WRTII, Part 3: We’re Marching to Zion

16 May

Friday morning dawns warmly, a sign that Joshua Tree’s cold snap is coming to an end. I won’t get to experience the Mojave at full blast, though: I have a date with Zion. I take down my camp efficiently, double-check for forgotten items, and set off. I make one last run down Joshua Tree’s main road, just beating the lane closure for construction, and gas up in Twentynine Palms. Next, I’m off on the loneliest stretch of road I’ll travel this week: a series of two-lane highways that don’t even earn a state or county number designation. They’re just solitary strips of asphalt that extend out into eternity, rising and falling over the ranges of the Mojave moonscape. The handful of hamlets I pass through are visible from miles off, usually tucked into valleys here on the edge of civilization.

Past I-40 I rise into the Mojave National Reserve, where the Joshua trees return on the high ground, and flocks of buzzards circle overhead, honing in on the roadkill. One brief stretch of road takes me along the old Route 66, meaning there are a few mostly empty roadside motels from a different era, but that’s about all there is to see. I can see the monster casino announcing the Nevada border from miles off, and catch I-15 just before the crossing. The interstate seems excessive after so many miles of desolate road, with constant truck traffic and six broad lanes and a large median, though it’s not as if it’s taking any land away from anything out here.

Primm, the garish border town, welcomes me to Nevada, and just a short while later I get my first look at Las Vegas. At first glance, it does impress, as this monster of a metropolitan area rises out of the desert, and the towers along The Strip loom over it all. I cut off the freeway to find an REI and replace my ground fly, and maneuver down an eight-lane stoplight-riddled highway along vast tracts of housing in suburban Henderson. On my way back through to the Vegas airport three days later, I take a tour down The Strip, and conclude that the city is both great and awful. It’s affordable, spacious, and new, but also a wasteful realm of kitsch whose greatest monuments are plaster replicas of those of other cities. The flight attendants escort one woman who is too intoxicated off my plane after everyone is on board, and the two young women next to me are busy recounting tales of their adventures, ensuring that what happened in Vegas will not stay in Vegas. I’m sure plenty of Las Vegans (not to be confused with the other type of vegans) lead perfectly normal and happy lives, but the place as a whole celebrates a culture of frivolity and temporary escapes from memory. The world needs its frivolity and sin, mind you, but to make its worship the center of a place seems to rob its entire sense of place. Vegas, I muse, is not a place at all, but a place where people go to escape other places, a sort of preview of some marvelously fake virtual reality world that could yet come to be. It is no place for me. I march on to Zion.

Late-stage Joan Didion carries me through the wastes east of Vegas in Nevada in Arizona—hardly a source of happy thoughts—but delight comes anew in the Virgin River gorge. Here, I-15 slithers through a narrow cut in the mountains for ten miles as it winds and loops through an array of stunning cliffs, the river barely visible down below as it weaves back and forth around the viaduct. The road opens back up to the plateau above, and I pass through St. George, Utah’s southern gateway to canyon country. I begin the final stage of my drive, some thirty miles from the freeway to the gates of Zion. The first stretch along Highway 9 worries me—strips of hotels and tourist traps as far as the eye can see—but before long it rises up into a land of layer cake red and white cliffs, tasty previews of the feast to come. I weave into Springdale, the resort town just beneath the ramparts of Zion, and go through a mercifully short line at the park gate.

With all due respect to the other parks I’ve visited on this tour, Zion is to be the closing highlight. Zion Canyon, known as Mukuntuweap by the Paiutes, so stunned early Mormon pioneers that they named it for the Promised Land. When Frederick Dellenbaugh brought paintings of the canyon to the 1893 World’s Fair in St. Louis, observers couldn’t believe they were of a real place. The park has exploded in popularity in recent years, so I will have to fight some crowds here—merely reserving a campsite was a harrowing experience in which all 92 available sites disappeared within five minutes of becoming available two weeks prior—but everyone who has been tells me it’s worth the hype.

