Zion: refuge; a place of freedom, harmony, peace, unity. Last weekend I felt like I was on a pilgrimage to Zion. I was marching to Zion; beautiful, beautiful Zion. I listened to Bob’s exhortation and I got on board the Zion train when it came my way. I felt the rapture. I reached the promised land. If, as Marvin said, “I should die tonight, though it seems far before my time,” I could do so knowing that I have had a blessed life and enjoyed some of the wonders of the earth. These are not superlatives. These words in fact fall short of describing my experiences at Zion National Park in Utah and the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
My friends and I spent a mere three days in these parks. I only saw a small slice of these treasures, but it was enough to say that these sites are magnificent. I was wonderstruck. It felt like my synapses were firing at a different rate. As if my eyes were miscommunicating messages to my brain. As if the grandeur was just too much to behold; too much for my brain to contemplate and interpret meaningfully. One friend was brought to tears on more than one occasion. How am I (how are we) so lucky?
Walking amongst these natural formations was a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. Did the Virgin Anasazi, Parowan Fremont, Paiute, and Ute in Zion and the Paiute in the Valley of Fire, who walked these paths before I did feel the same? We are, I am, a mere speck on the earth. I will be dead for much longer than I live. These wonders were here for millennia before my arrival and will be for millennia after. My experience last weekend was another poignant reminder that while humankind has its role in the web of life, we are certainly not at the top. Individually we are but a part of it and only for a time.
I often say that my camera can’t capture what I see and while I voice the thoughts evoked by these visions, my words can only do so much to explain them. Thus for me, my photos are merely reminders of what my eyes have seen and my mind has contemplated, but can never do these marvels justice. Knowing that, I share my photos and words with you as an invitation for you to join me, go on your own, or go with others and have these mind-bending experiences yourself. You owe yourself the opportunity to be still, be struck speechless, be held in thrall, to just be with the magnificence that is our natural world. Then juxtapose the simplicity and brevity of your life with the complex geomorphic, geologic, hydrologic, and other natural processes that took place over millions of years to create these natural wonders. Afterward, having acknowledged your own mortality, comparative nothingness, and good fortune to be able to experience these phenomena, you must commit to being the best steward of the natural world that you can be and sharing that world with others. Having had the blessing, you should feel compelled to do nothing less.
Utah: Zion in a Vision 🎶 (Garnett Silk)
Zion is one of 61 national parks managed by the National Park Service. NPS also manages another 362 or so units with various designations. How does the NPS manage a park as substantive as Zion, furthermore 423? With lots of management plans! For Zion alone, the plans include: a foundation document, management, comprehensive river management, soundscape management, transportation, wilderness, fire, and accessibility (NPS, 2020). Each of these is substantial.
Zion, one of the country’s oldest national parks, was initially protected as Mukuntuweap National Monument through presidential proclamation in 1909, then enlarged with a name change to Zion National Monument in 1918. The NPS was established in 1916 and Yellowstone, the US’ first national park in 1876. Zion became the country’s 16th national park in 1919. The park was extended to include Kolob Canyons in 1956 (NPS, 2013).
At 148,733 acres, Zion is valued for a number of reasons including: its “sheer Navajo sandstone cliffs that are among the highest in the world;” the diversity of rare and endemic species that only exist in the confluence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert ecoregions; and the preservation of “human history of the Ancestral Puebloan, Paiute, pioneers, early 20th century tourism, and NPS development along the Virgin River” (NPS, 2013). Yes, the Virgin River runs through Zion. Interpret that how you will.
Some 3,591,254 visited Zion in 2020 and while that number is lower than previous years, it is still significant. With that level of visitation Zion ranked 13th of all NPS units and 3rd of all national parks. Visitation is forecast to increase in 2021 and I’ll be included in the count. My first trip to Zion (is it more difficult to pronounce the Paiute word ‘Mukuntuweap’ than it is to pronounce Pennsylvania, Roosevelt, or Afghanistan?) National Park. Two days of hiking. Five trails (see map above). Excellent interpretation around the visitor center. An engaging park ranger whose ‘Ranger Talk’ on the patio focused on the human history of Zion: from the earliest known dwellers to those who operate and use it today. A shuttle service within Zion Canyon that’s been in place for over 20 years, not only reducing congestion on the main scenic road in Zion Canyon, but reducing GHG emissions within the park. Ride said shuttle along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from the Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinawava. Sustainable building. Splendid landscapes and great conversation.
