Where Casinos are King
I drive through Las Vegas first thing this morning. Ever notice how usually the bank has the biggest, fanciest building in town, followed by the church? Well in Las Vegas it’s the casinos. They’re just a little over the top. Big names playing various venues, too: Rod Stewart, Lisa Manelli, David Copperfield—I can’t remember them all because I’m not into celebrities, but I recognize a couple dozen names on billboards.
After Las Vegas, it’s an uninspiring drive until the road slices up through a deep canyon of the Virgin River where it cuts through a mountain range. Now that’s impressive! Then I hit a small town called Rockville, which is named appropriately because it has giant boulders bigger than SUVs sitting in yards right in front of houses. At last I pass through Springdale, on the opposite shore of the Virgin River from Zion. In Zion, home of the holy temples of rock, I claim my campsite and walk to the visitor center, about 100 yards away.
This park, like Yosemite, bears a heavy burden of visitors. But unlike Yosemite it’s administered in a professional manner. Cars have limited access to the park between May and November. There’s one fairly small parking area which usually fills by 10:00 a.m. After it’s full, there are parking places in Springdale and a shuttle bus that brings tourists directly to the tourist center. Every seven minutes a park shuttle ferries people through the park, stopping at numerous trailheads and points of interest. You can ride the shuttle round and round all day for free. The shuttles are timed to the second, so much so that the recorded narrative onboard tells you not to forget personal articles on the bus at the precise moment it pulls up to a stop.
The thing that catches my eye at the visitor center and adjoining gift shop is a T-shirt that reads “Angels Landing.” I resist the urge to buy it.
We're Angels Now
Backpacker Magazine calls the Angels Landing Trail one of the top ten hikes in North America. The story goes that back in the 1870s a Methodist minister saw the promontory and exclaimed that it was so inaccessible that only an angel could land there. In 1926, a trail was hewn from solid rock leading up the side canyon on Angels Landing’s left flank. It includes a series of 21 steeply ascending switchbacks that are affectionately known as Walter’s Wiggles, after their designer. At only five miles round trip, it’s a short hike; most of the first two miles of the trail are paved with a rough slip-free surface.
At about the two mile mark the trail opens into a large sandy area called Scotty’s Lookout where most people, including me, stop to catch their breath and prepare themselves psychologically for what lies ahead. The views from Scotty’s Lookout are spectacular; about 50% of hikers choose to venture no further. Of the 50% who decide to attempt the last half mile, about 80% turn back within the first 10 minutes. Officially, the National Park Service claims that since 2004, six people have plunged to their deaths on the final section of the trail. The locals say the NPS is being optimistic and that several more hikers have suffered fatal falls. Everyone waiting at Scotty’s Lookout is acutely aware of these numbers.
A bird’s eye view of the trail’s last half mile is shaped like a tennis racket, the handle being a narrow ridge with a 1200 foot drop-off on one side and 1000 feet on the other. The racket’s business end represents the end of the trail, an area with sheer drop offs all around that can comfortably accommodate about 40 people.
I decided months ago that Angels Landing would be at the top of my agenda in Zion. Just to be sure I get up early, I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m., even though I know there’s no chance of my oversleeping and missing the first shuttle bus at 7:00 a.m. I want to be at the trailhead early for two reasons: first, there won’t be so many people (people descending from the last half-mile of Angels Landing and those ascending to it have to pass each other on the trail, doubling the danger of an accident; and second, storms are predicted for this afternoon and, as at Pike’s Peak, you don’t want to be the tallest object around when lightning gets cranked up.
Before my alarm has a chance to ring I pack my Camelbak with the essentials: camera, extra lens, ipubrofen (for my foot), full water, trail mix and rain pancho. At 7:00 o’clock only four of us are waiting when the shuttle pulls up. When we stop at The Grotto, trailhead for Angels Landing, only two of us disembark, a muscular, tall young fellow with a blonde buzz haircut and me, somewhat different in aspect . The other two riders proceed to another stop. Tall Guy is off like a shot up the trail. I break out my trekking poles; any weight I transfer to them is weight my feet don’t have to carry. The trail is quite steep and although I’m not pushing it, I’m sweating in the 60 degree temperature by the time I reach Scotty’s Lookout. Tall Guy is nowhere to be seen.
At Scotty’s Lookout, like most sane people, I stop for a bit of reflection. Here’s where the real test begins. I start having spontaneous thoughts like, “Well, if I die here—what better time and place than doing something I love?” or “What will I be thinking about for the several seconds on the way down to the rocks a 1000 feet below?” or “Should I keep my eyes open or closed as I freefall?” or “Should I try something quixotic like a series of somersaults on the way down?” or “Should I spread-eagle and see if I can maneuver like a skydiver, to my certain death?”
