Ours was an epic journey through the heart of one of America’s great wilderness preserves. Months of research, gear preparation, and ever-increasing anticipation culminated in an extraordinary adventure on-foot that bore first-hand accounts of the wildness of southwest Utah. This is a documented recollection of that trip and a retelling of the story of two friends that tasked themselves with experiencing the complete extent of Zion National Park.
We were sitting around a table filled with maps, computers and other gadgetry. A small bowl of Ghirardelli chocolates sat in the middle which I casually munched on like popcorn. Cheval’s roommate Jazel, Cheval and the Chief stared at me with blank expressions as I popped the 7th square of delicious white peppermint cocoa in to my mouth. Cheval’s roommate Jazel also looked on curiously from the couch in the next room.
“What? I’m calorie loading in preparation for the trip,” I explained calmly, as if this was a normal part of every pre-hike preparation. Unamused, Cheval continued his investigation of a large map of Zion National Park that was laid out flat on the table. An obese cat toddled restlessly in the background beneath a massive carpeted, feline, jungle gym.
“There’s still time for your cat to lose weight…” I retorted. The cat glanced at me briefly with a look that suggested a high degree of metabolic syndrome. I ignored it.
“What was that?” he snapped. There was enough gray in this region of the country to put anyone on edge. It had been a mild winter. A man can only take so much of that, especially when hints of spring are right around the corner.
5 days – 47 miles – West to East – An all-inclusive trek through the extent of Zion National Park sponsored by Wanderlusthiker. Which brings us to this guy – the Chief. He sat across from me in front of his laptop typing away furiously.
“I’ll just purchase a pack of aerial drones to transport my chocolate bars and I through the park,” I explained.
“Look, the cowboys of the wild west only traveled by horse because that was the best mode of transportation that they could get their dirty gun slingin’ hands on at the time. You see – we…” – I pointed at the both of us – “we have the benefit of technology.” I let this statement sink in as Cheval stared at me with a tinge of incredulity.
The Chief stopped typing and looked up at me curiously for a moment and then back down to his screen.
“Drones are banned in national parks,” Chief stated while still staring at his laptop, a note of consternation in his tone. Cheval and I were both surprised by his sudden use of words and very clear intolerance of law breaking. When we had pitched the idea of a Zion through-hike to Wanderlusthiker they had agreed almost immediately. We had heard that they were looking for back country hooligans with a knack for words. We were right.
“I’ll be discreet,” I said as I leaned forward in my chair to grab a few more truffles.
“You won’t, because you aren’t bringing a drone to Zion. You won’t want to carry the extra weight for 47 miles,” Cheval pointed out, trying to put things in a more practical context.
“I’ll make sure it’s lightweight and easily transportable. We need a way of getting aerial shots of the canyon walls. This needs to happen,” I said. My fervor around drones was becoming feverish and sweaty, no doubt partially inspired by the spike in blood sugar.
“Look, if the whole thing goes sideways at least we’ll have a drone that can go get help,” I noted with helpful intent.
“Drones aren’t that smart!” Cheval had become frustrated that his reasoning was not sticking in my UAV-crazed brain.
“I could name it Zed. Zee for short, and it could drop snacks in to our mouths as we hike the trail,” I said. Even as I heard myself speak, the words just seemed to make mountains of sense.
“Okay, now you’re being ridiculous,” said an exasperated Cheval.
“Am I?!” I said, leaning forward with wide eyes and Ghirardelli branded lips.
“Yes,” said Cheval staring at me with all the disapproval he could muster. I crossed my arms and leaned back slowly in my chair, smiling calmly again and popping a few more bricks of savory chocolate. The warmth from my hands had melted a tiny amount of each piece, creating a layer of cocoa sediment on my finger tips. A palpable silence filled the room, only broken by the sounds of Jazel jumping off 18th century church steeples in Assassins Creed and Chief clacking away on his laptop. I started to consider ways in which I might leave the room and wash the chocolate crust from my fingers.
“Zee and I disagree,” I said.
“YOU DON’T EVEN OWN A DRONE!” roared Cheval, his voice entering full caps lock.
“Yet,” I corrected. Cheval threw up his hands. I marveled out how clean they were.
“I’m going to get some ice cream,” he muttered, irritation evident. Chief remained expressionless.
“If you had a drone it could retrieve that dessert and fly it to your face – point-of-service style,” I said encouragingly also leaving the room to go rinse off in the bathroom. Suddenly, Chief let out a large laugh.
“You two will be fine. Just make sure to bring enough food and water. I don’t care if you have to sleep on the ground, just make sure to capture the story and report back with something interesting to say,” said Chief. Somehow, as he said all of this, he had managed to pack up his laptop and, on the last word of this pronouncement, was already out the door.
Many months passed. Within this time a significant amount of planning took place; some of our discussions even happened on other hikes.
“We need to ensure our camp locations are near water sources,” explained Cheval as he strode purposefully through a creek that had flowed over the trail leading to Angel’s Rest.
