Sunshine pierced through vaporous clouds and reached down to touch the earth like the hand of god; warm beams of light hit the rain drops on my tent and scattered in to tiny rainbows. Had I died and gone to Zion? Perhaps I never made it out of Siouxon. Maybe this was a lesser version of purgatory for hikers who had made a few mistakes but were generally good stewards of the environment.
At the time it seemed logical that whatever sins had been committed up to this point in my life could be absolved after reaching the end of this trail. Because if there is one thing that the trail is good for it is allowing the mind to come to terms with the totality of modern societal discord and hitting flush.
Even though Zion is a national park, this was no ordinary walk in the park. On day 2 it became clear that, while on a 47 mile thru-hike of this nature, one does not simply quit. You hike out or you shrivel in to a dehydrated husk and die. Subconsciously, the mind knows this but suppresses the idea in favor of more optimistic scenarios.
There is a phenomenon that some backpackers experience during their first night in the wilderness; a state that can be very disconcerting. For half a second, panic strikes as the body emerges from slumber. The eyes dart around wildly trying to identify their surroundings. For a brief moment the mind goes completely mad as it attempts to interpret where it is. Then, like a computer booting up, memory kicks in and your position in time and space becomes understandable again.
Suddenly a rustling sound erupted a few yards away. The last of the nighttime rain drops pattered away on the fly of my tent as the wind jostled the branches in the tree branches immediately above our campsite.
“Cheval, you awake?” I asked in the direction of the disturbance. Moments earlier I had relieved myself on some nearby bushes. Upon returning to my tent, I had noticed that Cheval’s sarcophagus-esque bivvy had morphed in to a more fetal-like shape. Undoubtedly, his was a truly lightweight shelter but it sacrificed a great deal of space in order to be so.
“Nnhhrrrmmm,” came a reply that sounded vaguely Cheval-like.
“Nyeheeaiii!” The sudden shriek rattled my senses to full attention. He must have had a messianic experience too. More thrashing movement erupted which concluded with a zip and a solid, earthy thunk.
“Everything alright out there?” I asked through the tent walls. The scuffling had stopped and a series of loud snorts had begun.
“Yes, I just have a raging headache and I don’t like this bivvy. It feels like claustrophobic den of hate,” replied a drowsy and slightly unnerved Cheval. “Also, did you put these ibuprofen on top of my bivvy?”
“No,” I replied.
“Well I didn’t,” explained a confused Cheval.
“We are in Zion. This is god’s country, anything is possible,” I explained in a tone that suggested that this was common knowledge.
“I’m not kidding around. I didn’t put those there, and if you didn’t then…” he drifted off as the possibility of other-worldly intervention began to emerge as an explanation to his mysterious medical assistance.
“Jesus loves you. He always did, but you were too busy being a hater to notice,” I said trying to ease his worries.
“Praise the lord…” pronounced an enlightened Cheval.
“On our way back we’ll stop in Hildale and get you a few wives,” I said.
According to official National Park Service (NPS) records, Cheval and I had taken up residence at Kolob Canyons campsite #7. Our itinerary suggested that the second day of our trip would take us from our current location to Lava Point campground, roughly 15 miles away.
But there were side quests. The first was a quarter mile hike further down the trail. A 1 mile out-and-back side trail that visited the scenic landmark known as Kolob Arch. A must see for any who visit Kolob Canyons.
The second was in the lower Kolob plateau, a 2.2 mile out-and-back side trail that would provide scenic views of the North Gate Peaks; an elevated view point of the great plateau of Zion.
Of course, this was all provided we had the time, energy, and sheer strength of will to transport ourselves through the landscape to these destinations.
After eating a hearty breakfast of instant oatmeal, peanut butter, and nutella uber-calorie mix, we packed up camp. It was already approaching late morning and the sun was promising a day of unrelenting heat followed by profuse sweating.