The extensive impacts COVID-19 has had are evident everywhere. One of the casualties is the Zion Human History Museum which is currently closed. We took the Pa’rus Trail to it any way so we could take in the views. It felt like we hiked the Watchman Trail just after the crack of dawn 😒. The sun rose over the mountain while we were close to the turnaround point. When we did Pa’rus it was nice and bright. The difference is evident in the photos.
This trail leads to the start of The Narrows, a section of the Virgin River. Some of us hiked part of The Narrows, some of us (including me) chose to forego the challenge. Hiking The Narrows is a reason to return to Zion.
To get to east side of the park for Canyon Overlook and East Mesa to Observation Point, we had to drive through the mountain. It was quite exciting. The vistas at Canyon Overlook were the best!
East Mesa to Observation Point
This was our longest hike. Almost 7 miles roundtrip. We learned about it from another visitor who we met at the pool in our complex on our first night. The Observation Point trailhead can be accessed from within the park and from outside through an easement on private property. However, we couldn’t use the trailhead in the park because a huge rock fall in 2019 (a 31,000 ton piece of Navajo sandstone broke and fell from 3,000 ft) is still blocking access and that area is closed indefinitely.
The first two miles or so of this trail are relatively flat but the last part is downhill. It’s mostly sand in some parts so the uphill on the return leg required extra effort. I had to attack it. Sometimes I have to take that approach to a hill lest it defeat me. Attacking it meant that I pulled away from the group which also presented an opportunity for solitude and speed – Move it now, move over and shake it now 🎶 (Tahsha). This happens periodically, depending on the hike, my energy level, mood, etc. and may change throughout a given hike: sometimes leading, sweeping, staying in the middle with the pack or moving ahead and doing the solo thing. This time, once I built the steam going uphill I didn’t slow down, so that part of the return was a calorie burning, solo experience. I took many photos (it was a gorgeous day), wrote part of this post in my head, listened to the music playing in my head, sang out loud (but low because I neither wanted to scare nice wildlife nor attract unwanted ones; plus I encountered other hikers), and thought about many other things. I knew my friends were a few minutes behind me so I wasn’t concerned about being alone.
Nevada: Fire, Rainbows, White Domes and Petroglyphs
‘Like a painting’. ‘Picture perfect’. Actually, it’s the reverse. As good as it may be, the painting or the photo is an imitation of the natural, not nature imitating art. The perfection lies not in the painting or the photo, but in the landscape the artist attempted to capture.
Since we were travelling Thursday to Sunday, it was a prime weekend for a trifecta. I knew for sure at least two hiking days would be in Zion, but hoped to do one in another of Utah’s Mighty 5. We considered several options (including Bryce Canyon) but settled on Valley of Fire State Park because it came highly recommended as a sight to experience. Plus, it’s on the route from Utah to California. It. Did. Not. Disappoint. Our time there was short because we didn’t want to get caught in traffic for six hours, but the views were outstanding.
The aptly named Valley of Fire was Nevada’s first state park. Initially under federal management, it was designated as a state park in 1934/35 in part for its “outstanding scenic, geologic and archeological features.” The park is around 40,000 acres and the bold, contrasting colours create otherworldly landscapes that are sights to behold. Ancient, petrified trees (we didn’t see them this time) and 2,000+ year old petroglyphs are some of the other significant elements for which the site is protected.
In Valley of Fire we did a combination of short hikes to see various phenomena in the park: Elephant Rock Loop, Mouse’s Tank Trail (petroglyphs and more), and White Domes Loop. We also enjoyed the scenic drive. #ValleyOfFire
Elephant Rock Loop
Can you see the elephant that gave the trail its name?
Mouse’s Tank Trail
Look out for the petroglyphs that the Native Americans left behind. Who knows what information they communicated or what stories they tell?
White Domes Trail
We left The Narrows at Zion and found them again at Valley of Fire.