“Agreed. Water sources make great locations for low, sliding perspective shots,” I acknowledged while leaping over several medium sized rocks while carrying a GoPro on a mini tripod.
“Also, are you going to cut that beard any time soon? At the length you’re pushing, Tom Hanks is going to start feeling the pressure to grow his facial hair again for Castaway 2,” prodded a completely tranquil Cheval as he half ran up the side of an inclined trail that closed in on the top of a ridge overlooking the Columbia River Gorge.
“I’m keeping it until after we get back from the Utah trip,” I explained, preparing to do a hand-stand leap from one boulder to another, “upon our return I’ll chop it off and weave it in to an mitten.”
Unperturbed, Cheval prepared to do a back-flip off of Angel’s Rest in to the Columbia River thousands of feet below.
“Woah, wait a minute!” I yelled. Cheval stopped suddenly and stared at me.
“Let me set up the GoPro first.”
As the month of April drew to a close, warmer weather began to arrive. The anticipation began to manifest itself like a pressurized canister in my gut.
Over a thousand miles away, southwest Utah waited patiently for our arrival. 5 days and 47 miles through the canyons of Zion National Park promised to be an extraordinary adventure based on the prophesies of the all-knowing internet.
When our departure date arrived I had a different sense of what I wanted from this trip. In hikes of later-day the driving force had been a need to get away; now I was looking toward Utah with a sense of want rather than a sense of necessitation.
We drove straight through the night in to Oregon and Idaho, only stopping for fuel at strange, gloomy-looking gas stations. And when I say we, I mean I took a stab at sleep while Cheval downed Lo-Carb Monster energy drinks like he eats trail miles – viciously.
There isn’t much to say about driving in straight lines for extended periods of time. As Americans, this is what we know though: wide open spaces where the buffalo roam, minus the buffalo; cup holders stuffed with corn-derived or corn-based products.
16 hours, and over a thousand miles, later we rolled up to Kolob Canyons Visitor Center at the west end of the park. It was important that we check in with the rangers who inhabited this place so that we could ensure our registration was in order.
The situation was tense. Various artifacts were placed in a gallery-like fashion within the main-room. Explanations of the canyon rings, fossils, and historical tributes to ancient inhabitants decked the walls. There was no future here; only the past. It was like a time capsule for the mind. It even had land lines and fax machines for communication with other 20th century establishments.
“We wouldn’t want to disappoint your Aunt Ruth!” screeched an old woman with menacing jowls. Her dilapidated husband had either lost his hearing or was desensitized to the sound but still responded to the siren’s call as was indicated by the slow, purposeful rotation of his body to view his dearly beloved through his good eye. He slowly picked up a postcard that mirrored the backdrop just outside the visitor center window. His Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts shifted as if he was carrying large bags of sand just beneath those brightly-colored threads. With a heavy sigh, he trudged toward the checkout counter and slapped down the thin strip of colored cardboard with the kind of Depression Era moxie that proclaims loud and clear: “not on my watch, woman.”
Bad energy filled this place; our vibrations were getting nasty, but why? The officials who were stationed at the visitor center eyed us with concern. Having driven straight through the night our internal clocks were on the fritz. Cheval was twitching from an overload of potent energy blend.
I was running on less hours of sleep than there are grades in primary school but despite this lack of rest had refrained from energy supplements. Instead I had opted for a delicious chocolate milk purchased from a sketch truck stop somewhere north of Cedar City.
When we had stopped at the store, I had approached an old fridge that may have been powered by a gas generator hidden in the back somewhere. It seemed suspicious of my intentions but all I requested was liquid chocolate fuel.
“Why?” it asked.
“I need this in order to keep Cheval’s elegant, Korean driving machine from skittering sideways across multiple lanes in to oncoming traffic,” I explained, my eyeballs darting in all different directions watching out for a large man in a plumber suit with the name ‘HANK’ hot stamped on the front.
Despite the unsteadiness of my hands, the machine allowed me to acquire this beverage but not before pointing out the abundant selection of PepsiCo products.
“Are you listening to me?” snapped the ranger. I suddenly fell back in to the moment. The disturbing revelations of food selection at the truck stop faded from my brain.
A young guy, probably in his late 20s, sat across from us at a wooden desk. He wore a tan/green uniform with various badges that meant something to someone. His steely, blue eyes noted stern authority. As he ran through the list of rules and regulations governing the park, one request in particular was communicated in a very grim way. We were directed to avoid certain water sources, specifically the stream that flowed through Hop Valley.
“Only drink from it if you want to die,” said the ranger.
“Sir – Yes, sir,” we mimed. Head nods and acknowledgements were the order of the day, at least until we could get out from under the glare of this storm trooper of the high deserts.
Fires were strictly prohibited throughout the park. Our imaginations ran wild with reasons why but were never thoroughly quenched with an explanation. Perhaps past fires had ravaged the canyons of Zion burning all thru-hikers alive as it incinerated everything in its path. Maybe wood was scarce and, with the level of activity Zion encountered each year, there simply wasn’t enough fuel for everyone to have a fire. Whatever the reason, fire would be a luxury on this trip not a necessity.