Each time camp is constructed, an opportunity exists to re-pack your bag. Maybe it wasn’t packed efficiently prior to hitting the trail or perhaps items shifted during travel.
The level of intimacy that a backpacker has with his or her bag is symbiotic. It becomes your life support in the wilderness, but you must pack it correctly. Ben Franklin once said, “a place for everything, everything in its place.” No where is this statement more fitting.
Soon enough we were on the trail again. Mud turned to dust, rain turned to shine, sore muscles had awoken to a familiar struggle, and our optimism for the journey at hand was growing.
If you visit Kolob Canyons, even for the day, its beauty is exemplified by Kolob Arch. From a purely theoretical standpoint one might stand and look at the arch and imagine it as the heart of Kolob; a natural construct that stands as a tribute to what this small corner of Zion represents. It shouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination to see why I picked this photo as the cover for the article describing the Zion through hike.
Climb out of the canyon created by La Verkin creek and you will enter a curious place – Hop Valley.
Death, as the ranger had warned, would come to any who drank from the stream that ran along the valley floor. The skeletal remains of some creature displayed itself as an omen. But we had no worries about water; we were flush from the trickling source that was located near our previous campsite.
Fences demarcated private property lines that were clearly in place for grazing cattle. The dried husks of dung piles littered the valley floor like fecal land mines. Somebody owned this land, but it wasn’t clear who. Likely a farmer who conducted seasonal cattle drives, but why to this remote section of the desert?
Our gear superiority complex was demonstrated when we clambered on to a large sandy clearing in the middle of two great walls of vertical sandstone. The wind had started to pick up and was whipping through the valley in strong gusts, which was a satisfying contrast to the steady projection of heat from the sun.
“This looks like a great place to fly a drone,” I yelled over the wind to Cheval who had scuttled several yards ahead, flinging sand with his trekking poles.
“Yeah, if only we had one,” replied Cheval sarcastically.
“We do,” I said with a large grin, unstrapping my pack and revealing a mysterious looking black case.
“Are you kidding me?” Cheval’s face began to morph in to an expression of dismay. “No wonder your pack weighed 60 pounds or whatever it came out to be.”
“It weighs less than a pound!” I beamed, my smile growing even wider.
“Just wait until the rangers get wind of this. They’ll roll in here with their humvees and taze the wool socks off you,” said Cheval ominously.
“Haters gonna hate,” I replied casually while unpacking the compact components from their case.
“They’ll bring their own drones armed with explosive warheads and mustard gas canisters…” continued Cheval.
“Sounds like a waste of park funds. Besides, we were discreet and made sure that nobody else was around that would be disturbed by a flying machine,” I explained.
As I packed up the drone I could tell he wasn’t convinced, but it didn’t matter because we left no trace. However, this video emerged a few months later:
In retrospect, what was remarkable about Hop Valley was the narrowness of the canyon. Granted this was still a large canyon by Pacific Northwest standards, at the time we had no idea how extravagant the canyons of Zion would turn out to be.
The diversity in vegetation was also fascinating. It was as if the valley couldn’t seem to make up its mind on whether to pursue full on desert mode or act as a terrarium of life for various greenery.
I could hear Chief through the speaker on Cheval’s phone. He sounded frustrated.
“Yes – that’s correct, sir. No, it’s about 3 o’clock and we just left Hop Valley. We’re at a rest stop just off of Kolob Reservoir Road,” Cheval’s voice reflected what sounded like a tense conversation.
“No, sir, Hop Valley proved to be more difficult than we anticipated. We also stopped for – ” Cheval paused for a second and eyed the black case attached to my pack.
“We stopped for snacks and to rehydrate,” he continued, “yes, that’s right. Yep. Nope, we’ll make it, sir. Yep. Okay, goodbye.” Cheval stowed his phone away.
“Chief thinks we should be at the next campsite by 7pm, something about getting enough rest to make it to the end of the park,” Cheval said as he pulled out various protein bars from his pack.
