Etching a Wildflower Sketch

The transformative first night’s sleep of a camping trip feels like having turned over my adventure Etch A Sketch, shaken it and then woken in the morning with a clear screen on which to create a new drawing. Shortly after the sun has risen over the red rocks, I walk the quick mile up Red Canyon’s Buckhorn Trail to the overlook to get my bearings.  I’ve come to the southern Utah plateaus, the long-run steps that define the Grand Staircase, to witness the high elevation flora before summer segues into fall. To the west lies the valley in between the Pausaugant and Markagunt Plateaus, but my day takes me east and south to the Red Canyon Botanical Area for my first hunt for the wild flower.


Hiking alone where there are no trails means that I must carry not only the practical accoutrement for a day’s wandering, but also contingency equipment for the every kind of god forbid emergency. With my cornucopian pack clipped and cinched and my creel-sized camera bag slipped over both shoulders so that it’s resting above my hip belt, all I’m missing is a half-moon tambourine duct taped to my boot and cymbals strapped to my knees to complete the one-man band look.


I’m not a botanist. My interest in flowers grows out of aesthetic appreciation, though I do take time to memorize the names of plants because knowing the word helps me conjure a future mental picture. The plants in this landscape are new to me and, the literature says, seven species here are together “found nowhere else on Earth.” A word I learn from the brochure is that these plants are edaphic which means that their growth is influenced less by climate, more by soil, a soil that is fragile and must be considered when searching for flowering species. The hilltop ground here gently gives. I sink softly with each step.  The land rollercoasters up and down north to south, gray, loose-soiled hills riding over the curves of the crests and becoming ochre-colored rocky, spilling-down hillsides. The light, reddish-brown gravel, porous and crumbly, looks like broken-up, dried biscotti.


My eye quickly adapts to the new pattern and I start seeing minute dots of Crayola color. The Lilliputian size of the plants and their even smaller flowers at first seem underwhelming in that “This is it?” kind of way, but when I get down to the level of, say, the Widtsoe buckwheat I’m immediately captivated by the miniature scale of complexity. I notice when I spy one flower that if I scan the area I will then see many of the same clustered together, a natural phenomenon that makes me think of the equally as natural sociological divisions of ethnic urban neighborhoods. And these plants have adapted to endure in a severe, exclusive environment, the conditions of which read like a how-to-kill-a-plant list to include winter freeze-thaw cycles, rapid rates of erosion, fluctuating water availability and high solar radiation and surface reflection. With respect to their efforts, I feel honored to notice and celebrate these survivor species, however the specifics of where these plants like to grow in already humanly inhospitable environs prompts me to generate new common species names. The pink one is Sliding Down Talus; the white one Stick-in-the-Thigh and, from having to steady myself close to the ground for a photo, the periwinkle blue beauty is Gravel Elbow.


Seeking next a higher altitude plant environment, I drive to the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area, a subset of the Dixie National Forest. My plan the following day is to hike in the southwest wilds where there are springs and creeks that support a different kind of flora.

A spectacular softly waving field of dense grasses marks the trail head, but as soon as the Crystal Springs Trail offshoots from the straightaway my idea of a creekside wildflower excursion is arrested by arboreal chaos. Multiple downed trees, the pines with broken lance-like limbs, lay toppled in layers crisscrossing the path. Where previous people have made headway through the broken branches and matted undergrowth I track a route which I follow hoping the trail is more manageable farther in.

Negotiating this Herculean obstacle course is challenging at best, foolish at worst and, after a 30-minute, not even a quarter mile, I deem this endeavor the latter. I earned my proof-of-summer scratches and have so much pine pitch around the pockets of my shorts that when I free the fabric from my skin it feels like peeling off bandage adhesive. I return to the split and take the alternate trail which also follows a creek but again, though not nearly as unrelenting, the dead and down mean I’m either practicing my hurdling or crouching skills. By now it’s afternoon and I decide to change course altogether.


Cedar Breaks National Monument tops out around 10,500 feet and typically the majority of wildflower blooms peak mid-July. The park has relatively recently started hosting a wildflower event, this summer being the sixth annual and officially ending July 24th. The flowers, however, follow their own seasonal calendar and this past winter’s heavy snowfall resulted in later blooms. At the Visitor Center a ranger extols the glory of the floral bounty at the park’s Alpine Loop, a highly-trafficked trail that I had thought to eschew on account of my preference for solitude, but the last car is leaving the parking area as I arrive and the changing quality of light is becoming more highlight than beacon.


Here atop the deep and majestic amphitheater is nature’s blowout party. The abundance of rainbow confetti blooms has prolonged the unofficial festival and walking through them is like jostling through a carnival crowd. The lower trail descends through thickets of creamy, pastel, muted and bold tones. Some pale blue flowers demurely bow to their dance partners, clusters of lavender ladies in showy cotillion dresses. The trail’s highlight destination is a shallow pond, the tip of which is bejeweled in petals of gold. From here the trail winds back to the upper loop, the end opening up to a storybook field of little sunflowers all stretching west to capture the last of the day’s light. I can feel the symbiotic nature of my relationship with flowers in that my spirit feeds off their multi-hued fare.  I am uplifted, happy, content.


For my first hike on my last day I drive through backwoods to arrive at the Twisted Forest trail just south and west of Brian Head. When I park I’m next to clearings with lavish concentrations of yarrow and Sego lily but, as if I’ve stepped through the Narnian wardrobe, the landscape just yards into the hike dramatically changes from sub-alpine quakies, fir and spruce to the barrenness of the canyon rim. The plants are similar to Red Canyon’s though in this locale there’s the aesthetic bonus combination of flowers growing next to whorled bristlecone wood, the pine tree that famously grows where there’s no competition like here in this cliff-edge wilderness. The trail’s end is an “X” scratched into the limestone precipice so I explore the rim and, seeing damp sand in a wash, descend to see what life may be growing where there’s water in this depleted soil. The seeping pool becomes a trickle which develops into a rill as the water emerges and is carried down the gully. A light wind moves in metronomic time the Death Camas flower heads on long, straight stalks. One waving Revel Indian Paintbrush calls, “Hey! Over here!”


Just as quickly and magically, the twisted trail’s return ends in a burst of 9,000-foot showiness. Flower-filled meadows are romantic as long as you can make peace with the deer flies and I wile away an hour amidst the Dionysian revelry of summer’s botanic opulence.


Meadows also are the theme at the beginning of the 30-plus mile Virgin River Rim Trail located outside of the Ashdown Gorge area, but still in the Dixie. The trail is narrow and hard-packed, good for head-on-a-swivel hiking and in the first miles amid hollows of sentinel aspen, I can see that a near monocrop of bluebells have tolled their final ring of the season. The last of the larkspur gather in sun pockets, but the stalwart yarrow carry on. Yarrow could not have been poet Robert Herrick’s wooing flower of choice as its long-haul bloom would not have had the same persuasive power as his gathered rosebud. Most of the wildflowers here are past their heyday and the pushing aside of a long stalk bending diagonally across the trail makes me think of a turnstile passing from sub-alpine summer into fall.


When I look at my final Etch A Sketch drawing after turning the knobs south, west, north and east I first see only random squiggles and then I make out in the tangle of lines a penstemon, some fleabane, and a columbine.

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