Grand Staircase III: Layers of Time

This is the third in a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2

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.

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Grand Staircase II: Stairway into the Unknown

This is Part 2 of a three-part travel series. Part 1 is here.

My night outside Zion is fitful, nervous, eager with anticipation, the sense that my plan for the next two days is no casual stroll. I have a one-night date with the West Rim Trail. When I go to collect my permit, the ranger appraises me carefully: this hike is a 3,000-foot climb, the upper reaches of the ascent are covered in snow, up top the trails are thick with mud, the only water source there is probably snow-covered, and oh, have you noticed all the rain in the forecast? I assure her I am a northern Minnesotan, and when she learns I’ve day hiked to three-quarters of the route before, she gains a bit more confidence in my abilities. The day dawns a dreary grey, which only makes for perfect hiking weather. A couple with overnight packs is also on my shuttle up the canyon, and we leapfrog our way all the way up to Cabin Spring, where they settle in at the first campsite on Zion’s roof.

This trek is one of phases. The first 2.5 miles follow the well-worn route to Angels Landing, the iconic clamber up chains between thousand-foot drop-offs that I conquered four years ago and feel zero compulsion to climb again. After Angels Landing is my favorite part of the whole trek, as the crowds thin out and the trail climbs a series of shelves with views to rival those of the famed promontory, culminating in a huge, white dome. From there, it tucks in along the backside of one of the mounts lining the canyon, past cool streams of snowmelt trickling down the rock. Higher up, the snow begins, first as little clumps alongside the trail, and later covering substantial portions of the trail itself, though it is firm enough and well-enough worn that at no point is it awful. At the top of the snow I encounter a family I’d seen high up on the East Rim the previous day, and their intrepid 10-year-old daughter advises me on how best to have fun with the snow. My kingdom for children who someday show the same pluck and guile as her. From here, there are more exposed switchbacks up another steep wall to the West Rim Lookout at Cabin Spring, where most day hikers (including myself four years ago) turn around.

I see no one in my 24 hours beyond Cabin Spring. There are more climbs, but they are gradual, and the muck is indeed treacherous in places, first as an insidious yellow mud that isn’t thick but clings to boots like leeches on legs, and later in a thicker, gloppy ascent with a full-blown stream running down the middle. The views are stellar, or so I am forced to guess: I am in the clouds, the chances to see outward sporadic, and while the mesa here is exposed enough that most snow is off the trail, it still clings to shaded hillsides. The late winter landscape takes on a haunted, empty air, and phantom voices carry through the howling wind. I am as alone as I’ve ever been.

Finally, I arrive at campsite 5, which sits atop a ridge between Phantom Valley to the west and Telephone and Imlay Canyons to the east. The clouds whip directly over me and plunge my ridge into obscurity, and I pass the afternoon cycling from one side to the other, admiring the vista in whichever direction has the higher clouds at that moment. I don’t tire of it. In time, though, the thicker clouds get too close, and rain, interspersed with ice pellets, begins to fall. I have a tent malfunction, but some string and some rocks solve my dilemma and keep me dry through a 12-hour span under the covers. I sleep poorly, never warm but never exactly cold, yet somehow content that I have made it where I want to be. I rise at sunrise and finally look out to see the view from my throne atop Zion. The world glitters beneath me, ignited by a fiery glow. I am transfixed, my pilgrimage at its apex.

I wait until nearly ten to break camp so the sun can eat away at the ice on my equipment and dry out as much as it can. The trek down reveals all the views I’d missed the day before, made somehow more stunning by their temporary withholding, and I plow down in an hour less time than it took me to make the climb. Beyond the snowy bits I join a day-hiking couple from Beaver Bay, just an hour north of Duluth; we trade shared acquaintances as we go. Angels Landing is an absolute zoo, and I may have seen it at its absolute worst: in just two days, the National Park Service is finally imposing a permit system on the famed hike, and only the select, pre-scheduled few will be able to head up the chains. I fight the crowds down the switchbacks and settle for a half-mile stroll along the canyon bottom back to the Zion Lodge for a much-needed meal and a drink.

The Lodge is not quite what the doctor ordered for a weary hiker. The food has all the flavor of a McDonalds with none of the speed. There is only one beer on tap until the distributor’s truck arrives again, though at least it is a decent local microbrew. There are no open tables and alcohol is not allowed off the patio on to the inviting lawn, so I decamp on a wall by the beer stand until a departing couple takes pity on me. I pay it forward and let a couple from St. Louis join me, and we bond over our fondness for road trips and incredulity over the crowds. (Shouldn’t all these children be in school?!) I share my shuttle back down the canyon with a clump of high schoolers on some sort of Christian retreat, all of whom ignore the mask mandate and talk earnestly about what they are looking for in relationships. Is it bad that my instinct is to buy them a case of beer?

I return to my car and climb back up out of Zion, back through the Mount Carmel tunnel and then north on US-89. My abode for the next two nights is a no-frills roadside cabin some 20 miles west of Bryce Canyon, and my dinner that night comes at a family diner in the town of Panguich, a bustling joint staffed almost entirely by teenagers. From my spot at the bar, I get a front row seat to the chaos, as the POS system is deemed a POS and three orders come out for tables with no one sitting at them. At least the wings are tasty.

