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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Zion and Bryce, July 2019 (Part 1)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 0: Preparation

One of the joys of planning for an extended trip is the opportunity/excuse to buy stuff, amirite? When Cami and I decided to take a 10-day hiking trip in Utah’s national parks, I found my gear to be inadequate, and spent several hundred dollars upping my game. A partial list of my purchases follows, in the hopes that it may be useful to other novice backcountry hikers:

  • Eco-friendly, compostable outdoor toilet paper, in case I needed to poop while hiking.
  • Compostable wet wipes, in case I needed to poop while hiking and the toilet paper was insufficient.
  • Compostable poop bags, for times when I might need to poop while hiking in a location where you are required by law to carry your poop out with you.
  • A sturdy, sealable rubber bag for containing the compostable poop bags after they are full (of poop).
  • A plastic trowel for digging a hole to poop in when hiking in locations where you are allowed to bury your poop instead of carrying it out with you.
  • A metal, foldable camp shovel in case the plastic poop hole trowel was not sturdy enough.
  • Eco-friendly hand sanitizer to use after backcountry pooping.
  • A new day pack.

DAY 1:

No, wait, let’s back up…

A WHILE AGO:

Once upon a time (2017?), Cami and I talked about hiking portions of the Te Araroa trail, which stretches from the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island to the southern tip of the South Island. But then a bunch of stuff happened, including Cami realizing that our plan would necessitate camping in the wilderness without access to a hot shower for several days at a time, and that plan was abandoned.

But maybe we could do something a little less challenging, with less potential for body odor unpleasantness? Finally we settled on a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah. The only time we were both available was in late July, which is precisely the time that every single online source will tell you not to go. “Too many people!” they declared. “Too hot!” they shouted. “You will literally die from heat exhaustion!” But we are foolish and determined and our calendars were unyielding, so I ordered the visitor’s info packets from both parks, purchased my “America the Beautiful” annual park pass, and browsed the Backcountry Pooping department at REI.

DAY 1: Seattle – Las Vegas – Overton – Zion

Early flight into Las Vegas, pick up the rental car, drive to Zion. IT BEGINS. On the way, we stopped at a diner in Overton, Nevada for lunch. While we ate, a reporter from CBS This Morning interviewed a group of senior citizens at the next table about Trump and immigration. After wrapping up with the (yeah, mostly conservative) older folks, CBS decided they would get some juicy counterpoint commentary from today’s liberal youth, and came over to our table. They started with Cami, because she looks smarter and I was unshaven. Finally, they turned the camera to me.

“What’s your response to people who say they’ll vote for Trump again because the economy is doing so well?”

“My vote is predicated on the fact that we have a narcissistic, racist, sexual predator and bully in the White House who must be removed at all costs.”

The briefest of pauses, then…

“Okay,” said the interviewer. “I think we’ve got all we need here. Enjoy your meal.” The cameraman was already wrapping up his cables and heading for the exit.

Familiar as I am with Cami’s musical taste, I had prepared a special “Soft Rock” playlist for the trip. We spent the remainder of the drive singing along enthusiastically to Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel.”

By mid-afternoon, we were in Zion National Park, the sun reflecting off the multi-hued walls of the canyon. There wasn’t much time to hike, but we waded in the Virgin River (refreshing!), checked in with the Rangers at the Visitor’s Center (informative!), and shopped for Zion merch in the gift shop (pricey! but high quality!).

DAY 2: Zion

Up at 4:30 am, and on the first park shuttle by 5:30. A loud CLICK and the shuttle PA crackled to life. “It’s too early to listen to the official recording,” mumbled the irritable driver. “If you’re up this early, you know what you’re looking at. The signs say no food on the bus, but the rules are different before 6 am, so just don’t make a mess. Welcome to Zion.” CLICK.

Which reminds me: Zion National Park is open 24 hours. If you arrive at the park early enough, there’s nobody at the entrance to collect the fee.

By 6:15 am, we were at The Grotto shuttle stop, beginning our ascent to Angel’s Landing. Because I was stopping to take pictures, I was always lagging behind my hiking partner. Looking through my photos months later, I found that I took an awful lot of pictures of Cami’s backside, which was awkward to explain to Robin.

9 people have died since 2004 on the Angel’s Landing hike, signs informed us, and that is no surprise. After a rapid but perfectly safe 1000-foot ascent from the canyon floor through Walter’s Wiggles to Scout Lookout (some sources say Scout’s Lookout), the terrifying final stretch to Angel’s Landing begins. This cannot be right, your mind tells you. Surely, they wouldn’t allow people to hike up… that? From Scout Lookout, the trail takes you across the narrow Saddle and the even narrower and much steeper Hogsback, with a testicle-shriveling 1000-foot drop on either side, no guardrails or other protection. The *only* thing between you and a fatal fall to the canyon floor is a single loose chain which you must grip tightly at all times, even as hundreds of other hikers want to pass, in both directions.

