THE American desert, to eyes attuned, is charged with beauty. Few who see it from the car-window find it attractive; most travellers quickly lose interest in its repetitions and turn back to their novels. A little intimacy changes this attitude. Live a little with the desert. See it in its varied moodsfor every hour it changes; see it at sunrise, at midday, at sun-set, in the ghostly night, by moonlight. Observe its lifefor it is full of life; its Amazing vegetation; its varied outline. Drink in its atmosphere, its history, its tradition, its romance. Open your soul to its persuading spirit. Then, insensibly but swiftly, its flavor will enthrall your senses; it will possess you. And once possessed, you are charmed for life. It will call you again and again, as the sea calls the sailor and the East its devotees.
This alluring region is represented in our national parks system by reservations which display its range. The Zion National Monument, the Grand Canyon, and the Mesa Verde illustrate widely differing phases. The historical monuments convey a sense of its romance. There remain a few to complete the gamut of its charms.
Imagine a gray Navajo desert dotted with purple sage; huge mesas, deep red, squared against the gray-blue atmosphere of the horizon; pinnacles, spires, shapes like monstrous bloody fangs, springing from the sands; a floor as rough as stormy seas, heaped with tumbled rocks, red, yellow, blue, green, grayish-white, between which rise strange yellowish-green thorny growths, cactus-like and unfamiliar; a pathless waste, strewn with obsidian fragments, glaring in the noon sun, more confusing than the crooked mazes of an ancient Oriental city.
Imagine shapeless masses of colored sandstone, unclimbable, barring the way; acres of polished mottled rock tilted at angles which defy crossing; unexpected canyons whose deep, broken, red and yellow precipices force long detours.
And everywhere color, color, color. It pervades the glowing floor, the uprising edifices. The very air palpitates with color, insistent, irresistible, indefinable.
This is the setting of the Rainbow Bridge.
Scarcely more than a hundred persons besides Indians, they tell me, have seen this most entrancing spectacle, perhaps, of all America. The way in is long and difficult. There are only two or three who know it, even of those who have been there more than once, and the region has no inhabitants to point directions among the confusing rocks. There is no water, nor any friendly tree.
The day’s ride is wearying in the extreme in spite of its fascinations. The objective is Navajo Mountain, which, strange spectacle in this desert waste, is forested to its summit with yellow pine above a surrounding belt of juniper and pinyon, with aspen and willows, wild roses, Indian paint-brush, primrose, and clematis in its lower valleys. Below, the multicolored desert, deep cut with the canyons which carry off the many little rivers.
Down one of these wild and highly colored desert canyons among whose vivid tumbled rocks your horses pick their course with difficulty, you suddenly see a rainbow caught among the vivid bald rocks, a slender arch so deliciously proportioned, so gracefully curved among its sharp surroundings, that your eye fixes it steadfastly and your heart bounds with relief; until now you had not noticed the oppression of this angled, spine-carpeted landscape.
From now an nothing else possesses you. The eccentricity of the going constantly hides it, and each reappearance brings again the joy of discovery. And at last you reach it, dismount beside the small clear stream which flows beneath it, approach reverently, overwhelmed with a strange mingling of awe and great elation. You stand beneath its enormous en-circling red and yellow arch and perceive that it is the support which holds up the sky. It is long before turbulent emotion permits the mind to analyze the elements which compose its extraordinary beauty.
Dimensions mean little before spectacles like this.
To know that the span is two hundred and seventy-eight feet may help realization at home, where it may be laid out, staked and looked at; it exceeds a block of Fifth Avenue in New York. To know that the apex of the rainbow’s curve is three hundred and nine feet above your wondering eyes means nothing to you there; but to those who know New York City it means the height of the Flatiron Building built three stories higher. Choose a building of equal height in your own city, stand beside it and look up. Then imagine it a gigantic monolithic arch of entrancing proportions and fascinating curve, glowing in reds and yellows which merge into each other insensibly and without form or pattern. Imagine this fairy unreality outlined, not against the murk which overlies cities, but against a sky of desert clarity and color.
All natural bridges are created wholly by erosion. This was carved from an outstanding spur of Navajo sandstone which lay crosswise of the canyon. Originally the stream struck full against this barrier, swung sideways, and found its way around the spur’s free outer edge. The end was merely a matter of time. Gradually but surely the stream, sandladen in times of flood, wore an ever-deepening hollow in the barrier. Finally it wore it through and passed under what then became a bridge. But meantime other agencies were at work. The rocky wall above, alternately hot and cold, as happens in high arid lands, detached curved, flattened plates. Worn below by the stream, thinned above by the destructive processes of wind and temperature, the window enlarged. In time the Rainbow Bridge evolved in all its glorious beauty. Not far away is another natural bridge well advanced in the making.
