The Grand Staircase, Part Seven
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Click Here for Part One

Alarm buzzing, the snooze bar within reach was a challenging temptation. If the park was full, we had to make sure we could get there early enough to get a backcountry permit or the next available campsite. “No Vacancy” remained posted, but we could clearly see a sparsely filled campground. There was a small spot, not too close to other campers, with a picnic table, fire pit, access to a river, and a spectacular view of the 6500-foot high Watchman cliff side. We pulled out our tents and staked them into a hard dusty red ground that coated our shoes.

Zion in Hebrew means sanctuary, a perfect name for this walled desert oasis carved by the Virgin River. The river took 13 million years to sculpt its masterpiece, molding the Colorado Plateau into cliffs and towers. All while giving life to numerous plants and providing water and food to diverse wildlife. All the life in this safe-haven, including us tourists who enjoy it, owe it all to this unaware but persistent river.

Zion Canyon Road, recently repaved to match the red hue of the canyon, is accessible only by shuttle. Stop at one of several bus stops and in less than 7 minutes, they will be there to pick you up. This has done wonders for the park. Traffic jams are now due only to the abundance of wildlife that has returned since the shuttle program started. Plants and wildlife can more easily take shelter and flourish in the park.

We waited for our approaching ride to the Zion Narrows, my most anticipated region in the park. After a screech of the breaks, the doors opened. We climbed aboard the shuttle, captained by Jim.

Other passengers filled the seats so I remained in the aisle standing in a Y holding onto two rings for stability. Jim, a man in his early to mid sixties, drove us up through the red forested canyon toward our destination. He spoke in a loud assertive whisper, reminiscent of Jack Boyer or Clint Eastwood. It had a weight that demanded your full attention. It worked on me. I listened to every word.

“The other drivers will just play the same recording over the speakers,” he said holding a microphone to his mouth, steering with the other hand. “It’s called an M-P-3 player. They do it because it’s easy, but then you hear the same thing on every shuttle all day every day. Not me, I want to try to give you something unique.”

The Virgin River came into clear view from the shuttle windows. “Some people ask how this tiny river can form this big canyon,” he said, displeased with anyone who might speak ill of his beloved river. “It looks small now, but when storms strike, flash floods will flow down the river blasting out log jams and hurtling boulders. Trust me. The Virgin River is no pup.”

My steadying grip tightened on every turn, as we winded up the canyon. “Rain water from thousands of years ago soaked through the sandstone cliffs and is used after all those years by these plants today. That’s why even in the middle of the desert you see Fir, Cottonwood, aspen trees, and… the Ponderosa Pine,” finishing with emphasis and a lower tone on the last one in that Jack Bower voice that Randy and I couldn’t stop mimicking on our whole trip. Actually as I write this, I’m saying “Ponderosa Pine” in my best assertive whispered Jim voice.

“Right here on your left, you see that slope? A flash flood from the Virgin River caused a massive mudslide that dammed up the river and washed out the only access road, trapping a couple hundred visitors at the Zion Lodge. Like I said, the Virgin River is no pup.”

“All the major news networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News,” he read in quick rehearsed succession, “for some reason had reporters here for a month. Probably because they never seen this place and wanted a paid business trip. The headlines said ‘200 People Trapped at Zion Lodge’. Trapped? Hmmph. They got a free night’s stay in the park at a beautiful lodge with food and drinks paid for.” He lowered his voice slightly and scoffed, “I’m sure it was horrible for them,”.

Jim’s shuttle arrived at the Temple of Sinawava. We walked down the short paved Riverside Walk that ended at the river. Here the canyon converges into the 16-mile long Narrows formed by the Virgin River. The trail actually is the river, nearly running canyon wall to canyon wall at all times. With our aqua shoes on, we sloshed into the 57-degree water.

Some of the hike was along the sandy shorelines, but most was through water ankle to knee deep. That is, if it’s clear enough to see where you’re stepping. Fortunately, today the water was clear. The deep sections were clearly visible as a darker emerald green. If storms upstream dirtied the river, hikers might suddenly find themselves swimming in several feet of water.

Our legs soon acclimated to the cold temperature as we made our way through the narrowing cliff walls. The trail was, at first, crowded. Barefoot people posed for photos with long hiking sticks in hand.

The narrows are unlike any place I’ve been. The cliff walls loom over you, soaring 2,000 feet overhead and come together as close as thirty feet apart. Water weeps out of red-hued sandstone giving life to hanging gardens of moss, ferns, grasses, and wild flowers. Deep emerald water flows around fallen boulders, getting louder in spots, as water channels through narrower spaces, causing white caps to surge though. This is undoubtedly one of the most stunning places on earth.

