Monument highlights power of nature
I wish I had known John Otto. He was an amazing man. Otto was the first person to explore carefully the canyon country now known as the Colorado National Monument.
He settled in Grand Junction in the early 20th century. Before he came, most residents thought the canyons west of town were too deep to be accessible. But not John Otto!
The area was established as Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911. Otto was hired as the first park ranger in 1911, drawing a salary of $1 per month. For the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent in the park.
I have been trying to remember my most memorable event on the monument. I was thinking it was a hike on the Crag Crest Trail, but my memory started playing games with me. I thought that trail was on the monument.
Finally I remembered that the trail started near a lake. There are no lakes on the monument.
Eventually, it began to work its way through my poor brain that I was looking for information on the wrong piece of ground. Crag Crest is on Grand Mesa, not the monument.
So, to continue after a cup of coffee, I chose to move the story 50 miles or so to the east, to Grand Mesa. To my knowledge John Otto didn’t have much to do with that area, but we’ll come back to him.
One summer day my friends, Terry and Jim, and I headed for the mesa and the Crag Crest Trail. We took two cars to avoid doubling our walk.
The trail starts at one of the lakes and is a very pleasant walk. And then it starts to go up. And I do mean up. Eventually, when I thought we must be nearing the highest point on Earth, we did reach the top. I can still see it very clearly. Then you know why it is called a crest. The trail narrows and you are walking on a narrow strip of land that drops off on both sides.
You feel that you are standing on the top of the world. I was sure I could see Kansas, but maybe it was California.
Years later, you can forget details like where something was, but the glory of standing up there on top is in your mind forever.
Now let’s go back to Colorado National Monument. I do know for sure that the monument is in the monument and that John Otto created most of its trails. Independence Monument is the best-known landmark in the area. It stands in solitude, a 450-foot tower of pure sandstone.
John Otto climbed it, of course. But until fairly recently it had not been a favorite climb.
Now, every year on the Fourth of July, a group of skilled rock climbers climb it and sets a flag on top. Needless to say, I was never one of them.
One day Terry and Jim and I decided, not to climb it, but to take the trail from the road to the bottom of the valley and to the base of the monument.
There was a slight age difference between my friends and me, like maybe 35 years, but I was a pretty good hiker. The journey down was not too strenuous, but the distance from the bottom of the canyon to the big chunk of rock called Independence Monument was longer than I had expected.
I have been in cities with towering buildings, designed and built by man. And I was fortunate to see Stonehenge before they had to build a fence around it. It too was built by man some 5,000 years ago.
Independence Monument was built by nature, not touched by humans for millions of years.
I stood there and looked up at it in awe. Mankind is smart, but nature may prove smarter in a million years or so. I asked my friend the philosopher what she was thinking. She said, “Gravity pulls everything back to the Earth eventually, whether built by humans or nature. The monument is standing alone because everything that surrounded it has eroded away.”
We lingered in the shade of its impressive base and imagined John Otto drilling holes into the sandstone to make a ladder so he could climb to the top and plant the American flag.
Living between Colorado National Monument and Grand Mesa for about 65 years has been a real privilege. And honestly, I can tell them apart.