© Copyright 2004 by Jean Sumrall
The day began with one of those glorious desert mornings. Lacey clouds wove a macramé across the stunning turquoise sky. The scent of the crisp air was clean and fresh. Bushes and trees cast long shadows heading north in the early sunlight. It was a morning that made me feel glad to be alive.
Mom sat at the table drinking her coffee, her attention focused on the smooth water of Lake Powell. I snapped her picture as she sat with our tent in the background. I felt glad that Mom was finally getting to do things she always wanted to do. She had her friends and her hobbies. Her health was good and she was still able to take care of herself. Mom was enjoying her later years. I smiled at her and went to the Envoy to put the camera away.
“Shall we heat the sweet rolls?” I asked as I got them from the ice chest.
“That sounds good,” Mom answered.
I tore off a piece of foil and loosely wrapped the sweet rolls in it. I placed them in the frying pan with the lid on, lit the burner on the Coleman stove and turned the heat to low. After adding some more water to the teapot, I joined Mom on the bench.
“It looks like it’s going to be a nice day for the Rainbow Bridge Cruise,” Mom said.
“It sure does,” I replied.
“I’ve been waiting for years to see the Rainbow Bridge,” Mom said.
“Well, now you’ll get to,” I said as the teapot whistled. I got up and poured the steaming water into our mugs. I checked the sweet rolls. They were soft and warm and smelled of cinnamon. I removed them from the frying pan and unwrapped them. Paper towels served as plates this morning.
“Here you go, Mom, nice and warm,” I said putting a sweet roll in front of her.
“Thank you,” Mom answered.
I sat down beside her and tore off a piece of the delectable pastry and put it in my mouth. The sugar glaze dissolved against my tongue and I chewed the soft bread laced with apples.
“These were a good choice,” Mom said.
“Yeah, they’re really good warmed up a bit,” I said. “Almost as good as fresh from the oven.”
“Almost,” Mom echoed.
“So, what are we going to do this morning?” I asked.
“I think we should go see the Visitors Center at the dam,” Mom replied.
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “They probably have some interesting exhibits there. It just amazes me how dams are built. The program I watched on TV about how Hoover Dam was constructed was fantastic. I had no idea all the work that went into it or how the people came looking for jobs there when there were few jobs available at the time. It was a great show.”
“I saw that program also. It was very interesting,” Mom said.
We munched our pastries and drank our tea completely mesmerized by our little part of the world, our view of life tinted with the pastel colors of the desert. Serenity flowed around us like a thick cushion against the cares of the world. We didn’t speak; we were too busy listening to the sounds around us. A group of ravens sat on a nearby tree, croaking and cawing. A dog left in a trailer yipped intermittently. Small birds hopping around on the ground chirped as they searched for food. A gentle breeze sighed past our ears. Occasionally we heard the immense silence. Then something broke the spell and we looked at each other.
“Guess we’d better get cleaned up and get going if we’re going to make our tour later on,” I said as I stood up.
“All right,” Mom replied.
We moved about the table, wiping and replacing items in the camp boxes, which in turn were placed in the Envoy.
“Is that everything?” Mom asked as we looked at our campsite.
“I don’t see anything lying around. We’re ready to go,” I said and walked towards the Envoy.
We got in and I started the Envoy. We nodded to the lady with the small trailer as we drove by. A boy and girl riding their bikes moved over to let us pass. As I turned onto the main road, I marveled at the beauty of the day. Mother Nature was certainly showing off.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Visitor Center at Glen Canyon Dam and parked. As we got out, I noticed security guards standing in front of the building. One of the guards moved in front of us as we walked towards the entrance.
“I’m sorry, ma’am but you can’t take your purses or any bags inside,” he informed us with that voice of authority that makes us all feel like children again.
“Uh, okay. What about car keys, wallet or camera?” I asked.
“Those items are allowed, ma’am,” the guard replied with a face made of stone.
“Why can’t we take our purses inside?” Mom inquired.
“Because of security, ma’am, because of 911,” the guard answered.
“Oh,” we both said.
“I didn’t realize that they’d have guards here,” I said in a hushed voice as we turned around.
“No, me either,” replied Mom.
Back at the Envoy, we took what we needed from our purses and walked back to the entrance. There we joined a line of tourists waiting to go in. As we moved closer to the door, I could see what was slowing us down. Everyone had to walk through a metal detector while their personal items went through an ex-ray machine. I moved aside so Mom could see, too.
“They really take this stuff seriously, don’t they? Mom asked when she saw the equipment.
