Utah: Finding Direction in Zion

Utah: Finding Direction in Zion

I don’t think i’ve ever been to a place so completely bizarre and beautiful as Zion National Park.

Before leaving Calgary to wind our way down to Idaho and then Utah, I was anxious and worried. I had no reason to be worried, but yet, there I was fretting and stewing over every minor detail and every possible scenario. This is very normal for me unfortunately. I’m a worrier, and find myself fearful of the uncontrollable aspects of life.  The idea of minimizing all and every aspect of danger was a constant priority to me.  Being a worrier also wasn’t enormously helpful with my landscape photography at first, the view from the side of the road certainly is nothing in comparison to the view from the top of a mountain. Needless to say, after googling this place and booking our hotel stay, I had a new list of things to worry about. For instance, I love hiking, but I’m not great with heights, and the steep cliffs looked  more daunting than the gradual slopes of the rockies. I started imagining worse case scenarios and wondering if I’d get struck by lightening or fall of an enormous red rock to my death below. I worried about whether I left my data roaming on after leaving Canada, if my tires were low, if the chip in my windshield would spread. I’m sure it already sounds annoying just reading it.

Worrying was a nice distraction though, as it kept me awake through Utah’s pounding July rainstorms and slippery roads.

Driving through Utah was mostly unremarkable. We didn’t make any pitstops and the landscape didn’t change much. We passed cows, and more cows, and many rolling hills and winding rivers. I suppose, at the time, I didn’t really appreciated the beauty of Utah’s countryside. It really was blissful and the sky went on for miles ahead of you. As we grew closer to the Arizona border I started to notice the rocks around us becoming redder and redder. Before long it felt like we were on another planet, surrounded by towering rocks and lush greenery. Once we rolled into La Verkin and dropped our luggage off at the Best Western Hotel, it was back into the car and up the mountain to the National Park.

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Left: the winding red roads in the National Park, endless places to stop for a picture (click to enlarge) Right: Trailhead to Angels Landing (click to enlarge)

I was in complete awe at the colours around me. We scooted around in my little red car, zipping in and out of tunnels, stopping at every scenic viewpoint to watch the mountain goats skip up and down the cliff faces with ease. I’d never seen a desert landscape like this in my life, and never felt this kind of heavy desert heat. It felt good and it felt organic. Each twist and turn was beyond remarkable and within 5 minutes of being outside I could taste the perspiration on my upper lip.  After catching supper at a fancy steakhouse in Springdale, it was back to the hotel to cozy beds and a wifi connection.

The next day we decided to tackle Angels Landing.

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Canyon Overlook in Zion National Park, shirt courtesy of @ingodwemust hat from @tentree

All I can really say is that from the moment we drove back into the park, bleary eyed and smeared with sun lotion, there was simply too much to take in. It was almost like walking through jurassic park, although the closest thing I managed to see to a dinosaur was the tiny lizard I almost stepped on. The hike up Angels Landing was busy, which was to be expected… and halfway through the initial switchbacks I think I was ready to lose my marbles due to the amount of people coming back and forth.  The view was worth it though, and it made sense why this trail was so popular. My fear of heights seemed to be completely extinguished as I casually looked down 1500 ft drops on either side of me and hung onto the chains that lead up to the landing. I could see rock climbers on a distant cliff face, mulling over their next foothold and for a split second thought I might like to do that one day (FYI that thought hasn’t crossed my mind since). We managed to make it to the final landing just before dark clouds rolled in from the south. It was unbelievable how perfectly the valley dipped between the rocks and as the sky got darker it created an amazing contrast against the oranges and reds of the rock. The hike down was windy with the storm rolling in, but it was much needed after the heavy heat we experienced throughout the day. We arrived back in Springfield just moments before it poured with rain. I’ve never experienced such relentless rain in all my life. It was coming down so hard and heavy that you couldn’t even see the buildings on the other side of the street. We ate chips & guacamole with a Margherita (or two) on the covered porch of a Mexican restaurant until it moved on. It was a surreal day.

As the clouds broke, the sides of the mountains glistened, creating a beautiful contrast between the red rock and the dark clouds drifting eastward.

