America is all about perspective. Things that seem appalling or ridiculous from far away seem less so when you get up close. And the opposite is also true – a place that sounds quite ordinary becomes extraordinary when you actually get there. Compare Lake Powell to Zion National Park for instance.
Forty years ago Lake Powell didn’t exist. It was created by damming the Colorado river and flooding the beautiful Glen Canyon to create an enormous reservoir to feed the water needs of fast growing cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club, fought tooth and nail to preserve the Canyon, as did the Navajo who had several sacred sites within the Canyon. Alas, they lost and the canyon was duly flooded (it took 17 years to fill).
The “lake” is now a “national recreational area”. After the mystical beauty of Monument Valley, Lake Powell seemed like a mechanized playpen for brash, overgrown children with expensive watercraft. The lodge in which we stayed was straight out of the early 1980s and most of the people staying there clearly had no qualms about the loss of Glen Canyon.
Apart from our trip to the unbelievable Rainbow Bridge (a Navajo sacred site that was, thankfully, high enough up the Canyon not to be engulfed) we were both underwhelmed and little saddened by Lake Powell.
Compare that to Zion National Park, a place neither of us had heard of until we started planning our trip. We chose it as a convenient stop-off between Lake Powell and Las Vegas, and neither of us was prepared for the beauty or tranquility of the park.
Nestled in a deep valley between sheer red sandstone mountains, the Zion Lodge is one of the most calming places I’ve ever been in my life. They’ve even restricted the car traffic to the park; you have to get a permit at least a year in advance in order to bring your car inside (and you can only get one if you’ve booked a place at the lodge).
We celebrated Amanda’s birthday in Zion by climbing to the top of the incredible Angel’s Landing – the tip of a 500-metre high spire of rock that offers spectacular (and vertigo inducing) views of the park.
After our hike we had a wonderful dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, a stark contrast to the terrible and overpriced meal we suffered through at Lake Powell. After dinner we walked along the dark road and looked at the millions of stars – unobstructed by the light pollution that normally blots the sky here.
And yet, although I did not enjoy Lake Powell and I am deeply saddened that Glen Canyon is forever buried beneath its waters, I also see why they did it. Americans are nothing if not pragmatic. They chose to sacrifice Glen Canyon in order to feed their cities. But they also chose to close Zion to all but a few cars, thus preserving its tranquility and beauty for the few really willing visitors.
That to me is America in miniature – a land of contrasts but also of compromises. They do what they have to do, but also what they don’t have to do. It’s hard not to admire them, even when they’re annoying you with a noisy jet-ski. And boy, they sure know how to build a dam.