“We’ll make it. The trail appears to have flattened out and should continue this while for a while, right?” I asked.
“It should remain flat for a while, however we still have another thousand feet of elevation gain between here and Lava Point campground,” explained Cheval.
“According to the GPS we’ve already ascended 1,000 feet from campsite #7 to get to our current position, so we’ll likely be encountering some more inclines at some point,” continued Cheval encouragingly.
Leaving Hop Valley proved more difficult than we had imagined it would be. Mud had turned to dirt and dirt in to sand. Sanguine winds whipped through the valley as we climbed and threatened to push us back. Entering the high, open desert of Lower Kolob was nice change of pace. Our bodies were still work slightly harder in order to ingest the oxygen needed to keep moving at a reasonable pace, but we were able to maintain a much quicker pace on flat, level ground.
Marching across the plateau the plains began to open up and the distant canyons of Zion painted themselves against the back drop of perfectly blue skies. As the afternoon turned in to evening, it was becoming unclear if we would make our destination. We had overestimated the pace at which we would be traveling and as a result the trail seemed to extend on at infinitum.
I remember Wildcat canyon for it’s classic “American West” scenery. The dusty narrow trail that extended on to the horizon. A painted landscape which reached in every direction; untapped by humanity.
I also recall the sheer exhaustion that began to take its toll. The body becomes distraught with repetitive motions and yearns to shrug off any excess weight. My 60 pound pack had become a parasite and was sapping energy at an increased rate. My feet began to feel like lead bricks. The sweat that dripped from my pores felt like acid and my heart pumped venom. The idea of stopping and simply laying down on the trail sounded appealing.
“Where did you go?” questioned an exhausted looking Cheval.
“I had to stop. It feels like we’re hiking at Mt. St. Helens summit elevation,” I explained through heavy breathing. Now that the sun was on the lower edge of the horizon it had become noticeably cooler. The presence of the forest around us was surely contributing to the coolness of the area, as well as the elevation. The GPS indicated that we were at roughly 7,000 feet, only 1,300 feet shy of our hometown volcano’s summit.
“I found a decent place for us to camp for the night. It’s a clearing in the middle of the woods. It looks like people have camped there before,” noted Cheval. As we scooted along the trail through the woods all I could think about was putting my pack down and consuming as much food as my gurgling stomach could contain. I could feel the acid churning away, burning every little morsel of granola that I had consumed only a few moments earlier.
“There isn’t any water nearby so we’ll need to ration until tomorrow. The map says there should be a water source a mile or two further up the trail,” continued Cheval.
“No worries, I have enough,” I said through parched lips. The woods weren’t thick, but in this region of Zion there was a noticeable absence of canyons. A medium sized clearing along the trail appeared to have been used by other hikers. The presence of man is obvious if you know what to look for and in this case broken limbs were strewn everywhere, yet there was a strange absence of a fire pit.
We set up camp in an exhaustive silence, only interrupted by the occasional grunt. But we didn’t need words. This wasn’t some polite company dinner where proper etiquette needed to be maintained. This wasn’t a public square in which queues needed to be formed and formalities exhibited. Politeness out here meant survival and self-reliance. There were no hand outs, no free rides; however the twist was that none of this would have been possible without our lives back home. The umbilical noose behind every naturalist, hippie ideology is that their core support comes from the machine in which they so despise.
In the back of my mind, I marveled at the extraordinary fact that my lifestyle allowed the possibility of a trip like this. How fortunate were we to be away from the stagnation and deprivation that so many were trapped in?
Even as I lay in my tent and began to nod off in to the realm of deep, refreshing sleep the familiar demons of my past began to claw up from the darkness. I was driven forward, not by the need to see, touch, and own beautiful things, but by an even more burning desire to experience the moments that most would never know. I needed to experience life events that would make me feel and understand the world better than I had understood them the day before. It was becoming increasingly clear that the status quo was something that merely needed to be learned and destroyed. There had to be a new way; a better way.