SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah - In the Southwest 100 years ago this month, two expeditions raced to find one of the great natural wonders of the world.
In August in the canyons of southern Utah, the suffocating heat at midday shrivels lizards, boots and brains. The sun glares down. Depletion of salt from the body can lead to hallucinations, and without adequate water, one's tongue becomes like soft wood. Stars speckle and pop behind sunken eyeballs. Distance and foreground merge between shimmering waves of heat, and yet a century ago, two competing groups braved insufferable August temperatures in search of a mythical Navajo rainbow that the gods had turned to stone.
Dr. Byron Cummings of the University of Utah led one team. Surveyor William B. Douglass of the General Land Office and his men, with Paiute guide Jim Mike, combined efforts with Indian trader and horsepacker John Wetherill. Later, they would be joined by Navajo guide Nasja Begay. Both teams sought a stone bridge reputedly larger than those set aside in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument.
Navajo medicine man One-Eyed Salt Clansman had spoken of the bridge to Louisa Wade Wetherill, who was fluent in Navajo, but he passed on before he could guide anyone there. He had said, "It is in the back of Navajo Mountain. It is called the Rock Rainbow that Spans the Canyon. Only a few go there. They do not know the prayers."
Louisa's husband, John, had mentioned it to Byron Cummings, one of the pioneers of Southwestern archaeology who, in 1909, had a productive summer. In Tsegi Canyon, Cummings visited the magnificent ruins of Keet Seel and Inscription House, and he had paid $5 to be led to an unnamed box canyon where they found the 150-room Betat'akin. Stuart M. Young, grandson of Brigham Young, was expedition photographer.
Because the Cummings group had begun to collect artifacts for the University of Utah, William Douglass was outraged and fired off a letter to the General Land Office demanding revocation of Cummings' permit under the recently passed Antiquities Act of 1906. Before they ever met, Douglass and Cummings opposed each other, although the quarrel was really one-sided. Cummings had sought to smooth things over, but Douglass would have none of it. Then in the blistering heat of August, dangerously riding and leading horses atop slick Navajo sandstone, the two men's expeditionary forces had combined under a tentative truce. Yet who would become the first white man to "discover" a rainbow turned to stone?
Fierce rivalry characterized national and international expeditions at the beginning of the 20th century, and deep in the tight canyons of the Navajo reservation, Anglo egos continued to duke it out. Neill Judd, who would become famous in his own right as a Southwestern archaeologist, rode with Cummings. Judd wrote, "Throughout the last day's travel, with the big bridge reported not far ahead, Mr. Douglass exhibited the uncontrolled enthusiasm of the amateur explorer, and he was so disregardful of possible danger to the other members of the party as to arouse the disgust of all."
On narrow sandstone ledges Douglass continued to spur his exhausted horse. Judd comments, "Without consideration for his companions, he repeatedly crowded the other riders from the narrow trail as he forced his tired horse to the front. ... Time and again he turned back from ledges he had unwisely followed, only to rush forward again at the first opportunity." But if Douglass was in the lead, as they rounded a bend, Cummings, Judd and Wetherill saw the bridge first. The trio yelled for Douglass to return and see it. Then the race was on to get there.
Cummings, already on foot and leading his horse, said it would be rude to race Douglass, but mild-mannered John Wetherill had had it with the overbearing government surveyor. Wetherill spat out, "Then I'll be rude," and spurred his horse past Douglass to be the first known white man to stand under the bridge on Aug. 14, 1909. Later, for $1 a year, he would become the initial caretaker or superintendent of Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which Douglass surveyed as 160 acres with the bridge in dead center.
Thus, from the very beginning the sacred space of Rainbow Bridge has been contested space. Douglass and Cummings squabbled for the rest of their lives about who saw it first. Douglass returned to Cortez by Sept. 11 and word leaked out in the Cortez newspaper and other papers, but Cummings counted coup by writing about the bridge in National Geographic in February 1910 using Stuart Young's black and white photos. Three months later, President William Howard Taft declared it a national monument.
Formed by water, at 290 feet high with a 275-foot span that is 42 feet thick, Rainbow Bridge is tall enough to place the Statue of Liberty under it. The largest natural span in the world, it was described by Cummings as an "enormous flying buttress ... chiseled out by the ages and left as a specimen of the handiwork of the Master Builder."
I've been to it by boat from Lake Powell. With a friend one September afternoon we slowly motored up Bridge Canyon from Dangling Rope Marina and tied off to walk to the bridge. Though the massive stone arch impressed us, I'll admit that we didn't "earn" the view. Our access was too easy.
In the first decades of the 20th century, visiting the bridge became a must-see explorers' pilgrimage described by author Zane Grey and Theodore Roosevelt after he had left the presidency. TR wrote, "It is surely one of the wonders of the world. It is a triumphal arch rather than a bridge, and spans the torrent bed in a majesty never shared by any arch ever reared by the mightiest conquerors." Grey explained, "This thing was glorious. It absolutely silenced me."
The difficult horseback ride and hike into the bridge encouraged explorer Charles Bernheimer and his party in 1921 to work for six days and use TNT, dynamite and black powder to enlarge a slot canyon into a more respectable trail. But the ultimate indignity to the mythos of the stone rainbow came with the rising waters of Lake Powell and the failure of the Bureau of Reclamation to prohibit waters from entering the national monument via Bridge Canyon.
Lawsuits ensued, first by the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations and later by Navajo singers and medicine men, but they all lost in court. Congressional legislation for the Glen Canyon Dam included wording to protect Rainbow Bridge National Monument with a smaller dam which was never funded or built. Now, instead of an arduous trek down from Navajo Mountain, day trippers visit via tour boat, and last year 95,567 people did.
In Page, Ariz., the John Wesley Powell Museum's fall symposia focuses on the bridge, and next year for the monument's centennial the National Park Service is planning various activities, though none at the bridge, out of respect for tribal religious beliefs. Through Sept. 30 of this year the park service is sponsoring a photo contest of the bridge and Lake Powell concessioner ARAMARK is hosting a children's art contest.
I want to go back to Rainbow Bridge, but this time I'd like to hike in. I want to come down from Navajo Mountain as the original explorers did. I'd rather backpack and be one of the few instead of one of the many, but thank you, no, I won't be doing it in August.
email@example.com Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College.