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News » Opinion

Rock of Ages?

Taking a Gander: Cracks threaten America's future



Some time in the early 80s, back when water levels were near their peaks, I went hiking with my family at Lake Powell. Suddenly, we were confronted with a bizarre sight.

On a rocky ledge, probably some 100 feet above the water line, was an abandoned ski boat complete with engine and upholstery. I was extremely puzzled until I asked a park ranger, "How in the world did it get there?"

His response: "Well, if you look across the lake from the boat, there's a huge, light-colored section of the cliff wall that looks different than the rock around it. That's a very recent 'spall,' and the boat you saw was thrown onto the rocks by a giant wave, created as 1,000 feet of sandstone wall fell into the lake. It was just fortunate that the people were out hiking at the time."

His explanation sent a chill down my spine and left me momentarily speechless. I could visualize the huge wave as it swept from one side of the lake to the other.

I think that was the first time I had ever considered the possibility that the rock was not as stable as it looked, and that the cliffs presented an ever-present danger for Lake Powell visitors.

Oh, sure, I was well aware of the insidious effects of wind and water erosion, continually modifying the surface of the rocks, but the idea of a catastrophic structural failure had never crossed my mind. After that, I always thought twice about where to anchor the boat, where to take the family hiking, and where to spend the night.

When I thought more about the pseudo-tidal wave the giant spall had propagated, it occurred to me that it was the lake itself that had contributed to the failure of that seemingly-indomitable, magnificent rock face. Because sandstone is a soft combination of sedimentary components, exposure to water, for long enough, will cause it to soften, then fail. Gravity does the rest.

After that, I was always wary of the many overhangs and cliffs that are everywhere on the lake. Despite their grandeur, I then knew that hidden flaws could suddenly bring them down. Even biblical parables have extolled the virtue of building a house on solid rock, but it was obvious: No one should have built a house on that one.

Now, so many years later, I've just read about the recent tragedy that occurred in the southern state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. A large slab of cliff gave way at a popular Lake Furnas tourist site, where a waterfall cascades into the lake. Multiple commercial tourist boats and private craft were present, and the slab actually landed on at least two of them. The huge wave also capsized other boats in the inlet. We don't have the exact numbers yet, but at least ten people were killed, dozens were injured, and some are still missing.

I find it both interesting and disturbing that people feel so secure in areas of extreme potential danger. Like me, they don't focus on the remote possibility that rocks can fail, and they believe that, though accidents are imminent, it "won't be me." The reality is that anything, both heavy and tall, is a threat to our well-being. The enormous potential of height and massive weight virtually ensure that, eventually, even rock structures will fall—perhaps with catastrophic consequences.

Sadly, these two stories of failed stone structures are metaphors for our nation today. The American Revolution cleared the way for the New World's first democracy, and the Bill of Rights and Constitution memorialized the principles that would make it great. In a very real sense, the United States of America was a house built on a rock. Simply stated, one-citizen-one-vote is that rock.

But today, we're finding our country is not quite as solid as we'd believed. Weaknesses, like allowing individual states to decide national election results, permitting parties to carve up voting districts for a more favorable outcome, ill-informed citizens who prefer to wear blindfolds and overt attempts to keep minorities from voting are potentially fatal faults in America's foundation. The worst crack is that so many Americans have turned on their "gods" in order to worship the Big Lie. The ultimate crack in democracy is the widespread, total abdication of truth, honor and social responsibility.

While America's real patriots are desperately trying to save her, one of our major political parties is working to bring our nation down. Frankly, I can't understand how any Republican today—with a few notable exceptions, like senators from South Dakota and Wyoming—can look into a mirror without suffering enormous shame. They are working, led by their supreme-loser, to make voting difficult and time-consuming for the nation's minorities. Even worse, they are attempting to install state secretaries of state and voting officials who will answer the call to invalidate any vote that doesn't favor their party. These traitors are behind the dozens of state legislative bills that seek to undermine our democracy

This isn't rocket science. Everyone knows that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election—leaders of both parties have been forced to recognize that the election was properly run and totally fair. I cringe at the dangerous clowns who still continue to embrace the lie—one that has been debunked over and over—and the Capitol insurrectionist attack of Jan. 6, 2021. The attack exposed the tragic reality: We cannot assume all is well, there are fault lines running through the rock of our nation.

Unlike the rocks at Lake Powell and Lake Furnas, we don't have to allow accidents of nature to determine the fate of our country. Until now, most Americans have been hopelessly naïve about the security of their nation. Trump and his minions have weakened our democracy. Now we need to shore it up to make certain it doesn't come crashing down.

The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist, and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.