Hey there! This is Chapter 5, Part One of my epic tale. If you’re new, then please click here to read my story from the beginning! Enjoy!
“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Named by Mormon settlers in the 1860’s, “Zion” means a holy place from which to commune more deeply with the Divine. Zion means a place of refuge and peace, a sanctuary. Zion means the Promised Land.
Regardless of one’s preferred spiritual mythos, this is an appropriate name.
I had left DeMotte Campground and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon early in the morning after confirming the previous night’s plan with my awesome young camp-neighbors Mac and Sean: having finished with the Grand Canyon myself, I’d hurry to Zion National Park to grab a campsite for all three us, allowing them time to hike the North Rim a bit without worrying about finding a site during the park’s extremely busy summer season.
The sun crawled languorously up from the horizon as I cruised down the empty highway, singing loudly to Tool’s album Lateralus blaring through my dusty Honda’s single functional speaker. I don’t often sing at full volume, but alone in the car on long desert roads? I belt it out with all my heart.
“This body holding me! Feeling eternal, all this pain is an illusion!” I screamed to the music, body thrumming with the energy of Maynard James Keenan’s voice and the transcendent melodies of Adam Jones’ sublime guitar work.
It wasn’t long before I passed a blue sign with white text welcoming me to the state of Utah. My breath caught as I crossed the border and I became awash in memories of colorful towering cliffs, sinuous curving slot canyons, exhilarating river hikes, and landscapes so incredible they seemed to belong on another planet. My heart fluttered with a surge of adrenaline. One moment I felt as though I were teetering dizzily on the edge of a great endless precipice, the next I was awash in cascading waves of pleasure and memory. I rocked back and forth between sensations of vertigo and ecstasy.
Southwest Utah has been a favorite destination of my family for many years. We had a relative in St. George, and while visiting we’d launch out into day trips to Zion and Bryce National Parks. I’d been to both parks many times, but never alone, and the thought of having full agency over each day’s itinerary thrilled me. This time, I could hike out and stay on the trail well past dark if I liked, quietly communing with Nature as long as I damn well pleased. I could tackle the more technical hikes and off-trail scrambles without worried voices at my back distracting from the concentration necessary to push the limits of experience to the ragged, living edge. I could get the full dose of true adventure which can only be found on one’s own in the wilderness.
In Truth I had loved every moment of those family vacations, worried (yet loving) voices and all. But compared to what was to come, those trips were merely a preamble.
I decided to take the long way in and enter the park from the east via highway 9, the Carmel Scenic Byway- one of the loveliest drives in the country. Eyes wide, my heart raced as the featureless desert quickly gave way to a miraculous landscape carved over thousands of years by the Virgin River and her seasonal tributaries. A dozen shades of green stretched from the roadway up gently sloping cream-colored hills before meeting precipitously steep cliffs of bloody crimson and alabaster white. Inset ledges in the cliffside held groves and small forests untouched by humanity, microcosms accessible only to birds and the most sure-footed of squirrels.
The road itself was an endlessly curving serpent slithering into Paradise. It gently wove among eroded domes of soft white stone like fingers carefully tracing the lithe curves of a lover, seducing and electrifying me with every turn of the wheel.
A whirlwind of sensation rose swiftly in my chest, beckoning me to let go of “self control” and ride its wave.
I immediately and willfully surrendered, bursting into maniacal laughter mixed with bouts of awed sobbing at the miraculous views around every turn. At the entrance kiosk, I struggled to hold myself together as I showed the ranger my park pass, hiding my wet, red eyes behind my shades, before quickly falling back into a weeping bliss-storm as I entered Zion National Park.
After passing through the long, dark Zion-Carmel tunnel- an engineering marvel digging for over a mile through the mountain- the road snaked down into the park proper along a series of long switchbacks descending into a geological wonderland. I was surrounded by towering canyon walls painted red and white pocked by huge concave depressions where massive chunks of rock had fallen to the valley floor in millennia past, undercutting the cliffs above and lending ever more to the otherworldly appearance of the place. These depressions were marked by long dark streaks following their contours- evidence of cliffside springs seeping out and painting the stone with black deposits, watering bright green maidenhair ferns and other hanging foliage.
By the time I reached the campground I was soaked with tears and my abs ached from ecstatic laughter. Turns out this would become a common state for me to find myself in throughout my journey- and how could it not be? I was completely unbound by society’s tethers, living simply and free, every week dwelling in another of Nature’s grand temples.
As for Zion, I would call the Promised Land home for five days and five nights.
I prowled the quickly-filling campground and managed to snag a large site with ample shade and a fantastic view of Zion’s towering cliffs. After setting up my tent (so cozy! who needs more space than this?), I walked to the gateway town of Springdale and rinsed off days of sweat and sunscreen with a five dollar shower. Pricey, but worth it.
When I returned, shiny and clean, it wasn’t yet noon and the campground had already reached capacity. Frustrated would-be campers prowled the area in spite of the ample signage warning them to find lodging elsewhere. They would have to camp outside the park or take a hotel room… if there were even any more vacancies nearby.
