Desert Passages in Page, AZ

Page, Arizona, is a creation of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell that dates to the late 1950s. It started as a village for work crews building the dam. Then the town grew is as the dam and lake attracted tourists. The town is no historic beauty, but very functional. It will flourish as long as the dam requires maintenance and the lake attracts tourists. Given the water levels in the lake, after more than a decade of drought, and given the likelihood of climate change exacerbating drought in the region, Page’s future seems uncertain.

Whatever the past of the region–long home to indigenous peoples, notably Navajo–and whatever its future, the landscape is a stunning product of evolution and human intervention. My wife and I spend several days there in mid-March, before driving south to see the Grand Canyon (see my previous post for images).

This first image reflects the mix of geological evolution and human construction that have shaped Page and the surrounding area. The water is a small part of Lake Powell; the marina is in the Glen Canyon National Recreation area, near the resort hotel that we stayed at while in Page.

Other images the southern end of Lake Powell, near Page, show off the landscape with the human intervention hidden. The centerpiece of the image below is Navajo Mountain (Naatsisʼáán, or “Head of the Earth”). Page is not in the Navajo Nation territory, but close by, on its immediate east and south. It was interesting to see a more significant number of people wearing masks in Page and the surrounding area, to protect from COVID-19, than in other parts of region we traveled–from Las Vegas, along the Utah-Arizona border, to Page. The Navajo Nation was hit hard by COVID-19 early on, but then responded decisively.

I’m drawn to images of “nature” that reveal human impact. So here are two more. In the first one, taken at dawn, you can see the lights in Page on the upper right. In the second one, at twilight, you can see the pastel colors of the landscape.

The next image is about 40 miles south of Page. It shows the Colorado River running through Marble Canyon. I took it from the Historic Navajo Bridge, built in the late 1920s. It is now a pedestrian bridge with an interpretive center; in the 1990s the federal government built a new automobile bridge to handle the growing tourist traffic. This image looks more “natural,” but remember that the water is now the product of dams, regulated, running colder and clearer and more predictably than the river made by geological evolution.

Nearby is Lees Ferry, named after John D. Lee, a Mormon who built it to serve Mormons traveling to southern Arizona. The site of the ferry, where the Paria and Colorado rivers meet today is a common place to rafting outfits to start tourists on a run down the river. I wonder what Lee would think of that. Lee is best known for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre and being executed 20 years later, a bitter man who felt sacrificed by Brigham Young and the Mormon leadership.

To get to the Bridge and Lees Ferry, you drive south from Page, into the mountains, high enough to get scrub brush and small trees, and then down into a long, desert valley. There are scattered homes, businesses, and small settlements, including churches, as the next image reveals. As you get closer to the bridge, you see more and more stands, where traditional Navajo is sold to tourists. All were closed when we drove through; it was a little hard to tell which perhaps had been abandoned and which would open again later this year once tourist season started in earnest.

You can see examples of settlements in the first image, with a church, and a panorama of a large part of the valley in the second. In the second image, the panorama, you can see the church in lower part of the image, towards the left. [Click on images to see larger versions.] The panorama is so wide and thin that there’s not much “upper” and “lower.” But in the upper part of the image, you can glimpse the canyon cut through the landscape by the river.

The “Desert Passages” title of my post is taken from Patricia Limerick’s classic book, which examines the evolution American attitudes toward the desert in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Here in Michigan I need to once again say “stay warm.” It’s a cold late March Sunday. Also stay safe. COVID-19 is waning at the moment, but I don’t think we’re quite done with it in the US. So enjoy the respite, but be wary, and hope that any new wave here is not as bad as the one currently running through Europe.

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