I am admittedly prone to exaggeration for comic effect, but seriously, look at this shit:

It is bananas. At times, you simply have no choice but to let go of the chain and step off the “trail.” I willed myself not to look down, tried to control my breathing, and focused on the fact that there were little kids – like 8 years old, 11 years old – also on the trail. Surely, I kept telling myself, their parents wouldn’t allow them up here if it wasn’t safe. More to the point, if an 8-year-old can do it, suck it up and keep moving, loser. Absolutely the most scared I’ve ever been while hiking. BUT I MADE IT. And so did many others. Except for the nine people who fell to their death.

Coming down was worse.

(For several days after, I had trouble sleeping. Every time I would drift off, a vivid scene would play: My foot slipping on a pebble, my flailing attempt to grab hold of the chain as I fell backward in slow motion like Hans Gruber falling from Nakitomi Plaza.)

So far, it seemed, at least one of the warnings offered by helpful internet strangers had proven correct: It was crowded. The sheer number of people going out and back on that narrow spine of rock seemed like a recipe for fatal disaster. Especially when you take into account the unprepared dopes hiking in flip-flops or street shoes, the yammering and easily distracted little kids, not to mention the backwards-visor crowd shouting “Sick view, brah!” and cackling while Limp Bizkit blared from the Bluetooth speakers dangling from their backpacks. (In fairness, I only saw that once, and EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. they passed on the trail – including me, natch – denounced them loudly until they turned it off. Peer pressure can be a force for good, folks.)

Cami had done Angel’s Landing years ago, and ah… let’s just say she didn’t enjoy the experience. So she waited for me at Scout Lookout. Once I made it back to her, we headed northwest on the West Rim trail, where we were surprised to find ourselves entirely alone. We realized then that the crowds were probably concentrated around the most famous landmarks and hikes, and that proved true throughout the remainder of our trip. We also found that the vast majority of folks were on the shorter hikes, or the first mile of the longer hikes. Knowing that we could avoid the crowds when desired improved my attitude. Plus, honestly? The heat felt pretty good to me.

That afternoon, we stopped at the Zion Human History Museum and watched the 22-minute “orientation film” which was surprisingly amateurish Mormon propaganda. Things I learned at the museum:

  • The park was originally known as Mukuntuweap, a name used by the Southern Paiute. In 1918, it was changed to Zion, a name used by Mormons. Most landmarks in the park were also re-christened with Mormon-centric names: The Three Patriarchs, The White Throne, Angel’s Landing, The Altar of Sacrifice, Magic Underwear Peak, “Joseph Smith was a Delusional Con Man” Trail, etc.
  • Ground Squirrels are devious, gluttonous little bandits. They will steal your food, toiletries, and credit cards if you let them. AND YOUR HEART.
  • ANYONE CAN GET A JUNIOR RANGER BADGE. THEY DO NOT VERIFY YOUR AGE.

DAY 3: Zion

We awoke to the aftermath of a massacre. Several times a year around Zion, the humidity causes flying ants to hatch, fly around pointlessly for 12 hours, and die. Every flat surface, including the pool in which I swam the night before, was now covered with a black carpet of (no longer) flying ant carcasses.

Instead of catching the park shuttle into Zion Canyon, we drove our rental car on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, toward the east entrance of the park. We stopped to take pictures next to a motorcycle club – 20 or 30, all riding Harleys, all Latinx. They revved up and roared past us, the lead rider blasting Shania Twain through powerful speakers.

Above us on the canyon wall, we could see giant arched openings that looked like entrances to man-made caves. Fifteen minutes later, as we drove through the claustrophobic mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, we realized that we had been looking at the “galleries” which intermittently allow light into the tunnel.

Just past the tunnel, we parked and hiked the Canyon Overlook Trail, one of the shortest hikes at the park, but also, I thought, one of the most photogenic. At Canyon Overlook itself, I sat at the edge of the precipice, eyes closed, white knuckles clutching the rocky surface, while Cami took my picture. To my right, I noticed rock-climbing anchors (I’m sure they have some kind of official name) embedded in a boulder. Just thinking about lowering myself over that edge made me dizzy.

