Into the canyon

September 18, 2011 3 comments

Shirley Belle

September 17/Day 62. This morning I wake to my alarm, early. I meet in front of the visitor center, along with 14 others, to join a mule train down into the canyon. It’s a four-hour trip down about 2,000 feet below the rim and back. My mule is Shirley Belle, the prettiest thing you ever saw. By 8:00 a.m. we’re all mounted up and start down the Kaibab Trail, which is a quagmire due to rain the last three days. Since I’m from Texas, the wrangler calls me “Cowboy” and tells me I’m the caboose—last person in the train.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch the mules carefully, flawlessly pick their way through six-inch deep mud and slippery rocks with nary a misstep. Shirley Belle, I’m convinced, is a little smarter than the rest because she chooses her own slightly drier path, whereas the others mostly step into the same mud-hole the mule in front of them does.

The Caboose

In spite of the hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, I feel perfectly safe, for two reasons: one, the mule’s reputation for surefootedness and two, I climbed Angels Landing and that was just plain scarier. Gee, I discover, it’s nice to be able to watch the scenery while someone else does the work. One woman, slightly apprehensive, asks the wrangler if they’ve ever lost anyone. The wrangler answers with a drawl, “Yes, ma’am, we did. But we found ‘em.”

After the ride, I take a drive to several viewpoints along the canyon rim: Vista Encantada, Walhalla, Roosevelt Point and Cape Royal, the only place you can actually see the Colorado River from the North Rim.  I’m reminded that the last time I was here, with the family, we couldn’t see into the canyon at all because of the snow. A little nostalgia sets in.

Tomorrow my Dad turns 91, bless him. He and Mom are still hale and hearty, still running around town doing errands, going to the symphony,meeting friends, still loving life. Why, my Dad just retired last month; that ought to say something! And day after tomorrow, on the 19th, I’ll turn 65—me, the little boy in the Buster Brown shoes and bib-top shorts you see over to the side there, yes, that’s me. On Medicare.

Am I boring you, Shirley Belle?

I assess my situation. I had hoped to hike down into the canyon, but trails on the North Rim are muddy from three days of off and on rain, leaving me with few activities; even if the trails were in great shape, there’s always the plantar fasciitis to consider; no fresh groceries are available and I’m reduced to eating canned food, i.e., emergency rations; communications here suck and even text messages are time-delayed; and last but not least, I miss Jane.

I make the decision to head home, a long two-day drive.

Colorado River

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Leaving Zion

September 18, 2011 1 comment

September 16/Day 61. 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.

Pink Cliffs near Kanab, Utah

Pink Cliffs near Kanab, Utah

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.

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Narrowly missing The Narrows

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

September 15/Day 60. 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.

The mouth of The Narrows.

After a leisurely start, I decide to hike The Narrows in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the Virgin River has cut down through 2000 feet of sandstone, in some places only 20-30 feet wide. I put my driver’s license and iPhone, to 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 water is opaque as creamed coffee. I choose one 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 it is 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.

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A stormy day

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

September 14, Day 59. 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. 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.

Storms threaten The Narrows

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 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.

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We’re all angels now

September 15, 2011 1 comment

September 13/Day 58. Backpacker magazine calls Angels Landing 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 fairly short hike; most of the first two miles of the trail are paved with a rough slip-free surface.

View of initial ascent from Scotty's Lookout

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. 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 have fallen. Everyone waiting at Scotty’s Lookout is acutely aware of these statistics.

Long way down

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’m 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 get cranked up.

Is that chain really helpful there all by itself?

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. 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.

Scotty's Lookout, where people wait for courage

At Scotty’s Lookout, like most sane people, I stop for a bit of reflection. Here’s where the real test begins. I begin having 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?”

Final assault on the summit requires a scramble up this narrow neck

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.

As we’re carrying on, here comes Tall Guy, his eyes large 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 ascent. If I don’t make up my mind soon, the knife-edge trail will be crawling with people working their way back down.

Going up...or down?

Quite sure I’ll never come as far as Scotty’s Lookout again in my life, 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. 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.

A group of Germans at the summit

As I make progress, the trail generally becomes steeper and narrower. In some places, footholds have been carved out of the solid slickrock. 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, “Concentrate on your next step.” Over the years that chain has been polished bright by the tight grip of countless sweaty palms.

Standing on top

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 is 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 people 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.

View from the top

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.

Looking into the beyond

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 trekking 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.

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Casinos are King

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

September 12/Day 57. 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 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.

A view of Zion Canyon

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 into 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 just the  moment it pulls up to a stop. Must be run by Germans.

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.

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Out of the valley

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Mesquite Dunes, biggest in California, in Death Valley

September 11/Day 56. Before dawn this morning I ready my rig for travel. Then I wait until 7:00 a.m. when the Stovepipe Wells dining room opens and go for the big breakfast buffet, the first real breakfast I’ve had on the trip.

I drive about halfway to Zion, stopping outside Las Vegas at an RV park named “Terrible’s,” known for being inexpensive but very attractive. Naturally they expect you to come into the casino and throw your money away gaming, but I’m so clueless in that respect that I might as well walk in, drop my money on the floor and walk away.

I make a trip to Albertson’s for food supplies and do my laundry for the first time since Yellowstone. Not much to report; a pretty mundane day.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Zion. No guarantees about intrnet access there, so if I go dark for several days…not to worry.

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