Second best is OK with me

  • Frederick H. Swanson


My wife and I have had the good fortune to visit some of the iconic landscapes of the Colorado Plateau in the years BG  -- before guidebooks. Back in those days, you could enjoy an hour's solitude anywhere in the Escalante River's side canyons.

We recently returned to an old favorite in Utah, a colorful Wingate-walled gorge that ends in a dry waterfall. As we rested by the plunge pool at its base, the voices of other pilgrims echoed up the canyon, murmuring like monks chanting in a great cathedral.

A young couple rounded the last bend, their voices resolving into German. They stood and gazed up at the remarkable pothole opening that had been carved by countless floods roaring down this canyon, yet we heard none of the usual exclamations of wonder. I greeted them in English and asked what they thought of the place.

"It's nice," the man said, "but we hoped it would look like this" -- handing over a photo he had printed from a website. It showed that rare moment when the high summer sun sends a stream of incandescent light through the opening, illuminating the pool in cover-photo glory. It was now October, and with the sun low in the sky, the couple felt let down.

We felt sorry for them since they'd flown across an ocean only to meet with disappointment. It's a poor climax to a trip when you hold a template up to an extraordinary geologic marvel and find it wanting. Yet that's the danger with guidebooks, travel websites, and "Top Ten" lists: When you try to pursue their promises of ever more wondrous destinations, it's easy to fall prey to scenic fatigue, like a jaded 19th century aesthete on the Grand Tour of Europe.

A Colorado friend gave me some advice on how to avoid this treadmill-like pursuit of spectacular places. He favors what he calls "second-best" country -- the background landscape that most guidebook writers ignore. Eschewing his state's famous but crowded "fourteeners" in favor of 11- and 12-thousand-foot-high mountains, he meets few others on his hikes, yet enjoys alpine tarns and streamlets as lovely as any in the Maroon Bells.

His approach transplants well to Utah. Many of our second-best landscapes belong to the Bureau of Land Management's shrinking inventory of wild places, which contain a great deal of dramatic desert terrain that will amply repay a visit. Conservation groups sometimes try to defend these areas by comparing them to our national parks, but they're often not that spectacular. Some offer only minor outcrops of Carmel mudstone that sprout a few scraggly junipers.

All that is required to enjoy such places, though, is a little attitude adjustment: a willingness to savor the less superlative, the somewhat unpopular, the non-world-class. In these places, the earth's everyday wonders take center stage -- the patterns of lichen on a boulder, the raven feeding its young in a high-up crevice, the light glimmering on cottonwood leaves.

To find such places, just study the guidebooks, and then wander off somewhere else.

Wildness is on the run in the Colorado Plateau, and we will never again feel the enchanting mystery it held as recently as 1960, when Edson Alvey of Escalante could claim to be the first person to squeeze through Spooky Gulch. My wife and I missed that chance, but perhaps there's an advantage here. By putting the spectacular on the shelf for a while, we not only can give some heavily used places a rest, we might also learn to value the ordinary workings of nature -- whose vital processes we had better understand soon. Scenic museum pieces, however grand, are not enough if they stand alone in a razed landscape.

That being said, there's still much to appreciate out in second-best or even third-best country. Taking my friend's advice, we're giving the Escalante a break and heading back to an unimportant little rimrock overlooking a nameless side drainage out east of Hanksville. It's a great place to watch the sunrise, even though it doesn't silhouette Delicate Arch.

Our spot won't be on anyone's wall calendar this year, so we'll get to appreciate it all by ourselves.

Frederick H. Swanson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News. He writes from his home in Salt Lake City and his most recent book is Dave Rust: A Life in the Canyons.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Some good advice here
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Oct 08, 2010 02:16 PM
This is wonderful advice. We should all do a little more of our own exploring, rather than follow the guidebooks, and we should learn to enjoy and savor what is there, rather than what we think should be there.

    It's a constant worry for me that once I've found a pleasant and uncrowded nearby place for afternoon strolls with the dog, some local guidebook author will discover it, too. Then we'll have to deal with dedicated single-track cyclists, too busy peddling to enjoy the views, and checkmark hikers wanting to be sure they saw the odd-shaped chunk of porphyry at Mile 1.57.

