Follow the trip from the beginning here.
We woke yet again to a tent full of steamy air, because we’d forgotten to move the tent to a shady spot the day before. The sun beat down relentlessly so I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, threw on some flip flops and escaped into the great outdoors. It was several degrees cooler outside the tent and the camp site hosts were bustling about fulfilling their morning chores. I waved to them as I passed by on my way to the showers. The bats had been flying so crazily around the shower rooms the night before I had decided to wait until morning to wash, which was just as well, because the sauna-like temperatures inside our tent would have necessitated another shower anyway.
There is nothing quite like a hot shower after a night of camping, and this was nothing like a hot shower. Icy cold water barrelled out of the shower head and pinned me to the wall shrieking like a banshee. At least I was wide awake now. I huddled in the corner until the water heated up and then washed away all the grime I had spent the previous day acquiring. By the time I stepped out into the sunshine again, fresh and clean and towel-drying my hair, I had forgotten all about the sweltering night I’d spent trussed up in a sleeping bag trying to pretend I was comfortably communing with nature.
Jill was up and showered too; we had a big day ahead of us because we were planning to drive long haul across Death Valley, aiming to hit Bishop, California by nightfall. It was going to be a long drive and we wanted to get the truck in for a quick maintenance check before we crossed the desert, just in case. We were seriously behind schedule and had decided to forgo seeing both the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park; it was a tough call but according to our original schedule, we should have been in Bishop last night and heading towards the California coast this morning.
We wandered over to the camp site hosts and asked them where the nearest Jiffy Lube was. They told us the nearest one was in St. George, which meant, to my delight, we would drive through Zion after all. As we were chatting, we mentioned that we were planning to travel across Death Valley and they looked at us as if we were fit to be institutionalized. “It’s August” they said, incredulously, glancing at our little pickup. “We have a brand new Mercedes and we wouldn’t drive across Death Valley in August.” Jill and I looked at each other. “We’d be too afraid of the car overheating” they continued, “and sometimes they close the roads altogether.”
There was no internet access at the camp site so I couldn’t run a search to verify what they were saying, but it sounded perfectly reasonable. After all, Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth, regularly reaching temperatures of over 120 °F (49 °C) from June to August. I racked my brains to remember the little I had read about the route back in Seattle. Every site I had found mentioned the fact that GPS was entirely unreliable within the boundaries of the park and they all agreed that cellphone service was non-existent. Considering Jill and I had had almost no cellphone service throughout the entire journey, the chances of T-Mobile miraculously staging a reception comeback in Death Valley was pretty slim. Then I remembered reading the following sentence on one of the web sites. “The name of the park says it all – unprepared tourists die each year within its borders.” I was beginning to feel decidedly unprepared, it was time to find an alternate route.
The hosts tried to help us as best they could, but their directions were vague and, as I discovered when I pulled out the road map, wrong. “Never mind”, I whispered to Jill, “I am the queen of navigating by the seat of my pants.” Before we took leave of our hosts, we had one final question. Coming back to the camp site the night before, we had passed a police car parked on the side of the road just outside Kanab. As we drove by, we had seen a mannequin propped up in the front seat, dressed like a policeman. “It’s a cheap way to stop people speeding” our camp hosts explained.
“Watch out for the ants,” they added. I looked down to discover I was standing on an ant hill and the indignant occupants were protesting by stabbing stings at my feet. I brushed them off but my feet were already turning red and beginning to itch. “Thanks” I said without even a hint of bitterness and hopped in the truck.
I talked Jill through the amended route as she drove. “Sounds good” Jill said as I scratched miserably at my feet. They were nicely swollen now and my flip flops were struggling to stay on. The plan was to whip through Zion, make a brief pit stop at the Jiffy Lube in St. George and then pass through Las Vegas and across the Mojave Desert. That was the plan; the reality, of course, was radically different. For one thing, we hadn’t expected to be so totally overwhelmed by Zion. The minute we entered the park boundaries we started gasping at the sights that lay before us and before long, we were pulling over to the side of the road to take it all in.
The first sight that stopped us dead in our tracks was the giant Checkerboard Mesa, originally massive sand dunes that over time had been compressed into Navajo sandstone. Layers of sand set down over the years had left horizontal stripes across the surface and vertical stress fractures caused by fluctuating temperatures, expansion and contraction amongst other factors, created the most marvellous patterns in the stone’s surface.
Just around the next corner we stopped again and got out to explore some intricate wave patterns in a little canyon by the side of the road. We were getting nowhere fast and loving every minute of it.
One of the big differences between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park is the perspective you get from the road. In Bryce, the main road weaves you up over the canyons, affording you dramatic panoramas of the canyons below. In Zion, by contrast, the roads drop deep down into the canyons allowing you to stare in awe at the towering cliffs all around. We were submerged in yet another canyon when noon hit and we scurried out of the truck once more. Jill wandered along the edge of the road while I climbed down to the bottom to watch the sun crest over the incandescent, fiery rocks.
It was glorious. I stood there for quite some time in silent reverence as the canyon lit up around me and bathed everything in orange light. I had the feeling I was the very first person to ever set eyes on this magical place and at that exact moment, in that exact light, I suppose I was. Places this sublime are born anew every moment, with each subtle shift in light and each new pair of eyes that revels in its wonder.
We succumbed entirely to the splendour of Zion. To be honest, there was no way we could have traversed it with speed; to do so would have bordered on the sacrilegious. With each new view that burst into frame I felt inexplicable emotions well up inside me; our chatter dropped to hushed tones and then faded away completely as we contemplated the impossible beauty of nature’s work.
Then we disappeared into a tunnel, masterfully carved through one of those massive cliffs, popped out briefly into daylight again and then plunged headlong into another tunnel. This one had great windows chiseled out of the tunnel walls, perfectly framing the splendid vistas beyond.
When we emerged, we promptly pulled over to take in the brilliance of our surroundings because it was so startling we could easily have driven over the edge of a cliff, blissfully transfixed by the spectacle of those soaring peaks and monoliths.
Over the edge of the cliff, twisting and turning in rapid-fire switchbacks, I saw the road ahead. I was reminded of something Theodore Roosevelt said when he first looked out across the Grand Canyon. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” I felt the same way about Zion; yearning to have seen it as it looked when the Anasazi and Paiute peoples lived in harmony with this blessed landscape, before man’s hand became all too apparent. Kudos to the National Park Service, however, for they had eschewed the traditional stark black tarmac that paves the way through many of the country’s finest scenic spots, carefully choosing a brown surface for the roadway which cut a far less dramatic gash through this most sacred of valleys.
Down and down we drove; the peaks growing in stature with each bend of the road, until finally we reached the bottom where we stopped to bask one last time in Zion’s majesty before continuing on our way. If you are ever in search of a spiritually transformative experience, go to Zion. There is a reason why this park is filled with ecclesiastical landmark names such as Cathedral Mountain, East and West Temple. There is a reason why this canyon is named Zion.
It was now late in the afternoon and our chances of reaching California by nightfall had become a pipe dream. We still had to get the pickup in for a check up in St. George, it was high time for a coffee and my feet were huge.
(to be continued…)