Grand Staircase I: Sinners and Saviors

This is Part One of a three-part series.

Four years ago I wrapped up a meandering western road trip at Zion National Park. Its great red walls have called me back ever since, a magnetic pull that only two or three other places on earth have managed. And so, my hockey duties at an end, I set out to escape the bleak late Minnesota winter and head for the southwest. This time I aim for a taste of Zion’s surroundings, and rig up one of my normal sprawling itineraries: Vegas, some sand dunes, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, a trek across southern Utah fueled by Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner on John Wesley Powell. It is time for me to hit the road again, and to appreciate that stark beauty of the untamed West, to peel back a few layers obscured by life at a breakneck pace.

But first, I land for a night in Sin City. Las Vegas, more than ever, seems the logical end point of American popular culture. It is gaudy, escapist, and pulls everyone in to the same churning spectacle, a simulacrum of reality rather than reality itself. I arrive on a Saturday night and stay at an off-brand spinoff of the MGM Grand, a once-glamorous but now dated tower where my 26th-floor balcony gazes out at the glaring lights and less glaring parking garages of the Strip to the west and north. Circuits of the MGM Grand and New York New York across the street are spelunking expeditions through sprawling cave complexes, complete with stalagmites of gaming machines and stalactites of flashy signs inviting me into various restaurants, with rap pumping out of some and Mexican ballads out of others and a few crooners belting out reliable standbys. The clientele is more or less what I expected, with a certain emphasis on over-coiffed white boys and their busty counterparts, but on the whole Vegas strikes me as quite democratic: there is a bit of everyone here, the racial and age ratios probably not all that off from the county overall. I stroll about, enjoy the open container laws and muse to myself about who exactly takes their nine-year olds out on a stroll through this warren at midnight, and why religious mask-wearers would choose this of all places as a vacation destination. The world is a realm of mystery.

I am not the first person to see Vegas in this light. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown saw its radical Strip as a rebellion against the stark formalism of modern architecture. In Vegas the postmodern arose, a return to decoration and ornament, flamboyance and kitsch in search of meaning, however crass or overstated. As I flounder about the city the next morning through a series of misadventures, from a rental car swap-out to a quest to replace a phone charger that was not actually lost in addition to my planned grocery and camping fuel runs, I find myself more at peace with it than I did four years ago. Yes, it is an endless sprawling grid, but there are actual tall buildings and some nods to the landscape’s intricacies. Its homages to famous sites around the world, however tacky, do provide a sort of cosmopolitanism that is more accessible than the real kind without always being that much less authentic, whatever that word may mean. I enjoy the people-watching and revel in the whole spectacle, and can be one with that world, at least for a little while. Were it not for the slowly declining levels of the Colorado River and the impending western water wars fueled in no small part by its rapid growth, I might even have liked the place.

My phone flashes ominous warnings of bad traffic on I-15 north of Vegas. I watch with worry as my estimated travel time to my destination over the first 40 minutes of the drive stays exactly the same, and the landscape, a truly bleak sprawling desert dotted by mining operations along a highway choked with big rigs and RVs, does not give me warm feelings. To my relief, my Google guide diverts me off the freeway and send me on a 25-mile detour that merrily meanders up and down dry washes along the Virgin River just past Mesquite. I wave gleefully at the unmoving traffic on the interstate as I shoot past and rejoin the freeway in the Virgin River Gorge, clambering up toward the freedom of the Grand Staircase.

For most people who have heard of Colorado City, Arizona, it stands for the opposite of freedom, or at least a very tortured version of it. It is in this town and its Utah neighbor of Hildale that a breakaway cult named the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, a sect that rejected the mainstream LDS’s abolition of polygamy, has been practicing plural marriage for decades. The cult has been subject to occasional government raids, the most famous coming first in 1953 and then in 2008, when church leader Warren Jeffs was imprisoned for rape and arranging child marriage. (Less famously, one of Jeffs’ spawn tried to relocate his harem to some land in my own backyard in Cook County, Minnesota, in 2019.) I have a visceral reaction as I drive through, my skin crawling at the sight of all these sprawling, fenced compounds, often with a dozen cars parked out front. While a few suggest some local money, many are in states of incompletion, either shabby disrepair or another stalled-out additions, the only sign of life a healthy number of boys shooting about on bikes. The girls are conspicuous in their absence.