Once again, the further we hiked, the less we saw other people. “I feel like a kid at Christmas, every turn reveals another unknown gift,” Randy said as we neared a sharp bend in the trail. We hiked within an arm’s reach to the walls, on sand bordering the river’s edge, and over slick algae-covered boulders. Our path zigzagged back and forth, as we looked for the best place to make our next step. Swift flowing water occasionally made crossing difficult.

We climbed on top of a large boulder to have lunch. Other hikers sloshed by below us. This trip (like this blog post) seems to have lasted forever. It was hard to believe it had only been five days. Months after the trip I still sometimes close my eyes and try to imagine being back at this spot. I so desperately want to go back.

At what looked like a sizable beaver dam about five miles in, we stood for a few minutes, admired the view, and made the hard decision to head back before nightfall. Surprisingly, the hike in the other direction wasn’t very familiar. The new angle made it a new trail.

Less than a mile from the Riverside Walk, we passed a young family of four. “I wish we could keep going, but it’s getting late. Are we going to miss anything great if we turn around now?” the mother asked us. “Well, more of this,” I said. “So… yes,” Randy added.

The Zion Narrows still stands as my favorite hike. It’s conceivable that I’ll be lucky enough to find one that can even come close, but this will be hard to top. Number 130, “Hike Zion Narrows”, was technically off my list, but I hope to return one day when I have more time to hike the other two-thirds that we missed.

We arrived at the bus stop and were happy to see Jim’s shuttle waiting there. I put my hiking poles in the crack between the seats, slid out of my pack, and sat down. Jim passed the time with stories about the park’s wild turkeys, in that Eastwood whisper. “Come back here at about eight o’clock and you’ll see the wild turkeys all turning in for the night. They fly to the same tree, in the same order, one at a time, the alpha male always going first. Turkey’s can’t control themselves when they are in the air. If another turkey gets in their way, they’ll just crash into each other and hit the ground hard, so they go one at a time. They get to that tree there and then one at a time will fly to other trees where they will stay for the night.” Suddenly he stopped the shuttle. A Blue Herron stood tall by the river. Jim made sure everyone got a look.

As we slowed for the next stop, Jim said, “If you want to see a mountain lion, this spot is your best bet. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll see one but your chances are better if you come back here… after sunset… and come alone.” After a second pause, everyone laughed.

Jim reminded everyone when they got off, to not leave anything on his shuttle. “If you do, I have to take it to the front office at the end of my shift. When I park the bus, I can either, walk 50 feet to my car, or 300 yards to the office to fill out paper work. How many of you think I’m gonna do that? No, it’s going in my trunk. I’ll look at it in the morning and see if it’s worth keepin’. If not I’ll get rid of it… eBay.” When it was our turn to get off, I left behind my hiking poles still standing between the seats anyway. The next day I went to the visitor center’s lost and found, but Jim kept his promise.

Back at camp, we marveled at the view, got a fire crackling, prepared dinner, and played poker by the light of headlamps until retreating to our tents. The sky was clear. Billions of stars were out. Other than muffled voices from nearby campsites, the night was quiet. I shimmied into my sleeping bag and pulled out my camera to look at photos from today. I scrawled a few sentences about the day in my journal and put everything away in the tent’s pockets next to my headt. With ease, I feel asleep.

My subconscious projector lit up to replay a familiar dream. Often my dreams are disturbing in ways only David Fincher could direct, but none are more mentally exhausting as ones that put me back to my old closed-down pet store. The store is always dark and I struggle trying to find a way to get the lights on as customers flood back in. They were intensely stressful years that I’m thrilled to have behind me. In the dream, however, I’m led me to believe that all the hard work successfully getting out from under those years is the dream. The retail aggravation is back, only confusing, dark, and noisier.

Lying in my tent, I forcibly jolted myself awake. A million specks of starlight comfort me overhead. Blue moonlight scatters onto the ground and across the Watchman cliff sides. The frustration of the dream melts away, as though reality dunked my head into pool of cool blue water, instantly silencing the noise.

I thought about how glad I am to have that all behind me. To be in a location I could only daydream about a few years ago. This moment helps justify that stressful past. Without it, would I know the luxury of silence, the value in being able to leave thoughts of work at the office, and the importance of unruffled simplicity?

I tried to force attentiveness, to make this time last, but was too tired and eventually succumbed to heavy eyelids. The next morning I woke up and continued admiring the view of the Watchman until I could hear that Randy was also awake.

< Part Six | Part Eight >