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.