(Filed from Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona at 1:50 a.m. on July 20, 1999)
This is how the tale is told: early Mormon pioneers settled the area known as Zion Canyon, in Southwestern Utah, in the 1860s. For these settlers, the name "Zion" evoked a place where religion could be practiced freely. When grand poobah Brigham Young visited the area some time later, he found people indulging in tobacco and wine and promptly declare the area "not Zion." Chagrined, some of Young's flock started calling their homeland just that: not Zion. Fen and I conclude that we are not Zion.
* * * * *
Zion National Park is nature at play; God with a paintbrush in one hand and a colorful palette in the other. The sheer cliffs seen here, a rainbow of red and orange and pink stripes, are the result of wild waters and erosion over millions of years. The Navajo sandstone seen throughout the park has been further sculpted by the wind and other forces of nature, which have left in their wake curves and arches that are seductive and smooth to the touch. While this stone has technically been "colored by iron and bound by lime," it feels much more spiritual than that. To stand in the shadow of these majestic canyons and tall rocks, to feel their weight, their beauty, their presence, to let their colors and shadows wash over you -- well, it's important to note that "Zion" also refers to a promised land. This is the place .
* * * * *
Be careful what you wish for at Zion National Park. Fen and I set out to hike the Angels Landing trail, a five-mile round trip with an elevation gain of nearly 1,500 feet. No sweat, I think to myself -- I've hiked Yosemite's Half Dome in a day.
Angels Landing is unassuming enough most of the way, so much so that I find myself pooh-poohing the trail.
"Why is this trail so well-maintained?" I keep saying to Fen. "I was really hoping for something more challenging."
Then we get to a marker which says something like this: ".5 mile to go, steep, strenuous."
"This is it," Fen says. "This is the real challenge. The chains are here. And the land bridge. Oh boy."
Suddenly the trail has narrowed to a sliver. Chains are provided as a handhold up ahead, although I can't see much of the trail since it zigs and zags between the rocks. The other thing I can't see is the land bridge, which Fen has told me about and I'm finally starting to believe is reality. On this short part of the trail, the cracked and creviced rock is maybe ten feet wide. There are no chains on the land bridge, and there is a sheer rock face on either side. If I slip and slide (and fall), the drop is about a thousand feet.
What am I doing here? I'm afraid of heights, by golly! Come to think of it, so is Fen.
We somehow manage to start walking across this final part of the trail, probably because we are both too stubborn to chicken out. I cling to the chains with one hand and stare down at my feet, hopeful that my Teva sandals will do the trick. I also find myself leaning as I walk -- leaning toward the cliff, that is, for extra support. Fen is right behind me, less reliant on the chains. Probably a guy thing, I surmise.
When we finally get to the land bridge, I nearly give up.
"Omigosh," I say. "How am I supposed to get across that ?"
"Well, you don't have to do it," Fen says. "We can just stop right here and turn around."
Unwilling to be the wimp of this team, I come up with a compromise that satisfies me.
"Well, I could just scoot across on my butt."
"Sure," Fen says. "Whatever makes you feel safest." Fen also takes the time to tell me how nice the view is at the end of the trail (he's been here before) and how happy I'll be when I get there.
I spend the next ten minutes contemplating my crawl. To my surprise, I finally start walking across. The land bridge, it turns out, isn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be.
The rest of the trail is a series of rocks about a foot wide dangling from the side of the cliff. It feels more like bouldering, as I grab one rock high above me, then another and pull myself up, always certain to have a toehold below me. This pull-and-step, pull-and-step seems to go on forever, although it's probably more like twenty minutes.
I finally make it to the top, Fen right behind me. Fen then kisses me in that "good girl!" sort of way which is so, well, endearing. We split a sandwich and soak up the view. I challenge anyone to tell me that I'm not at the top of the world.
* * * * *
We have dinner at the Bit & Spur Saloon, a happening place in Springdale, the goods-and-services town right outside of Zion. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the Bit has the only full liquor license in town. We order two margaritas the minute we walk in the door. Our appetizer is a brie-stuffed chile relleno and we follow it with a delicious entree, the New Mexico rabbit enchilada, topped with a mole Coloradito. The Bit is a bit o'heaven on this warm Zion night.
* * * * *
Our two evenings (and mornings) at Zion are spent at the Snow Family Guest Ranch, a horse ranch which also doubles as a bed & breakfast. The affable hosts, Steve and Shelley Penrose, have been around these parts for a while. Correction: Shelley's family has. She's the "Snow" in the name, since it was her great-great-grandpa Snow who first settled this piece of land, at the behest of Brigham Young in the mid-1800s.
"Yep, Brigham Young sent men north, south, east and west," Shelley tells me. "He wanted to settle the whole area."
The Snow Ranch today is a comfortable homestead (eleven rooms) for weary travelers. Our room is done in Navajo prints with cowboy touches everywhere -- a saddle sits on top of an old trunk while spurs and such grace the walls. The firm king-sized bed, however, is a concession to modernity. The common areas are more cowboy kitsch, posters of The Duke all around and more cowboy hats than I can count. Another concession to modern times: the fifty-inch TV. Even cowboys need CNN.
Steve Penrose leads a trail ride along his ample grounds every night. He likes to limit his rides to six people and prefers novices and beginners to experts. I ask him why.
"Because they listen to me!" he chuckles.
As for me, I spend more time laughing at Rusty the dog. The Penroses have three dogs -- Rusty, Mickey and the Golden whose name I forget. Rusty is clearly top dog, rassling with the other pups whenever they try to get a guest's attention. I develop a soft spot for Mickey, who seems to have been pushed around one too many times.
I come to realize that I may be not Zion but I'm not dumb. Zion rocks.
© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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