The broad swath of historically cold, wet weather that is affecting the greater intermountain region has also blanketed St. George and Zion National Park with snow and frigid air, causing all sorts of problems from killing palm trees to creating traffic snarls because there are no snow plows in Utah’s Dixie.
When Jack Frost crept to our side of the state just after Thanksgiving, we Moab residents who honed our cold-living capabilities last winter didn’t have to dig far for heavy coats, gloves and snow shovels. If there was any hope that we might have a mild winter following last year’s big chill, it was dashed by the November inversion, subsequent storm fronts and single-digit nights. I’m beginning to think that last winter was just a practice for this one.
News photographs of the crushed Rockville house looked like a pretend scene of destruction in a child’s sand box, as if rocks had been dropped on a Lincoln Log structure. A vehicle parked next to the residence resembled a Matchbox car with its hood smashed in. And the boulders, well they looked like Moab, which made me think of all the homes in Moab and Castle Valley that could be in harm’s way if the elements make them move.
Extreme temperatures coupled with water and ice can and do bring sandstone slabs to the canyon’s floor. Officials in Washington County speculated that the historically severe weather in Rockville was to blame for the slide that crushed the house. The day following the disaster there was some discussion about dynamiting other precarious boulders, but authorities thought that might unleash bigger hazards.
There’s no telling when a rockslide might happen. Perhaps Moab’s cliffs are more stable because they regularly endure bigger temperature swings. Or perhaps that makes them more likely to fall. It’s anybody’s guess.
Over the years visitors to Moab have asked me whether I’m concerned about rocks falling on me. “Nah,” I’ve told those folks. “That geologic activity happened eons ago.” But last week’s tragedy in Rockville and this year’s bone-chilling weather are regular reminders that nature is full of surprises.
We exist between fire and ice here on the Colorado Plateau. As a desert-dwelling kid I would hope and hope for there to be snow for Christmas. I enjoyed reading wintry tales by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, whose story “The Snow Queen” has just been made into the popular Disney movie “Frozen.” American writer Mary Mapes Dodge entertained me with “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates,” which depicted life in Holland, when folks could travel around their villages on frozen rivers and streams. I was fascinated that people a world away could skate around on waterways that became roadways in winter.
And now I find that the sandy desert washes that I regularly hike and ride in are filled with three-week-old snow that melts just enough some days to make a layer of ice between the white stuff and the ground, creating slick footing for man and beast. If I could sweep the snow from the washes, as skaters have recently been doing at Ken’s Lake, I wonder if there would be enough ice to skate on.
When the weather finally warms up a bit around here and the temperatures go back to their seesawing ways, we can bet that some rocks will be pried from the cliffs and canyon walls. I just hope the boulders that are loftily perched with uncertainty above our homes and neighborhoods will stay put.