Welcome! This is Chapter 5, Part Three of my epic tale. If you’re new, then please click here to read my story from the beginning! Enjoy!
Come on now, who do you
Who do you, who do you
Who do you think you are?
Ha ha ha, bless your soul
You really think you’re in control?
-Crazy, Gnarls Barkley
I woke to the sounds of Mac and Sean packing up their camp. I rolled off my air mattress to poke my head out of the tent and was greeted by Sean’s face just inches from mine. They were ready to say goodbye.
I stepped outside for one last hug from each of them. I couldn’t believe I’d only known them for 48 hours! They were awesome, and our time together was awesome.
Now, they were off to Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce happened to be my next destination too- but I still had several days left here to squeeze all I could out of Zion. By the time I got to Bryce myself, they’d be long gone. I promised that I’d look them up whenever my travels finally brought me to their home state of Washington in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
As they drove away, I was surprised to feel a sudden pang in my chest.
For a solo road trip, I had spent a surprisingly small amount of it alone so far. John at Joshua Tree, Kira and the British couple at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, then Mac & Sean at the North Rim and Zion.
There would undoubtedly be more people down the line, but for now, I was alone and quite unsure of what to do with myself. So, I did what any sensible person does when faced with uncomfortable emotions.
First, I ate breakfast.
Then, I got drunk.
Decidedly tipsy yet still becoming more lonely by the minute, I resolved to spend all day trying to hike away from the aching sensation in my heart.
Fortunately, I’m not a sloppy drunk, and my next hike was right around the corner.
I set out at once upon the Watchman Trail, a three mile loop which began just across the river from my campsite. This trail leads up to a mesa with pleasant views of the southern landscape of Zion. I glance northward as I climb. Far up the canyon, the famous Angel’s Landing is visible. Towering behind it is Observation Point. They look small from here, but the trails to the top of these monoliths have elevation gains of 1,422ft and 2,788ft respectively. I narrowed my eyes and grinned with drunken bravado.
I would conquer them both in the coming days.
Making my way up the trail’s switchbacks, I admire Zion’s colorful cliffs. The layers of white, maroon, orange, and pink are speckled with green plant life that change shape as my eyes climb the cliffs.
Moving up from the lowest elevations, prickly-pear cactus and desert shrubs become juniper and pinyon pine, before being replaced by small forests of ponderosa pines nestled in pockets of the high, white sandstone cliffs. Atop the massive rock walls the ponderosas blend into douglas fir, white pine, and aspen groves.
From desert below to a full-and-proper forest up top! Hot damn!
I stumbled, sending rocks and dust tumbling down the ridge. Can you blame me? To be able to see all of these climates from a single vantage point was dizzying!
…or maybe it was the alcohol.
Ahem. Moving on.
Atop the mesa I am rewarded with panoramic views of Zion’s beautiful rock formations. The Watchman, a tall pointy beast overlooking the town of Springdale, towers gracefully to the east like the head of some great sleeping earth dragon, his jagged spine stretching northwards along the undulating red and white cliffs.
To the west lies another stone dragon whose head is Mount Kinesava, its sandstone crown stricken by looming vermilion streaks which glow bright in the morning light like blood. Kinesava seems to be eyeing the Watchman coldly. Both rocky behemoths appear to stretch and move as cloud-shadows slowly crawl across their backs.
Mayhaps it was the Watchman whom bloodied Kinesava’s head.
Anthropomorphizing the rocks was all well and good, and my heart was rightly stirred by the beauty around me, yet still I felt… off. Was it still loneliness? There was something else to it… like an undefined, nervous anticipation. But why?
Fuck it. I needed more hiking.
I hightailed it back down the trail and hitched a ride on the shuttle to the Weeping Rock shuttle stop. After a brief visit to Weeping Rock itself, I intended to hike the Hidden Canyon trail- a trail I had never taken over all my past trips to Zion with my family. Every other day hike in Zion was familiar to me, so I was especially eager to plumb its mysteries- why was it hidden? Who hid it there? Why did they think they could hide an entire canyon? The answers must be mine.
The Weeping Rock trail is a very short, paved stroll from the shuttle stop. I arrive in minutes, and let the rocks cry all over me.
I spend only a few minutes there- the spring is neat, and satisfyingly wet, but it’s no place to relax with the constant noise of newly arriving tourists. As with all National Parks, the easier the trail, the more peopled it is, and the more difficult it becomes to find any sort of peace without that weird crowded amusement park vibe that feels so desperately wrong in beautiful places like this.
I return to a fork in the trail near the shuttle stop and head due east, where I rapidly gain elevation as I climb a series of switchbacks. This path leads to the Hidden Canyon trail, the Observation Point trail, and- for those who plan to overnight in the wilderness- the East Mesa and East Rim trails, high in the Zion backcountry.
Switchback after switchback, I plod onwards. That strange uncomfortable anticipatory feeling seems to be following me up the trail. I do my best to ignore it, pushing it from my mind by congratulating myself on my stamina.
