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ARCHES. Here is a desert land of bizarre stone formations and eery silence, of a majesty that haunts the imagination

By Lynn StokesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 1986

Arches National Park, Utah

`WEAR comfortable shoes and be sure to take plenty of film.'' Good advice for any traveler, and especially one going to Arches National Park in southeastern Utah. The scenery here is magnificent, but many of the most spectacular sights, such as Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch, are not prepackaged and conveniently placed at the side of the road.

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Sightseeing here will ensure that you get some vigorous exercise, as well as plenty of photos to show the folks back home.

The first thing you'll want to see is Delicate Arch, the graceful arc of rose-colored stone that has become the symbol of the park. Officially named Delicate Arch, unofficially it has been labeled Chaps for a Bowlegged Cowboy.

The hike to the arch begins at a tiny structure named Wolfe's Cabin, about 12 miles from the park's visitor center. The trail is a moderate three-mile round trip, up and over the rocks, with little ``ducks'' or piles of stones along the path marking your way. It's a good thing there are those stone cookie crumbs, because you can't see the arch as you climb. Just when you are beginning to wonder if you are on the right track, you round a wind-swept bend and suddenly the arch looms up in front of you.

The drama of the moment makes tired feet and burning-hot sun seem like petty details.

Delicate Arch is artistically displayed: mounted on the edge of a rocky plateau that drops off abruptly into a deep chasm, with a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks built up behind it. The arch, which stands 12 feet high and spans 17 feet, is of a lumpy irregular form, the hardened Play-Doh of some nameless giant child.

Like many formations and creatures of this earth, arches have life cycles. First the forces of nature -- frost, wind, rain -- and the pull of gravity chisel a hole in the rock that, over millenniums, becomes the center of an arch. In time, the relentless battering will topple the arch, all the while gouging out new ones to take its place.

Sit for a minute: Give yourself time to consider the majesty of the scene and tuck it away in your memory.

Most travelers can't seem to resist walking a few more yards to stand under the arch and have their picture taken. The first known photograph of Delicate Arch, in fact, is one of these souvenir shots: a woman, sunbonnet off as she poses for posterity, and her two kids say cheese under the famous curve. That woman was Flora Stanley, and she was living with her father, John Wolfe, in that little cabin you saw at the start of the trail to Delicate Arch.

John Wolfe, a Civil War veteran, had a small cattle ranch here and had written home extolling the peace and quiet of the place, bragging that the nearest town was a day's ride away.

Eventually Flora and her family came to live on the remote ranch, a decision she came to regret. The weather was extreme; a desert land with temperatures over 100 in the summer and zero or below in winter. And there was the wind, howling over the rocks like a raging banshee and moving whole sand dunes from one spot to another. Nor was she thrilled with the peace and quiet, or the long months without female conversation and companionship. In desperation, once she made the all-day trip to town, hoping to a find a woman to talk to. But as circumstances would have it, there were no women out on the street that particular day.

Soon after, Flora and her family moved into town.

Because of its rather formidable environment, Arches has not been a permanent home for many. It seems destined to be one of those places people are always just passing through. Ute Indians, trappers, miners, mountain men, outlaws, even the ubiquitous Butch Cassidy, all have been to Arches, and have kept on going.

Several visitors have left traces of their passage through Arches. The Utes etched petroglyphs of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls and painted bizarre pictographs of human beings with pointed bodies, straight out of ``Chariots of the Gods.'' Even Kilroy was here: An obscure fur trapper, Denis Julian, engraved his name and the date, June 9, 1844, on a blank rock.