Members of the “Zion National Park Connection” Facebook group recommended hitting the most popular hikes first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid the direct sun and other people. After lunch and some quality email time back at the hotel (Cami was in the process of buying a house!), we planned to tackle Zion’s other most popular hike, The Narrows. But first we needed equipment. The Narrows isn’t really a trail; it’s a swiftly-flowing river. Zion experts recommend a sturdy walking stick or two, and some water-friendly footwear with solid toe protection. We decided our shoes were fine, but we wanted them sweet sweet walkin’ sticks. “They are going to try and upsell us to the boots,” I muttered to Cami as we entered the rental shop. “Stay strong.”

The flaxen-haired bro behind the counter was the quintessential ski bum/river guide dude, deceptively chill until he swooped in for the sell.

“You picked out a couple of excellent sticks there, my friends,” he drawled. “What size of boots can I get for ya?”

“Thanks, but our shoes are fine,” I told him firmly. “We just want the sticks.”

“Well, I mean, I don’t want to argue with you, man, but lotsa people say they don’t want the boots, but then they come back and say they wished they had the boots.”

Presenting a united front was essential, so Cami stepped up. “Thanks for the advice, but we just want the sticks.”

“Wow, well… I mean, that water can be pretty deceiving to novice hikers, is all I’m sayin’. Unless you have state-of-the-art foot and ankle protection, the current can just, like, tear your foot clean off. I’m just saying it would be a shame if they had to medivac you out, and we can’t be held liable…”

“WE JUST WANT THE STICKS.”

Stick negotiation completed successfully, we hopped on the park shuttle, bound for the Temple of Sinawava stop. From there, we took the Riverside Walk Trail, which, somewhat unsurprisingly, is a “walk” along the “side” of a “river.” The sheer canyon wall to our right wept water from hidden cracks, and the trail was shaded by lush, bright green foliage. One mile in, we stepped into the river and began hiking The Narrows. It seemed that quite a few other people had also decided to avoid the crowds by hiking later in the day, so we were not alone. At the same time, how could we complain? We were part of the problem. And the truth is, the mood on the river was so friendly and jubilant that I couldn’t maintain my irritation. Families from all over the world, parents with children, groups of teenagers, couples holding hands, all struggling against the current, laughing, falling in the water. Many without sticks, many in flip-flops or no shoes at all. Cami is a more tolerant human than I, and she loved the crowd. I gradually came to agree: It was communal and friendly and fun. The spectacular scenery was largely above our heads, so it wasn’t like anyone was blocking our view. The weather was perfect. The water was just shy of too cold, and I took a quick swim in a deep pool.

The sky was a thin strip, far overhead. Around every bend was a new, jaw-dropping tableau of sheer cliffs, deep turquoise swimming holes, and improbable bursts of greenery.

We didn’t go as far as I had hoped. The sun began to go down, the water started to feel more chilly, and the thought of getting stuck out there in the dark prompted us to head back. We both agreed that we’d like to come back another time and hike much farther.

On the park shuttle, we sat next to a boisterous group of British children and their parents. To keep them occupied, Mom was prompting them with songs to sing. They knew all the words to the Ponyo theme song, and sang them joyously:

Ponyo Ponyo Ponyo fishy in the sea
Tiny little fishy who could you really be
Ponyo Ponyo Ponyo magic sets it free
Oh pretty little girl but you swim back to me

Their older brother was too embarrassed to sing along, but chided them immediately when they got the words wrong.

Cami had some papers to edit for a writing class she was teaching, so, after cleaning up, I headed back into the park alone for the evening ranger program. I love a ranger program, and seek them out when I’m at a national park. The rangers who deliver them are consistently quirky and full of nerdy enthusiasm, and I’m always impressed that they are able to deliver something so full of character and personality within a government agency. Tonight’s program was led by Ranger Jen, and it was all about the history of climbing in Zion. Ranger Jen was a climber herself, and you better believe she had some opinions on certain famous male climbers, which she was happy to share.

There was a kid on the floor near the front, fidgety and bored. He couldn’t sit still and was making too much noise and I found myself increasingly irritated with him. During the Q&A period, he raised his hand, and I gritted my teeth. His question was: How do deer know to get out of the way and avoid flash floods?

I have to admit, that was actually one of the better questions that got asked. Ranger Jen apologized for not having a good answer, but promised to check in with one of the wildlife experts at the park so she could answer it next time.

DAY 4: Zion

The day before, we had done the Canyon Overlook Trail on the recommendation of some guy Cami spoke to at the Visitor Center, and it had been an excellent choice. But now, looking at the map, Cami realized that he had actually said Observation Point, not Canyon Overlook, and she had confused them because those two names are almost identical, right? Anyway, Observation Point is directly across the canyon from Angel’s Landing, and the normal route to it is hiking up from the Weeping Rock trailhead… which was closed because of a rockslide. A ranger informed us that there was an alternative: We could exit the park via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, drive several miles north, then navigate dirt roads back in to the park boundary, find an access point to the East Mesa Trail, and after that the details got hazy, so we just headed in that direction and hoped for the best.

