Page Stegner wrote of his father, Wallace: “My father could never just look at scenery.”
Neither can mine.
Page: “If we happened to be driving across the Colorado Plateau through southern Utah, say from Cisco to Price along the Book Cliffs, he’d offer up an anecdote about Powell being rescued by Bradley in Desolation Canyon, and then explain to his slightly annoyed eight-year-old boy (me), who was trying to concentrate on his Batman comic, who Powell was and why he was important.”
I grew up with the same commentary aimed at me from the driver’s seat. My father, Don Trimble, worked as a field geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for more than thirty years. He was a mapper, working his way across big pieces of the West, ridge by ridge, quadrangle by quadrangle. He loved history as much as geology. He knew much of what Stegner knew. Younger geologists described him to me as “a latter-day John Wesley Powell.”
Wallace never missed a chance to teach Page: “He’d point out the La Sals and Abajos to the south and tell that boy something about laccolithic domes, betting him he couldn’t spell laccolithic. He’d comment on the immensity of geological time and the number of Permian seas responsible for the deposition of the Moenkopi, Chinle, Wingate and Kayenta formations (he could identify them all) on our left and the Dakota sandstone and Mancos shale on our right.”
This Thanksgiving week, I drove my father along this same route along the Book Cliffs that Page remembered. My dad loved the road trip from Denver to our little house near Capitol Reef National Park. Now 92 years old, his eyesight has deteriorated, but he reveled in watching the parade of rocks roll past the window. Even if he couldn’t resolve every detail, he knew those formations.
When we reached the beginning of the Book Cliffs at Grand Junction, Colorado and began following the rampart of sculptured gray badlands that runs for nearly two hundred miles, Dad was thrilled. Coming upon this grand feature on the Earth’s surface was like running into an old friend in a bar. He sorted the layers, looking for the sandstones deposited by both the transgressive and regressive encroachment of the Cretaceous sea. He shook his head, still filled with wonderment: “I know the Colorado Plateau was uplifted intact, but how could this feature possibly be so continuous? I can’t think of anything else like the Book Cliffs, anywhere.”
Page: “He’d observe the Fish Lake Plateau far to the west and remember something of his boyhood summers at that lake, though he was never particularly loquacious about his own childhood except in his writing. Crossing over the Wasatch Plateau and heading south through the Spanish Fork canyon would remind him of the specific dates of the Escalante/Domínguez expedition through the regions (September 23, 1776) and that it was exactly fifty years before Jedediah Smith came through following essentially the same route. He had a kind of holistic relationship with the land, and he couldn’t look at it without remembering its geological history, its exploration, its social development, its contemporary problems, and its prognosis for the future.”
I hadn’t read aloud this passage by Page to my father, but he spontaneously mused on exactly the same topics as Stegner had, while we drove into the sun sinking behind the San Rafael Swell. He pondered Powell’s singleminded courage. He asked if I remembered the details of Father Escalante’s route, and joked that he could always remember the date for their expedition: 1776.
He looked out across all that open space and sighed, fearing that our endless doubling in population would do us in. Remarkably, he remains an optimist, even with these concerns. He takes the long view of a geologist. We’re just in another extinction event, like the Cretaceous and Permian extinctions before us. Humans came, and they will go. His knowledgeable, forthright realism mirrors Stegner’s.
I would have loved to make this drive with both of them in the front seat.