I recalled the last time I made my way up these switchbacks- the many breaks I required to catch my breath the last time I was here. But now, I was marching ever upwards showing no signs of slowing. My road-trip regimen of, like, twenty hikes a week was clearly paying off. I would be at the Hidden Canyon junction in no time.
I paused and looked out into the main canyon. The road and the Virgin River were far below me. Across the river, the Organ- a rust-red broad-steepled rock formation jutting out into the canyon- was below me too. (This formation is called the Organ because supposedly the wind blowing through the pass between it and Angel’s Landing can sound like an organ.) The river curved gracefully around the Organ, feeding a verdant valley teeming with bright green plant life. To the left and behind the Organ was Angel’s Landing, a sloping red tower jutting out from the alabaster white sandstone of the west rim. The intense colors and otherworldly shapes defied imagination; or- or or or- perhaps these hues and lines in fact defined a rather fine sublime benign divine design?
Who freakin’ knows.
To the right and far above me I could see Observation Point high atop the East Rim. To my left, I glimpsed what must be part of the Hidden Canyon Trail. I grinned, took the following gorgeous photo (which you should strongly consider purchasing a print of), and charged onward, my hiking poles digging into the trail.
I soon came to the Hidden Canyon Trail junction. My eyes narrowed at the strange scene before me.
Some kind of dirt compressor and a few other pieces of machinery were blocking the junction. Several large rocks intended to stabilize switchbacks were piled up next to the machinery. I frowned. Caution tape stretched across the entrance, with a sign that made my heart sink:
“Trail closed for repairs.”
Loneliness slammed back into me, now accompanied by a hot frustration. If I was a different man (read: a jackass), I might have ignored the signs and climbed up the closed trail anyways- but I have the utmost respect for all that the National Park Service does and felt it would be a betrayal to John Muir himself if I tramped up the trail and caused further damage.
I checked the time. Only 2:30pm. I had planned to spend the rest of my day and evening exploring Hidden Canyon! Ugh. UUUUGGHH.
Dejected, I wandered a few hundred feet up the Observation Point trail, kicking small rocks and glaring at the ground like a recently scolded child.
What’s the use? Observation Point is an all-day hike. I’ll be back on this same trail in a couple days, I thought.
I sighed, turned, and made my way back to the shuttle stop.
I took the shuttle to the Human History Museum, where many very nice exhibits delved into the history of humans in Zion, from native Americans to Mormon settlers to the visitors of today. They held little interest to me in my funky mood, however. I left the museum only a few minutes after arriving and decided to walk the Pa’rus trail along the Virgin River back to camp.
The Pa’rus trail is a mostly level, paved path which follows the Virgin River, crossing it several times over quaint bridges. The views were lovely and the sound of the bubbling river were divine, but the many, many cyclists diminished the magic somewhat with their ringing bells and my needing to get out of the way every ten seconds. Oh well.
Back at camp, I wasted several hours “catching up” on Facebook. There was a cell tower somewhere in Zion, making it way too easy to get lost in the vapid dopamine-teasing domain of social media.
It was only when both my portable charger and my phone’s battery were completely drained that I was forced out of my trance. I looked around, seeing the world beyond my seven inch phone screen for the first time in hours.
The sun had begun to set. In every direction, families and friends were cooking dinner and lighting campfires, talking and laughing and playing together.
I was utterly alone in the middle of them all.
I quietly and quickly set a campfire, and stared into the flames in silence for some time.
A bat zipped past my face. I looked up to see a dozen more flitting and freewheeling about, hunting airborne insects against a backdrop of sunset-painted cliffs. The deep reds and pinks glowed off the cliffs in the fading light, silhouetting the energetic hunters.
As I watched the bats pirouette above me, I felt myself shrinking. My arms pulled into my body and a thin leathery membrane grew between my fingers as they lengthened bizarrely. My legs shriveled into spindly sticks; my feet and toes became claws and talons. Two fox-like ears sprouted from my head and my nose flattened against my face. My teeth became small, sharp fangs.
I spread my tiny wings, and began flapping like mad.
I was one of them now, dancing and spinning in the cool evening air. We squeaked happily as we deftly pursued and consumed bug after bug, a hundred bite size morsels filling our stomachs one by one.
Below, a bearded, long-haired human smiled up at us from his campfire. I circled above him, taking advantage of the many tasty insects being drawn to the light of his fire. I squeaked in appreciation. He waved one of his strange, long limbs and laughed.
“Maybe I’m not so alone after all,” the man said.
We hunted above the man’s campfire until darkness overtook the humans’ settlement. The bearded man put out his fire, patted a nearby tree in an oddly affectionate manner, and crawled into his bulbous red nest, lit by some mysterious glow within.
I squeaked after him one more time before soaring off into the night with my brothers and sisters.
The night was still young- our feast had just begun.
Zion: The Promised Land, Part Four coming soon!
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