The chatty campground hosts direct me to my home for the next two nights. For such a beautiful location, it is a thoroughly blah camp, designed to pack as many people as possible into the canyon. My site is a rocky slope baking in the afternoon sun, and is wide open to neighbors on all sides. I find its one semi-flat spot to pitch my tent, take care of those preparatory tasks as quickly as possible, and head to the visitor’s center to catch the a shuttle. In order to relieve the canyon of crowds, Zion bans private vehicles in its peak seasons and runs regular shuttles down its full length. Mine meanders up the canyon and provides marvelous views of the towering cliffs on both sides, along with running commentary from both a recording and the shuttle driver. The peaks along the route have brilliant names that earn any pretention they may convey: the Watchman, the Sentinel, the Great White Throne, and Angel’s Landing. I’m the only passenger on my packed shuttle to disembark at the Court of the Patriarchs stop, where peaks named for Joshua, Isaac, and Abraham loom over the valley. After some struggle to find my route, I locate a bridge across the Virgin River and start a hike up a horse trail.

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‘Edenic’ is the word that comes to mind as I begin my exploration. I’m stunned by the lushness of the valley floor, from pines to cottonwoods to cacti to hanging gardens on the thousand-foot cliffs. The rushing Virgin takes on the greenish tint of the canyon, and offers a striking contrast with the red cliffs on either side. On this stretch of trail, solitude, in spite of the crowds within the park: I see two couples in my first mile and a half of hiking, but other than them, it’s just me and a bunch of flies around the piles of horse dung. I find the crowds again when my trail connects to the path to the Emerald Pools, but they are no bother. I’m more a man of prose than poetry, but I find myself reciting Coleridge’s Kubla Khan in my head as I hike; an absinthe-driven vision of natural splendor seems the only appropriate response to Zion.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

At the lower Emerald Pool, water showers down from a cliff above and the trail hugs the wall that wraps behind the cascades, showering hikers with a light mist. Some clambering leads up to the middle and upper pools, more tame oases here amid the jungle. A chorus of frogs chirps at the middle pool, while the upper pool sits in repose beneath the towering cliffs, fed by centuries of steady seepage down the walls. I scramble back down and take another trail up the canyon, and am subjected to yet another string of wonderful river views beneath the imposing walls all around. At the far end of the trail, I catch my first glimpse of Angel’s Landing, a towering buttress of stone that juts out into the canyon’s walls down to its floor, and the site of tomorrow’s hike. It seems wide from here, I try to convince myself.

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I catch a shuttle back down the canyon, but the driver announces that the Zion Lodge at the next stop offers ice cream, so I can’t resist a stop. It’s hardly the wilderness here; the lodge hosts hundreds of guests, and even features a bar selling craft beer. The place is beginning to seem like a theme park, complete with tame gathering deer. (Anywhere else I’d be annoyed by the many animals that seem all too comfortable around humans, but here it just fits the Edenic vibe.) The next day, when on a backcountry trail, my hiking companions and I have a chat with a German woman who laments the overcrowding. In the eight years since her first visit, Springdale has exploded from a sleepy outpost into a full-on resort town, and she says the park only expects its number of visitors to double in the next five years. Given the congestion already, that seems absurd.

The backcountry portions of Zion may still offer some solitude for people like the German woman and my hiking buddies. But given the mediocrity of the campground, I think it’s already best to think of Zion Canyon not as a wilderness, but as a tame garden. Next time I’d prefer to stay in the lodge, or perhaps a cabin in Springdale. Later that evening, on a walk up the paved trail next to the campground, I see a few stone rangers’ cabins across the river. Lamps burn in their windows, all open to catch the sweet evening breeze that pours down the canyon. I imagine their residents pouring themselves some drinks, busting out a deck of cards or pulling some books off the shelves, and in that moment I can’t imagine a more heavenly place to spend an evening.

The wind through the canyon buffets my tent all night, but keeps the temperature pleasant for the first time all trip. My alarm goes off at 5:45 the next morning, with the sun still well behind the canyon walls. I dress quickly and go to meet a Duluth friend and his companion, off on a rapid tour of southern Utah parks, in the visitor’s center parking lot. We become the second, third, and fourth people in line for the 7:00 shuttle, which will be the day’s first up the canyon.

