Zion National Park — The Perfection of Solitude

Zion National Park

A few weeks ago I made Laura a waterfall.

We had been in southern Utah, and without telling her why, I stopped alongside a road and picked up a belly full of deep red sandstone rocks, each fist-sized or larger. Then, one day when she was not around, I went to a local hardware store and bought a small, quiet electric pump that did not cost more than $14. I went home and found a deep bowl, and set the pump in the bottom of the bowl, then stacked rocks atop and around the pump, stacked them about a foot high, then ran a narrow black plastic tube out of the pump and to the top of the rocks. I anchored the tube between a few rocks, filled the bowl with water, and turned the pump on - after filling its reservoir, the pump brought a trickle of water to the top of the rocks, then sent the water cascading down the rocks back to the bowl. It was a miniature waterfall, a piece of southern Utah here in Salt Lake City, and just loud enough to drown out street sounds. It sounded like a small cascade of water, a tinkle of water, and was mesmerizing. I left it in her kitchen.

But while the waterfall may have been well-engineered, it was not entirely well thought-out: sandstone, especially these small chunks, is deceptively porous. The waterfall worked perfectly, but when I turned it off and let it sit overnight, the rocks soaked up all the water, just like a sponge, leaving the bowl dry like the desert it supposedly mimicked. I had been outsmarted by the sandstone.

Though it did not entirely work out (and we still need to put it in a more appropriate bowl) the miniature waterfall scene did replicate what I wanted it too: the small trickles of water that tumble from cliffs and alcoves in deep canyons in southern Utah.

The world is a geography composed of rock layers lying atop one another. Over time these layers have buckled and migrated, leaving mountains and valleys and canyons and escarpments. But in southern Utah, these geologic movements have been laid bare for everyone to see. Part of this is because of the region's dramatic geology - mountains rise sharply from the valley, and canyons plunge precipitously. That, and southern Utah is a desert, meaning there is rock and sky but little in the way of soil. The result is that millions of years of Earth's formation are split open like a burst melon.

Southern Utah is dry, like I said, but that is not to say there is not water. Rather, in some places there is a surprising amount of water, water that bubbles from the ground in springs or water that tumbles down in the form of rain runoff and snowmelt. This water runs to washes that join to creeks that channel to rivers and, depending on the location, simply run out into the dessert and evaporate, or head for the river, The River, the Colorado River, which runs toward the Gulf of California.

But in some places water comes not from the ground or from the high country but instead from the rock itself. Some rock layers meet ... what I mean is the way the rock layers touch, water can flow gently between them, then bubble from canyon walls. Sometimes, walking along a canyon, you will see a sheer rock wall glistening with moisture. Other times, the rocks will hold a hanging garden of lush otherworldly vegetation; in the best of these, water drips from rare hanging ferns to small pools in the rock, where the water, in small drops that belie their significance, drops to lower ferns and pools. These rivulets of moisture, these gems of the desert, these surprises in the canyon's smooth desert wall that carry the sweetest, the purest of the planet's water and a good deal of the planet's beauty, that sound is what I wanted to recreate in that desktop waterfall I made for my good friend Laura.

After we saw that we would either have to choose different rocks or find a way to waterproof the rocks we had (Ideas, anyone? Please write me.) we sort of forgot about the sort of desktop waterfall. Then, the other weekend, hiking in the delirious depths of Zion Canyon, we found hundreds, thousands, of those same waterfalls bursting from the junction of Navajo and Kayenta sandstone. Toiling away in Salt Lake City, looking at the stacked sandstone, who could believe that such beauty actually exists?

Zion National Park, first dedicated as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 by President Taft (Mukuntuweap was an Indian work meaning 'straight canyon'), is easily one of the nation's most spectacular national parks. The area went largely unvisited until 1923, when Union Pacific Railroad built a 30-mile spur from Cedar City towards the park and a wagon road was graded into Zion Canyon; the park's name was changed to Zion in 1918 ('Zion' is word used by Mormons) and the area was made a national park.

The area's primary attraction is its soaring rock walls, among the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world, which form an area geologists used to colloquially call standing-up country, and Zion Canyon, where many of the tallest cliffs surround the Virgin River, is a canyon in America likely rivaled only by Yosemite Canyon.

That confluence of canyon walls often exposes water seeping through the rock; when it bursts or bubbles out, small clusters of shooting stars, monkey flowers, evening primrose, larkspurs, even orchids, blossom back with gratitude. These oases contrast sharply with the stark desert landscapes that often lie just feet away, and the endless bare rock ramparts that rise dizzyingly out of sight. The result is a seductive wilderness of breathtaking beauty that at once beckons the casual visitor and the experienced backcountry traveler.

