The Call of the Wild

This past weekend my two brothers and I took one of our infrequent brothers’ trips, a weekend getaway just for the boys for old time’s sake. We grew up together in rural north Georgia during the 1980s, which is as boring as you’d expect by today’s standards. Our parents rarely went anywhere or did anything, so the three of us were left to our own devices in terms of entertainment. That’s why I openly laugh at my kids today when they proclaim that they’re bored. How can you possibly be bored with infinite on-demand choices in terms of TV shows, movies, or games? But I digress.

Anyway, we spent most of our childhood in a tiny four-room rental house, which meant that we were always on top of each other and always trying to get our own space. Luckily, that dumpy rental house sat in the middle of a vast wooded area with seemingly endless avenues for exploration. Looking back, it wasn’t that big in reality, but to a kid, it seemed endless. We spent countless hours traipsing through the woods exploring and teetering on the edge of trouble, but we also camped out a good bit, if only to escape the confines of that tiny house.

We had a pup tent that practically had permanent placement in our backyard, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to sleep out there under the stars during the long summer. We’d play games in the moonlight, try to scare each other with ridiculous horror stories, or just listen to the latest music on our dad’s bulky portable radio, which had a slot in the side for an 8-track tape  (Google it, yes, downloads are a recent thing). Those nights spent outside away from the ever-watchful eye of our fretful mother were some of the best of our childhood, at least that’s my perspective.

Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for camping. As I’ve gotten older, I have admittedly romanticized it a bit. It’s my way of holding on to the parts of me that were young once, but most importantly, camping, to me, has always been a means of escape, even if only for a little while, because of what it meant to me as a kid.

Now that we’re older, we have the means to camp out beyond our own backyards. For this trip, we decided to camp in Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Zion is one of the premier national parks in the United States known for its colorful canyons and stunning sandstone cut deep by the seemingly innocuous Virgin River. It’s a popular destination for campers and hikers the world over.

We flew into Las Vegas, which was the site of our last brothers’ trip eight years ago, and drove the three hours to Zion. Once we left the carnival atmosphere of the Vegas strip outside the airport, the drive was nothing more than a vast expanse of desert interrupted by the occasional small town wedged against Interstate 15. The temperature outside the SUV we rented hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe August wasn’t a good time to camp at Zion.

After grabbing dinner in the town of Springdale just outside the park, we arrived at Zion in the early evening excited about all of the things we planned to do during our visit – hike to the precarious Angels landing, explore the depths of the Narrows, and drive out to spy the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. The canyon walls exploded in bright colors in the evening sun as we set up our camp.

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The view from our campsite on the evening of our arrival

Once we had everything set up, we started a campfire in the fire pit only because of the ambiance it provided. The desert does cool off at night, but in August, it doesn’t cool off enough to require a campfire. Nevertheless, we sat around the fire chatting and joking with each other. The beauty of brotherhood is that you always have someone who knows you almost from the beginning and you can pick up wherever you left off even if you haven’t seen each other for a while. There’s always an inside joke to exploit even if it’s been overdone for the last three decades. I’m sure my youngest brother is more than tired of us laughing at his idiosyncrasies from his childhood, but what kind of brothers would we be if we just let that slide? There’s no dead horse that can’t be beaten yet again.

The next morning we awoke bright and early. The stars were still in the sky when we fired up the camp stove and cooked breakfast. We never had a camp stove when we camped as kids. Oftentimes, we just had a single small pan and a weak campfire, if that, but adulthood does have its advantages in that you can buy your own equipment. After a hearty breakfast, we took the Zion shuttle to The Grotto stop in the heart of the park and began the four-hour hike to Angels Landing.

On the surface, Angels Landing may not seem like a tough hike. In total it takes about four hours round trip and the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet, but just looking at the stats is misleading because the second half of the hike is a harrowing climb across the spine of a fin-shaped mountain with heart-stopping drops on either side. Luckily, some brave souls have installed a chain along the route so that you can hold on for dear life as you make your way to the top. Just googling “Angels Landing” will bring up stories of hikers falling to their deaths while attempting to reach the top (watch the first-person videos if you want to see how daunting it can be).

To make the hike more precarious, it’s a very popular hike. When we made it to the point where the chain became necessary, a stream of people flowed up and down the trail, some maneuvering around each other while keeping at least one hand on the sweat-drenched chain at all times. To let go would have risked plummeting to a certain death. The number of people made me very nervous, especially those who were nonchalant or careless. I feared being pulled over the edge by some clueless hiker who slipped and grabbed the nearest person to join them in their gruesome death. My wife would kill me if I died on the mountain and left her alone with two kids (don’t ask how she would kill me after I died; she’d find a way).

My brothers plowed ahead as a surge of people pushed us along. I stepped back and sat at the top of this long slide of sandstone and let the crowd pass. I watched as some hapless teenager just galloped across the ledge and slipped foolishly as he made his way between the gap in the chains. He was exactly the type of hiker I was afraid of – clueless and fearless. After a long wait, the crowd thinned considerably, and I began the rest of the hike. I tip-toed along one ledge and wrangled my way around hikers returning from the top. I don’t think I’ve ever loved how a chain felt in my hand as I did during this hike.

I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but I have a love-hate relationship with dizzying heights. You’ll never see a video of me scaling a building and jumping between two incredibly high points without ropes or other safety support. My idea of a good thrill is within the confines of the over-engineered rides at theme parks. I’d rather not end up as a stain on the ground somewhere.