A Side of Wypipo to go with my Trail Mix
No experience is perfect (though this weekend was close to perfection). There is always a jackass or ten who will try to ruin it. Cases in point. The guy who walked up to JT and asked her if the Cadillac outside the restaurant was hers. The comment about whether my group got a group rate – in future my response will be “yes, we got the Black rate”. I really regret not coming up with that response on the spot. The woman walking in slippers (rubber flip flops, not hiking sandals) on the White Domes Trail who felt the need to tell experienced and properly equipped hikers (we changed to boots for this trail) how to follow a simple, clearly marked trail (if I were the violent sort my response would’ve been a throat punch. Unfortunately walking away without ‘picking my teet’ had to suffice. I did not feel satisfied). The ‘friendly’ driver at Whiskey Pete’s Stateline Stop on the Nevada- California border who felt the need to share with Wonder Woman that traffic was backed up “all the way to Barstow” but he wasn’t “suggesting” she wait there instead of sitting in traffic. He was just sharing information. There’s no need to mention what trait these people have in common. There were more micro-aggressions than these, but I won’t waste more time listing them.
Let me take a moment, go high, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Perchance these people mistook the sweat on our faces from exertion as signs of distress. It’s possible we have a look that says we’re seeking information or advice from them. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Nope. I have no facial expression that would suggest to these f$%^&#s that I want or will entertain unsolicited advice. Mayhap they just wanted to strike up a conversation. Let’s ponder that. ‘Hello’ and ‘isn’t that view amazing’ are great conversation starters; other people used them. I endorse their use. But could they be on to something? Perhaps I should start sharing unsolicited advice with them:
- Keep your dog on a leash. In fact, keep your dog off the trail from which dogs are banned.
- If you have a baby strapped to your chest, a toddler, and two other children under 8 years, don’t climb a treacherous trail without another adult and then try to take photos at the edge of a 1500-3000 foot drop.
- Don’t hike in slippers.
- Carry water.
- Rules aren’t only for fools. Follow them.
- Don’t let your pickny climb the rock right next to the sign that says ‘don’t climb the rock’ just so you can take cute photos for your social media posts.
- 8 people does not constitute a big group for a front country trail – Blackness doesn’t increase group size.
- No, the two gentlemen of Indian descent aren’t a part of our group because they’re non-white. Two groups of non-white people can hike simultaneously.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
- Black people hike. In fact, Black people live. Period.
- Don’t provoke me.
While I’m at it, aren’t you curious about what would life be like if Black people called the police on white people for just living, as is too often the case with us? Ok, now I’m done with that tangent. Here are some more photos to wipe that taste from your mouth. No we did not coordinate our clothing.
Getting Back to One of my Happy Places
Travel is back (though not by plane yet) and I’m so happy! This trip was the furthest I’ve taken since February 2020. I was a tourist in Utah and an excursionist in Nevada. Pleasure was my primary purpose for this trip. I was intentional about my experience, practising what I preach. I took the Zion Pledge. I followed Leave No Trace Principles. I took only photographs and videos (around 1,700), left only footprints (at least 16.5 miles worth), and supported the parks and local businesses. I met new people. I was soothed by nature. My spirit also soared because of nature. I learned a lot! Hopefully I imparted some knowledge. I had a great time with my friends. I also remembered to record a graduation message for my students. This is the life! I am blessed and I very much appreciate it.
So often as I hike (or do anything else) threads of music play in my mind. A word, a turn of phrase, a conversation, a person, a type of souvenir (e.g. a magnet of a bus – Babylon by Bus – in Zion 🙂) and more will quickly bring a song to mind. Much like books and the outdoors, music is an important component of the narrative in the background of my life. I heard Bob a lot in my head this weekend. I sang him out loud at points – Baby baby we’ve got a date, Baby baby don’t you be late 🎶 (cause solo hiking). I heard soca. I heard gospel. I heard R&B. I heard spouge. I heard soul and not just my own.
Music is a must on a roadtrip (our drive to Utah to about 9 hours including stops; the return longer because we stopped to hike and explore). On this Zion Train it ran the gamut. On the drive back to Cali we played a range of artists and genres, including Alison Hinds, Square One, Blood, Skinny Fabulous, Bunji Garlin, Jodeci, K-Ci & JoJo, Bruno Mars and Whitney Houston. At times the music was supplemental to our conversations; at others it was central (Mariah vs Whitney). We ended the drive on the soul train that came our way, listening to and singing along with Whitney, an artist who was imperfect as we all are, but whose flaws were projected in the public spotlight, unlike ours. It was the perfect end to an imperfectly perfect weekend.