The poor sods.
I congratulated myself on my own most excellent planning with a Newcastle as I slowly settled into Zion’s vibe. As I reclined in the best camping chair ever made, a family of mule deer grazed their way through my camp, and birds sang joyful songs from the verdant canopy above.
Five days, I thought with a happy sigh. Five days to explore and hike and commune however and wherever I wish in this jewel of the Southwest. I can hardly believe this is real- but here I am, doing it. The absolute freedom I’ve craved for a decade is finally upon me.
Thoreau once said that the cost of anything is the amount of life which we exchange for it. To make this trip a reality, I had exchanged countless hours over the past two years paying off my debts and building my savings. I had allowed no financial indulgences besides supporting my cigarette habit, otherwise living on the absolute bare minimum with hardly a semblance of an idea of what I might do once the numbers were right.
The sacrifices I’d made over those years were already paying massive spiritual dividends. The peace and joy I’d discovered over the past week were unlike anything I had ever known before. Zion wrapped her stony arms around me like a cocoon.
My gestation had only just begun.
In time, I would no longer recognize the Adam who had left his lifelong hometown bubble on that fateful Day of Days.
Tipsy and content, I set out from camp and took the shuttle up-canyon, making a brief stop at the stunning Court of the Patriarchs on my way to the Emerald Pools trailhead. An easy two mile hike with little elevation gain, the Emerald Pools hike is a simple way to start a Zion adventure. Plus, I didn’t want to hike too far out as I was expecting Mac and Sean to arrive a little later. I smiled, imagining their delighted spirits exploring the Grand Canyon’s north rim. Something about the energy of those two always makes me feel happy.
I hiked slowly, reacquainting myself with Zion’s divine lines and colors. Any surface which was not a sheer cliff was awash in greenery. Ledges high up the rusty rock walls held tiny isolated forests. Abundant springs announced their presence with the soft pat-pat-pat of water droplets seeping right out of the stone above, leaving behind strikingly bold brush strokes of dark mineral deposits over the millennia.
I visited each of the three pools in turn along the three-mile hike, all the while amid a subdued revelry. I was deeply embedded in the moment, untroubled by memories of the past, unconcerned by worries about the future. This peaceful, beautiful place was my entire world for right now, and there was nothing that needed to be done besides simply and blissfully experiencing it.
On my way back down the trail, a large black tarantula crossed my path. I had never seen one in the wild! I learned later at the visitor center that it was a male, as the females of the species tend to stay in their burrows, leaving the boys to seek them out. The males live about ten years, the females a remarkable twenty-five!
I crouched and watched him for several minutes as he cruised along, his thick, fuzzy legs mechanically carrying him onward to his marvelous destiny. I was blessed that no skittish tourists happened upon me and my arachnid friend- I’d long ago become weary of the typical screams and murderous reactions at the sight of our exoskeletal kin. I’m that guy who catches spiders and moths in the house and releases them safely outside. These harmless creatures are far more interested in securing a mate or a meal than causing any sort of harm to us- even helping us by eating obnoxious pests (I admit I have no pity for mosquitoes or biting flies)- yet we kill them with abandon upon sight.
God, normal people bug me.
I watched over the tarantula until he was off the trail and out of sight, finally safe from any faux-macho guys trying to impress their domesticated girlfriends by killing a defenseless creature in its own habitat.
Back at camp, I had cell reception for the first time in a while. I called an old friend and we caught up for a time until I recognized Sean’s car driving slowly through the campground. My guests were finally here! I quickly finished the call and waved them over to my impressive campsite.
The sun was setting as Sean and Mac finished setting up their tent. I got a fire going and we shared drink around it as they told me about their time at the Grand Canyon, and we planned the next day’s hike into the legendary Narrows of Zion. I was giddy at the thought of sharing this singularly unique hike with people who had never seen it!
As darkness overtook us, fearsome clouds rolled in overhead, and suddenly burst open with a pounding monsoon rain. We huddled under a beach umbrella I had strapped to the bench as thunder boomed around us. Every ten seconds or so, lightning would flash a hot white, illuminating the campground and the towering canyon walls around us for a half-second as though it was daylight, before all was black again.
We marveled at the tempest- there were no complaints and no whines from any of us over the sudden storm. All three of us were utterly delighted by the magic of it all. If it hadn’t already been abundantly clear when I first met these two, their good cheer and laughing faces in this torrential downpour only confirmed how fucking wonderful they both were. These were the kind of people I’d always wanted to know- ecstatic nature enthusiasts replete with love and peace, showing no trace of the vapid materialism or the blind and miserable selfishness of the common folk- and I’d never have met them if I hadn’t overcome my hermit tendencies to invite them to my campfire the previous night at DeMotte.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating our triad of goofy grins.
Thank you, Universe, for bringing these incredible people into my life.
As the storm lightened to a gentle rain, we said our goodnights and lay in our tents. The raindrops pitter-patter on the rainfly quickly sent me into a perfect and blissful sleep.
Tomorrow, we would hike The Narrows. It was going to be fucking rad.
Share the adventure!