I made my way steadily across the mountain stopping occasionally to take pictures of the beautiful expanse of canyon beneath my feet. Below I could see the tidy black ribbon of the scenic road that wound its way through the valley, and intermittently, I’d spot one of the shuttle buses inching its way along the road. People were all around me, some above me trekking toward the top while others labored along the path beneath me. I didn’t see my brothers again until a crowd of people descended from the plateau at the top. I made the final climb as they waited for me.

The precarious hike was certainly worth it. Standing atop Angels Landing on a beautiful, clear day, I had an unobstructed view across the canyon. The vista isn’t the highest point in Zion, but it does afford a nice view of the valley cut by the Virgin River. Personally, I felt relieved to have made it without being pulled off the cliff by some hapless hiker. On the way down, I came across a woman and her teenage children making the final climb to the top. She fretted over her careless children for getting too close to the edge and not holding onto the chain, and I smiled as she and her brood passed because I didn’t have my kids with me. That’d be way too stressful for me.

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The view from the top of Angels Landing

I reunited with my brothers on a small ledge beneath the top and we made our way down the mountain. The trek down was easier even if it stressed our quadriceps more. By the time we made it back to The Grotto shuttle stop, we were spent. Originally, I had thought we’d do a couple of big hikes on our first day, but the intense heat combined with the exertion of Angels Landing pretty much ensured we’d take it easy the rest of the day. In fact, I took a nap when we returned to camp. We did do a couple of short hikes later that evening, but nothing more.

The next morning, we got up early again and drove two hours to Bryce Canyon. While Zion itself was enough to keep us busy for days, I didn’t want to travel all the way out to southwest Utah and not see Bryce Canyon. Bryce had been on my “must see” list for a long time, and I simply wasn’t going to pass it up when I was so close to it. It did not disappoint.

Driving out of Zion on the eastern side of the park is interesting as Highway 89 takes you through more stunning views of the canyon. There’s a long tunnel leading out of the park that takes you through the sandstone cliffs. At one point in the tunnel there’s a cut-out where you can look out over the canyon, but unfortunately, you can’t stop and take it all in. Once you get through the tunnel and into Mt. Carmel on the other side, the drive turns rather dull until you get to Red Canyon just outside Bryce. After driving through the drab scrub brush along Highway 89 for so long, Red Canyon is a beautiful surprise with brilliant rock formations that simply materialize in the desert out of nowhere, or so it seems.

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One of the first rock formations we encountered in Red Canyon

In terms of sheer beauty, I think Bryce Canyon beats Zion. Zion is larger and more interesting in terms of exploration opportunities, but I absolutely loved the hoodoos in Bryce. We hiked around the rim and I must have taken a hundred photos of the canyon and its famous spires.

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The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

My brothers dragged my camera and me away from the edge of Bryce and we drove back to Zion to hike the Narrows. The Narrows is a section tucked away in the upper reaches of the park where the Virgin River flows between a, you guessed it, very narrow and deep section of the canyon walls. The only way to hike the Narrows is to hike in the river. Luckily, the river is fairly tame this time of the year, but the current was surprisingly strong during our hike. Each of us had trekking poles, so we were able to maintain our balance as we maneuvered across the slippery river rocks in the chilly water.

Like Angels Landing, there were lots of people around us, but unlike that precarious hike, the risk of immediate death wasn’t present. Given that the air temperature was in the low 100s, the Narrows provided some much-needed relief from the heat and the angry sun that bore down overhead. For most of the hike, the sun didn’t even reach the canyon floor as the rock wall towered over us. Under less favorable weather conditions, the Narrows is actually quite dangerous, especially if there’s a risk of flash flooding because there is nowhere to go if the water starts to surge. You’re dead, plain and simple.

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Hiking the Virgin River in the Narrows

Hiking in ankle to knee-deep water is rather strenuous, but it was worth the effort when we reached a popular point in the river valley that offers splendid views of the beautiful canyon. It’s possible to hike eight miles or more up the river, but we turned around near the two-mile point and headed back to camp to relax and get ready to pack up. The Narrows was a great way to end our trip.

But that wasn’t all of the excitement in store for us. On the way down the canyon in the shuttle bus, we noticed a fog-like cloud rushing through the valley. At first, I thought it was a forest fire given the lack of rain and intense heat, but the fog didn’t behave like smoke. The bus rattled to a stop on the side of the mountain and other buses soon joined us. They finally told us that a rock slide had occurred down the road and that all buses were stopped until further notice. We waited a while, but after we realized that the shuttle buses weren’t moving anytime soon, we decided to walk down the canyon and catch a bus on the other side of the rock slide.

As we walked past the slide area, we could tell where a whole section of a mountain had collapsed, but the damage seemed mostly superficial. No one was seriously hurt from what we know, but it did provide for some excitement for an hour or so as we waited to hear what had happened. After a long walk on tired legs, we caught another bus and headed back to camp to put a cap on this brothers’ trip.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, this trip gave us a chance to reconnect as brothers, to relive a part of our collective childhood under different circumstances. Who knows how many more chances we’ll have to do that, which reminds me of the lyrics to the Baz Luhrmann song from the late 1990s, “Everybody’s Free”:

Be nice to your siblings
they are the best link to your past
and the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle
because the older you get
the more you need the people you knew when you were young

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