Thursday, March 20, 2014

The other side of the tunnel

Hurricane, UT – Who would ex-pect to see ostriches in south-western Utah? Yet there they were, more than a dozen of them, with their spindly legs, fluffy tails and long necks, quietly grazing in a paddock by the highway.  We were on our way again to Zion National Park, to see the portion of the park we had yet to visit, which included a mile-long trip through solid rock.

The large birds were a nice distraction for me. Tunnels are not my favourite thing, especially if they are so long that you can’t see the end of them. Having other things like ostriches and breathtaking scenery to occupy my thoughts was helpful as we approached the park.

When we visited on Tuesday, we followed the main road northward seven miles into the canyon.  Today, we took the Mount Carmel Highway, heading west.  It took us on a series of long switchbacks up the side of the canyon until at last the black opening of the tunnel came into view.

Park rangers posted at either end of the tunnel regulate the traffic going through. Strict regulations apply to the height and length of the vehicles. Whenever there is a bus or RV, the tunnel becomes a one-way passage, so they can straddle the centre line to avoid scraping the sloped ceiling.

The highway and tunnel were constructed between 1927 and 1930 to allow traffic to pass through Zion and on to Bryce and the Grand Canyon.  Rather than work from one end of the tunnel to the other, they started in the middle with a stope, the way miners start a mineshaft, and worked their way out.

Back to that black opening.  We had a bus and three cars ahead of us, so our passage was going to be one way.  I braced myself as we were swallowed in darkness, and our eyes adjusted to the dimness. Headlights and reflectors on the tunnel walls helped a bit, but the best thing was the discovery that several large openings had been made to the outside along the length – for light, but also to allow builders to discard fill and rock into the canyon as work progressed.

Three or four times along that dark shaft, glimpses of the outside light made all the difference!  And, once we were out the other end, a whole new completely different park awaited.  Where the other section was mostly vertical, all the lines in the rock here were horizontal – great layers of red rock, like ocean waves, stacked to the sky and punctuated by bright green pine trees and other small plants.
Some formations looked like chimney pots, and others like coils of a soft ice cream cone on a giant scale. It was amazing to see what the plants chose to root in – the smallest crevice, where water could collect, was all they needed to sprout and grow.

Even knowing I had to go back through that mile-long tunnel, I was glad we hadn’t missed this wonderful sight.  And I was glad those tunnel builders had thought of giving us windows. Oh yes, and I was grateful for ostriches!

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