All waste was to be transported out of the park in shiny, silver bags provided to us by the ranger.
“It rolls downhill on to unsuspecting hikers,” explained the ranger. “A storm may roll through and uncover even the most entrenched dookie.”
“Incredible,” Cheval and I acknowledged.
With nearly a 100,000 people visiting Zion each month, waste management seemed entirely necessary. A great deal of the trail is located in close proximity to some kind of water source. Contamination was a real issue and filtration was a requirement for all visitors to the park.
“So where are you two going?” asked the ranger. Cheval began pointing methodically at the map that was glued to the table in front of us.
Having satisfied the local fuzz we burst through the visitor center doors in to a mild, dull gray haze which felt vaguely similar to home.
As we made our way to the perimeter of the canyons, astonishingly vivid colors plucked at our eyeballs from all directions. The road up to Lee Pass trailhead was paved with the same red material that lined the canyon walls, which was a curious change of pace from what was available back in the Pacific Northwest.
As we closed in on the trialhead, a sign noted the elevation: 6,080 ft. Mild symptions of AMS (acute mountain sickness) can appear at 6,500 ft, and here we were hiking through canyons that averaged higher elevations than several small peaks back home, like Silver Star Mountain (4,390′) and Mount Defiance (4,960′).
“Are you bringing that tripod?” asked a crusty looking day-hiker who had strolled over to our parking space. The lines in his face suggested outdoor experience. As we exchanged dialogue, his backstory indicated end to end knowledge of Zion.
“Yeaaah,” I said slowly, the last vestiges of confidence dissolving as the word came tumbling off my tongue like a sub-par paper-mache project unable to stand on the Popsicle stick base that it had been constructed out of.
“Well, I suppose if you really have to have it,” the old timer said.
As I stared at my pack, these words floated around in my head like bats. Carrying unnecessary weight mile after mile becomes the catharsis for premature exhaustion on the trail. Carry less; go further. So the old adage goes. To hardcore hikers, this is the logic that conceived the culture of ultralight gear.
I ditched the tripod, hand axe, and fire starting materials. This allowed me to get my pack weight down in to the high 50s. Serious backpackers will contend that this is no where near light, but I felt content knowing that I would eat and drink my way through a significant portion of that weight. Eventually.
We hit the trail late morning with overtones of drizzle and mist. The sky had started flicking handfuls of rain drops at us before we had even locked the vehicle. I recommended that we weather proof our bags and our bodies, just in case mother nature decided to get serious about her threats.
Only minutes on to the trail light rains began to sweep through the canyon in 15 minute intervals. We were expecting a little bit of moisture on the first day and sunshine for the rest of the week, however what we were not expecting was the mud. The red mud in Zion collects on boots like Dorito cheese on hungry fingers.
Trekking poles helped stabilize our toddling bodies which were still adjusting to the additional weight and elevation. We only had 6 miles to go but the mud slowed our progress.
Kolob Canyons are a curiously tight web of red rock walls that feel younger than the rest of Zion. Younger in the sense that the walls aren’t as high and the gaps are much narrower. We were impressed by the colors and closeness that we felt to the canyon, but not having experienced the heart of Zion just yet, we had no idea of the true beauty of this land. Kolob Canyons were our first taste of southwest Utah up close and it was extraordinary.
Each campsite along La Verkin Creek Trail was marked. On that drizzly day, as the numbers on the posts increased so did our spirits. Each marker brought us closer to our home for the night. It was the light at the end of the tunnel to get out of the rain and to prepare a warm meal. Our bodies demanded food, rest, and sleep.
It didn’t look like much, but behind the shrubbery was a wonderful clearing large enough for 3 or 4 small tents called campsite #7. Running water, in the form of a small stream, was located a short walk away. Roughly a quarter of a mile down the trail was the junction to Kolob Arch. This would be our first objective the following morning. For the rest of the afternoon and through the evening we would set up camp, get some R&R, and indulge in our various camp foods.
It was difficult to work up the energy to explore the surrounding landscape. Numerous factors were working against our minds and bodies. Cheval was crashing so hard that his speech had become slurred.
“The ffffllire, fl-eye–ur,” dribbled a half conscious Cheval.
“No, the ranger said we can’t have fire out here,” I explained. Even as I said this Cheval flopped over in to his bivvy and passed out.
I noticed that my mind was not functioning as optimally as it could have been when I tried to record the events that had transpired over the last 24 hours. Everything pointed to rest as the best course of action for that evening.
We would recharge and hit the trail hard the next day. It would take us out of Kolob Canyons and east to Wildcat canyon. There were between 12 and 15 miles to cover and several stops to make along the way. This would be the longest period of time that either of us had spent in the wilderness, isolated from most of humanity. We would meet people though, fellow travelers, and we would all seek to discover what Zion had to offer. There would be challenges ahead and there would be turmoil.