Angel’s Landing is one of the most iconic hikes in the National Park system, as it clambers up a narrow spine of rock with sheer 1,000-foot drop-offs on either side out to a stunning view down the canyon. While only about five miles round trip, it requires 1,500 feet in elevation gain, including a final half mile (some 500 vertical feet) of clambering along chains up its narrow spine. We set an aggressive pace up the two miles of relentless switchbacks to Scout Lookout, and are among the first ten to fifteen people to make our way out on to the chains up the Angel’s Landing extrusion. This is a wise choice: we aren’t dueling anyone for a hold on the chains as we clamber up, and while we have to stop a number of times on the way down, it could be a lot worse. Later in the day, it is: when we pass by on our way down from further hiking shortly after noon, people look like ants crawling up the chains in a slow line. Moreover, on the way down we saw only the first of the climbers with any genuine panic over the heights. As we head down the switchbacks that afternoon in upper 80-degree heat, a lot of people who look patently unfit for this climb are struggling up, some asking naïve questions about how much further they have to go; one man is sitting along a switchback in full sun, retching repeatedly over the edge. Look out below.

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This is not to say I’m some model Angel’s Landing hiker. In fact, I probably have the largest imbalance between physical ability and fear of heights of anyone in that first group up. I cling to every chain for my life while others scoot along freely, and if not for my hiking companions setting the pace, I probably would have wimped out. But I keep my eyes on my feet and march on up to the top, where I sink to a seat as far from the edge as I can, and am quite content to admire the view from there instead of snapping pictures from all over the place. I get the hang of things on the way down, and benefit from some levity when one of my companions inadvertently offs a chipmunk with a stray step. It twitches a bit, and a streak of blood trickles down the rock as a woman on her way up worries over it. Survival of the fittest: the rodents of Angel’s Landing are far too tame thanks to the feeding hands of countless tourists, and this one learned things the hard way. We don’t have the heart to tell the woman what happened. My friend has no remorse.

Fired up by our conquest of Angel’s Landing, we turn away from the crowds and push on up the West Rim Trail, which rises up away from the canyon and into the high plateau. Suddenly, the only people on the trail are two guys with whom our party plays leapfrog between hiking and rest stops on our way up, one truly remarkable trail runner, some backpackers on their way to or from the backcountry sites, and the aforementioned chatty German woman.  While less nerve-inducing than Angel’s Landing, it’s often just as steady in its elevation gain, and offers no shortage of beauty. The rock changes from the red along the canyon to the white caps of the peaks in the area, beginning with a huge white dome just above Scout Lookout. The trail descends into a couple of cool cuts in the rock before another relentless climb through a forest that shows signs of fire, then yet more exposed switchbacks.

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An incredible amount of the trail is roughly paved, a remnant of CCC days and yet another example of the marvels of that era’s infrastructure projects whose benefits we still reap today. Like the interstate highway system, it came out of a New Deal era consensus that saw benefits in putting people to work, unleashing the golden age of American building. The CCC is probably the greatest shining light of that era; as I said when meditating on highways, that push had its downsides, both in its development patterns and in the people it excluded from its planning processes. It was also the product of a unique era in the world order. But those years saw the construction of the backbone of this country, and we see no projects like it now, as the Parks Service’s massive deferred maintenance budget can attest.

Trail’s end comes at a junction atop a cliff some 3,000 feet above where we began our day. It’s a marvelous vista beneath a few towering pines, and a trickle of a nearby spring nourishes a backcountry campsite before plunges a thousand feet down the face of the mountain, the rock streaked with black all the way down over centuries of steady drip. From the canyon floor the tops of these peaks look barren, but up here, Zion once again surprises with its lushness. We start our way back down through intensifying sun and, eventually, the Angel’s Landing stragglers. My companions want to see the Emerald Pools, so we push on; the trail, which had been in shade when I hiked it the day before in the early evening, now bears the full brunt of the midday sun. The hikers in this area now are disproportionately European: as I observed at the Grand Canyon a few years back, Europeans are much smarter American tourists than most Americans are, and know to go find some cool pools amid the heat of day, while the Americans all try to push up to Angel’s Landing in this furnace. Even the brief scramble up to the upper pool is sweltering now, but we do our duty and then finally head for the shuttle after 12-plus miles.