    So while I like the idea of focusing on our wonderful second- and third-best places, how do we prevent some ambitious writer from producing a guidebook to "Fourteen Hidden Canyons of the Escalante Gorge" or "Twenty-two Superb Views of the Sawatch Range from the Arkansas Hills"?

    I'm a big fan of the First Amendment, but sometimes I wonder whether it should apply to guidebooks, which might inspire as much damage as strip mines and clear cuts. So I fear that the search for second- and third-best places is going to be a life-long project, for others will almost certainly "discover" and publicize them.

    But on the other hand, there's the joy of exploring the outdoors on your own with no expectations, taking what you find as you find it -- and I enjoyed reading of someone celebrating that pleasure.

Second best is OK with me
Linda Hamilton
Linda Hamilton
Oct 08, 2010 03:45 PM
I am comforted by Frederick Swanson's excellent essay, because in the last few years, I have found I am spending more time to revisiting or seeking out some of the lesser touted glorious areas in my state (CO) that are NOT the "big-deal","you've-got-to see/go there" places. It began, I now am movitvated to reflect, when I didn't want to deal with so many people, cars, dogs, families (not that there is anything wrong with any of the afore mentioned categories. Our open lands need all of them). It's just nice and feels rewarding to drive up the smaller nearby canyon to a less visited, maybe shorter trail, stop at some overlooks that may not be signed, maybe not getting to the top (it can be "about the journey, not the destination") and return to your car feeling refreshed, calm, and pleased. Thank you for that essay. I'll continue on - happily.
away from the maddening rush
marty weiss
marty weiss
Oct 09, 2010 01:48 PM
Avoid the crowds by all means.
If you venture out on the great rivers, you'll be surprised to have them all to yourself-- by avoiding holidays and weekends.
Imagine my pleasure to find I had the Mississippi River all to myself for miles in any direction. A towboat with barges might pass me every few hours, but otherwise it was all mine to explore by canoe scenery not much changed from when French voyageurs had passed four hundred years ago. There was nobody at all but me on the Wisconsin River, the Rock River, the Illinois, Chicago and even the Missouri.
Smaller watercourses like the Illinois flow gently downstream at about three m.p.h., the speed of a leisurely walk. They are idyllic places to canoe and camp, with abundant free driftwood for campfires. But on national holidays they turn into turbulent raceways, with cigarette boats spewing six-foot wakes at fifty miles an hour.
By the same token, when on Mt. Evans, the highest peak visible from Denver at 14,000 ft., avoiding the crowd on the peak, my then-wife and I found a little spot on the mountainside and cooked steaks over a campfire and drank Lancer's wine. Fair warning: drinking wine at fourteen thousand feet is much headier than anticipated.
Even in the Forest Preserves that ring Chicago I found a young willow tree perfect for a nap among its' limbs, which when I returned, had been removed for the Deep Tunnel's graveled equipment yard.
I found a tiny spring-fed pond as a ten-year-old boy on the edge of a new subdivision of homes. It was a haven of mystery and wonder for that summer, with frogs and tadpoles and fish. Later I found it filled in under a new split-level. Tracing the Chicago River's north branch through Skokie Lagoons, named for the former first nation inhabitants, I camped on an island secreted on the edge of some of the highest-priced and most exclusive real estate in Illinois. It was just me and the birds and turtles.
So get out there while it's still there and avoid the crush of commerce and fashion. You'll find your happiness lies right under your eyes, practically in your own back yard. If not for the strays I harbor, I'd be cruising downriver in a rowboat, following the geese, the songbirds and the warm weather-- and I can pretty much guarantee I'd have it all to myself, just like Abbey and Muir. If I see you out there, I'll respect your privacy unless invited, and even then keep it short and sweet.
Away from maddening rush
Jeannie Patton
Jeannie Patton
Oct 12, 2010 04:37 PM
Reply to Marty Weiss: would that I could avoid weekends! I'm still employed, thank the gods, but that means I am wed to a time frame that is not of my choosing and which, due to the nature of my work, I cannot change. I never ski/camp/travel on holidays or weekends for the reasons everyone's mentioned, but at the cost of missing the wind, water, snow, flowers, etc. that you describe so beautifully. Though the Rocky Mountains are within a stone's throw of my office and home, I'm working well into my 60's (the bills must be paid and I like my small home heated) with little opportunity to play hookey. I dream of retiring so I can savor the world, but since that won't happen happen, I take my weekdays when I can and long for the high country just outside the window sill. I'm looking at it now.... out of reach.
There came a time...
marty weiss
marty weiss
Oct 12, 2010 05:41 PM
When almost all my friends and acquaintances were in a small bar,
I got this idea to do a radical life change.
I got into a canoe with four hundred pounds of supplies and musical instruments,
and, starting at a suburban cross street to the Sanitary Canal, which connects to the Chicago River, leading to the Des Plaines and finally becoming the Illinois River, which flows to the Mississippi and on to the oceans of the world.
I could describe the awful detritus of civilization on the riverbanks as far as Joliet, site of the state prison, but I will spare you.
As I passed the prison, I compared my situation with the prisoners.
I was even more delighted to be where I was.
Until I arrived at a marina, I had no map.
Without the map it was a voyage of individual discovery,
an adventure into the unknown.
(I do this sort of thing all the time--
I took a Greyhound Bus to a highway that crossed the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, got off the bus and disappeared into the woods for two weeks,
leaving nothing but footprints.)
After I got the Army Corps of Engineers chart of the Mississippi and the Illinois, even though I knew that beyond that line of willows, there was a farm or a deserted factory, it still looked like Joliet might have passed here
last year. Eventually I found sandy banks in the wind to avoid bugs in camp and plenty of free driftwood.
I couldn't solve your problem, so I tried to take you there direct.
venture into the unknown
marty weiss
marty weiss
Oct 12, 2010 05:54 PM
I gotta tell ya, I had no idea what I was doing in that canoe.
It was a windy day, and as I sat on the seat in the stern, the wind kept blowing me around backwards to where I wanted to go. I tried sitting in the front, same result. So I stopped trying and just let it drift, and got out the Boy Scout Manual on Canoeing a friend from the bar had given me. It was basic as well as over my head. But I studied it and began to have control of the boat. As the days and months went on, paddling became second nature, and fancy "J" strokes were a common resort and I never got tired of paddling. There was always something interesting around the next bend of the river.
If it's any consolation to ya, I'm stuck here, too.
Otherwise I'd be rowing downstream.
Oct 10, 2010 10:06 PM
Good words.