On the Bus

This guy on the bus had no manners and little in the way of subtlety. With whom was obviously his new squeeze, this man strode on to the shuttle bus that links the nearby town of Springdale with the park's visitors center and the bulk of the trailheads in Zion Canyon. He offered tasteless jokes about Indians, Mormons and teetotalers and, sticking his camcorder out the window of the bus, treated his neighbors to a mind-numbing elementary narrative of the 'rocks' that seemed to by lying all over. He asked about the cliffs and the canyon beyond, but seemed not to listen to the replies. He and his girlfriend spied the Zion Lodge halfway into the canyon, with its outdoor café, and they hopped off the bus then, presumably to get an ice cream and assault anyone within listening distance with his libations. In a park like Zion, this is exactly the sort of guy that you love to hate.

The cliffs that failed to impress our companion were the result of millions of years of erosion and continent-building. Massive rivers and lakes laid down massive 1,000-foot deep layers of sediment that varied in depth, color and consistency, and when Ice Age rivers swept over the land they dug into these layers, exposing the cliff bands that rose up in the bus' picture windows. The biggest carver of them all in this area, the Virgin, left a deep cut that today holds the river bed and the bulk of the park's accessible attractions.

That cutting is still at work. Every fragment of sand and rock that passes down the river serves as a grinding tool to slowly carve out more of the canyon. When it floods, the river and its sediment works overtime to push huge boulders downstream. The river carries away more than a million tons of rock waste each year, undercutting cliffs and deepening the main channel. Other forces, such as rain, freezing water and wind work to scour out alcoves, grooves and grottoes. These forces find fissures in the sandstone walls to cut channels away even quicker. Some blocks remain while others collapse, leaving the canyon with its distinctive blend of towers and hanging canyons.

Respite

Walking through the canyon, I'm thinking of this Lou Reed song, 'Strawman': We who have so much
to you who have so little
to you who don't have anything at all
We who have so much ...
Does anybody need another million dollar movie star
Does anyone need to be told over and over
Spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard ...
Does anybody really need another billion dollar rocket Does anyone need a $60,000 car ...
Does anyone need another self-righteous rock and roll singer
Whose nose he says has led him straight to God
Does anyone need yet another blank skyscraper
If you're like me I'm sure a minor miracle will do
A flaming sword or maybe a gold ark floating up the Hudson

On the liner Reed said, You can't beat two guitars, bass, drum.

Down the Canyon

Of course, we got a late start into the canyon. After dallying over a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast at the Seven Wives Inn in the southern Utah boomtown of St. George* (*closed on Sundays) Laura and I drove across the belly of southern Utah, out of the hot depths of the Mojave Desert, and into Springdale, where we parked and rode the free shuttle into the park. Our destination, the Narrows of Zion Canyon, was located at the very end of the canyon road, at a trailhead called Temple of Sinawava.

We reached the trailhead after noon, and after filling our water bottles followed the narrow, mostly-flat paved trail that ran along the babbling North Fork of the Virgin River until the canyon became so narrow there was no room for the trail, and the pavement ended at the river where there was a sign cautioning against travel upstream.

A rocky bank at the end of the trail next to the river was full of families and couples and solo trekkers taking their hiking boots off and changing into river shoes, then plunging into the cold river that typically was shin-deep. Most on the trail stopped at the end of the pavement but on this glorious Labor Day a sizable number hiked straight into the river, looking for shallow spots and favoring areas where the trail joined brief expanses of sand and dry rock.

While there are other great parks in America, what makes Zion stand out is its accessibility. In Grand Canyon, you've got a superb view nearly 6,000 vertical feet down to the Colorado, but to actually experience the river, to get down to it, you've got to be a bit of a brute; trails there either wind along the canyon rim or plunge down steeply to the river, and once you get there the only choice is to hike back out. In Zion, however, you start at the bottom, and while there are steep tracks that lead up towards the high country most of the trails follow the canyon bottoms into far recesses.

Crowds on the riverine trail thinned with each plunge pool and expressionless canyon wall. The river took abrupt turns, looping into itself, and the walls gradually thinned. While one deep pool held many hikers back, a surprising number, in a surprising spectrum of hiking gear and body styles, pressed on, lured by the twisting of the canyon walls. I wondered where the guy on the bus was. Probably halfway to Las Vegas, said Laura. Probably. But maybe he was one of those who, faced with the end of the pavement and the beginning of a great adventure, pulled his shoes off, or just said To hell with it and walked right on into the river and away from it all. That happens every once in a while, when you least expect it, and someone who had never fancied herself an explorer sets off on an exploration that blows away everything that came before. That rare moment is perhaps the single best moment of self-understanding that park visitors can experience at place like Zion, when they suddenly forget who they are and where they come from and where they have to be in so many hours and become sort of one with their surroundings. Maybe, just maybe, that is what happened to that guy. Maybe today he is a new person, or maybe he is the same but harbors a special secret.

