Category Archives: Hiking

A History of a Hike: The Zion Narrows

Zion has always been known as the city of God.

Zion is secondarily famous for being a national park in Utah. Through Zion National Park runs the Virgin River. This river, over centuries, has carved out a slot canyon, called the Narrows. The canyon truly is narrow and slot-like, with immense walls rising hundreds of feet on both sides of a hiker. Often, a hiker finds it necessary to wade through the river, as there is nothing but the water splashing against the walls on either side of him, and no dry land in his immediate sight.

And this is where I found myself on the days of August 14th and 15th, 2010. I was hiking through the Narrows with my two friends, Michael and Ryan. Ryan is about six foot two, with long, spindly legs, and an unforgiving gait. Michael is closer to my size, but admittedly faster than me, at least on this particular stroll.  And so it happened that we hiked basically in the order of our God-given lengths. As a result, destiny had basically forced Ryan to take on the role of lab rat, guinea pig, trinity explosion, or whatever you would like to dub it. He was usually the first to experience everything.

As would seem likely, Native Americans were the first to inhabit the Zion National Park area. It wasn’t called Zion National Park back then of course. That would come much later. But it was home to the Paiute tribes of the southwest.  Essentially, human activity, in all its glory and gore, had been a part of Zion for about two thousand years or so.  Fast forward to 1858, and you will notice some zealous Mormons discovering the canyons of Zion and soon beginning to settle in and around them.

The grandeur of Zion actually managed to remain a secret to all but a relative few for about forty years between the days of the first Mormon discoveries until the early twentieth century. It wasn’t until the United States decided to do a land survey that the park finally came to national attention. I guess when you happen to be as vast as the United States the busy bureaucrats can’t always keep up.

The hike wasn’t too difficult. That is, if you don’t mind being wet all the time. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous hike, and it was truly beautiful. I know folks say that all the time, but this time it’s really true. We had special water shoes, rented for some obscene price, probably like one hundred dollars an hour or something close to that. We also had a walking stick which was vital to the success of fording through the Virgin River. The walking stick was only about an additional fifty dollars every half hour or so, but totally worth it. When you are hiking in a river the biggest challenge is not being able to see what you are stepping on. That is where the overpriced shoes and the let’s-conspire-to- gouge-the-tourist walking stick come into play. If you step on a sharp rock Dorothy’s magical shoes will protect you. If you step on a slippery rock, Gandalf’s secret staff will release angels and hopefully keep you from dashing your other foot against a stone. My shoes and staff worked wonders. I managed to go the entire hike without sustaining even a mere scratch.

We have already learned that the first European settlers of Zion were zealous Mormon pioneers. Supposedly, a Mormon corn famer by the name of Issac Behunin settled the floor of the canyon in 1863. Clearly, Brother Behunin quickly noticed the raw beauty of the area, and apparently the first thing that came to his mind was heaven. And so, being a Mormon, Behunin named the place “Zion”. Later on however, God’s spokesman for the Mormons, Brigham Young, decided that no place on this present earth could actually be given the sacred name of Zion. Even after visiting the area and concurring that it was indeed a glorious place, the Prophet stuck to his guns. Zion clearly wasn’t the real Zion, and so it shouldn’t be referred to as “Zion”.

Unfortunately for Young, the name had sort of caught on and Mormon settlers in and around the area weren’t really flowing with the Prophet’s vibe on this one. So they skirted around on a technicality and began calling the place “Little Zion.”

Since Ryan was nearly always in the front of the line, he was sort of the trailblazer if you will. Like I said before, when you are hiking through a river, you can’t always anticipate what your next step is going to be like. It’s sort of like walking by faith. The Mormons could probably have appreciated that. In any case, Ryan was undoubtedly the most faithful; or maybe just the most credulous. He was also the tallest, and so I knew that if the water was coming up to his neck, it was likely that I would be going for a short swim not long thereafter. That didn’t happen of course because I would usually wait until Ryan or Michael would search out the shallowest ground on which to keep moving forward. I would simply sit back let them moved ahead of me like two unsuspecting lab rats in an experimental maze.

There was this one particular spot in which we came upon a large boulder. The river was moving on either side of it. One side looked particularly muddy and dirty, with sticks, slit, and stagnant, slow-moving water. The other side was clean and sparkly, with water gushing easily around the rock. We all naturally meandered toward the prettier side of the boulder. It just appeared to be better for our overall health.

Actually it wasn’t.

Ryan stepped in and quickly began sinking deeper and deeper until his feet stopped touching mud. He then began swimming, and exclaimed to us that we should try passing on the other side of the boulder.

