Overwhelm at Devil’s Bridge

I’ve been spending a lot of time in nearby Sedona, Arizona lately, and while I prefer to spend my time avoiding crowds and exploring less popular trails, I also feel like I need to hit some of the big sites – just because they’re there.

It snowed in Sedona last Saturday, which meant mountain biking was out until the trails dried up.  That made it the perfect morning to check out Devil’s Bridge – arguably the most popular hike in the area.  While the snow had melted by the time I got to town, the clouds were just barely lifting, and the air temperature was still pretty darn chilly. I figured that these two factors would combine to keep the throngs away.  I figured wrong.

Devil’s Bridge is what’s called a “natural bridge.”  Like a natural arch, a natural bridge is a sandstone or limestone feature carved by erosional forces.  These weathering forces act differently upon different layers of rock, eating away at softer layers more quickly than harder ones.  Generally, a natural arch has been formed by wind and water, whereas a natural bridge has primarily been formed by water alone.

We human beings are captivated by these features.  They dot canyon country maps, where people will hike miles and miles out of their way to see them, passing be equally-imposing hoodoos and cliff faces in their hunt for bridges and arches.  These features seem to embody our collective aesthetic ideal – perhaps because they are simultaneously beautiful and ephemeral.  They provide the eye with a vaguely symmetrical focal point that stands out from its background.

Alison Byerly eloquently argued in her important 1996 article, “The Uses of Landscape,” that our worship of the aesthetic in nature threatens the very resources we set out to preserve by setting these notable sites apart.  My experience of Devil’s Bridge on a Sunday morning in March provides solid evidence for her theory.

While there are a number of places where you can access the Devil’s Bridge trail, the ones that get you closest to the feature lie along a rough dirt road.  Its obstacles don’t stop trucks, jeeps, and ATV’s from braving it, however, and, last Saturday, a mess of vehicles were parked haphazardly at that point.  From there, the “trail” is more like a highway.  Two passenger cars could fit across its width in many spots, and constructed water bars and rock shelves make it clear that substantial improvements have been made.

It’s a good thing, too, because many of the people I saw were wearing Ugg boots or sandals.  I also passed at least six people accompanied by dogs the size of healthy squirrels – the kind that have feet the size of dimes.  They were all on leashes, and the human/canine pairs were proceeding quite slowly.

After about a mile, the trail becomes much more difficult.  It transforms from a wide red sand track to a steep and rocky trail.  There are engineered staircases along the trail, as well as plenty of carefully planned rest areas.  People were packed in at these pause points, and traffic jams slowed progress at the bases of each of the stepped sections, allowing me the unwanted opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations.

When I got to the bridge, I was dumbstruck.  There was a line – literally – to get out onto it.  At least thirty people were queued up in the pinyon pines off to the side of the bridge, waiting their turn to walk out onto it and have their picture taken by a companion lined up at the top of the trail. On the one hand, I suppose it’s reassuring that everyone was behaving civilly and waiting in line.  But the idea of a line in the wilderness is just wrong to me, as was the spectacle of people composing self-conscious social media-targeted shots in a place that, by definition, is supposed to be “untrammeled by man.”

I couldn’t get away fast enough.  On my jog back down the trail, I stopped at a couple of less popular rest points.  From these, I had spectacular views of the redrock cliffs and Arizona cypress groves to the north.  One even afforded an unusual view of Devil’s Bridge from down beneath it – and no one was there.  Silly rabbits.  Or, silly sheep, I should say.

It is this sheep-like character of human beings that may well save some of our wilderness areas.  Because people tend to go to the places they have heard about – the ones with particularly appealing aesthetic qualities like natural bridges.  These notable features become what’s called “sacrifice sites.”  There’s going to be garbage around them, the trail’s going to become a highway, parking will be chaotic, and yes, the place will get trashed.  But in the process, many other places may be spared this treatment.  Note my emphasis on the word may.

The more time I spend in Sedona, the more I worry about the place.  The vehicular congestion in town is unremitting, but that’s town.  Out in the Dry Creek area, where the Devil’s Bridge hike leaves from, the twenty-five space parking lot is usually full by about 8:30am on weekend days.  After that, cars park on the shoulders of Dry Creek Road, generally for a half-mile in either direction.  Traffic can come to a standstill as people dodge hikers and bikers and wait for spots there just like they do in grocery store lots.  The trailheads in the nearby Oak Creek area suffer the same fate.

Out on the trails, I spend a lot of time saying “excuse me,” and “coming up behind you,” and “thanks, one more behind me.”  I see Kleenex flowers in the junipers and footprints scarring the cryptobiotic soils.  Worst of all, I hear traffic – cars on the roads, and helicopters overhead.  Yes, the scenic overflight industry is in full swing in Sedona, and its presence is hard to ignore.

The fact that I am contributing to this overcrowding does not escape me. I drive to Sedona too; I contribute to the traffic problem, the parking problem, and the overcrowding.  Sure, I try to stay off of the popular trails, and I am vigilant in my Leave No Trace practices.  But I’m still there.  And I don’t know what to do about that.

I’m spending a lot of time reading and writing environmentally-oriented material these days, and all of it scares me to death.  I have to get out into nature to ground myself and remember why I care; yet, the very act of doing so places more pressure on the resource whose eroding integrity consumes me.

This is our paradox.  We cannot eliminate our impacts without eliminating ourselves.  I know there is a place just short of disappearance that I can inhabit – a place where I can connect with nature without being too much a part of the problem.   But on days when I hit the “big sites,” I get lost in the overwhelm.



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