Praises to Zion

Utah: putting the AWE back in awesome! I’m absolutely zonkers over Zion National Park! (I know I just said pretty much the same thing last weekend at Great Basin, which was also *top* shelf in totally different ways, and before that I was in love with the limitless horizons around the Steens Mountain Wilderness area…. it may seem fickle, but I’m recalling a period in my early twenties when I was falling in love with the work of a different poet every few days!). First impressions of Zion were glowing and have only grown more luminous. Or is it the light? Each day seems sunnier than the last, with stone walls of brilliant heat-stroke glare and cool green-dark shadows mere inches from each other; the pale green snaking of the Virgin River, the cathedral walls rising in all directions more heavenly than morning light falling from clerestory windows. Breathtaking. Jaw-dropping. Considering that the park is already chock-full of visitors speaking all tongues, as the Memorial Day weekend approaches, I’m amazed by how smoothly visitors are moved through/into the park.

The first step, as Edward Abbey prescribed so many decades ago, is separating us from our vehicles. Except for special exceptions, and those who are guests of the Lodge, deep inside the scenic canyon drive, visitors leave their vehicles back in the town of Springdale, and hop on free shuttles which loop through town to the Visitor Center. This is so much better than the days (I can hardly image when thousands of cars and tour buses and RVs clogged the road! Crossing a symbolic bridge over the Virgin, we become “naturalized” into the Park experience. I suspect there are many who NEED this — it doesn’t come easily for some, parting with their cars and campers. Eavesdropping, I hear comments — a few are inconvenienced, a few are confused or bewildered to be finding their way through paths to the next shuttle bus, which loop from the Visitor Center through the scenic canyon of Zion. Where do we — ? Are is this the –? How do we know –? But soon folks get seated, and I think a general sense of calm and gratitude descends. Some get off, other get on, some take photos, other take rigorous hikes. It becomes liberating, do-able, this divorce from the vehicle.

I began my time in Zion, as I often try to do, by moving around, making short landscape studies. All woefully inadequate!! The uninitiated human eye simply cannot take it all in, one feature carved and tinted more perfectly than the next — solid walls but nothing solid; all fractured, veined, cross-bedded, undercut, drilled, honeycombed, arched, shattered, dripping, stained, burning, mirrored, shadowed. Sunlight bounces from one hot-lit wall to cast warm light against the opposite side, subtly shifting the colors. Walls seep ancient water, rivulets dripping from canyon-tops evaporate in a shower of droplets as they fall thousands of feet, water transmuted into rainbows and moss. The river, the Virgin, has done all this carving work over millions of years.

Giving up on sketching, I spent the next whole day hiking, trails with names like Emerald Pools (upper, middle, lower), Weeping Wall, Riverwalk to the Narrows, Grotto, Kayenta. I slept deeply, dreaming of colors and textures and trails descending through keyholes of stone. Today, still sore from yesterday but inspired, I hiked the trail to Angel’s Landing, a hike rated “strenuous” as it ascends approx 2000 feet from the valley floor (river level) to the top of a high sandstone arrowhead, following heart-pounding and inventive switchbacks chiseled into the sandstone walls, ending in a vertiginous route of chain and metal posts, nailed over the top of a stone precipice, where those braver than me hiked the last 1/3 mile holding onto the chain as they traverse a narrow bridge of rock with sheer drops on either side. I ended the day with a gentle hike to see a few ancient petroglyphs on a rockface near the Visitor Center (a few that looked like bird tracks, and one resembling a bighorn sheep).

Now I’m sore and still amazed by Zion. As the psalm goes: “Sing praises to the Lord who dwelleth in Zion.” Actually I’ve had that line from Handel’s Messiah in my head today: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” I’m ready to try a day of sketching again, tho I will select places where hundreds of people won’t stop to watch (as happened three days ago, when I was following on the shuttle bus route).

Postscript: I learned very sad news as I checked email tonight, leaving the park: the sudden death of Gary Erickson, my sister-in-law April’s father. Deepest sympathies go out tonight to April, my brother John, my nephew Henry, and my nieces Maureen and Sarah. As I watch the sunset on the stone walls of Zion, I am remembering my own grandfathers, and wishing for April and her entire family “the peace which surpasses all understanding.” Much love from Zion.

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