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Rift Valley

Throughout the west, tourism has been seen as the next best hope for towns that have relied upon the declining economies of ranching, farming, mining, logging, and commercial fishing. Some places make the transition more gracefully than others. In the first two years after Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated a monument, the number of visitors increased sharply, from 520,000 to 850,000, but has plateaued since then. A second bed-and-breakfast has opened in Escalante; a young couple moved here from the Grand Canyon to set up shop as Escalante Outback Adventures; one entrepreneurial local serves up Dutch oven dinners and cowboy poetry in his yard. Scorn for the monument is so widespread, however, that hardly any natives have tried to cash in on the area's newfound popularity. The upshot is that, by day, visitors have the monument's wide-open spaces astonishingly to themselves, and yet at night they're hard put to find a good meal.

Still, you can look at Grand Staircase-Escalante as a complicated web of political and social issues for just so long. Then you have to see it the way most visitors do: at its glorious best, which is on foot. Grant Johnson is glad there are hardly any established trails. He's been stalking this vast emptiness for 28 years and would rather strike off on his own. "Exploring is what it's all about here—getting into a canyon and trying to find your way out."

I ask him, "Do you see it as any smaller by now, more familiar?"

"No," he assures me. "The better you know the country, the bigger it gets."

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