It's been more than a week now since the demise of Wall Arch, and the debate continues:

If an arch falls in the desert and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Wall Arch left this Earth — or to be more accurate, returned to this Earth — late Monday night or early Tuesday morning this past Aug. 4-5.

Dust to dust.

No one can pinpoint the exact time of demise because no one was there to witness the fall of one of the largest, most popular, most photographed arches in Arches National Park.

All anyone knows is that it was there Monday and it wasn't there Tuesday.

"One of our (U.S. Park Service) employees had eaten their lunch under the arch the day before it fell," said Paul Henderson, a ranger who is chief of interpretation for Arches National Park.

Luckily, it didn't turn into a late lunch.

When the arch fell, it was amid the same kind of solitary conditions under which it was born thousands of years ago.

No one woke up, no one heard anything, prompting the variation on the age-old question about whether a tree falling alone in the forest actually makes a sound.

"That's the joke going around here," said Henderson. "My personal guess is that it made one heck of a noise. You should see how much rock there is everywhere."

The portion of the Devils Garden Trail that went past Wall Arch has been closed pending cleanup of the fallen arch.

"We want to open the trail as soon as possible but it's a matter of trying to figure out the best way to reroute the trail — through the rock debris or completely around it," said Henderson, who has spent the past week fielding calls and being quoted in newspapers throughout the country and around the world.

When an arch falls, people do listen — eventually.

The fall of Wall illuminated two realities about the arches in Arches: They don't last forever and they could fall on top of someone.

Although, as Henderson points out, the likelihood of that happening is incredibly remote.

"It's a lot safer to walk around one of these arches than crossing the street in Moab," he said in his best Edward Abbey voice. "In recent memory I know of no one being injured in Arches because of a rock fall. On the other hand, I could tell you all kinds of stories about people getting in trouble because of a lack of water and not being prepared in this climate."

Still, the arches will crumble. It is their nature. The erosion that created them will one day kill them.

And no one can say when that will happen.

"Could be tomorrow, could be this afternoon, could be a thousand years from now," said Henderson.

No one had any inkling that Wall Arch was about to go.

It was the first outright collapse of a named arch in the park in anyone's memory and the first significant erosion at Arches since a chunk fell off 306-foot Landscape Arch in 1991.

Of the more than 2,000 arches in the park's boundaries, Landscape is generally considered the most vulnerable, but, again, that's mere speculation. It could outlast them all.

Periodically, well-meaning people will suggest that arches, especially the iconic Delicate Arch, ought to get some man-made help to make sure they keep standing. But as Henderson pointed out, "That runs really counter to what the National Park Service is all about. We're not trying to preserve a snapshot in time. We're trying to protect and preserve the natural processes."

The flip side of the equation, as Henderson further noted, is that new arches are constantly being made even as old arches are crumbling.

"All it takes is a relatively thin strand of sandstone, one good freeze-and-thaw cycle that leaves an opening, and that's an arch."

And no one can hear that.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.