“It appears that way. When I flew to Costa Rica in February after 911, they checked my luggage at the San Luis Obispo airport. The armed guards made me take off my shoes, which I thought was kind of funny. Then, in LAX, there was another check with the ex-ray machine and metal detector. Just before we boarded, our passports were checked with our driver’s license and tickets. We walked by armed military guards to get on the plane.” I explained.
We went through the security check just fine but the woman behind us was stopped. They went over her with the wand but I don’t know why they checked her or what they found. We had moved across the room to look at a three-dimensional layout of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. We found Rainbow Bridge on the map. It was approximately 50 miles down the lake in a side canyon.
“There it is,” said Mom.
“And that’s where we’ll be later this afternoon,” I responded.
We walked over to the entrance of a horseshoe-shoe shaped hallway that contained large photographs from the dam’s construction. We marveled at the techniques used to make the huge dam. From a bucket that held twenty-four tons of cement to lights so bright construction could continue at night to a diversion tunnel that dwarfed the two men standing at the bottom of it.
We learned that Glen Canyon Dam, at seven hundred and ten feet, is the second highest concrete arch dam in the United States. Hoover Dam, at seven hundred and twenty-six is the highest. The hydroelectric power produced at Glen Canyon goes to cities and towns in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Nevada.
When we were finished with the hallway, we went to the theater and watched a movie that showed how damming the river had affected the ecology of the canyon below the dam including the Grand Canyon. The building of the dam kept the river from flooding each spring. Without this flooding, the river and canyon became over-grown with trees and bushes. River plants increased in the water clogging the channels. Fish and small animals were affected by these changes. A plan was formed to open the dam and flood the canyon. The results were not what the scientists had expected and the canyon has not been purposely flooded since.
After the movie, we went outside to the overlook. We could see the front of the dam as well as the bridge in front of it. I took several pictures. We gazed at the scenery for a while and then turned to go back inside the way we had come out. We couldn’t get back in! We had to walk all the way around to the front entrance and go through the security check again.
“Well, if we’d known that we couldn’t get back inside, we could have gone to the gift shop first,” Mom said as we walked.
“Yep,” I replied.
We got in line and waited for our turn. We were ready when we reached the security checkpoint; personal stuff on the conveyor belt, walk through the door-less frame of the metal detector and retrieve our items on the other side. In the gift shop, we wandered along the book isles, picking up an interesting title here and there, meandered through the children’s row, my attraction for soft fuzzy things causing me to fondle a stuffed animal or two and listened to music that was for sale on cassette and CD. I selected a CD by a Native American woman and some post cards. Mom didn’t see anything that she wanted.
We went back to the Envoy and drove to camp to pick up a few things we wanted to take on the boat cruise. I emptied out my backpack and put in some flax seed cookies, bottles of fruit juice and our cameras. I decided that I would take just my camera and leave the case in the Envoy. I had a new roll of film in it. I figured that would be enough.
We arrived at the check-in desk at the Wahweep Lodge at eleven-thirty. We were given green boarding passes and told to wait outside at the head of the path that led down to the tour marina. We joined the small group of people waiting for the tour to begin. We noticed that some people were holding blue boarding passes.
“What do you think the different colors are for?” Mom asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe all the green ticket people got the cheaper price as we did,” I suggested.
“That might be,” Mom replied.
Being the people-watcher that I am, I surveyed the group. Next to us was a young Hispanic couple with two small children who were excited yet well behaved. Two Asian women with backpacks spoke to each other in quiet tones, smiles lighting up their pale faces. Tanned Americans stood around drinking bottled water, cameras hanging from straps around their necks. Children unheeded by their parents played games, laughing and dashing through the increasing crowd.
Mom and I stood near the gated entrance to the trail. We watched and waited with the rest of the tour-goers. Finally, at about twelve-twenty, we were allowed to walk the long way down to the marina and board our boat.
“I’ll be the walk isn’t as long when the lake is higher,” I said as we walked down the blacktop path.
“You’re funny,” Mom said with mock seriousness. “We have to walk back up this after the tour this evening.”
“Maybe it will work out the kinks from sitting on the boat a half a day,” I said hopefully.
We reached the end of the path and stepped up onto the floating dock. The people with the blue passes were directed to get on the first boat. We followed the rest of the green pass people to the second boat moored a little further down the dock.
“Let’s sit on the top so we can see more,” I said as we stepped aboard the boat.
“All right,” Mom said.
I climbed the stairs with Mom following behind me. We selected a seat near the back of the deck.
“Oh, this is perfect,” I exclaimed, giving in to the excitement at last. I tucked my backpack under my seat.
“Yes, we should be able to see everything from here,” Mom said with a happy expression on her face.