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We change out of sweaty gear, visit the bookstore, and head into Springdale for some hard-earned Mexican food and a much-anticipated margarita. (Well, sort of: Utah liquor laws prohibit this place from selling hard alcohol, so they are wine margaritas, which do the job well enough.) After we gorge ourselves, I bid farewell to my hiking companions, who are off to Capitol Reef, and enjoy a marvelous shower in a nearby outfitter, my first since Pacific Grove five days earlier. Maybe I would have groused more if I’d seen pre-development Springdale, but today it offers just what the doctor ordered, and I’ll confess a liking to the place: it’s touristy, sure, but with relatively few chain stores, and its tasteful buildings are all built around park visitors’ adventuring needs, staffed by perky young people who live for this stuff. It could be an awful lot worse.

As I put pen to paper to collect my thoughts, one of my neighbors stops by to invite me to dinner and a campfire later that night. She has just graduated from the University of Utah the day before, and she, her husband, and three other friends have come to Zion for a long weekend of canyoneering. They share their taco fixings with me as we trade some stories, and I join two of them in a lesson on night photography. Despite some clouds and light pollution from the campground and even St. George 30 miles off, my instructor still captures some marvelous shots. Earlier in my trip, I’d observed that I was having relatively few of the spontaneous short-term meetings I’m used to when traveling; I’m not sure whether to blame my advancing age or smartphones or some other mysterious reason. But tonight makes up for that, and after a week of mostly solitary travel, I’m more than happy to have some festive company.

I have no real desire to leave the following morning, but I know I can’t linger forever. My tent has practically been blown in by another night of powerful winds, so I pick up camp, bid my new friends farewell, and move my car to the visitor’s center parking lot so that I can continue my explorations past checkout time. I catch the shuttle all the way up to the final stop in the canyon, the Temple of Sinawava, which offers some good profile views of Angel’s Landing. Keeping my sandals on to let my feet breathe, I wander up the Riverside Walk trail, which heads up the narrowing canyon along the banks of the Virgin. Hanging gardens fed by seepage from the cliffs cling to the walls, and small grottos below the springs are streaked with black from those little trickles of life. The trail dead ends at the start of The Narrows, the channel through the canyon that is Zion’s other great hike. I have neither the time nor the water shoes for that journey, but the canyon beckons at some future date.

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My return journey down the canyon is slow, and interrupted at one point by a spontaneous urge to get off at a stop and wander a half mile down the path to the next stop. I can’t stop taking hits of Zion’s beauty. Finally, I make it down the canyon, visit the gift shop, and work through my leftover lunch material at a picnic table beside the parking lot. The final three hours of driving are a glum blur, my tour of Vegas in hundred-degree heat so at odds with the natural beauty I’ve just witnessed. But hey, where else can one find a 24-hour drive-thru dispensary?

My flight offers excellent views of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado, which brightens my mood ahead of my red eye drive back from Minneapolis to Duluth. I am exhausted. In the short term, this trip has produced no stunning revelations. No, that takes time, and a few hours pecking away at this keyboard, and a whole week-long process of coming down from the high of a trip and re-applying myself to my other commitments.

What did this trip mean? If I’m to believe what I wrote at the picnic table in Pinnacles, it was a journey to mark the end of an era, as my days of student searching and more existential wanderlust fade into the background. The doors that remained open in that era of emerging adulthood are edging their way shut, and while I’ve traveled in wide enough circles that I’ll always have a few options, my life now is what it is. I just take journeys for fun, to marvel at beauty, to feel awe in the presence of oceans and deserts and mountains, and to pass along a witty comment or two after it’s all done. I don’t dwell on work for a second, though I do take a moment for a quick, healthy strategizing session when I learn the name of my new boss upon my return to my campsite after my Angel’s Landing hike. I get some minor inspiration for my fiction, though I could always use more. These trips can be satisfying without grappling with the darker thoughts of a Jack Kerouac or an Edward Abbey.

But that would take out half the fun. Through it all I still want to remain a student of everything, and still want to crawl into every nook and cranny I can find. Exploring it all is what I’m here to do. I’ve been to Zion now, but there are still other Zions to find.

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