It was much further down much shittier roads than expected, but we did find the access point. The only thing indicating that we were crossing back into the park was a dilapidated barbed-wire fence. There was no sign, but there were a couple of other cars parked there, so we assumed it must be the right place. Incredibly, this is a travel story where everything worked out perfectly. Some kind souls who preceded us had left sticks on the ground to point the way at every trail junction. After hiking for 2.5 miles, we saw the first official sign, pointing over a hill to Canyon Overlook Observation Point.

The view was just as stunning as promised. Angel’s Landing, at 5,790 feet above sea level and 1,500 feet above the canyon floor, felt uncomfortably high, partially because you’re so nakedly exposed up there. At 6,508 feet above sea level, Observation Point is quite a bit higher, and I found it unnerving to look *down* at Angel’s Landing from the other side of the canyon.

Again – a lovely (and easy!) hike with a panoramic view of the canyon, at the peak of the tourist season, and I think we saw 5 or 6 people total, including one harried and sweaty gentleman shouting stock prices into his cell phone.

It was still early, so we drove back through the park and out the main entrance. Heading toward Kolob Canyons, in the remote northwest corner of Zion National Park, we drove through a bunch of small rural towns. Cami, who has watched several episodes of “Sister Wives” and knows a thing or two about Mormons, was convinced that she could identify the homes of polygamists. “That one right there,” she would state with authority, pointing. “See the big water tank? That’s so they can live off the grid. And that trailer next to the house? That’s where the second wife sleeps.”

Zion is special, in part, because of the wide variety of landscapes and environments available for exploration, all within the park boundaries. Red cliffs rising above, cool turquoise rivers below, lush greenery, vast flat expanses of smooth rock, checkerboard mesas, and on and on. The most popular part of the park is Zion Canyon, where you are positioned down at the bottom of the canyon, towering rock walls on both sides. From the Kolob Canyons entrance, the feel is very different. You are in a sandy desert with scrub brush at your feet. But also, confusingly: Pine forest. And massive Warner Brothers Wile E. Coyote red mesas beckoning in the distance.

Speaking to the much lower numbers of visitors at the Kolob Canyons entrance, there is only a tiny ranger station/visitor’s center. We checked in to ask for recommendations, then hiked the short Timber Creek Overlook Trail and the first half mile of the lengthy La Verkin Creek Trail. Rain and hunger ended our hike, plus I wanted to make it back in time for the evening ranger program.

The Thai restaurant near our hotel, just outside the park, had a (somewhat defensive?) FAQ section on their menu, including this informative item:

Q: Why don’t you have Asian wait staff?

A: This county is 96.7% Caucasian and Hispanic.

Okay then.

That night at Zion Lodge, while a family of rangy-looking deer grazed on the grass outside the window, Ranger Gretchen gave a presentation on astronomy, titled “Second Star to the Right.” Particularly interesting bits were punctuated by uninhibited hand gestures and joyous exclamations of “Oh my HECK!”

“You’re in Mormon country now,” she explained. “No swears.”

She ended the program by listing works of art that were inspired by various astronomical phenomena. Conspicuously absent from her list? “Cygnus X-1” by Rush. Missed opportunity, Ranger Gretchen.

Waiting for the park shuttle, Cami and I stood behind a bickering elderly couple.

“Why didn’t you sit next to me during the lecture?” the woman demanded.

“You ask too many questions and I wanted to listen!” he replied angrily.

“Questions? What do you care about questions? You slept through the whole thing!”

“Are you crazy? I heard everything she said!”

“You were asleep! I heard you snoring! EVERYONE heard you snoring!”

“It was too much information and it made me tired!”

“How could you be tired? YOU TOOK A NAP!!”

“IT WAS BORING!”

“IT WASN’T BORING!”

“WELL I GUESS YOU KNOW EVERYTHING! YOU’RE A GODDAMN GENIUS!”

Having delivered his final statement on the subject, the man made a “GAAAAAAAAAH!” sound of despairing exasperation, threw up his hands, and stomped off to wait for the shuttle elsewhere.

“So,” I asked Cami. “Thinking of getting remarried anytime soon?”

“GAAAAAAAH!” she answered, throwing up her hands.

Proceed to Part 2

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3 Comments

  1. Love the photos and LOVELOVELOVE the commentary. Thanks so much for inviting us along!

  2. What a great write up! Can’t wait to take another road trip together!! Thanks for sharing some of your summer with me. Love you!

  3. Ha, ha, magic underwear peak.

    The rock anchors are either pitons or bolts (depending on if they are nail-like or threaded usually with wedges).

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