Off the deck and into the wild: canyoneering Zion

Evening May 18 Saturday? Unsure

We begged four different times at Zion Lodge for a room for another night, but even Mike batting his big blues didn’t work and we couldn’t bear to leave this amazing park, so much as yet unseen. So, after his morning shoot he went to the campground (already labeled FULL) and while I was having my spiritual moment, he drove circles around the campground until he saw someone pull out, and he ran in and threw down our cooler and folding chairs and nabbed the spot. Weekends are busy times in the national parks!

So here we are, in the much less exalted campground, with a large amount of PEOPLE around us, including our nearest neighbor with one of those Winnebagos the size of a city block and a generator grinding like a lawn mower twenty feet away. My spiritual high has been dispelled, but even so the rest of the day was amazing.

Mike had done some internet searches before we came on “slot canyons” and photos from Zion came up, but when we asked, there were no labeled hikes or literature with them specified. Asking again at lunch, our waitress dragged over a fellow waiter who is a “canyoneer” and he described how to get to one. Well, between yesterday at lunch and the kind of directions he gave “you know outside the tunnel, it’s on the left, park over there and go north, upstream” and us being park noobs, we thought we might be in the ballpark and did find a parking spot in the general area he’d described.  There was no apparent trailhead, nothing but an apparent cliff off the side of the parking lot of shale and boulders going down into a deep canyon. Our dithering and wandering was eventually redirected by a Ranger to “go up the road and follow the signs.”

We knew that led to the nice groomed hike we’d already done the night before, (Canyon Overlook) and Mike has never been much for signs. Me either it turns out  (I’ve always thought of signs as “best practice” suggestions rather than actual directions) and we started walking along the road looking down into the valleys instead, and after one or two false starts, lo and behold! We happened upon the most magical slot canyon. It wound for miles, almost invisible and I can personally vouch for the fact that our feet were the first to touch its gleaming sand that day—it’d rained the night before, and washed away any evidence of people.

We felt like true explorers—there was no trail and we didn’t know where we were going, or how to get out once we’d started down that enclosed space, but we were both entranced. The play of light and shadow on the sinuous curves of the stone walls implied a frozen sense of motion, of something ancient and mysterious—not to mention a little dangerous. We passed under logs caught overhead by floods and ready to fall any minute, boulders poised on ledges, dead and rotting deer carcasses and warm inviting places for rattlesnakes to sun themselves.

I told Mike as I looked for “the perfect stick” that I wasn’t being paranoid about the rattlers; I like snakes actually. I was showing respect for them because we are the intruders in their world. (That, and I hadn’t remembered my hiking boots and was only in shorts and my legs felt vulnerable.)

So we walked slowly, and took hundreds of pictures because every twisted, striped turn of this “slot” was a new and breathtaking scene. Also, God was still looking out for me because I bet this place COOKS in the summer, and we had cloud cover and even a sprinkle of rain, and it was actually a little chilly in the caves of the rock.

So that explore was utterly perfect and amazing, and the cherry on top was that we fetched up directly underneath the parking lot where we’d parked the car. Apparently the waiter had told us true! Of course, there was no trail, so the most dangerous thing we did all day was climb the perpendicular rocks and sandy shale up the side of the canyon to the parking lot, appearing beside the bridge like frowzled and triumphant Jack-in-the-Boxes. “Do we get to call ourselves canyoneers now?” I asked.  “Not bad for old farts,” Mike replied. (He's still recovering from his 59th birthday yesterday.)

Along the way, in a curve of the rock, I’d found The Perfect Stick. It’s a root from some tree, twisted and turned in a truly snakelike form, and silky from the water that washed it into the canyon long ago. It’s a silvery-gold color, and light and strong. I actually hooked it around my neck part way to climb the side of the canyon, which took all four limbs and more nerve than I knew I had—but when there isn’t a choice, you do stuff you didn’t think you could.

“Leave the stick!” Mike said.

“No!” I ended up throwing it up high and climbing to it, and throwing it up and climbing again. And now it rests, in my suitcase among the many pairs of dirty socks, a testament to our magical day and good to ward off rattlers.

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