It reminds me of a poem by Lawrence Raab, 'The Other World':

1.
There is another one.
It's under this world, and inside it.
Look at what we're looking at
right now - that tree, that hill.
Who can see it for itself?

people refuse to understand
You hear it in the way they talk to you.
They don't want to understand.
They don't believe in your happiness.

So I used to think I shouldn't
say what I knew.
Who would listen, who would stop to talk
on such a pleasant evening?
But now you've stopped...

8.
This afternoon, not long before
you stopped, I was walking through
the city, along the river
where they've planted flowers,
so many beautiful flowers. I went out
on the bridge just to look at them
from a distance, reflected in the water.

Then I came here, and because
it was such a fine day many people
were strolling across the lawn
with their children, many children
who were running up to the crest of the hill
and pointing. They were pointing
at something on the other side.

I thought I would ask them what it was
when the came back down, but everyone
went down a different way.
I suppose if we climbed up there now
we wouldn't know if what we saw
was what they saw. And it's gotten dark,
so we might not see anything at all.

The Ghost of Zion Canyon

Halfway into the canyon Laura and I sat down on a pair of boulders and enjoyed a short lunch. That morning we had stopped at a tiny market in Springdale and bought a block of cheese, a box of crackers, a bag of spicy nuts, and a handful of Laffy Taffys. It was a sweet lunch, and the bland food was made better by the surroundings. Almost done with our lunch, a bewildered-looking man in a buttondown shirt and river shorts seemed to stumble past us downriver. He looked dazed, confused, almost lost. He said nothing. I thought to offer him some of our food, since we had more than enough, but he was gone before I had the chance. He reminded me of the Ghost of Zion Canyon.

He had by all accounts had a disastrous divorce. His ex-wife took everything from their lives but his home, which stood gaunt and silent and nearly empty in a community he no longer called his own. She even seemed to take all their friends with her. Life, burdensome, seemed to ground to a halt, then stand still, then almost recess into some dark netherworld he was afraid to inhabit. He felt the weight of his life pulling him down.

He decided to take what he called a vacation; it would be his first in years. He asked for and easily-received two weeks off from work; he was closer to being fired than he cared to admit. He flew from - where did he live? Was it Indiana? - Indiana out to Las Vegas, and for a few days went from casino to casino playing the quarter slots and banking on the free drinks they offer to gamblers, but nothing clicked, nothing made him feel better.

In Las Vegas, things are so cheap. You can rent a car for $17 a day, a nice enough car, and that is what he did. He rented a car and on some long late summer afternoon he headed out north, on Interstate 15, gradually losing the city and picking up the expanse of the desert. The driving numbed him; he missed an exit and nearly ran out of gas. It numbed him, but it was no antidote. It was the first time he had been anywhere of any consequence, excepting his brief and premonition-filled honeymoon to San Juan, and it was the first time he had been west of the Mississippi. He gassed up in Mesquite and then the road unexpectedly dropped into a deep, dark canyon - the Virgin River Gorge, a 20-mile expanse of black rock wide enough only for the river and the four-lane highway. This black rock, this surprising show of force, this the man connected with for some reason he could not understand. This rock, this bold show of emotion and energy and power. He connected with it not for the splendor of its rare nature but rather for the dark side of its power. (After all, is not the purest form of beauty also heartbreaking?) The canyon ended as abruptly as it started at the Utah border, and a few miles later he exited the freeway and drove toward what the signs said was Zion National Park because he liked the name and have never been to a national park. Surrounded again by tall cliffs, this time red instead of black, he spend the night in the Wagon Wheel Motel in Springdale and ate its restaurant's languid chicken fried steak, and the food was unsatisfying and he left half of the meat untouched. At night he sat in bed, the sheets pulled up to his chin.

In the morning the man drove into the park. This was back in the old days, the 80s, before the park was too crowded and you could park almost anywhere you wanted. In Zion Canyon, again, he was touched inexplicably by the incredible sad power in the rock that rose around him. He drove until the road ended hard against cliffs, then walked out on the Temple of Sinawava trail along the river and found a sort of peace in the murmurs of the river and the lushness of the hanging gardens. When the trail ended he did not think twice to wade right in, shoes and all, struck now even more deeply by the raw serptitude of the canyon.

