In this place of supernatural beauty, you tend to run out of words.
by PAUL GERALD
Susan and I were sitting at the top of a 1,000-foot cliff, eating lunch. We had set out on a hike to a place called Angel’s Landing, and as near as we could tell, we were there. Only an angel, we reasoned, could get to a place that looks any better than this.
All around us were even higher cliffs, sheer drops from snow-coated highlands to a forest-draped river. Colors ranged through the whole scale, from burnt black to blinding white, from deep orange to velvety green. Down below us, the Virgin River wound through a landscape that fit its heavenly name perfectly.
We were in Zion National Park, in southwestern Utah, wearing shorts and T-shirts on New Year’s Eve. The scenery was mind-bogglingly beautiful. You come around a corner on the park road, and you’re looking at the Court of the Patriarchs, several pillars of rock 2 or 3,000 feet high. Round another corner and you see Refrigerator Canyon, a hundred feet wide but several hundred deep and more than a mile long. Beyond the end of the road are the Zion Narrows, 2,000 feet deep and so thin you have to wade through the creek for 12 miles to get through. A couple miles down another trail is the 310-foot Kolob Arch, the world’s largest natural span. A tower called The Watchman rises 6,555 feet at the entrance to the park.The Emerald Pools lie below misting waterfalls.
When reports about Zion first came back from Mormon settlers, many people refused to believe such a place existed. Susan and I had trouble believing it, too, even as we stood and looked at it. After we got tired of saying, “Look!” we decided on a more appropriate word, one that would better fit the name Zion, the Hebrew word the settlers gave the area, referring to a place of safety or refuge. From then on, we pointed at the natural wonders and said, “Behold!”
And in Zion’s 229 square miles, there is much to behold — but not just on the massive, geologic scale. We kept seeing rocks, hundreds of feet above us, that looked like human faces. Or we’d notice a flower that had bloomed along the trail. Or a bunch of deer feeding in a meadow. There are 800 species of plants, 75 species of mammals, and 271 species of birds in the park — so many because of the “microenvironments” that exist throughout it. A sun-filled canyon might be relatively barren, but a bordering one might be shaded and filled with cedars. A spring on a canyon wall might feed a hanging garden. The top of a mesa might be unlike anything else within miles of it.
I was admiring all this beauty, large and small, as Susan and I finished our lunch at Angel’s Landing. But I had this nagging feeling that maybe we weren’t really at Angel’s Landing. There was still some terrain above us, but there appeared to be no reasonable way to get there. Stretching out in front of us was a narrow ridge — “narrow” as in 50 feet wide — with nothing but certain death on either side. But above that, up in what looked like mountain-goats-only country, I thought I saw something move. I looked closer, and saw it again: two people picking their way down through the rocks! Angel’s Landing was still above us!
At times it was more like climbing a ladder than walking. But gradually we got higher, and less intimidated, and occasionally we would look back and realize that we had just finished a section that had scared us minutes before. And then we looked up from focusing on every footstep to find that all around us it was flat and smooth. And then there was nothing above us but blue sky.
From that vantage point, I took the photo that appears with this column, but I have to say, “You had to be there.” And not just to see the scene in color: to feel the feeling of having done something that looked intimidating, of having climbed a tower that looked impossible a few hours before, of sitting with the one you love in a place beyond your dreams, a place where beauty and peace come to rest with the angels. Zion!
For more information on Zion National Park, surf to www.nps.gov/zion, or call 435-772-3256.
Paul Gerald is a former Memphian living in Portland. You can e-mail Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.