A 1965 Visit to Edward Abbey's old Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge National Monument
In 1965, when I was seventeen years old, my father and I embarked on a Four Corners States Grand Circle Tour. After our visit to Moab, Utah, including old Arches National Monument, the Book Cliffs and Dead Horse Point, we traveled south. I shall save our stops at the Goosenecks of the San Juan River and Monument Valley for later. First, I shall discuss our visit to Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
Although Edward Abbey’s seminal book, Desert Solitaire did not appear in print until 1968, I shall quote from that book regarding Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge. Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam topped out in late 1963. When we visited in 1965, the lake appeared to be about half full. Years earlier, Edward Abbey and his friend, Newcomb, had rafted down the yet untamed Colorado River through Glen Canyon. Leaving Newcomb at the river, Abbey had hiked to Rainbow Bridge. Abbey’s visit there was an early 1960’s whitewater, wilderness experience. Ours visit was a mid-1960’s powerboat cruise on a placid lake.
Glen Canyon – Like no other occurrence in Edward Abbey’s life, the inundation of Glen Canyon created a psychic scar in the man. He knew that Glen Canyon Dam was the first of three new dams then planned for the Lower Colorado Basin. His determination not to let another Colorado River dam arise became the meta-theme of his book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Using various characters in that book as a thinly veiled foil, Abbey expressed his own latent desire to eradicate Glen Canyon Dam.
Years before, in Desert Solitaire, Abbey wrote eloquently about a wilderness now submerged, hundreds of feet below the Lake Powell we know today. Following are his words.
Page 122, “We were exploring a deep dungeonlike defile off Glen Canyon one time (before the dam). The defile turned and twisted like a snake under overhangs and interlocking walls so high, so close, that for most of the way I could not see the sky.”
Page 152, “I know, because I was one of the lucky few (there could have been thousands more) who saw Glen Canyon before it was drowned, In fact I saw only a part of it but enough to realize that here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise.”
Page 156, “That must be where Trachyte Creek comes in,” I explain; “if we had life jackets with us it might be a good idea to put them on now.” Actually our ignorance and carelessness are more deliberate than accidental; we are entering Glen Canyon…”
Page 157, “If this is the worst Glen Canyon has to offer, we agree, give us more of the same. In a few minutes the river obliges; a second group of rapids appears, wild as the first. Forewarned and overcautious this time, despite ourselves, we paddle too far…”
Page 185, “Farther still into the visionary world of Glen Canyon, talking somewhat less than before - for what is there to say? I think we have said it all – we communicate less in words and more in direct denotations, the glance, the pointing hand, the subtle nuances of pipe smoke, the tilt of a wilted hat brim.”
Page 188, “The sun, close to the horizon, shines through the clear air beneath the cloud layers, illuminating the soft variations of rose, vermilion, umber, slate blue, the complex features and details, defined sharply by shadow, of the Glen Canyon Landscape.”
Rainbow Bridge – By definition, a “natural arch” spans an area of dry land. In contrast, a “natural bridge” spans a watercourse. At remote Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a stone torus known as Rainbow Bridge is the most celebrated landform. Before Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the only way to see Rainbow Bridge was on a river raft expedition. A visit there involved a long wet trip up or down the Colorado River, followed by a tedious, uphill hike at the end. Located almost fifty water-miles upstream from Glen Canyon Dam, Rainbow Bridge now resides in a short side canyon, off Lake Powell.
After our long boat ride from Wahweap Marina, near Page, Arizona, our skipper tied up at a floating dock. When the lake was full, the story went; lake water would rise almost to the base of Rainbow Bridge. In 1965, however, we had over two miles of hiking before cresting a ridge and seeing the immutable stone arch called Rainbow Bridge.
Other than a flood in the summer of 1983, Lake Powell has never been full. There are few 1983 photos showing lake water lapping near the base of Rainbow Bridge. Today, perennially lower lake levels call into question the dam’s main reason for being, which is to generate electricity. In late 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior admitted what longtime observers of the Glen Canyon Dam have known for decades – that drought, climate change and over-subscription of available water will result in permanently lower water levels in Lake Powell and throughout the Colorado River Basin.
In 1965, when I asked our skipper if he preferred the ease of lake travel to a rafting trip, he tactfully said that each method of conveyance had its advantages. He went on to say, he would have preferred that Glen Canyon stay as it had been before the dam. As it was, on our visit, we hiked to Rainbow Bridge over hot, dry land, just as Edward Abbey had done years before. Following are passages from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, describing his raft trip down the Colorado River to Rainbow Bridge.
Page 186, “We pass the mouth of a large river entering the Colorado River from the east – the San Juan River. Somewhere not far beyond this confluence, if I recall my Powell rightly, is the opening to what he named Music Temple. “When ‘Old Shady’ sings us a song at night,” wrote Powell in 1869, “we are pleased to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds”.”
Page 188, “The river carries us past more side canyons, each of which I inspect for signs of a trail, a clue to Rainbow Bridge. But I find nothing, so far, though we know we are getting close.
Page 192, “Rainbow Bridge seems neither less nor greater than what I had foreseen. My second sensation is the feeling of guilt. Newcomb. Why had I not insisted on his coming? Why did I not grab him by the long strands of his savage beard and haul him up the trail, bearing him when necessary like Christopher would across the stream, stumbling from stone to stone, and dump him finally under the bridge, leaving him…
Page 193, “But I am diverted by a faint pathway which looks as if it might lead up out of the canyon, above Rainbow Bridge. Late afternoon, the canyon filling with shadows – I should not try it. I take it anyway, climbing a talus slope.
Page 193, “From up here Rainbow Bridge, a thousand feet below, is only a curving ridge of sandstone of no undue importance, a tiny object lost in the vastness and intricacy of the canyon systems which radiate from the base of Navajo Mountain.
Page 239, “Through twilight and moonlight I climb down to the rope, down to the ledge, down to the canyon floor below Rainbow Bridge. Bats flicker through the air. Fireflies sparkle by the waterseeps and miniature toads with enormous voices clank and grunt and chant at me as I tramp past their ponds down the long trail back to the river, back to the campfire and companionship and a midnight supper.
From Wahweap Marina, near Glen Canyon Dam, to Rainbow Bridge is about sixteen miles, as the crow flies. On the lake, our circuitous canyon route was nearly three times as long. As we drank Cokes from steel cans along the way, the cognoscenti told us that we should punch a hole in the bottom of each can before throwing it in the lake. That way, the cans could sink, rather than bobbing half-full on the surface for years to come. Although a nationwide ethic of recycling was still decades away, I pictured snags of drowned trees far below, each festooned with Coke and beer can ornaments.
From 1965, it would be over a decade before Abbey’s motley cast of fictional characters wreaked havoc with infrastructure and land development throughout San Juan County, Utah. To read about those queasily exciting adventures in incipient eco-activism (some say eco-terrorism), please watch for my upcoming treatise on Edward Abbey's book, The Monkey Wrench Gang. When posted, you will find it HERE.