Sated by my time in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I drive the three hours back to Zion, where I nestle in at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, a mile’s stroll from the park’s gates. This writer is a sucker for this bed and breakfast, complete with sprawling library and author-themed rooms. I am in the Mark Twain Room, wedged between Walt Whitman and Louis L’Amour on the first floor, and the great red cliffs peek out above some trees through my window. There is a voucher for breakfast at a Mexican place up the block, a tray of cookies and lemonade in the afternoon, an attentive Irish proprietor, and a library where I can sit and organize my notes in the evening. What more could I ask for to round out this trip?
I spend the night at the Zion Brewery, which is, brilliantly, the first establishment one encounters when exiting the park via its pedestrian bridge over the Virgin into Springdale. I settle in at the bar and make a few temporary friends as we throw back beers. “Have these trips ever changed your life?” asks Russell from Philadelphia when I tell him the tale of my journey. Check back in with me later, I reply. A couple from Long Island then joins us, the husband glued to the North Carolina-Duke Final Four game on the TV, and I become a temporary Tar Heel fan at his behest. These are the best nights of solo travel, the momentary community a necessary counterpoint to the solitude of nights in tents.
On my final full day, I hike the full eight miles up Zion Canyon to the end of the road. At times I am on formal trails such as the Pa’rus across the meadows north of the Visitor Center, or the Kayenta between the Emerald Pools and the West Rim trailhead; at times I am on a semi-formal sandy track lining the river; and for long stretches I am just on the road, which is empty aside from shuttles every few minutes, the occasional car headed to the Lodge, and a steady string of cyclists. While the shuttle system has the effect of choking up certain spots when it disgorges busloads at certain popular locations, it means that vast amounts of the canyon, despite the number of visitors it hosts, are basically empty. Even in the four days since my backpacking excursion, the canyon seems lusher with spring, the cottonwoods’ leaves unfurling and purple and red and yellow flowers springing up here and there. I see a condor and a crane and a wild turkey, and at times the only sound is the rushing water of the Virgin River, which echoes off the canyon side walls. Never has a stroll up a road felt like such complete immersion.
After a quick recharge at the Novel House, I go for my final Zion hike: a quick burst up and down the Watchman Trail, which rises from the Visitor’s Center some 360 feet to views over Springdale, the campgrounds, and up the canyon. As on the West Rim, I half expect to find a shrine at the top, but instead it features verdant greenery crawling out of the rich red rock, a perfectly acceptable endpoint for a pilgrim to Zion. I sit for a while at the summit, process a few thoughts, make peace with the paths I’ve trodden over the past week. I read a passage I copied down from Leave only Footprints, a memoir by Conor Knighton, who visited all of the national parks in a meandering, yearlong post-breakup journey. Here, he contemplates a fireplace at the Grand Canyon that serves as a model for all its layers of rock:
Looking at a canyon’s different lines and layers, we can read its diary, seeing the various strata that made it what it is today. The layers are stripes, not smears; they all seem so clearly delineated. I wondered if, inside of each of us, those same markers exist. When we think of personality, we tend to think of it like a soup, a blend of traits and experiences that have been mixed together to make us the people we are today. Over the years, more and more gets added; the broth gets thicker, and the individual ingredients become harder to discern. It seemed to me that we might be more like that fireplace; like the canyon, full of layers with clear dividing lines; moments that say, from this point on, everything will be different. Maybe those lines mark deaths, births, loves, and losses, the moments we’d expect to define the different periods of our lives. Or, maybe they correspond to days and events we would have never initially seen as important.
Did I actually change as a person when I graduated from college? Probably not. Maybe a more significant shift happened midway through seventh grade, when my teacher told us to pick a college to do a report on, and instead of picking one that was good at sports, I chose Yale, a place I knew nothing about. Maybe your life changes on your wedding day, but I’d imagine the actual change happens on your fourth date, when the woman who will one day be your wife tells you a joke that somehow tells you she’s the one. It’s never clear a layer is over until the line appears and a new one starts. Looking past the fireplace, out to the canyon it represented, I began to think that I might be smack dab in the middle of an important layer, an era that was changing who I was as a person. There was the me before the parks, and there will be the me after them.
I ponder some of the layers in my own life, some obvious to any who know me and others more subtle. I was eight when I learned that the world could steal away life in an arbitrary instant, and eighteen when I learned it would be impossible to ever truly go home. At twenty-two I grounded a life that was somewhat adrift in a place, but by twenty-eight I found myself more in tune with the kid who had once run away from that place than the one who’d made a commitment to a thing that cannot love him back.
The world is forever changing, and that there is a sweet spot of knowing it will change you while knowing that you can also change parts of it. At twenty and twenty-one I began to sow the seeds of a worldview that understood this fact. Around twenty-six I internalized the power of forgiveness and began to appreciate that I did not need to define myself by the things I had lost. At twenty-seven and twenty-eight I undertook a writing project to interrogate these possibilities, and to play out the tension between competing strains of thought in my head. At twenty-nine and thirty I learned that more than a place I was in need of a pace, and have, perhaps, at thirty-one and thirty-two, found it.
In the four years since I last came to Zion I have hiked relentlessly forward in the fog, through a snow patch of work life upheaval and a climb up into a new Duluth network and on through the sticking mud of a two-year pandemic. It has been a relentless, and generally successful, but often very solitary phase. My navigation skills in any moment haven’t really been in doubt, but the view has not always been clear. Now, at long last, I think I can see again, and am even more eager to see where I am the next time I make my way to this canyon that has become my Eden.
In a few conversations before I left for the Grand Staircase, I described this venture as a last great solo trip, at least for the foreseeable future. This usually brought about a lament in response. Why stop now? I seem to love it, and I am good at it. But too much of my life has been caught up in a confusion between being good at things and therefore believing these are the things I must do. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever travel this way again, and I had some motivations for making this a solitary burst. But I have done what I set out to do, and I have came home content.
In these canyons there are always more layers, greater and greater depths and heights to explore. Some of it will be forever buried, and that is alright. But there are many more layers to discover, and next time I head forth, I don’t plan to do so alone.