In the meantime, several other people show up, arriving on later shuttle busses, which are spaced at seven minute intervals. We begin joshing and making macabre wisecracks among ourselves. Some decide right away they’re going no further. Some couples split up, the woman, perhaps more grounded in reality, being the one to stay below (no sexism here...this is just what I observed.)
As we’re carrying on, here comes Tall Guy, his eyes big as saucers. “No,” he admits, “I couldn’t do it. I got to the second chain and that was it.” Not a great confidence-builder for the rest of us.
Soon, though, in ones, twos and threes people break loose and begin the final ascent. If I don’t make up my mind soon, the knife-edge trail will be crawling with people working their way back down.
Quite sure I’ll never in my life come as far as Scotty’s Lookout again, I make a decision that takes a full hour: go for it. I collapse my trekking poles and put them in my pack—they’ll be of no use from here on. With a frisson of excitement, I begin climbing. Twenty seconds later a couple, who had been wavering, follows. “We decided if you were going to do it, we were too,” they call up to me.
The initial ascent is almost a scramble, with footholds among the boulders irregularly spaced at one or two feet apart, steep as a ladder. In places the path smooths out somewhat with only a few obstructions, but hugs the cliff wall only three feet from disaster, moving relentlessly upward. In places there’s a heavy chain attached, not to the outer edge of the trail to keep you from falling over the precipice, but to the inner edge, like a handrail. Most of the time I find the chain is just a distraction. I want to grab it because it’s there, when I ought to be concentrating on where I should place my feet.
As I make progress, the trail generally becomes steeper and narrower. In some places, footholds have been carved out of the solid bedrock. But once committed, I have no thought of turning back. I simply concentrate on my hands and feet and ignore the gulf between me and the rocks 1000 feet below. In one place I remember vividly, the trail becomes a bare flat rock several feet long and only three feet wide, the narrowest part of the trail. It has a chain stretched along it, but the dropoff on either side seems infinite. “Don’t look down,” I tell myself, “Just concentrate on your next step.” Over the years that chain has been polished bright by the tight grip of countless sweaty palms.
The closer the goal, the steeper the trail becomes.
Finally, by sheer dogged determination, I’m within sight of the summit. Another 100 feet and I’m there. It's a moment of exultation. I feel invincible, alive! I can buy the T-shirt!
Of course I have to make it back down first, a challenge at least as intimidating as climbing up. But this is a moment to savor. I remain at the summit for two hours, enough time for a number of hikers to come and go. At one point I count 40 souls on board, all swapping cameras back and forth to make a record of their achievement.
It’s hard to tear myself away, but storm clouds are developing on the horizon and the choice becomes automatic. I clamber back down, sometimes backwards so my hands can maintain a grip while my boots seek a foothold. It’s hard work. In half an hour or so, I look down and see Scotty’s Lookout, dubbed Quitter’s Corner by some insensitive wag. There are dozens of people there, waiting as I did for the right moment to advance or retreat.
I break out the trekking poles and I begin the final portion of the descent on the steep two-mile paved trail. I use my poles as brakes; somehow going down seems steeper than coming up. I’m exhausted but happy. And sure enough, just as I reach camp a heavy thunderstorm rolls overhead.
There are regular rumblings that Angels Landing should be closed down permanently because of the danger. Editorials to that effect show up in the LA Times, the Salt Lake City Deseret News and various interest groups. I, for one, am grateful the government has so far seen fit to allow each of us to take responsibility for our own safety at Angels Landing. I fear it won’t always be so. The government is in the business of denying transcendental experience.
This morning I sleep until 9:00 a.m., unheard of for me. When I try to get out of bed I can barely move. My arms are sore from using the trekking poles—a sure sign that they’re helpful—and my legs are so rubbery I can barely use stairs.
I plan to hike The Narrows today, a path that leaves you walking in a slot canyon, mostly in the water of the Virgin River, knee deep but sometimes chest deep or even swimming. I’m almost grateful when the weather forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of heavy thunderstorms. A Ranger tells me the water flow has doubled since yesterday’s storms and could double again today if the forecast is correct. In that event The Narrows will be closed. I decide it would be foolhardy to chance it.
Instead I drive out of the canyon up to the Kolob Terrace Road to see what things look like from above. By the time I drive the 40 or so miles to get there, it’s begins hailing, followed by a heavy downpour. A sign at the beginning of the Lava Point Road, where you can view the canyon system, warns that the dirt road is impassable in wet weather, even with four-wheel drive.
