In 1974, the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park was still a fairly isolated outpost, located some 40 miles from a state highway and nearly 80 miles from Moab, Utah, population 4,000 and falling. The uranium boom was winding down and jobs were scarce. People were moving out of southeastern Utah as I was moving in. It was an ideal time to be a young park ranger in the heart of the canyon country. As naive and untrained as I was, the situation seemed to suit my needs at the time.
I’d been in the National Park Service less than four years, stationed less than 80 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area. Somewhat isolated but close enough to civilization to periodically take in the hum and bustle of the Peninsula. Nothing really prepared me for the long distances, deep silences, and the staggering scenery stretching into infinity in all directions. But after only a few weeks, I embraced the change. After all, I had a comfortably large mobile home, a willing and loving female companion, a regular, if small, paycheck, and a job that demanded my immersion in cowboy lore, ancient Indian ruins, white-knuckle jeep trails, and red rock.
Red rock everywhere. It formed the monolithic Squaw Butte in which the housing area was nestled. It defined many of the jeep routes and foot trails. It rose up all around us in towering pinnacles, mesas, hoodoos, alcoves, arches and high plateaus. It spread fingers of sandstone into curving canyons of infinite variety. And at the far edges of the horizon, it was overlorded by dark, lacolithic mountain ranges like the La Sals, the Abajos, and the Henrys.
For me, there were two nearby pockets of civilization….our office and housing area at Squaw Butte, and the nearby campground at Squaw Flat. Daily life centered around the patrol, either by vehicle or on foot. The two-wheel drive patrol covered the few paved roads in the park and the campground area. Where the pavement ended, the 4-wheel driving began…over places like Elephant Hill, the Silver Stairs, and SOB Hill, or up the winding stream beds of Salt Creek or Lavender Canyon. But best of all were the foot patrols. Making a living by hiking all day, replacing rock cairns, checking out rock art sites, and communicating with the occasional hiker.
At the end of the day, there was my trailer home with its faux wood paneled walls and orange shag carpeting, government-issue furniture, book shelves made of bricks and boards, the record collection, books, two cats, a comfortable bed, hot and cold running water, and companionship. One could not ask for more. But there would be a lot more in the months and years to come.