Smokin' arches: marijuana and the math professor

Shasta Webb

Friday, September 25, 2009

Math professor Stan Wagon is a skier, snow-sculptor and explorer. This spring, while traveling in remote area in Southern Utah, Wagon discovered a stone arch. After noting its interesting shape, he decided to name it the 420 Arch. He later reported it to arch experts who informed him that it was indeed previously unrecorded.The Mac Weekly: Before we begin discussing the arch and your trip this summer, can you briefly describe what you do here?

Stan Wagon: Well I teach math of course. That's pretty much all I do here. I've been fortunate in that I've only ever taught half-time. My wife and I share a position here so I only teach one semester. And that's been over the last 30-odd years. So that's allowed me to spend a lot of time on other things. Like running magazines, hiking and so on.

TMW: How long has hiking been an interest of yours?

SW: I lived at home when I went to college at McGill University in Canada. Not much changed for me when I was at McGill. I was living at home, and it was just like high school. But then I went to graduate school at Dartmouth. My housemates taught me how to ski and hike a little bit and so on and I took to it.

TMW: What inspired you to go on the Utah trip this spring?

SW: The section of Utah, the southeast corner, is really remarkable. Tremendous sandstone features- lots of really cool stuff. It's also one of the most remote areas in the United States. So when the car leaves you off, it could be 40 miles to the nearest paved road. And it doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a lot. If you got stuck and had to walk out, it would take several days, not just a day. We like that, I and my friends.

We go on these camping trips, and once you see an area, every time you go back you see something else in the next canyon over and you say, "Next year I'll go back and do that." There's a lifetime of exploration in this area. For me the interesting area is called the Escalante National Monument. It was made a national monument about ten years ago. This Escalante area is really remote, and you can just go on these things and you won't see people around.

TMW: So how many people went with you on the trip?

SW: This was actually a big one. It was eight people, and I didn't really like it. I'm sort of a leader, and eight's a lot. People get sick, people have to stop, and so on. It slows you down. Three, four, five is ok. But eight people.you can't cook in one group. You have to cook in two groups. And it can be a little bit more complicated, but it actually worked out.

TMW: How difficult was it to access this particular arch?

SW: It was about an eight-day trip, and this was about four days in. It was right in the middle, so that's why it was conceivable that no one had seen it before. I didn't really realize it at the time, but then I got home and started looking on Web sites and asking experts. I looked in some arch books, and then I realized, "Hey, maybe no one's ever seen this before." It's not in any guidebook or anything.

On the second day [of the trip], we had to go through a tunnel near the bottom of the canyon. There were huge cliffs everywhere, but we had heard about this tunnel. It took about an hour to find the opening, but once we found it, it was like magic. We had to pass packs up through this tall tunnel. It was a very cool spot.

TMW: What specifically inspired the name 420 Arch?

SW: Uh, I don't know if it's obvious to you, but it looks like a rather young Macalester student, with a little cap, smoking a little pot pipe. It's the first thing it looked like to us, anyway.

TMW: What did your companions have to say about this?

SW: Well, they thought the name was cool. They thought of naming it after some of them, but then, that wouldn't have had much meaning to the wider world. This name has a lot of meaning to the wider world. And I did a little research on the source of the term, and what I learned from the Macalester students over the years seems not to be the correct story.


TMW: Did anything else eventful happen on that trip?

SW: The tunnel was very cool. You find little things here and there. You can go bathing in these [water holes] here. You can't drink out of them though, but that's the kind of stuff you find. One of the guys I was with was 68, and he's still quite active and fit. And he has maybe 1,500 days in the desert, and this was the driest he had ever seen it. Finding water this year was troublesome.

TMW: How did you go about reporting the arch?

SW: Good question. There's a Web site. There's an arch society. In fact there was a big program on National Geographic about arch hunters, who go around looking for arches. We totally found this one without particularly looking for it. You'll see when you go into this website that there are thousands and thousands of arches, and so this was clearly a guy I should contact. This guy knew his arches, and had hundreds on his site, and so I could learn about a couple, and then say 'Hey, I found one!'

TMW: How did it make you feel to "discover the undiscovered"?

SW: It's not really that big of a deal. This is a small thing, only 30 feet. You know, people aren't going to spend four days backpacking into this area to see this arch. But, nevertheless, it shows that if you wander around long enough, and you keep your eyes peeled, you might find something interesting that makes for a good picture.

There's one thing that we found that was way more exciting, especially because it's no longer there. So on one of our ski trips in Canada, which I've done a lot of, Macalester students have sometimes accompanied me. It's very cool to have a student [come along]. We go to very, very remote terrain. We go in by helicopter, and we just get dropped off.
Well one year we found something. This is the coolest thing we've ever found. Near the foot of a glacier there are often little caves where the ice is breaking away. So we went under this ice cave, and after we went in, we realized we could see light at the far end, and we could walk through the glacier. It was 60 yards long, and there was a hole into the top of the glacier. This was very cool. Of course, in the summer this would just be rushing water. I've been back to this place in the summer, but since it was at the bottom of a glacier, it seems not to be there any more. This [ice cave] was totally unexpected, and you asked about the arch, but that's not that unexpected.

TMW: What are some places you've been to around North America that really struck you as your favorite places?

SW: Well, the two big things that have occupied me have been the ski traverses, seven to ten day trips in British Colombia. It's an amazing part of the world. Huge amounts of snow, very good skiing. And of course, the trips in Utah. So those are things I keep doing. And the only other thing I've done big, which was really big, was an expedition to Mount Logan, which is the highest peak in Canada. I wanted to do at least one expedition in my life that was little bit complicated. So we did this thing to Mt. Logan, and that was pretty big. Seventeen days . I had a team that was all female except for me. I guess I was honorary female for that trip. It all worked out pretty well. It was cozy camping in the snow, and it was a very fun trip. We didn't make the summit, but we got pretty close. In some ways this is the biggest mountain in the world. This has more terrain above 17,000 feet than any other mountain.

TMW: It seems that athletics and mountaineering have been big parts of your life.

SW: Yes, they've been huge. Of course, mathematics is important as well. I am just glad I got into it in graduate school. I was a little bit of a chubby kid in high school, and then I became a runner, and it got sort of addictive. It helps me teach too, because I appreciate that students have to take time off for football games, or track meets and so on, and I try to make it all work. I think it's an important part of their time here.

TMW: So aside from learning to balance things like mountaineering with things like academics in your life, has there been any other connection between these two sides of you?

SW: No, it's really two different things. I mean you're always thinking about things. It's just the old Latin phrase that I can't remember in Latin right now: healthy mind, healthy body. The only connection is that I wake up in the morning, and I work, and glued to a computer all morning, you sort of, get stuck in ruts. You're not really thinking deeply. Then you go on a run, and you're thinking about the big things, and as soon as you finish your run, you want to try lots of new things. I've definitely found that the time away from the desk is more productive than the time sitting at the desk.

TMW: Do you have any more trips planned for the future?

SW: Well, I'll probably just keep doing those Utah trips every April. They are pretty addictive. I spend most of my year in Colorado, and I only teach at Macalester in the fall. I'm in the mountains nine months of the year. I do a lot of Nordic skiing. I still race. The last four years I've done a 55-mile race. And, that's long. I've gotten to under eight hours on that. So that's something where technique can improve your times even as you get older.

swebb@macalester.edu