A journey through the last part of the map

6 years ago
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In southern Utah, David Whitley finds himself in the final part of the US to be explored

It looks like a place to die. Not just for men, but for cattle, coyotes, snakes and vultures too. Staring across the landscape, ever more desolate valleys have been cut from valleys, and mesas have been topped with ever more intimidating mesas. It’s bleak, and sun-scorched, the colours in the rock layers covering a spectrum from ashen grey to furious red.

Driving along Highway 12 in southern Utah feels like a privilege akin to puttering along the moon’s surface in a NASA buggy or delving into previously unseen ocean trenches in a super-strength submersible. The unfolding world is brutal and packed with scars, but only those inflicted by nature rather than man. The Highway itself is the only sign of attempts to tame.

The road takes far longer to drive than it should, mainly due to the string of thoroughly irresistible lookouts. The compulsion to pull over and fill SD cards with photographs is always too strong. Even in a state where every road seems a little bit special, this one is a titan, crawling around ridge lines and across narrow fingers of accessibility on a high desert plateau.

At one of them is a small sign, and in big letters it reads “Blank spot on the map”. Below is said map, with a dot indicating where the present location. All around, the crunching ridge-lines of mountains and canyons are faithfully reproduced. But the little dot is surrounded by white space. To geographers in 1868, this is how the region looked – an omission from the records; a cartographical oversight; the last piece of the jigsaw.

Even after the Powell Expedition of 1871 inched its way down the Green and Colorado Rivers, setting eyes on much of the American West for the first time and conquering the Grand Canyon, this fiercely remote patch of Utah remained uncharted.

 

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Indeed, it was the last piece of the 48 mainland US states to be mapped. It’s America’s last frontier.

The unknown country was finally breached in 1872 by a party led by Almon H Thompson. Exhaustive explorations over the next four years filled those blanks, and Highway 12 follows the initial route across the region which Thompson would later christen “The Escalante”.

The notes from his diary are instructive. “No animal without wings could cross the deep gulches in the sandstone basin at our feet,” he wrote, recognising the enormity of the task ahead of him.

Very few have followed in Thompson’s footprints since. Settlements along the road are tiny, and up until the highway was completed in 1940, they still received their mail by mule trekking along dusty, semi-formed tracks.

Beyond the road, though, there’s a landscape that manages to be action-packed and feature-filled yet simultaneously empty. The expansive void may technically be on the maps, but that’s about as far as it wants to let humans intrude.

Standing on the edge of the canyon, there’s no need to enter that final jigsaw piece. Staring and gasping is enough.

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