Moab Happenings Archive
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Hiking with Ennui, the Elephants, and Ed:
Balanced Rock to Double Arch
by Kathy Grossman

January can bring a distinct feeling of ennui: listlessness from the cold, short days in our high desert. But take heart, this can be Moab’s best season in many ways. I take advantage of a dry, still, sunny day and pull up to Arches’ Balanced Rock, noting with astonishment that I am the only car in the lot. Looking like a giant stone Hershey’s Kiss, the 3,600-ton boulder of Entrada sandstone is not “balanced” so much as attached to a pedestal of Dewey Bridge mudstone. Frost, rain, and blowing sand continue to eat away at that boulder and pedestal. Its smaller sibling, “Chip-off-the-Old-Block,” fell in the winter of 1975-76. Chip’s time had come; Balanced Rock’s time may yet. I walk the short trail and contemplate nearby Off-Balanced Rock, a 100-foot-tall tower that’s a permit-only two-pitch trad climbing destination. I can also view Elephant Butte, the highest point in the park at 5,653 feet. Years ago, I survived a trip up Canyonlands’ Elephant Hill, and someday I hope to see Pachyderm Arch. We do love elephantine names around here.

Mother Nature paints with a muted palette in January, with native earth ochres, siennas, and umbers, but also caramel, copper, buff, and café au lait, all popping against a bright, cerulean sky. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, the area around Balanced Rock can be quite wuthering, yet hardy vegetation clings to life as scruffy raven tricksters dip and wheel, inspecting my backpack for morsels to add to their winter diet. I cross the road and come upon the picnic area with tables, a covered canopy, vault toilet, and views of the Salt Valley. I walk west along the dirt road, thinking, This is where he walked, Moab’s literary celebrity.

Even if you’re a first timer to Moab and Arches National Park, you’ve likely heard of Edward Abbey (1927–1989). His small, tin housetrailer was parked near Balanced Rock in the late 1950s, and his notes became Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, published in 1968. He wrote, “For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same.” However, I don’t believe Abbey was ever here on his birthday. He was born January 29 northeast of Pittsburgh in a hospital on the Allegheny Plateau. He grew up on his family’s farm near Home and then left at age 17 to explore the West.

I don’t care to picnic on this crisp afternoon, so I chew on a granola bar as I drive to The Windows, heading for Double Arch. Along the road is a string of geologic pearls including Pothole Arch, Garden of Eden’s Adam and Eve Rocks, Owl Rock, Cove Arch, and the Devil’s Golf Ball. Death Valley has a Devil’s Golf Course, so that would make this ball about 600 miles out of bounds. I can see Buccaneer Rock in front of the Parade of Elephants from The Windows’ lower parking loop along with Double Arch, the tallest in the park and the second-longest span (after Landscape). It was featured (among other southeastern Utah locations) in the 1975 movie Against a Crooked Sky and in opening scenes of 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade along with Park Avenue and Balanced Rock. A gently sloping sand-and-cement path leads to the base of these two giant arches joined at one end for a surreal experience of true mythical hugeness. Arches needs your help in protecting the fragile cryptobiotic crust by staying on the trail and on rock or sand approaches to these formations. It’s clear and cold, and only a few hardy souls join me to silently look up into this stony web. The acoustics in this Brobdingnagian cathedral are such that even modest conversations carry, but, if I’d been alone, I might have sung Happy Birthday to you, Ed.

Kathy Grossman

Kathy Grossman Kathy Grossman is a southern California native, a cartoonist, writer, and lover of deserts. Now living between Mill and Pack Creeks, she has been in Moab since 2011.

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