As soon as everyone had boarded, the captain made some announcements over the P.A. system. The speaker nearest to us didn’t work quite right; the sound was so filled with static we only heard parts of what the captain said. Our boat was named the Nonne Zoshi, Paiute for ‘rainbow turned to stone’. Between that static we also learned that coffee and lemonade was available in the cabin, that the boat was fifty-seven feet long and had once pulled eighty-eight water skiers at the same time (a world record).
The captain started the boat engine and we slowly moved away from the dock following in the wake of the blue pass boat. I was so thrilled with finally being on Lake Powell and on the tour with Mom that I just smiled a great big smile. Mom sat beside me taking everything in, looking right and left at the scenery, her expression seeming to say, “I’m here, I’m actually here.”
I got my camera out of the backpack. “Do you want your camera, Mom? I asked.
I handed Mom her camera and looped the strap of mine around my wrist. I didn’t want to lose it.
Our boat traveled down the lake. We were still following the first boat, which was a ways ahead of us now. Castle Rock stood tall and majestic on our left. We passed through a narrow channel of water and the captain told us that by the end of the month, Rainbow Bridge boat tours would stop for the season because the water would be too shallow in the channel for the big boats.
As we traveled down the lake, we passed an assortment of houseboats, small economical one and large, floating apartments well appointed with all the necessities of civilization. Each time we passed one, the captain slowed the boat until there was no wake to rock the houseboat. In spite of these reductions in speed, we seemed to make good time down the lake.
I was caught between wanting to take pictures and trying to see everything. I took a picture of a rental houseboat so my husband could see what they looked like. I snapped a shot of Tower Butte rising to 5,282 feet in the south. I stared at the incredibly blue water. Another scene with a chalky white shore rising up to cliffs of beige and rust called for a picture. A huge rock formation that reminded me of a sphinx rising above the shoreline had to be captured on film also. I took Mom’s picture as she sat on the seat wearing a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed her happy face. She took a picture of me leaning against the railing surrounding the deck.
I was so happy taking all these pictures. They were to be my record of what Lake Powell looked like as we traveled down it. I had taken about ten pictures when I saw a formation that was slightly blocked by the heads of passengers who were standing along the railing. I needed to be taller, I thought as I stood there.
When I stepped up on our seat, Mom gave me a funny look. I steadied myself and snapped the shot I wanted. As I stepped triumphantly down off the seat, the boat rocked and threw me off balance. I was falling! I grabbed for the railing and as I did, I dropped my camera. It swung away from my wrist, dangling on its strap before hitting a post. I thought I saw something fall and roll off the deck as I clung to the railing trying to regain my balance.
“Are you all right?” Mom asked, coming over to me with a concerned look on her face.
“I think so,” I said, rubbing my arm that had hit the handrail.
“I think I saw something fall out of your camera after it hit the post,” Mom said.
I picked up my camera and looked at it. The door to the battery compartment was open and the battery was gone.
“I guess that’s what fell out of the camera, the battery,” I said, showing Mom the camera. I wasn’t worried. I had another battery right in the camera case. I reached for my backpack.
“Damn!” I said under my breath.
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked.
“I don’t have the other battery with me. I left the camera case in the Envoy,” I said, seeing my vision of many wonderful pictures lost in the lake. “That means that I can’t take any more pictures. I won’t get any pictures of Rainbow Bridge!” I complained. I was completely disgusted with myself by now. Depression washed over me like cold lake water.
“I’ll take lots of pictures of Rainbow Bridge,” Mom assured me trying to make me feel better.
“I know. But this is one of the high points of our trip, though. Rainbow Bridge. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back here again. I was really looking forward to having pictures of it,” I whined. I felt as if the cruise was ruined for me.
I slumped in my seat, glaring at the passing landscape, mentally beating myself up for losing the darned battery. But as the passing cliffs and colors called to me for remembrance, I realized that while I couldn’t take any more pictures, I could write down in the camera notebook what I saw. I got a pen and the notebook and wrote furiously as we motored down the lake.
Around every corner a different view…sheer walls, mesas, promontories reaching toward the heavens…I understand why the Navahos considered this land sacred. Red, rust, cream, tan, azure lake, turquoise sky, green vegetation, yellow flowers, cliff layers of cream and red sandstone…arches being formed as gravity and erosion pull down the crumbling rocks.
Water worn, smooth and glossy, rough tumbled piles of loosened, fallen rock…pock-marked sandstone slopes ending in cliffs down to the water.
Sandy beaches…no birds in sight…high water mark…small hoodoos perched atop plump spires.
The landscape looks different from what I imagined it would look like. In person, its effect is more intense, more blue, more red and tan. I’m totally enchanted.