Reluctantly, I turn back to camp in the driving rain. Even if I could get to the Lava Point Overlook I wouldn’t be able to take pictures, or even see anything. At camp I fall onto the bed and drift off to sleep with the sound of rain pelting the roof.
Narrowly Missing The Narrows
I wake up to cloudless skies for a change. It’s rained every day I’ve been in the desert, including Death Valley. I hope it rains soon at home or that too will soon be a desert, with all the unpleasant attributes and none of the good.
I walk across the park boundary about 100 yards into Springdale, where there’s a small café called Sol Food that has an internet connection, and catch up on my blogs.
After a leisurely start, I decide to hike The Narrows in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the Virgin River has carved down through 2000 feet of sandstone, in some places creating a canyon only 20 feet wide. I put my driver’s license and iPhone, for use as a camera, into a zip-loc bag and fill the Camelbak with water. Since much of the hike is actually in the Virgin River, I don an old castaway pair of hiking boots, knowing they could be ruined by the time it’s over.
I catch the shuttle and take the 40 minute ride to The Temple of Sinawava where the trail head is. By now it’s close to noon and I notice dark clouds starting to form upstream. Not a good sign. There are a lot of people at the end of the first mile of the trail, where it crosses the river. Previous hikers have leant their walking sticks against the canyon wall as they leave, for others to pick up and use. It’s a good idea to have a third leg to probe the river bottom because the water is as opaque as creamed coffee. I choose a staff and wade into the river.
The water is about knee deep, cold and running swiftly. The bottom is made up of loose, slippery, rounded boulders, some the size of basketballs mixed with many smaller stones. The river is only about 30 feet wide at this point and I make it across quickly. But rain showers are starting. I hike the path 200 yards to the second crossing and by now the rain is heavier. Most everyone is turning back, a good decision. In fact, the only decision. We can’t see how threatening the storm is by looking up at the narrow slot of sky above us, and flash floods can occur from storms that are miles away.
I’m disappointed, but have to face the reality of the situation. So my old boots go squish-squishing all the way back to the bus stop. And what didn’t get wet in the river is now soaked from the rain. I’ll have to wait for another trip to hike The Narrows.
Tomorrow I leave for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the last official stop of my journey.
Travel day. This morning I ready the rig for the road, reluctantly pulling up stakes. I’ve enjoyed my stay at Zion. Each stop along my journey has had its own enticements, but Zion is uniquely beautiful. It’s emblematic of my love for southern Utah, the Colorado plateau, the Four Corners—no matter what name it’s called by. In a relatively small geographic area, God has seen fit to stash some of His most precious jewels.
Leaving Zion is a trip in itself. The road spirals up out of the canyon to a 1.1 mile long tunnel which, built in 1929 when most vehicles were far smaller than today’s, can no longer safely accommodate two-way traffic. Traffic is let through one way at a time, first east-bound, then west-bound, alternating all day.
Once through the tunnel heading east , the monolithic rocks assume more and more improbable shapes, like huge dollops of Dairy Queen ice cream or, less delectably, cow patties piled one on top of another, tilted at dizzying angles, seeming to ooze out onto the road almost. Their pinks and whites are dotted with pines, similar to Yosemite where the trees seem to grow out of solid bedrock. Unfortunately, there aren’t any pullouts along this section of highway, so I can’t get any pictures of the strange formations.
Before I know it, I’m through Kanab, Fredonia and Jacob Lake, plunging due south the last 40 miles to the North Rim. Once I check in at the ranger station and find my campsite, I realize it’s almost directly across the camp road from the site Jane, Hannah and I used years ago—probably about 1995—when we had our little popup camper. It was the first day the North Rim was open for the season, sometime in May, and it snowed a couple of inches on us. Now that was an adventure! The little camper had no heater, so the girls were in one bunk, cuddled together in one sleeping bag to stay warm, and I was in the other bunk wearing, I believe, every piece of clothing I’d brought with me, plus my sleeping bag. When sunrise came only Hannah wanted to stir; she’d never seen snow before and wanted to play in it. Oh, we had fun on that trip!
My little baby…seems like overnight she’s already a sophomore at A&M. So many memories of her growing up; I wish I’d known it would all flow by so fast, too fast to hold my arms around, too intangible. I’m feeling a little melancholy sneaking in. Life has to move through its proper stages and though sometimes it’s sad, it’s all good—and besides, there’s no stopping it.