The Colorado Plateau. 130,000 square miles (337,000 square kilometers) of high desert and scattered forests in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Home to 10 National Parks, including the Grand Canyon, and 17 National Monuments. Its features include the Colorado and other rivers, towering cliffs and deep canyons, arches, domes, fins, goblins, hoodoos, natural bridges, reefs, river rapids, and slot canyons.
The visible structures formed over hundreds of millions years. Inland seas periodically inundated the region, leaving thick layers of sediment and minerals when they retreated. After the last sea withdrew 300 million years ago, periodic accumulations of fresh water continued to put down layers. Sixty to 70 million years ago came the great uplift, pushing the entire region up thousands of feet as a single piece—a key to its unique character—as the Rocky Mountains rose to the east. Then followed tens of millions of years of erosion, especially rapid when ice ages brought precipitation. The layers of sandstone, shale, limestone, and gypsum, tinted red by iron, purple from magnesium, or streaked blue with copper, including layers of fossils, entire petrified forests, and remarkably thick layers of salt and potassium laid down by evaporating seas, eroded at different rates, creating the spectacular formations listed above.
For four days this summer, 10 children, 20 adults, and five guides rafted down and camped along the Colorado River in Utah. Recent rain had turned the warm water brown with a fine silt that penetrated deep into our hair and clothes.
A few dozen strenuous rapids lasted a few minutes apiece. The rest of the time we drifted or paddled through spectacular Canyonlands National Park, spotting the occasional mountain sheep, eagle, and heron. The guides challenged us to spot centuries-old Anasazi granaries on the cliffs. Late afternoons we found a beach and assembled tents and cots, ate (it must be reported that the Western River Expeditions guides did the cooking, and it was exceptional), washed up, hiked, and played games.
The electronic ashram
In 1998, Tina Kelley wrote an article for the New York Times, “Only Disconnect (For a While, Anyway).” It featured Colby professor Batya Friedman, who spent summers off the Internet, using a telephone twice a month when in town to shop. I was interviewed:
Jonathan Grudin, a professor of information and computer science at the University of California at Irvine who has worked with Professor Friedman, reminisces about a time when he was completely removed from modern communication, including telephones, during a trip to Africa in 1989. He had hoped to feel that free again on a recent trip to Madagascar, but discovered that he was too late.
''There's no place you can go on the planet now where you couldn't be in contact if you had a device worth a couple hundred dollars, so the days you could spend with a completely clear conscience and get out of contact with people, those days are pretty much gone,'' he said. ''There should be socially sanctioned electronic ashrams, where you could check in for a few days.''
In 1998 I missed the experience of disappearing into Burundi only nine years earlier. Now, 15 years after that, I didn’t miss it because I had forgotten what it was like. Batya, now at the University of Washington, emails me across Lake Washington that she still manages periods of isolation, which today require more careful preparation. In contrast, I was tethered to email and news—until Canyonlands.
You may be less steadily connected, but for me, the trip was a reminder of what life was once like. We had to talk with the people around us or not talk at all. We described our jobs, careers, and lives. On the raft, free of a need or ability to focus on current concerns, many took the opportunity to reflect.
A shifting sense of time
We had previously visited other national parks in Utah: exquisite Bryce Canyon; imposing Zion; driving through Capitol Reef on wonderful state highways to reach Moab, home of the Arches. Visitor center videos, posted park signs, and guidebooks provided a stream of overlapping explanations of the geology of the region, reinforced by the guides on the rafts.
My sense of time changed unexpectedly through repeated exposure to the historical accounts interleaved with hours of gazing at the uplifted horizontal sedimentary layers above the canyon as we floated down the Colorado, with massive piles of eroded boulders or sheer smooth rock faces shooting up hundreds of feet at the water’s edge. I found myself immersed in the epochs, thinking of the world in terms of tens of millions of years, not the usual weeks, months, or even decades.
Studying large petrographs and petroglyphs, painted and carved 1000 years ago on a vertical face at the base of a towering cliff, I suddenly realized that in the midst of this geological violence, these paleolithic creations are not yet eroded at all—1,000 years is like yesterday in the life of the rock formations. A different perspective formed on humanity and the challenges we encounter and create.
One afternoon, as we floated downstream in the shadow of endless expanses of striated cliffs, I mused to two of our companions, “What do you suppose people rafting in this area 10 million years from now will see?” They considered this silently for a few seconds. Based on their replies, I figured we would exchange email addresses and stay in touch after the expedition, and so we have. To a social network that felt pretty much maxed out, I have added PJ and Carrie, and Mike. That alone was worth the journey.
The kids on the trip bonded and formed a plan: When back, everyone who was staying on in Moab convened at 8:30 p.m. in a city center t-shirt shop. Three times in the next hour, a different adult excused himself from a conversation to take a phone call. “You need the report when?”
The 100-million-year timeline faded. My next week’s calendar came into focus. We were home.
Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Natural Interaction Group at Microsoft Research. Gayna Williams researched and planned the expedition, and has attempted to provide electronic ashram experiences previously that he managed to circumvent... Eleanor and Isobel, who do at times see their father detached from a computer, paddled, swam, hiked, and competed enthusiastically at kubb on the beach.