards, silver mesh handbag, gold wristwatch, French francs, American greenbacks and coins, wire-rimmed glasses, Gillette razor, shaving brush, sock garters, mechanical pencil with eraser, pipe and tobacco pouch. 
Some objects were recovered from the ocean’s bottom:  bowler hat, mirror with faux ivory handle (plastic imitating luxury), perfectly stacked au gratin dishes (the wooden cabinet had rotted away), champagne bottles with some still corked with liquid inside.
Some artifacts come with stories.  First class passenger Adolphe Saalfeld, 47, a perfume maker from Manchester, England, lost 65 vials of perfume.  He was headed to America to market some new fragrances to department stores in New York and other major cities.  He survived but it would be decades before 62 of the vials were recovered from his Swiss-made leather suitcase—some with perfume and scents still in them. 
The exhibit does a good job of placing visitors in the mood and setting of Titanic through various techniques.  Its bright and colorful First Class area is accompanied by classical violin music until visitors move through to the crew’s quarters on E Deck (with bunk beds accommodating 50 men to a room) where they begin to feel the foreshadowing of the ship’s fate.  The space becomes dark with red safety lights as visitors pass through the mammoth watertight doors that separated Titanic’s 15 compartments.  The sound of pulsing engines gives way to the moans of the sea as the ship hits the iceberg and becomes engulfed in the ocean’s calm, icy waters. 
The doors were designed to close should any of the compartments fill with water thus giving the ship the reputation of being “practically unsinkable.”  The ship could have survived with two flooded compartments, but the iceberg cut six slits over 300 feet into the hull and filled five compartments, according to ship’s designer Thomas Andrews.
Young visitors instantly get the message.
“This is so creepy,” said one.  “You have to think about what happened to the ship.”
In the final section of the exhibit, visitors are treated to a simulation that explains how Titanic hit the iceberg, broke apart and sank to the bottom of the sea with debris strewn over an area of 15 square miles.  Another film illustrates how conservators decades later used the ROV to extract the artifacts. 
Many parts of the ship are on display including an angle iron (which visitors could touch), lifeboat davit cleat, ship’s whistle, telegraph and the stern’s docking bridge telephone stand.
A chunk of ice in the shape of an iceberg is also available for visitors to touch.
Passengers’ eyewitness descriptions of the ship hitting the iceberg and its aftermath make the event more real:
“CRASH!  Then a low rending crunching, ripping sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and her engines gently ceased.”  (Violet Jessop, stewardess)
“Just a dull thump.” (George A. Harder, First Class passenger)
“Through the ship’s portholes we saw ice rubbing against the ship’s sides.” (Lawrence Beesley, Second Class passenger)
Memorial Wall -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
At the end of the exhibit is a memorial wall with the names of individual passengers and crew on board Titanic’s maiden voyage.  This, too, elicits a more empathetic response to the tragedy as visitors check to see if the person whose passenger ticket they have been carrying since the onset of their tour survived or not. 
In first class, 201 passengers were saved and 123 lost.  In second class, 118 were saved and 166 lost.  In third class 183 were saved and 527 were lost.  Among the crew, 212 were saved and 698 were lost, including Captain Edward J. Smith.
Several recovered artifacts recall several ironic missteps that would later prove fatal:  the fractured compass bowl that set the ship on a new course of North 71 West (outside established traffic lanes) at 5:45 p.m. in an attempt to avoid ice by steering the ship further south. 
A barometer indicated perfect weather.
The forward masthead light sat in the crow’s nest to warn other passing ships of Titanic’s approach. 
A 60-pound lump of coal from the 6,000-ton load that was diverted from coal supplies of other ships due to a coal strike in England.  Titanic needed enough coal to feed its 157 furnaces that heated 29 boilers.  This single lump could move the ship 60 feet at full speed in 1.5 seconds.  Titanic was going at 21 knots, nearly top speed, when it hit the iceberg.  Many passengers originally scheduled for passage on other vessels were rebooked to cross the Atlantic Ocean on Titanic due to the coal strike.
Crow’s nest lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee did not see the iceberg until it was too late and they did not have access to the ship’s only pair of binoculars.  Testimony at the British inquiry following the disaster revealed that it was common practice for only the chief officer, first officer or second officer to have binoculars while on duty and not for lookouts who would otherwise be distracted.  The binoculars were recovered and ominously on display.
The original plan of the ship ordered 32 lifeboats, enough for 1,900 people.  However, only 20 lifeboats, capable of accommodating 1,178 people, were on the ship.  This was done in order to cut costs and clutter. 
Only 714 people survived out of the 2,228 passengers and crew on board while 1,514 perished from hypothermia in the 28 degree waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Only two lifeboats were filled to capacity mostly due to the passengers’ reluctance to leave the ship because they believed it to be “practically unsinkable.”
Titanic’s resting place is located 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland.  It lay quietly on a sandy seabed until it was discovered on Sunday, September 1, 1985 by Dr. RobertBallard, a former United States Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.  
Ballard originally planned to keep the location a secret to prevent treasure hunters from claiming prizes from the wreck. He considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts.  Ballard is currently on a campaign to keep people from taking artifacts from the Titanic.  
However, RMS Titanic, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of PremierExhibitions, Inc. (Atlanta, GA), was granted Salvor-in-Possession rights to the Titanic wreck site by a United States federal court in 1994, which allows it to be the only company permitted to recover objects.  It has conducted seven research and recovery expeditions (1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2010) and recovered and conserved more than 5,500 artifacts.  
A dive to the wreck with remote operated vehicles (ROV) takes between 12 to 15 hours, including two-and-a-half hours to reach the ship and two-and-a-half hours to resurface. 
The bow as it looks today
Nearly all of the artifacts are tagged and stored in climate control environments.  That they have survived the passage of time as well as the trauma of settling below 12,500 feet of water at a pressure of 6,000 pounds per square inch is almost miraculous. 
Upon retrieval, each object is stabilized to prevent further degradation due to the sudden change in environment. 
The objects are being consumed by bacteria, abraded by sediments, and corroded by salt and acids.  “Rusticles” of bacteria and fungi cling to the ghost ship, which is also being consumed by iron-eating microbes that will collapse it onto itself in 40 to 90 years. 
The exhibit is dedicated to Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic who died at on May 31, 2009 at the age of 97.  She was a two-month-old baby when the ship went down and was saved in Lifeboat 10 with her mother and brother while her father was lost at sea.  Her brother, Bertram, died at age 82 on April 14, 1992, on the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Tickets are $10 extra with admission to the Henry Ford Museum and the exhibit runs until September 30.  Adult admission is $17, seniors 62 or older is $15 and youth 5-12 years old is $12.50.  For further information, see the museum website.