The man lost track of time in the canyon; he saw almost no one, and in the deep canyon there was no way to gauge shadows for the time. He knew that it must be after lunch, because he had failed to bring any and was so famished his legs became shaky. The motel's continental breakfast that morning was not worth eating - at least it did not seem so at the time. Now he wished he at least had had a donut. He fell once, twice, three times into the river, soaking his clothes. Now, even in the heat of a Mojave summer, he shivered.

Of course, the man could not tell that in the heat of the afternoon there were tall thunderclouds building up over the Kolob Plateau 15 miles to his north. Up there, on the plateau at 9,000 feet above sea level, heavy rain soaked the ground and lashed against the tall pine trees. The water gathered in pools and joined rivulets to sloughs to channels to washes, all of them normally dry but now surging with a red oozing sludge. In a scene rare even to locals, the waters gathered then shot over cliffs on the plateau and quickly gathered into the headwaters of Orderville, Goose, Kolob, and Deep creeks.

The first and only indication the man had that trouble of a significant magnitude was about to arrive when from around the narrow canyon walls of the Narrows of Zion Canyon came the surreal sound of scraping stones, the sound of car-sized boulders being pushed along by floodwaters. Then, above the normal white roar of the river's rapids came sound of lots of water, a lot of water, more water even that he saw in rivers in Indiana during the spring thaw. An eight-foot tall wave of floodwater crashed over the man as he moved sloppily to grab onto a tree. The next morning, a young couple hiking along the river near the canyon lodge found his body. Now, some say that hikers about to enter an adventure of their own sometimes see the man, or more properly the ghost of the man, wandering stricken along the river. The Ghost of Zion Canyon.

The Ghosts That Haunt Me

Past our lunch spot the canyon narrowed by considerable degrees, but we kept anxious eyes to the sky as much as to the river: overhead, through brief glimpses of sky, we could see patches of budding thunderclouds. It was impossible to tell where they were, or where they were going, or if their long tendrils of rain were reaching the ground or evaporating into virga before landing, but it was enough to give urgency to our step.

The canyon took a noticeable, 90-degee bend to the east, and ran straight for 100 yards or so, then seemed to disappear into a wall of rock. Laura and I were in the river all the time now, there being little dry land to hike on. At the end of that wall the canyon made another 90-degree turn, this time to the north, and there, up about 150 yards ahead, I could see a sight that had over the years had become so recognizable from pictures and posters: the confluence of the Virgin and Orderville creeks. Wading through knee-deep water I ran up to the confluence as fast as I could; bare dark rock like stacks of melted chocolate heaped on each other in vertical sheer walls hundreds of feet tall. The canyon floor was dark and moody; sunlight rarely reaches here. A woman with a large camera on a tripod was camped out on a spit of dry land at the confluence. We hiked up the main body of Zion Canyon deeper into the narrows, mesmerized by the seductive mystery of the canyon. But at a new abrupt turn in the canyon we got a good look at a sizable portion of sky, and it was brewing with mean thunderclouds. These deep canyons are no place to be when it rains and flash floods, so we backtracked and hiked up Orderville Canyon, seduced by the clarity of the stream, the depth of the canyon, and the narrowness of the creekbed. At another right-angle turn we spied more pregnant clouds, this time over a different portion of the park; clouds like that are a direct order to retreat, and the canyon's window of safety was definitely drawing. But just one more stretch of canyon: when we rounded another corner in the canyon we were rewarded with a straight stretch of canyon, the north side of which was completely covered with Velvia-green hanging gardens and rock glistening with seeping moisture. It was that rock again, that rock like a sieve, and for a moment the tinkling sound of dripping water replaced the babble of the creek. I had to get home and work on the desktop waterfall.

The Seven Wives Inn

Beyond the tip of the morning paper, the leafiness of a quiet St. George neighborhood takes over. A few walkers are out early on this Sunday morning. I put the paper down and have a sip of coffee, then dig into a grand plate of Belgian waffles. Such is how most mornings begin at the Seven Wives Inn , a St. George historic landmark just two blocks from downtown. The 13-room, two-building bed and breakfast was originally built in 1873 for the wives of Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who constructed a winter home across the street. The inn features fantastic dining, a swimming pool and bikes, video cassette machines in each room with a video library, and plenty of opportunity for quiet reflection. Get to breakfast early so you can snag a table and linger.

I take quite a few pictures with every story, but because we like for this page to load quickly only a handful go up, and those that go are on the small side. To see a variety of photos that did not make it on to the new page, visit the photo gallery.

A Sorrowful Note to Readers

Last month I told you that there would be first-ever one-of-its-kind display of Dead Sea Scrolls in Salt Lake City during the Olympics next year. That show has been cancelled because of, well, you know. But I'm sure other fun things will be scheduled, and when I find out about them I'll let you know.

Jeff's Bio

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