Week days will thin some of the crowd. Hiking further off the road will, too.

I was in Coyote Wilderness south of Tucson one time, which is frequented by almost no one but a few occasional rock climbers. I sat on a rock spur a hundred feet over a still pool of water, and watched a lone hiker approach from far off, stop at the pool and rest, then move on. I said nothing.

Second Best
On Da Road
On Da Road
Oct 12, 2010 05:13 PM
Hear Hear there is much to be said for 2nd best! There is so much beauty off the beaten path and you don't miss the crowds at all. I think that unless you live in the area it is hard to bypass the Best to explore the 2nd Bests.
well put, Mr. Swanson.
Oct 16, 2010 06:10 AM
I enjoyed your essay immensely. I too live in the Arkansas Valley, a bit higher and further north than Mr. Quillen. There's a huge dichotomy between hiking Mt Elbert, our state's highest peak, and a 'lesser' peak nearby such as Dyer Mountain. I climbed the former last month and was accompanied by about two dozen others (on a Thursday, no less). I went up a 'thirteener' yesterday and it was just me and the dog. Spectacular views and the like, but since it's not above the magic elevation line no-one cares to venture there. That's all right by me. I enjoyed it well enough. Here's to all of us who have the same frame of mind.
"Second Best" piece
Oct 26, 2010 10:54 AM
Thanks, everyone, for your good comments. The scene I described in the Escalante Canyons isn't new, of course; for example, here's this from Olaus Murie, the renowned wildlife biologist and wilderness activist, which he wrote in the July 1940 issue of Living Wilderness:

"I have seen any number of people passing through a glorious region, thoroughly disappointed because they do not find what they expected. Some people in Mt. McKinley National Park, which to me is the finest, were disappointed in the scenery, the 'absence of wildlife,' and the lack of anything outstanding! I feel there has been so much advertising of the outdoor attractions. . .that a particular type of glamour has been created about it all. . . .the multitude is induced to flock to these special recreation areas because of the gilded build-up on the part of those in charge."

I guess it always comes down to what Aldo Leopold called "building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."

I'm glad to see that this struck a chord in many of you.