The Rainbow Bridge was discovered in 1909 by William Boone Douglass, Examiner of Surveys in the General Land Office, Santa Fe. Following is an abstract of the government report covering the discovery:
“The information had come to Mr. Douglass from a Paiute Indian, Mike’s Boy, who later took the name of Jim, employed as flagman in the survey of the three great natural bridges of White Canyon. Seeing the white man’s appreciation of this form of wind and water erosion, Jim told of a greater bridge known only to himself and one other Indian, located on the north side of the Navajo Mountain, in the Paiute Indian reservation. Bending a twig of willow in rainbow-shape, with its ends stuck in the ground, Jim showed what his bridge looked like.
“An effort was made to reach the bridge in December. Unfortunately Jim could not be located. On reaching the Navajo trading-post, Oljato, nothing was known of such a bridge, and the truth of Jim’s statement was questioned.
“The trip was abandoned until August of the following year, when Mr. Douglass organized a second party at Bluff, Utah, and under Jim’s guidance, left for the bridge. At Oljato the party was augmented by Professor Cummings, and a party of college students, with John Wetherill as packer, who were excavating ruins in the Navajo Indian Reservation. As the uninhabited and unknown country of the bridge was reached, travel became almost impossible. All equipment, save what was absolutely indispensable, was discarded. The whole country was a maze of box canyons, as though some turbulent sea had suddenly solidified in rock. Only at a few favored points could the canyon walls be scaled even by man, and still fewer where a horse might clamber. In the sloping sandstone ledges footholds for the horses must be cut, and even then they fell, until their loss seemed certain. After many adventures the party arrived at 11 o’clock, A. M., August 14, 1909.
” Jim had indeed made good. Silhouetted against a turquoise sky was an arch of rainbow shape, so delicately proportioned that it seemed as if some great sculptor had hewn it from the rock. Its span of 270 feet bridged a stream of clear, sparkling water, that flowed 310 feet below its crest. The world’s greatest natural bridge had been found as Jim had described it. Beneath it, an ancient altar bore witness to the fact that it was a sacred shrine of those archaic people, the builders of the weird and mysterious cliff-castles seen in the Navajo National Monument.
“The crest of the bridge was reached by Mr. Douglass and his three assistants, John R. English, Jean F. Rogerson, and Daniel Perkins, by lowering themselves with ropes to the south abutment, and climbing its arch. Probably they were the first human beings to reach it.
“No Indian name for the bridge was known, except such descriptive generic terms as the Paiute `The space under a horse’s belly between its fore and hind legs,’ or the `Hole in the rock’ (nonnezoshi) of the Navajo, neither of which was deemed appropriate. While the question of a name was still being debated, there appeared in the sky, as if in answer, a beautiful rainbow, the `Barahoni’ of the Paiutes.
“The suitability of the name was further demonstrated by a superstition of the Navajos. On the occasion of his second visit, the fall of the same year, Mr. Douglass had as an assistant an old Navajo Indian named White Horse, who, after passing under the bridge, would not return, but climbed laboriously around its end. On being pressed for an explanation, he would arch his hand, and through it squint at the sun, solemnly shaking his head. Later, through the assistance of Mrs. John Wetherill, an experienced Navajo linguist, Mr. Douglass learned that the formations of the type of the bridge were symbolic rainbows, or the sun’s path, and one passing under could not return, under penalty of death, without the utterance of a certain prayer, which White Horse had forgotten. The aged Navajo informant would not reveal the prayer for fear of the `Lightning Snake.’
If your return from Rainbow Bridge carries you through Monument Valley with its miles of blazing red structures, memory will file still another amazing sensation. Some of its crimson monsters rise a thou-sand feet above the grassy plain.
Not many miles north of the Rainbow Bridge, fifty miles from Monticello in southern Utah, in a region not greatly dissimilar in outline, and only less colorful, three natural bridges of large size have been conserved under the title of the Natural Bridges National Monument. Here, west of the Mesa Verde, the country is characterized by long, broad mesas, sometimes crowned with stunted cedar forests, drop-ping suddenly into deep valleys. The erosion of many thousands of centuries has ploughed the surface into winding rock-strewn canyons, great and small. Three of these canyons are crossed by bridges stream-cut through the solid rock.
The largest, locally known as the Augusta Bridge, is named Sipapu, Gate of Heaven. It is one of the largest natural bridges in the world, measuring two hundred and twenty-two feet in height, with a span of two hundred and sixty-one feet. It is a graceful and majestic structure, so proportioned and finished that it is difficult, from some points of view, to believe it the unplanned work of natural forces. One crosses it on a level platform twenty-eight feet wide.
The other two, which are nearly its size, are found within five miles. The Kachina, which means Guardian Spirit, is locally called the Caroline Bridge. The Owachomo, meaning Rock Mound, is locally known as the Edwin Bridge. The local names celebrate persons who visited them soon after they were first discovered by Emery Knowles in 1895.
They may be reached by horse and pack-train from Monticello, or Bluff, Utah. One of the five. sections of the reservation conserves two large caves.