From Bryce Canyon National Park we made a short hop (150 miles) to Snow Canyon State Park in the southwest corner of Utah. This little state park would be the last red rock country we would see. Nearby were mountain biking trails and the town of St. George for Chris to explore. For me, there were acres of desert and unusual stone formations to wander in.
It was hot again: 100+ degrees at midday. Our campsite was tucked away against a tall petrified dune. Small spaces between the cliff face and the dense scrub oaks created outdoor “rooms” for us to retreat in to. My hammock swayed leisurely between two trunks and birds moved through the trees – scrub jays, warblers, hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail and woodpeckers. Butterflies flitted in the spotty shade. Lizards searched the leaf litter for food.
The multicolored landscape was made of petrified sand dunes, lava flows and cinder cones. Snow Canyon is also home to some seldom seen Southwest species: desert tortoises, gila monsters (with their beautiful beaded backs and poisonous bite), and chuckwallas (a large, stocky iguana–like lizard). Our chances of seeing the lizards were almost nil, but the endangered tortoises were often sighted.
We took the trail in “prime tortoise habitat” and began our search. To our right was a flat desert with shrubs and grasses edged by high red cliffs. To our left was a cement wall and the back yards of new homes in a dense housing development. We could see into living rooms and could hear telephones ringing. No doubt the land the houses stood on had also been prime tortoise habitat. I wondered how many tortoises and other species had lost their homes to make way for more suburbanites.
After hiking for a while without luck, Chris wandered off ahead. He returned and said he’d found “the biggest one of all”. I thought he was joking and that he probably had just found a tortoise-shaped rock. But sure enough, after walking a few yards there stood a tortoise in the middle of the trail. These reptiles resemble their famous cousins – the Galapagos tortoise – but are considerably smaller. Their top shell (carapace) is about 10-15 inches, they weigh between 25-50 pounds and live for 50-80 years.
They are slow moving, with dry wrinkled and scaly skin, a short stumpy tail and long black claws used to dig burrows. The humps and ridges of their reddish carapace echoed the shape and color of the petrified dunes nearby. Their bright eyes had a primeval Jurassic stare. The tortoises watched us closely, not seemingly alarmed, but still wary of our presence. More hiking revealed several more tortoises. They dined on green grasses and produced turtle turds that looked like the damp dark wads of condensed grass that collect on the underside of lawn mowers.
“Silence is my favorite sound.”
Our last full moon of the trip. I remember our first full moon; it fell on the first night of our trip at Mercey Hot Springs in California. I remember that night had a similar quiet, a pervasive, almost palpable, silence. We went for a walk about 9:30 PM. The paved bike path was perfect for hiking in the dark. As it wound through the desert, it was easy to follow without fear of stumbling. I hoped to see a nocturnal animal but none appeared. There was a complete silence except for cricket choruses and an occasional car on a nearby road. A light wind caused a few shrubs to tremble.
One large rock face blocked the moon and we walk a long way in moon shadow. The east facing cliffs glowed brighter and brighter as evening progressed. More details of the landscape were revealed yet everything maintained a mysterious vagueness that suggested hidden things that are eternally secretive and unknowable. Stars sprinkled the sky but the moonlight obliterated most. No Milky Way that night. Chris saw a falling star. He said, “silence is my favorite sound.”