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The next day, I woke up with a pounding headache.

Not gonna lie, it probably had something to do with both my silly decision not to wear a hat for half the hike. During this trip, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I was desperately unhappy, and it was starting to affect my experience away in Utah. I remember at the last minute I really wanted to cancel, I was fed up and unwilling to end the pity party I was holding for myself. However, I dragged myself out of bed, and force fed myself some breakfast before zipping off to Springdale again to catch the shuttle to the Narrows trailhead.

At first I was tentative and worried (as usual) about hiking through the narrows. After the torrential rain from the previous day, I was certain we’d have to get airlifted out, or that i’d drown in the “raging rapids”  (yes, I have a very creative imagination). But we arrived with promising blue skies, and as per usual… the circumstances were entirely normal and safe. We worked our way through the masses of people at the trailhead. It took a while before we started to feel more alone in the canyon, eventually the trail became less  populated and all I could hear was the faint echo of voices and the sloshing of my feet as they searched for footholds in the river.

After about an hour, I needed to stop and rest. I let the cold water flow through my sneakers and sooth my sore feet as my eyes lifted to the sky and took in all the different colours in the rock, the curves and crevices. There was so much colour in the rock, so many strange patterns and small creatures peeking out from their small homes in the rock. In those short moments of wonder, everything began to appear a little bit brighter than before.

Standing in knee deep murky water, far away from home in a carved out river canyon with mud all over my face doesn’t seem like the ideal place to have a life changing epiphany. However, I can say with all certainty that it was in that simple moment of awareness that I felt the urge to let go of the stresses of life. I stopped caring about whether I would get holes in my running shoes, or if I had enough band-aids for the potential blisters on my heels. I mean, you are trudging through a river, between canyon walls.. for fun. There is a point where you simply have to abandon all concern and just enjoy the moment you are in.

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The Narrows – Zion National Park. Taken with iPhone

I can say with all certainty that I left with two things… some nifty sandstone coasters, and a brand new perspective. That hike changed the way I looked at my life, and the way I mentally prioritized things and agitated over the issues of life that didn’t really matter much at all in the end.

There was so much good left in the world, so much to be amazed at and thankful for.. and here most of us sit, worried about circumstances we can’t control and consuming our minds with things that don’t serve us well. Lets be real, sometimes life throws crappy circumstances our way, sometimes people let us down and sometimes things don’t work out for us.

But whatever. It happens.

To get lost in your own misery and self pity is only a punishment to yourself, especially if it is based on trivial and uncontrollable circumstances. When you have no more room in your heart for others, ultimately you take away your ability to invest in friends, take care of  family and be kind to others. It’s a pretty miserable existence. In my case, it also took away from my spiritual life, I forgot to have faith and ultimately life felt quite empty.

As a photographer I’ve come to appreciate how important new experiences are for personal growth and development. I’ve learned that’s its not very hard to find new friends with common interests. I’ve learned that a little patience can reap some of the best results. Beyond anything though, i’ve learned that I cannot control everything in my life… and nor should I want to. The narrows marked the end of that little dark cloud that had been following me for the past few months. It was like light breaking through thunderclouds, suddenly everything was much clearer and in a better perspective than before.

I guess in the end, through all the physical strain and emotional battles, the crazy storms and suffocating heat, there were a lot of lessons. Always bring extra water for instance, wear decent socks, watch what you grab onto as it might be a cactus (that really hurt), bring bandaids, remember to purchase a case for your new iPhone 6 (concrete is not nice to Apple products), be patient on the trailhead, bring sun screen, the list goes on. Perhaps though, the one gift that Zion gave me that was more precious that any photo I took, was a renewed sense of courage and determination to see beyond the narrows confines of my mind and live with awareness of the good before me.

My friend and I finished off the day sitting on the edge of the Canyon Overlook, watching and listening to our surroundings while dangling our legs off the edge. We wearily scratched away at our sunburns in silence, taking in the moment and being okay with the silence between us. It didn’t really matter what we did tomorrow or the next day. I’d stopped being worried about it. In this moment all I knew was that it just felt good to be alive.

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