Silent, forever old…layers of Mother Earth’s skin and bones…hardened in slow timelessness…a human life in the blink of an eye…eternity measured in decaying rock.
Sloughing off layers with the rising and setting of the sun, standing stones huddle against the rising walls like people seeking comfort…tracks of mineral tears weeping down the sides of smooth cliffs…white sandstone and sand dunes on the shore.
Faces peer from some rocks, the guardians of the canyon…water-worn holes high on the escarpment left from a higher water time as the Colorado River ate its way through. The shape of a cross high on a cliff face…landfalls of softer, unbound rocks piling up at the bottoms of mesas.
Wrinkles of Mother Earth’s skin, we are floating on her lifeblood.
New arches form as the softer rocks fall…wind eroded hoodoos…sandstone rubbed smooth by wave and wind…water tears weeping from the cliffs…caves like empty eye sockets…camel-humped hill covered with loose rock…sapphire blue water, white high water mark.
The contrasts of this land stand out; there is nothing subtle here.
Nonne Zoshi, Nonne Zoshi, rainbow turned to stone.
Sacred canyon of Ancient Spirits, silent, safe in the Power.
“I’m really enjoying this,” Mom said, pulling me back from my observations. “I’ve always wanted to come here and now I’m here.”
“All the pictures I’ve seen haven’t ever portrayed the spirit of this area. I guess it can’t be conveyed in a photograph; you have to see it in person to feel it,” I said.
“I think you’re right. This land holds a lot of energy,” Mom replied.
Just then, the captain informed us that we would be turning into Forbidding Canyon and from there into Rainbow Bridge Canyon. The high sandstone walls towered over us as we followed the first boat down the center of the narrow channel. Many of the walls were decorated with desert varnish caused by mineral rich water seeping through the sandstone.
“Isn’t this great?” I asked Mom as we both craned out necks to see higher up on the cliffs.
“Oh, yes,” Mom exclaimed. “It’s just spectacular.”
We watched as the first boat carefully entered a narrow slot on the left. Our boat slowed to give the first boat time to get through the passage into Rainbow Canyon.
“We must be getting close,” I said.
“I hope so,” Mom replied.
Out boat moved towards the narrow channel. The captain maneuvered the boat into position and then motored the craft into the channel. The steep walls closed in around us as we passed and at the narrowest spot, were about two feet from the hull. A little less water and these tour boats wouldn’t be able to pass through. After the narrow slot, the canyon widened out a bit.
We moved down the winding canyon to the floating dock. The captain told us that we would have about forty-five minutes to walk to Rainbow Bridge, take pictures and get back to the boat.
“That doesn’t sound like much time,” Mom said.
“No, it doesn’t. I guess we’ll have to hurry,” I said.
When the boat was securely moored to the dock, we went carefully down the stairs to the main deck. We waited our turn as everyone stepped carefully onto the dock. We followed the other passengers down the dock to the three-quarter mile long path that would lead us to Rainbow Bridge. We all seemed to be in a hurry because of the time restriction. I wondered how long the floating dock had been there. All the pictures I had seen of Rainbow Bridge showed the lake right underneath it. The drought in Colorado and lack of winter snow-pack must be keeping the level of the lake down.
The exodus of tourists all wanting to get to Rainbow Bridge propelled us down the dock to the beginning of the trail that wound along the cliff side. The path was worn smooth by the passage of many sightseers. As Mom and I walked down it, people with swifter feet than ours passed us by. The contours of the canyon hid Rainbow Bridge from our sight.
We rounded the last point and there it was. We stopped in our tracks, awestruck. People piled up behind us so we walked a little further to a wider place in the trail and moved aside.
“Oh, it’s so magnificent!” I exclaimed.
“It’s much more impressive in person,” Mom said.
The top of the arch at 290 feet is almost the height of the Statue of Liberty. The span stretches 275 feet across the river; the top of the arch is 42 feet thick and 33 feet wide. The enormity of its size dwarfed the people standing under it.
This wonder of nature was formed by water flowing off nearby Navaho Mountain on its way to the Colorado River. Over long eons of time, the stream ate a channel through the soft sandstone creating a bridge. Eventually the same forces of nature that created the bridge will also destroy it.
“No wonder the Indians consider this sacred ground. It’s
so amazing!” I said as I silently wished
that I could take many pictures of the great span.
“Here,” Mom said, reading my mind as she handed me her camera. “Take my picture.”
“Gladly,” I said. I looked through the camera. “Move over to your right just a bit. There, that’s it.” I took her picture and handed the camera back to her so she could take my picture also.
“Is this all right?” I asked as I posed.