But even in ground zero for a fundamentalist cult, there is hope, or at the very least some decent beer: the Edge of the World Brewery has been open here for a year and a half. The man next to me at the bar calls it a great environment, a heartfelt expression of relief at something his town needed. The man puts the salt in the phrase ‘salt of the earth,’ younger than I am but weathered beyond time, at times barely comprehensible through at thick accent. But yet he isn’t wrong about this being home: the man, improbably, has a brother down the bar who lives in Elk River, and up on the TV, the Minnesota Gophers punch their ticket to the Frozen Four. The man tells me the story of the time his teenage self, smoking weed out of a Red Bull can, gave Karl Malone a light when the Utah Jazz came through on some tour. I attempt to explain my profession, which is hard enough with people who have heard of what I do. We settle for a shared understanding of the value of infrastructure projects and call it a day.

I spend the night at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park some 15 miles east of Colorado City. The dunes here take on soft pink hues, the residue of the red cliffs marching down from Zion. The park is primarily a haven for ATVs and side-by-sides, which does not beget peace and quiet, but a stroll out across the sandy expanse toward the highest dune in sight brings a sort of reverie nonetheless. The wind whispers across them, a few loose grains pulled from the top and hissing some message, some deep secret lost amid the sands of time, ebbing and flowing in rhythmic currents.

I take off my shoes for the walk. The sand is cool to the touch, occasionally granting firm steps but otherwise just sifting away down either side of the dune, swiftly covered once again by the wind. I return at night as the stars emerge, and now it is all still; even the OHVs in the distance pause for a moment to drink it in. A car campground tucked in a juniper thicket is a peaceful home for the evening, and unlike the exasperated mother of Emerson and Clarity, two eager young cyclists in the neighboring campsite, I am able to settle in, free of any worries, chilled by the night desert air and happy to be traveling among people in all their complicated glory once again.

On my second full day, it is off to Zion, the canyon that has become my happy place. My initial goal was to hike Observation Point, the hipster Angels Landing, even higher and less crowded than the famed promontory that I summited the last time I was here. The main trail up from the canyon has been blocked by a rockfall for a few years now, but another access sweeps in from a resort to the east. Alas: a sign at the ranch tells me the road is impassable. “You will get stuck!” it announces, and I audible for a hike from the East Rim trailhead just inside the park boundary. While the eight-mile out-and-back I plod has none of the glamour of the rim views, it is quintessentially Zion in every other way: red and white rocks swirling in all directions, gnarled junipers, a deep gulch, the looming cliffs in the distance, and the now familiar coral sand beneath my feet. I am at home here.

This, however, is merely the warm-up. Immediately beyond the trailhead the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway becomes one of the most stunning roads I’ve ever driven, winding through rich red rock spackled with greenery, Zion’s hanging gardens becoming more and more ubiquitous along the way. Crowds cluster at each turn-out, and a pair of bighorn sheep prompt a freak-out just before the plunge through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. I was curious if Zion would hold up upon a second visit, but when its great red walls appear beyond the mouth of the tunnel, I almost choke up. Hardly my typical reaction to a landform.

My digs on night three are in the Zion Wildflower glampground some twelve miles beyond Springdale, Zion’s main gateway on the south end of the canyon. Covered wagons and yurts dot the hillside, though I settle for a well-appointed bungalow with two rockers out on its front porch. The place is new, having just opened in 2020, and an addition is already under construction further along the hill. It has a commanding view down the valley of the Virgin, and a drive into La Verkin for dinner takes me past a stunning interplay of sunlight and cloud and dust. I bond with the bro in the neighboring cabin, drink in some of the cool night air, and prepare my backpack for what I expect will be the highlight of this trip.

I enjoy the juxtapositions on my first third of my adventure: Vegas gaudiness and Colorado City reclusiveness, the simplicity of the sand dunes and the grandeur of Zion. Now, however, it is time to dive in, to leave behind any temporary friends and head deep into the lonely spaces of southern Utah.

Part 2 is here.