Atop El Morro, a sandstone formation with a steep bluff on one end, jutting out of the high New Mexico mountains, I watched a double line of ants traversing the trail etched in solid rock in front of me. One line was headed north on one side of a crack, a few centimeters away on the other side of the crack a determined line repeated south. The lines were imperfect but continual and I was wondering if they were transporting water or food for their colony. It was a clear day along the continental divide. It was early and I had all the time in the world, so I studied them for a half a minute to see where they were going and where they were coming from before proceeding with my walk toward the ruins of the Pueblo village on top of the mountain.
At Mammoth Caves National Park, the tours of the underground caverns are quickly sold out. The walks are tricky if not treacherous and on the two underground tours I took guides shepherd over a hundred people at a time through confined passageways and up and down narrow ladders and stairs. Hundreds of feet below ground your eyes get accustomed to the dim electric light and you’re vigilant about not stepping on the feet of the person in front of you, watching where you’re stepping to assure safe foot fall, watching your head so not to crack it open on the cave walls. All of this watching out for safety and you’re not really paying attention to the mysteries of the caves themselves. The lines move through Fat Man’s Misery and Tall Man’s Misery, hunched and treading a path barely a foot wide it’s difficult to appreciate the beauty of it all. Over a hundred people, many stopping to snap pictures on their smartphones and the imperfect lines advance erratically and the ants on El Morro take me back to the caves.
Ranger Kim greeted the group of 20 for the 7 AM hike into the Grand Canyon joking that we all must be from the east to be up and about that early in the morning. We were. We began our descent down the trail of switchbacks through layers of stone and time until we hit Cedar Rest, the end of our guided tour, an hour and half below the south rim of this canyon. We weren’t even half way down to the Colorado River being passed by mules-in-training and a few hikers who had spent the night camping further below. After a needed rest, swigs of the water we carried with us and standing with our mouths open staring at the uniqueness of this time-carved marvel thoughts of the hike back up out of the canyon came a bit more easily. Short rests at every other switchback were in order to maintain my breathing level. I wheezed and panted and took my time. It was now later in the morning and those tourists not from the east were beginning their descent as I and others from my tour group were ascending. Two lines coming and going. Human ants.
Several of the National Parks in Southern Utah are in canyons and do not have thru-roads. Roads take you to the highest or most remote reaches and then end and you turn around and wind your way back down toward the visitor center and out. Vistas and pull-offs and trailheads are strategically placed and cars and campers can stop when they need and want and line the vantage point for selfies and ah-ha digital moments. Cars on the roads and people on the trails; lines of mechanized ants.
At Arches National Park outside of Moab, Utah some of the most spectacular views are the rock windows carved out of soft sandstone by wind and ice, water and time. Trails lead visitors from parking areas, across stretches of desert up to, around, and through these red rock formations. Delicate Arch didn’t look as delicate from afar with the line of tiny humans trailing to and from the iconic stone arch. Only patience allows snapshots of these natural wonders without sign of human intervention.
And the lines of people, cars and campers continue through our national treasures as I continue my trek through Arizona, Utah, Nevada and now into California, dutifully staying in line, on the trails, to protect these wonders for future generations we hope.