All the travel and busy schedule has left me hopelessly behind on blogging, but then again I've never met a blogger who wasn't hopelessly behind. It's wonderful to be safely home; maybe now I'll have a chance to catch up a little.
Sunday, March 30th, I attended the morning service at the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fresno and spent the afternoon catching up with Max. After a few short hours of encouraging fellowship, it was time for the 10-hour drive to Utah, the first leg of the journey.
I have never been to or driven through Las Vegas, but my route to Zion National Park takes me right through on I-15. The night has fallen, and I'm driving north opposite a glowing stream of liquid incandescence - thousands of cars headed back to southern California after a weekend of who-knows-what. As I approach the city, an unearthly orange glow begins to darken the outlines of the Nevada hills in front of me, exploding into a panorama of flashing lights as I come through the pass. A small multitude of planes or blimps hover over the city like mosquitoes, making it feel like some kind of battle zone.
Looking for a convenient station at which to refuel, I do my best to ignore the gaudy billboards. The ones advertising easy divorces - which appear to be Nevada's chief export - are the worst: smiling plastic men in suits and ties saying, in effect, "Let us help you tear apart your life!" I have to believe there is a special place in hell for divorce lawyers.
The city is indeed corrupt, but that hardly makes it unique. It simply happens to be more corrupt than most other places. As one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S., Las Vegas represents what most cities would like to be, if they were honest about it. I change lanes and pass another billboard with a quote from Buddha: "With our thoughts we make the world." Yep. Hope you like it, because it's all you've got.
Around 1 AM I turn off the highway into a deserted parking lot in a small town outside Zion, clear some space in the rear of the truck, lay out my sleeping bag and go to sleep. I awake five hours later to a gray dawn, quickly change clothes, grab some breakfast from the food bin, and drive the last half-hour to the Park.
Zion Canyon, the central feature of the Park, is a large chasm cut by the Virgin River. The sandstone cliffs rise several thousand feet on both sides, blocking daylight from reaching the floor of the canyon during the morning and evening hours. After studying the hiking trails at the visitor center and talking to a ranger, I throw some gear in my daypack and ride the park shuttle up the canyon to the trailhead for Observation Point, an 8-mile round trip to the canyon rim that offers a panoramic view of the valley.
There is a storm breaking up, and the morning is cool, with clouds and mists shrouding the tops of the cliffs. I take off up the trail, thrilled to finally be hiking in Utah. The canyon walls tower above me, seemingly growing taller as I ascend. I take frequent pictures, drinking in the shapes and angles and textures as fast as I can, recklessly inquisitive.
The trail leads me through a small overhanging passage and then twists through a few turns before switchbacking up an east-facing ridge. After cresting the ridge, the trail traverses north, parallel to the canyon, and a wide vista opens up westward. I pass one or two other hikers coming back, but no one is there when I reach the overlook at the end of the trail.
As I survey the canyon I munch on a few snacks, thinking about what to do for the afternoon. There's another 5-mile trail up the other side of the canyon, but I'd like to hike into the backcountry tonight and I can't get a permit after 4 PM. I elect to hike down and skip the other trail so as not to risk finding the backcountry desk closed.
Talking to the ranger, I settled on hiking several miles into an open camping zone in the Southwest corner of the park. After finding the trailhead, I propped up my Osprey pack on the tailgate and loaded it for the night, starting up the Coal Pits Wash trail about 3:30 PM.
The terrain here is brushy and sandy, somewhat less dramatic than Zion Canyon itself. The afternoon sun is quite hot, although not uncomfortably so. I choose my route up the wash through the sand, cactus, and willows, making minor adjustments to the pack and thinking about nothing in particular.
I reach the confluence of Coal Pits Wash and Scoggins Wash around 5 o'clock, and decide to head to the right up Scoggins Wash and dry camp, which decision was mainly influenced by the irresistible view up the valley: who wouldn't want to explore what's up that canyon?
I fall into a rhythm, watching for where the trail switchbacks across the wash. Whenever an inconvenient obstacle appears on one side, the other side usually offers a good route. The trail is not always clear, but there are plenty of footprints and hoofprints.
Threading my way up the canyon, I stay alert to potential campsites, finally selecting one up the side of the wash that offers a nice view to the east and west and is also reasonably sheltered from any wind that might pick up during the night. There is a flat area beneath a large rock just large enough for my tiny tent, and a flat rock a few feet away just large enough for my tiny camp stove. After setting up the tent and rolling out my sleeping gear I turn my attention to dinner, removing the dry grasses around my cooking rock as a safety precaution before lighting the stove.
Following an excellent supper of freeze-dried spaghetti, I take the camera and made my way up to the top of the ridge. A lot of the sandstone in Zion is much too soft and crumbly for climbing, so one is obliged to look for routes that don't require rockcraft. The terrain is not particularly steep, so this is not difficult. Within a few minutes I reach the top and set about exploring the area, hopping around from rock to rock, taking pictures, and enjoying the freedom and the view. In some indescribable sense, the place becomes mine; not mine to possess, but mine to enjoy, which is much more meaningful.
The night passes uneventfully. I wake before the sun has crested the eastern ridge, and set about preparing breakfast - instant oatmeal and a cup of diced fruit. After pouring out a bottle of water around my cooking rock as a penance for uprooting the grasses, I begin the hike out, retracing my steps from the previous afternoon. The morning is sunny at first, giving way to an overcast sky after a half hour. Great hunks of sandstone lay in the wash, eroded and hollowed out like fantastic giant molds, with voids shaped for cannonballs, or keys to ogre's castles.
Being out on my own, I must be wholly reliant on my own skills and intuition: following vague routes, estimating distances, maintaining a sense of direction, taking care of my body and my gear, and staying alert to my surroundings. I feel equal to the challenge, prepared, equipped, experienced. I feel invigorated, and, in a sense, invincible. Still, it is the seasoned outdoorsman who has the deepest respect for nature. The more I learn, the more humbled I am, and the more keenly aware of my need for God's direction and protection.
I pass numerous junipers, laden with the hard pea-sized white berries peculiar to that tree. As I pluck one of the berries and prick it with my fingernail, memories of growing up in Sacramento came flooding back to me, of the summer afternoons my brothers and I spent waging elaborate wars with these little bullets, until we were too tired to throw anymore and lay on our backs on the front lawn watching the clouds float by. Good times. And now - what surprises life brings! How little I knew then of where I'd be now - how much has changed! We've seen it happen to so many others, and yet growing older never ceases to surprise us, as if we expected to be six years old and live on cheerios and PBJ sandwiches forever.
I return to my truck, having seen no one. As I pass through the entrance gate at the trailhead, there is another backpacker just heading out, with a white handkerchief tucked beneath his hat and draped over his neck, desert-style. He queries me about the trail, I offer a few pointers, and we go our separate ways. I find I've come to appreciate these chance, transitory encounters: 60 seconds of casual conversation, a few moments of genuine good will between human beings who are complete strangers and don't care. When once we realize that everything matters, life becomes an unceasing procession of small adventures and big smiles, and things are never the same.