Ryan swam back around the rock and met with us at the dirtier, less pleasant crossing. One by one, we lifted our packs over our heads and moved across. Ryan went first and the water came up to his chest at the deepest point. So I knew at worst I might be forced to take a sludgy drink. We all managed to make it across the short stretch without any real harm. A couple of young men who had been hiking behind us took one brief look at our plight and decided it was time for them to head back to the hotels, steakhouses, and civilization; or at least back to dry land and away from the crazies.

The famous American explorer, soldier, and geology professor, John Wesley Powell, was the first one-armed European to pass through the Grand Canyon. Actually, he was the first European of any sort to pass through the Grand Canyon, so he managed to set two world records at once. Clearly he was on a roll and when in the area, he also happened to make his way through Zion Canyon. He was an ambitious guy to be sure.

When Powell passed through Zion Canyon, he christened it “Mukuntuweap” (sacred cliffs), apparently thinking this was the Paiute Indian name for it. At the very least, we can give credit to Powell for attempting to give the Natives back their naming rights.

In 1908, the bureaucrats had locked in on the Zion area and in 1909 President Taft designated the main canyon in Zion as a national monument. For some reason, someone in the government decided that the name of the new national monument should be “Mukuntuweap”, taking precedent from John Wesley Powell. I think that we can safely assume that our Mormon brothers and sisters weren’t consulted on the official name change.

The name, not surprisingly, was unpopular with the local folks (probably Mormons) and in 1917, the director of the new National Park Service recommended changing the name to Zion National Monument. Clearly flowing syllables have always been much more popular. Who would’a thunk?

The hike through the Narrows was much shorter then we had anticipated. After many crossings and wading through the river, with some stretches on land, we came to our campsite after only about six hours of hiking. It was two in the afternoon. We had nothing to do but lay out our tents, make up silly games that involved throwing rocks (back to the basics), cook our dinner, and soak in the glory. And when darkness finally descended upon us, we were greeted by the blotting of bright, unadulterated starlight. Then we woke up the next morning and did it all over again. This time, in reverse.

In 1919, The Congress added more land to the park and President Wilson upgraded the area to a National Park. More recently, in 2009, President Obama put 124,000 additional acreage of surrounding land under federal protection; the Zion Wilderness Area.

The legacy of Zion has seen a long and steady growth toward prestige and prominence. Only a clip of that history has been listed in this short account. And on August 14th and 15th, 2010, three young explorers, armed with gear, staffs, shoes, and a bit of magic, found their own way through the Narrows and subsequently stumbled into the pages of Zion’s epic and eternal saga.

Maybe someday you should go and add to the history of one of our great national parks. Civilization will still be there waiting for you when you are finished. It’s ok to be a little bit crazy.

Sources:

www.travelwest.net

www.wikipedia.org

www.zionnational-park.com

www.desertusa.com

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Journey

Somewhere, undoubtedly, there are two people who are sitting at the same social gathering, perhaps in the same room, perhaps only fifteen feet from one another, and they are texting back and forth on their personal cell phones. Or maybe they are sitting in the same room on a couch and watching a scripted play of someone else’s existence, while their own life flickers away in desperate disconnection.

Me?

I am among the trees of the forest.

My calves are straining and sweat is smothering my brow. The sun is permeating my skin with golden beams. I am walking up a mountain with a heavy pack, and my friends are behind me. Our day has proved strenuous, but lively blood pressure reminds us that we are indeed… alive. This morning we crossed a rushing stream on our way to the sunny ledges.

We accomplished several hills today and we are almost to camp, where we will finally rest. We will start a fire and rummage through our packs for some sustenance.  We will converse with one another. We will not communicate like the couple at the social gathering. We will not languish like those on the couch. Instead, we will look into the face of the person with whom we are speaking. We will feel the energy of their words, and understand the idiosyncrasies of their expressions. Our spirits will shake with exchanged emotion and we may even reach a point of common understanding.  One thing is for sure. We will always remember this day.

Connection is possible in our world. It is a world without fabrication.

Finally, with the sun seeking its resting place, and the moon rising to prominence, we will close our weary eyes under the blanket of a speckled, silver sky.

We will breathe the cool, New England air as our spirits mellow with a most indulgent high.

And together, we will dream of the journey to come.

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A Day in the Wilderness (Reflections from my hike through the 100-mile wilderness)

Part IIt was Friday, July 24th, 2009. Just like much of the summer this year it was raining. Needless to say, this isn’t ideal weather when one is attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail. I must say that it tends to dampen the spirit, as well as the body. But probably the spirit more so than the body.At times it was a slight, steady rain, and at other times it seemed to come down in sheets. The trail had already been muddy before the rain. Now “muddy” was no longer an appropriate word. In places, the trail was just a slogfest. And so on we slogged.

