rogerdr (rogerdr) wrote,

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Angels Landing

In the summer when I turned eleven, I finally began to stretch my legs further than my brother Michael, who never seemed as overcome by natural beauty as I, and my parents, who had seen it all before. That year, the historically hot 1980, we travelled west to some of our favorite states; New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. We would have gone back to Washington to see what had become of Mount Saint Helens in May, but the surrounding area was still a wasteland and closed to campers. So we stayed south and took in more of the desert lands. Along the way, I saw Meteor Crater, the Great Salt Lake, Dinosaur National Monument, the Matchless Mine in Leadville, and my first time at the Great Sand Dunes. I stood at Four Corners, threw rocks off the Glen Canyon Dam, and ate lunch in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns, but my most closely held memory from that trip was of the precarious perch atop Angels Landing in Zion Canyon. Until I found my Hidden Lake, that was the most beautiful place I'd ever been.

Here is a view north from the end of the trail...

and here is the view south.

These are taken by someone else, as I didn't have a camera of my own at the time, and my father would never have let me take his. The sight was burned into me, though, and I need no photos to remind me.

I had seen mountains before, and had hiked many trails, including those along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but those I had always shared with Michael and my parents. My older sisters, Nancy and Barbara, had travelled with us until I was about five or six, but I only recall Nancy's panic during the gale at Cape Hateras and Barbara's pining for her fool Marvin in some hot Civil War battlefield. For ten years after, it was just the four of us, and most of that in our `77 Chevy Impala named Suzie Q. So it was in 1980, when I got my first chance to hike a trail on my own.

At the time, my dad had bought into the CB craze and had one in the car, something we could listen to during the long drives between radio stations out west. He was a tinkerer like his father, and loved electronic gadgets. Besides the CB, we often brought on vacations two walkie-talkies, which Michael and I used on trails until they wore out. At Zion, my dad had the novel idea of sending the two of us on different trails at the same time, to see how long we could talk to each other while he listened with the CB. To that end, he drove up from the South campground where we were staying to the Western Rim Trailhead and dropped me off, then took Michael back to the Zion Lodge, where he started off on the Grotto Trail. I had to wait for a ranger, who conducted the nature hike up to Angels Landing, but Michael, who is ten months older than me, got to hike alone. Dad, patiently dining on a Miller High Life and a sandwich, kept up with us with the CB in Suzie Q at the lodge.

I felt slighted and insulted by Dad, as I often did back then while Michael was around, but I ended up having the best time that day.

Now, the walkie talkies were Realistics, primitive compared to cell phones, and they couldn't communicate with each other beyond a thousand feet or so, but my dad's CB could hear us at least a mile away; so even after we got out of range from each other, he wanted us to check in periodically. This had been our routine at the Great Sand Dunes already that year, as well as in the East the year before. While I waited for the other backpackers to gather and the ranger to show, I listened to Michael trodding along on his own and felt very young. When the woman ranger came, however, I perked up and started echoing her commentary about the plants along the trail. The only one I recall that she mentioned was Sacred Datura, because it was a variety of 'medicine' whose halucinogenic properties I would get to know many years later (there are actually two halucinogenic daturas, this being the 'blind' variety). On the relatively easy lower part of the hike someone saw a lizard, which I immediately tried to catch. Geckos are a regular part of summers in Fort Worth, so I saw nothing special about it, but the ranger didn't care for that, and almost sent me back. Needless to say, I sobered up, but stayed apart from the rest of the group afterward.

Soon, the trail began switching with the rise, and I started to realize that we were actually going all the way to the height of the canyon rim, at least 1,000 feet above. The morning was still cool, though, and I was young enough to have boundless energy. Nevertheless, the hike was to be some four hours, so I was carrying a lunch bag in my backpack. When we reached 'Walter's Wiggles', I knew it was going to be harder than I'd thought, but my pride wouldn't let me give up. By that time, Michael had already reached the Grotto and had joined Dad at the lodge. If I turned back then, I'd have to go all the way alone and would never hear the end of it. Besides, the ranger had begun to show concern that I was on the hike without my parents, and that made me all the more adamant that I had to prove myself older than I looked.

Before the 'Wiggles', the trail was in a side canyon, and most of the view was cut off by the walls and by the Landing itself. Climbing them, however, I began to see the farther escarpments to the south. I had been wowed by the sheer depth of Zion as we had driven through the day before, but there's something special about seeing it from above. I've never been particularly afraid of heights, but having several hundred feet of drop just on the other side of the trail's edge made the experience much more personal than most hikes I'd been on.

When I reached the top of the 'Wiggles', the trail went between the Landing outcrop and the canyon rim, so I started to lose the signal from my dad's CB. That, and the fact that I had fallen behind the rest, left me alone on the trail. Just then, I came to the upper part of the tiny trickle of creek that we had crossed twice on the way up and stopped to have my lunch. There are many such magical places in the west as this cool, shaded spot between high cliffs in the canyon walls, but it's easy at times like that to imagine you're the first to see them. While I was eating, though, one of the group was sent down by the ranger to hurry me along, so my quiet time didn't last.

That portion of the West Rim Trail continued along the cliff face until the Angels Landing branch led off in a tight switchback; both on a steady rise which finally came out on the spine connecting the Landing to the canyon wall. It was at that point where I first got to see an almost uninterrupted view of the whole canyon at once, and it was stunning.

Confronted with the bare fact of all that space, at once I lost my self consciousness and forgot about Michael and my dad. It's hard to convey how completely I was swallowed by the emptiness, yet at the same time lifted up by its beauty. The photos here are pretty. The place itself was dumbfounding.

From there, the trail (really, just cleared areas on the rock with chains to aid in climbing) narrowed to being only the barest knife edge along the ridge, with thousand foot drops on either side. The ranger pointed out the pines which grew directly out of living limestone and the chipmunks that now lived more on ignorant tourist crumbs than what little green was to be found there. To me, it was like finding a whole world where none should be possible; hidden from everything below, although in plain view of the sky above. And though it was still a part of the desert, it seemed as verdant as a spring garden.

At the summit, even the pines could no longer find purchase. The group stood around and took pictures, or rested. I was enrapt until I noticed a few people climbing down the front face of the Landing to a lower shelf where, again, there were a few pines and shrubs. This is where I rested, on naked, solid rock. 1,500 feet above Michael and my dad. If we had come here during my late teens, I might have mused at the expressions they would show if I jumped from the cliffs, although I never would have done so; but that day all of my mind was simply awash in the incomprehensible vastness of the place. I was too young to think of the geologic history preserved in the rock or the lost dreams of the Mormons who had once settled there; I couldn't even move until the ranger told me it was time to go.

The trip down was, if anything, more tiring than the trip up, because even eleven year olds have a limited energy supply. By the time I made it to the trailhead to wait for my dad to come get me, I was ready for a nap. That night, as we went to the fireside show at the campground amphitheater, an electrical storm erupted above and beyond the western rim. And though everyone oohed and awed at the sight, I felt like it was for me alone. Angels Landing was calling me back. Like the same feeling I've gotten from many of the places I've been to since, I've never quite lost the desire to answer that call.

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