A poll of acquaintances who have visited both Zion and Bryce has been inconclusive on which is better. While Bryce cannot match the sheer scale of Zion, it has an intimacy to it, and its famed hoodoos never cease to amaze with their wild shapes. Trails chart labyrinthine courses around the pinnacles of rock, never flat as they wind down to the floor of the canyon and then back up and around to get over to the next feature. South of the bustling amphitheater, a 17-mile road snakes its way up past 9,000 feet in elevation, with repeated overlooks up and down the Grand Staircase and across the Paria River valley. It’s snowing when I arrive, and while it is a bit too warm for anything to accumulate, three more squalls break out over the course of the day. The most eventful one comes as I traverse the Bristlecone Trail at the far end of the scenic drive; the woman I am following loses the trail entirely for a spell. She is one of five lost people I help over the course of the day, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to lament the decline of navigational skills. “Trust me, I don’t get lost!” I want to yell at the dude making his second circuit of the Peek-a-Boo Trail even though he is sure he isn’t; later in the day, we meet at an overlook and he concedes defeat. Don’t mess with my geography skills.

The burst of wind and snow that nearly stole my hat away atop Bryce Point tells me it’s time to wrap things up here. I wrap up my Bryce hiking with a quick trot to an ice-filled cave off Highway 12, where dripping water produces a trickling symphony that silences the cluster of viewers. I am glad I saw Bryce, but in a day, I feel like I have seen what it has to offer, while after nearly a week in Zion across two trips, I still haven’t touched its northern unit or The Narrows or Observation Point or its little-known southern desert. I conclude my tour of Bryce with a geology lesson in the visitor center, content with a rock-filled day sandwiched between two experiences of wilderness sublime.

This entire trip is, in effect, a traverse of the Grand Staircase, a series of rock layers that rise up from the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River into central Utah. These different bands of geological time give the rocks different hues, often ending in dramatic dropping shelves. Closest to the Colorado are the Chocolate Cliffs, while the Vermilion Cliffs rise near Kanab, just south of the Utah-Arizona state line, and include the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, the areas around Colorado City, and the lower layers of Zion. Next come the White Cliffs, which look like a jagged scrape on an aerial image; they form Zion’s upper reaches. The drive from Zion to Bryce follows the cut of the Sevier River up through the Grey Cliffs, and finally, at the top, are the Pink Cliffs that reach the heights of Bryce at 9,000 feet. Above these sit the great upland plateaus of south-central Utah, themselves rising in steps: the Markagunt, the Paunsaugunt, and the Aquarius. The Staircase’s eastern railing is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which stretches down from the Aquarius to the Colorado and falls off on its own eastern side from the Straight Cliffs into the canyonlands of the Escalante River. It is in this remote land, the last portion of the lower 48 states to be mapped by the US government, that I will spend the bulk of the next two days.

The drive east from Bryce has the distinct feeling of heading deeper into the wilderness. I tumble down from the Paunsaugunt through a series of Mormon frontier towns in the Paria River valley, oasis outposts with verdant fruit trees clustering around dust-choked homes. The road winds up into the Kaipirowits and down through funky Escalante, traffic thinned to a trickle. My eagerness at this fresh landscape grows, but nothing quite prepares for the Head of the Rocks Overlook, where the scrubby plateau disappears and the rocky canyonlands of the Escalante River undulate out in all directions below, the ribbon of the CCC-built Highway 12 the only thing interrupting the march of these rocky waves out to a few snow-capped ranges on the fringes of the wilderness.

At the direction of a ranger, I head straight for the Calf Creek Campground and claim one of the 13 sites nestled just above that small stream’s confluence with the Escalante. I wish I could have arrived just two weeks later to see this small Eden at its best, but as it is, these oases in the desert are budding and coming to life. I plug up the creek some three miles to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 120-foot plunge of water into a deep, cold pool. The route is gradual, with views to ancient pictographs and granaries up on cliffs, and while a healthy crowd hikes this trail, it has nothing on Zion or Bryce. I dip my feet in the icy waters and take my time to soak in the warmth on the stroll back.

After a recovery spell in a hammock, I drive north into Boulder. On the way, Highway 12 skirts high above Calf Creek and the canyonlands to the east, an Angels Landing for cars atop the ridge, and then plunges into Boulder, the last town in the US to have mule-delivered mail, accessible only by unpaved road until the 1980s. The Burr Trail, an old cattle route, swings east from here, and a cheery sign announces a mere 72-mile trip to the Lake Powell Ferry. The trek would take hours; I settle for a trip in to the aptly named Long Canyon, a deep red gash in the stone, and home to a lonely slot canyon worthy of a quick exploration. That night, back at Calf Creek, I hop up on a natural red rock seat, sip away at some wine, and drift into a reverie as the stars emerge, deep in this lonely desert, the crackling fires and stray laughs across the campground filling me with a warmth independent of the cool evening air.

Some ice forms in the water bottle I leave out on the picnic table, but I have my soundest night of sleep in a tent on this trip. After packing up, I do a 6-mile stroll up and down the Escalante, wading its frigid waters 14 times as I process up the canyon to a natural bridge and an arch. The trail snakes along those pure flowing waters, up and down ledges and across dry washes, nestling beneath cliffs and cottonwoods and through fields of sage. All is at peace.

I take my time in making my exit from Grand Staircase-Escalante. First, another hiker mentions some unadvertised petroglyphs just above the parking lot by the river where I’ve been hiking, so I head up the trail opposite the river and, after a few false turns, arrive at these signs from the past. On the other side of the river, I pause for a scrumptious lunch at the Kiva Koffeeshop, a new agey wonder built right into the hill, with views up and down the canyon. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a beauty, Zion’s essence distilled to its basics and stripped of its crowds. I shall return.

Part 3 is here.

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.

WRTII, Part 3: We’re Marching to Zion

This is Part 3 in a series on a road trip. Past parts here: Intro | Part 1 | Part 2

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.