I had woken up that morning to the sound of wind and rain on my tent. My friend, Ryan was sleeping right next to me. And we were in a one-man tent. How cozy. Preferably, and under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be sleeping in a one-man tent with another man. However, these were not normal circumstances. The second day into our journey through the 100-mile wilderness, my ultra-light sleeping bag had somehow come loose from my pack while we were furiously hiking alongside rushing rivers through the woods. Somehow it had come loose without me even having the slightest idea that it was missing! After I did discover that it was missing, we walked back about a half a mile to try and find it, but to no avail. I deliberated with my friends on what our options were. Walking back even further did not seem like one of the better options. We had planned to hike fourteen miles on the second day and we had a schedule to keep in order to get out of the wilderness before we ran out of food. So, after a few minutes of discussion, I decided to push on without the sleeping bag, and figure out the sleeping arrangements later. Thus, on this particular morning, I found myself in my one-man tent with another man. But at least I was warm.

The 100-mile wilderness is the most remote portion on the entire appalachian trail at ANY point from Maine all the way to Georgia. For one hundred miles, you do not cross any highways or walk through any towns. The only “roads” that you cross are remote logging roads that are miles from any highway in any direction. Therefore, you must carry everything you need on your back to make it from one end to the other. The recommended hiking time is 8-10 days. There is even a sign at both ends of the wilderness that warns hikers to carry ten days worth of food and “not to underestimate the difficulty of this section”. Undoubtedly, most hikers DO underestimate the difficulty of this section. My friends, Michael and Ryan, and myself, could probably be counted in that group. Ah, the arrogance of youth!

So anyway, back to the tent. Like I said, I could hear the wind blowing and a steady rain drip, drip, dripping onto the nylon rainflap of my tent. I wasn’t sure how late it was, but I didn’t want to move from where I was.

We were all pitifully sore. Ryan and I were both suffering from chronic pain in the joints of our knees. Ryan ‘s knees were so bad that he was relying relentlessly on his two walking sticks. In fact, he was using them so heavily, that he had blisters on his hands. After a couple days, the blisters formed, popped, and then reformed. He had blisters on his blisters! Michael was suffering from pain in his achilles tendon and also had a bad blister near his ankle and also blisters on his hands. He had not felt well the night before and had gone to bed almost as soon as his tent was up. As I turned in for the night, I wasn’t sure if Michael was going to be OK in the morning, and thoughts of having to end the journey early were going through my mind. And as I awoke on the morning of the 24th, the uncertainty remained.

Finally, I called over to Michael’s tent.

“Hey Mike, what time is it?”

A pause and then, “Seven.”

That wasn’t too bad.

“Are you feeling better this morning?”

“Yeah.”

I laid there for a few more minutes and then finally we all began to get up and began preparing to leave.

It took us at least an hour to slowly pack everything up and pull on our damp socks and hiking boots. Then we shouldered our damp packs, and began moving half-heartedly down the trail. Michael seemed more spry this morning and it seemed that we would live to fight at least one more day. It truly was one day at a time. On a journey like this one, it isn’t always wise to think about finishing the entire trail. Sometimes it is better to just focus on getting to the next destination. If you can reach your goal for that particular day, than you can focus on tomorrow when tomorrow arrives.

It’s funny, I read somewhere that the future isn’t really even real. It is almost an illusion. After all, when we reach the future, it becomes the present. Sometimes the things that we feared do happen, but not as often as we had imagined. Many people regret the past which cannot be changed. So this is futile. Many people worry about the future which is unpredictable. This is also futile. We need to learn to live in the present. Capture the moment and learn to live in the present. I think we can find more contentment that way. One day at a time. (Still a little planning never hurt anyone, as I can attest from this journey.)

We slowly descended into the valley of Gulf Hagas through the rain. We eventually came to the east branch of the Pleasent River. The river was wide but not very deep. It only reached our knees at the highest point. Since we were already soaking wet, we decided just to cross it with our hiking boots on. I didn’t think that my feet could possibly get any wetter than what they already were. Well, I was wrong. On Friday, July 24th, 2009, I finally learned what it means to be REALLY wet.

Part II
After crossing the river and hiking up a short section of what we thought was the trail, we came onto the logging road that leads into the Gulf Hagas area. I glanced across the road to see the marked opening for the A.T. on the other side. It wasn’t there. We walked several hundred feet up the road trying to find it. And then we walked several hundred feet the other direction, but still no trailhead. With the rain dripping off the brim of my cap, and hunger beginning to rise in my belly, I was growing dismayed.