“That’s perfect,” Mom answered.
We moved aside so other people could have a clear shot of the bridge. We read the National Park information boards about how President William Howard Taft created the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in 1910 to preserve the site. Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Gray were among some of the early travelers who made the long trek from Oljeto or Navaho Mountain to the foot of the Rainbow.
“Well, that’s interesting,” Mom commented as we read.
“Yes it is. The Navaho consider the bridge so sacred that they never walk underneath it, they always go around.” I said
“I don’t think that I would want to walk under it either,” Mom said as she looked at the massive stone structure.
As I looked at the natural bridge, it seemed to be guarded by the spirits of the canyon it arched across. To walk under it would offend them I felt. I turned to Mom.
“Shall we start back?” I asked.
“I guess we’d better. We don’t want to be left behind,” she answered.
We walked down the path together towards our waiting boat. I thought about its name, the Nonne Zoshi, rainbow turned to stone. I turned to look one last time at the bridge. I decided that I had seen a rainbow turned to stone.
The air was cooling off in the late afternoon shadows of the canyon. The colors had deepened and the water mirrored the sheer cliffs. I shivered and put on my sweatshirt.
“Did you get cold?” Mom asked.
“Kind of. The energy changed, protective, warning,” I explained.
“I felt it, too. This place is watched over by an ancient energy,” Mom said as we reached the metal dock. “I don’t know what power it has but it’s there.”
We walked down the dock with the other tourists. People spoke quietly, reverently, as if they had witnessed a miracle. Even the children were subdued. We decided to sit on top again, willing to bear the cold air. We wanted to see as much as we could of the lands that held the lake water.
When everyone had boarded, the first ship moved away from the dock. Out boat followed at a distance, gliding through the smooth water. We watched the cliffs pass by, a different view than we’d seen coming in.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone wandering around in this bleak land,” I said.
“I don’t know how the prospectors survived in the desert. A burro will only carry so much weight on its back. Water holes would be hard to find in the maze these canyons create,” Mom said as she looked down a small side canyon.
“They were a different breed of men, that’s for sure. I suppose that the lure of finding a big strike kept them going. Gold has a special magnetism to it. I remember when we used to pan and sluice for gold. Just finding small flakes were enough to keep me going when I was young,” I said.
Our boat glided out of Forbidding Canyon and back into the choppy water of the main channel. I looked at the buoy marker as we passed, number forty-nine. I made a mental note to remember it just in case we ever came back and rented a houseboat. Forty-nine marked the way to Rainbow Bridge.
It was about 4:00 pm. In the late afternoon light, the colors of the hills changed with shadows stretching across them. Clouds moving in overhead added to the effects.
It was cold sitting on the top deck but we weren’t alone. Other passengers braved the brisk wind as we sped down the lake in pursuit of the first boat. Mom and I huddled together for what warmth we could find. We were determined to experience the sight of the lake as the sun slowly set.
As we neared the marina, we were treated with a spectacular light show in the western sky. Pink, orange, purple, blue, the sky was constantly changing as the solar light sank behind the hills.
“Isn’t the sunset beautiful?” Mom asked.
“Yes, I’m enjoying it so much,” I answered, my eyes on the sky. “I haven’t seen one so gorgeous in a long time.
“Just for us,” Mom said.
“Just for us,” I echoed.
The Nonne Zoshi reached the dock and the crew bound her tightly to the pilings. Everyone in the main cabin rushed to get off so we patiently waited our turn. We followed the crowd along the swaying dock and began the long walk up the hill to the lodge. There was just enough light to see the path.
“I didn’t think it would be so dark when we got back,” Mom said.
“Neither did I,” I replied. “I guess we’ll be cooking by lantern light tonight.”
“Shall we have some soup? That will be easy to prepare,” Mom suggested.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. We were almost to the top of the steep incline and I inhaled deeply, trying to get more oxygen into my lungs.
“It’s awful being out of shape,” Mom said as she breathed heavily also. “I hope the higher altitudes don’t affect me too much later in our trip.”
“We’ll just be careful and take it easy,” I promised.
We had reached the doors leading into the lodge. Following the crowd, we moved through the lobby and out the front entrance. I could see the Envoy parked under a light in the parking lot. As I slipped into the driver’s seat, I knew that we would be going to bed early this night. It had been a full and eventful day and one we would never forget.
Jean Sumrall lives in San Luis Obispo, California.
“I’ve always been a writer. I’m just taking it seriously now and pursuing
it as a career,” Jean says. Rainbow Bridge describes one day out
of a three-week vacation she took with her mother across the western United
States. The story of the road trip is in the process of becoming
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