Robert H. Vreeland

From SPAN July 2005

Robert H. (Bob) Vreeland is shown in his heyday visiting Rainbow Bridge in 1968. Inset photo was taken in 2001. He can be seen atop a natural bridge in Halls Creek Bay in our Stan Jones Gallery.

The Natural Arch and Bridge Society is deeply saddened to report that Robert H.Vreeland passed away on May 13, 2005, in Mesa, Arizona. He is survived by a daughter.

Not only was Bob a great friend and mentor of NABS, he was a major force in stimulating public interest in natural arches. More than any other individual, he fathered the modern methods and efforts to classify, catalog, and document the natural arches of the world. His series of books, Nature’s Bridges and Arches, were the first serious attempt at cataloging the natural arches in the U.S., and at establishing the techniques necessary to study them. His influence is obvious in the standards and data currently maintained by NABS.

Bob was a fascinating person to know. His accomplishments went well beyond being a world authority on natural arches. He earned technical degrees from Michigan and Sanford, and had a long and successful career as an aerospace engineer. He was an athlete, an avid sports fan, and an accomplished musician, among many other talents. He was an exhibition water skier at age 74!

One of his favorite hobbies was stamp collecting. Discovering a few stamp issues that depicted natural arches led to another life-long passion. It was only natural for Bob to bring to his study of arches the same intensity and scientific integrity he applied to all his endeavors.

Despite the heavy demands on his time, Bob enjoyed communicating with others about natural arches. Many of us learned the ropes under his tutelage. His influence on the membership of NABS is inestimable. Indeed, his initial support is a major reason why NABS was formed and continues to exist today. In May 1992, NABS recognized Bob’s contributions by presenting him with a plaque and a lifetime membership.

Many who met Bob in person found him a little hard to get to know. But under his sometimes distant exterior, there was warmth, intelligence, and a childlike enthusiasm for life. The persistent were well rewarded for their extra effort with a true friend. He will be sorely missed. It is appropriate that Vreeland Arch on Hunt’s Mesa, Arizona, stands as a lasting namesake and memorial to his association with natural arches.


By Sam Negri

Reprinted with permission from the The Arizona Republic, November 29, 1986

Robert Vreeland, 68, stood at the window of his apartment in a complex that is reserved for older adults, and offered this comment as a partial explanation of his unusual hobby:

"There are 33 apartments here, and I know that right at this moment, in every one of those apartments, the people are sitting in front of the television waiting to die.... I'm not doing that. I don't want to do that."

Vreeland prefers to spend his time bouncing around the United States locating, photographing, measuring and writing about natural bridges and arches.

It is what he refers to as a hobby, and he concedes that he never has encountered anyone who shares his nearly total preoccupation with the subject.

After hunting the wild landscape, standing before a graceful natural arch is an almost religious experience. "I feel a sort of reverence," he said.

A retired aerospace engineer who admires precision and scholarship, Vreeland traces his interest in arches to January 1947.

He had just completed his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and was driving to California to begin graduate studies at Stanford University.

"It was my first trip across the country and...I began seeing natural pinnacles, petroglyphs, pictographs and Indian ruins. I photographed them all.

"Then, about 20 years ago, I was on a hike down the Escalante River in southern Utah. There were eight of us on that trip — teachers, photographers and so on — and as we were sitting around the fire one night, they all talked about the reason they were on that hike.

"They all had a reason for being there, but I had no reason except that I like to hike. So when it came my turn ... I just said, 'I'm on this trip because I'm writing a book on natural arches and bridges.' It was spontaneous."

Vreeland was surprised, he said, by the enthusiasm and encouragement he received from the others.

"Up to then, I was photographing everything — pinnacles, rock art, ruins — but on that day I decided I'd concentrate only on natural bridges and arches."

Southern Utah, an area with an unusually high concentration of rock arches and bridges, became the object of a sort of pilgrimage for him.

"For 15 years, I went twice a year to Escalante and hiked down the river. It was like attending church. I don't know how else to put it."

Soon after he spontaneously decided to write one book about arches and natural bridges, Vreeland found himself faced with the prospect of writing 22 books. To make the subject manageable, for himself and for the reader, he divided the continental United States into 22 regions. Each region merited a separate book. He has completed 16 volumes and is hard at work on the rest.

"Actually, there will be 23," he said. "The last one will sort of summarize the others and wrap everything together."

Vreeland's preparation for the task was elaborate.

"In addition to measuring and photographing each arch and bridge, and telling how to get to them, I wanted to be able to say what kind of rock each arch was made of.

"So I took a basic geology course, and then I took a historical geology course, and by the time I got through, I ended up taking 18 geology courses.

"I have to drive and hike a lot to get to the places where these things are, and I'm usually alone, so being able to identify the rocks and the strata as I go along made the trips more interesting."

Vreeland also checked in libraries to see what had been published on the subject. He found that only one piece of any depth had been written, and that was about 1910. He said he also felt he had to devise a classification system.

"How do you segregate bridges from arches? I decided that bridges were formed by running water and arches were formed by weathering. Then I had to figure out how to measure them, so I ended up buying a 100-foot tape, a sextant and an optical tape measure. I always take those things — and my cameras — when I hike."

An optical tape measure, used by golfers, among others, looks like a small camera. The user peeks through a viewfinder at a distant object and turns a knob until the object is in perfect focus. The tape measure then displays the distance to the object in feet.

Given Vreeland's enthusiasm, it seemed entirely predictable that at some point his "hobby" would overshadow his engineering career.

In 1968, he told his employer he needed three months off (without pay) to hunt for arches. He was given the time and repeated the three-month hiatus annually for the next several years.

"Eventually, I was demoted because of that, but I didn't care.... I was a well-educated engineer, and I could always find something else."

In 1971, Vreeland became so enthralled with the pursuit of arches that he told his employer he needed six months off.

"It was a bad time, because I was working on a formal proposal for the space shuttle. The company was not very happy. So I quit."

Six months later, he found a new job.

"I did that for several years. I worked on advanced designs, and it was always easy to find another job for six months," he said.

In 1979, when he was 62, Vreeland "officially retired" and dedicated all his energy to publishing his books.

Vreeland has had 250 copies of each book printed, except for the one on Arches National Park. He printed 2,000 of that one, because it is sold in the park's visitor center. Most of the books sell for $2.50 or slightly more.

"I don't even cover the cost of printing," Vreeland said. "I guess it's a pretty expensive hobby, but I figure that if I went bowling every night for 11 years, it would have cost me more than what it's cost to put out these books."

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