We decided to stop for lunch and refuel. We would concern ourselves with the location of trail after we ate. While Ryan and Michael prepared the food, I walked even further up the road and tried to locate the trail. Soon, a car came toward me. I flagged it down and asked the driver if he knew where the A.T. trailhead was. He didn’t. His passanger mentioned that she saw an opening in the woods about a half- a mile up the road, and suggested that it might be the trail. I had been hoping for more certainty. When you are walking all day, the last thing that you want to do is move forward on someone’s hunch. And we were burning daylight.

As we ate lunch, a couple more vehicles passed, and we asked the occupants whether they knew where the trailhead was. The driver of a tractor-trailer said that he saw some people back about a half-mile and suggested that it might be the trailhead. He had somewhat corroborated the story of the woman. So after some deliberation, we decided to head in the direction that the truck driver and the woman had both mentioned. We hiked up the logging road sincerely hoping that these people were right.

After what seemed like it had to have been more than half-a-mile (the world is much bigger on foot), we did come across the trailhead! Thank God. Somehow we had walked up the wrong path after crossing the river. But we were on the right track now.

We made a hard climb up Chairback mountain. We walked across a relatively flat ridge before the peak and then made the steep ascent to the peak of Chairback. Our destination was in the pass between the peaks of Chairback and Columbus mountain. It was a long, arduous, hike.

After reaching the top of Chairback, we began hiking along a stony ridge. The wind had picked up and I literally had to hold onto my hat. We were tired and our spirits were low. We were ready to be done, but had one and a half to two miles still to reach our place of rest.

As I walked across the top of the ridge with the wind pushing against me and the rain splashing down around my body, the realization came to me that this WAS adventure. Look at the word! “Venture” means an undertaking that is uncertain and perhaps risky. Then you add the prefix “ad” and you have “ad-venture”. The “ad” could stand for “adversity” perhaps. Adventure requires an uncertain undertaking with the additional ingredient of adversity. You need adversity for a true adventure!

I also realized that this was a moment that I would never forget. I realized that despite the conditions, I had freedom of choice in regard to my attitude. I could let myself feel defeated, or I could triumph over the circumstances by changing my outlook and focusing my energy. God has stamped the human spirit with the incredible ability to be able to choose to overcome external hardships simply by tapping into the strength within. We cannot control the many situations that may arise against us in life. But we have been blessed with the innate capacity to control our response. We have the ability to live triumphantly. And this is where the power of our liberty lies.

As we hiked along the top of the ridge, I turned and saw my two friends hiking along behind me, pushing against the wind and the rain. I watched as they plodded ahead. Our biggest hope was simply to see the A.T. lean-to structure around the next bend . Our next great hope was to simply strip ourselves of our wet clothes and to lie horizontal. Joy becomes simpler out in the wilderness.

The realization that we only had maybe a mile or two left, and my thoughts on the human spirit gave me a feeling of victory. I looked back at my friends as they trudged over the wet rocks and boulders. I raised my walking stick into the air and sent a whoop of victory into the night. I yelled like a wild banchee. I yipped and barked at the wind and the rain. I hooted and hollered for victory. I felt like a crazy man. I felt like a wild man. Somehow through out the past six days, the wild-erness had crept inside of me unnoticed. It was melting into my spirit. Ryan heard my hollering and hooping, and soon joined me, yelling like a wild indian. He raised his stick in triumph and shouted at the wind. Smiles crept onto our faces. It felt like freedom had just opened the door to my soul and sauntered in! Our countenance was lifted.

Part III
We finally reached the lean-to around 7:30, only to find it already occupied by five other young men. The air smelled of marijuana. Lying in their bags, they looked like heavy boulders that had no intention of moving. This was most disheartening. I patiently and politely explained to them that we had no other options but to try to squeeze in with them for the night.

“We can probably fit two of you in here,” one of them offered.

“Well, we are small. Maybe all of us can fit,” I replied.

After a few minutes of one-word bantering back and forth, and a couple more minutes of staring, the young men began to adjust their belongings in an attempt to make room for us.

“We would do the same thing in this weather,” one of them said.

So, Ryan, Michael, and I climbed into an A.T. lean-to with five other men and began settling down for the night. The eight of us fit perfectly and cozily. We were all grateful to be under shelter. Ryan was so grateful that he shared the rest of his Captian Morgan’s rum with everyone in the lean-to.

As I lay stretched out, dry, warm, and relatively comfortable , I reflected back on the day. It was a day that was full of experience and learned lessons. It was the type of day that, while you are in it, you
only want it to be over. But as you look back on it, you realize that its value cannot really be measured.

To borrow from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, July 24th, 2009, was truly a day in which “the unforgiving minute was filled with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”

THE END

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