The Great Westward Soul Search (Pt. 2)

Day 4 – 5 (Zion National Park)

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.” 

John Muir

There are no words that I can use which will do Zion National Park justice.  I’m gonna be honest here, I was only aware of this place and wanted to go to this place thanks to the add-on content in a video game.  The add-on content “Honest Hearts” for Fallout New Vegas was my first introduction to this gorgeous landscape, albeit in a post-apocalyptic setting.  Ever since 2011, I’ve had Zion on the brain.  Heck, even my phoenix tattoo is a callout to that video game and that location.  But this blog post is about my trip and not me nerding out about my personal video game references, so I’m going to move on and talk about the real life Zion National Park.

I rolled into the park in the evening.  My mother bought me a night’s stay at the Zion Lodge (thanks Ma!) and the entire experience was one-of-a-kind.   The lodge is located at the bottom of the canyon and the Virgin river runs past it.  Several of the hiking trails start here and the parking lot alone has gorgeous views of the canyon.  

I stayed in a little cabin and I ordered food to-go so I could eat dinner in peaceful silence on my little porch.  I did some writing while I was here and I watched the sun dip behind the canyon walls. 

The next morning, I went to an early morning Yoga excursion that I booked through the AirBnB app.  My Yoga experience doesn’t extend past the Youtuber “Yoga by Adrienne” but that was all the experience that I needed.  My time with Sera was profound and moving.  Since she’s a local, she knew some behind-the-scenes locales and owns/shares land right behind Zion National Park.  She supplied everything and said that she hoped this experience would be memorable and unique, but not necessarily the “best moment” of my trip.

To bad Sera — doing Yoga with you was memorable, unique, and the absolute best moment of my trip.  I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life.

If you couldn’t glean from my previous post, I went on this journey to find healing and peace — whatever that looks like.  This past year has been hard on my family and on me.  Yes the pandemic was hard, but we also lost three family members over the course of 10 months, two of whom passed away suddenly. Furthermore, I was (and still am) a high school teacher during the pandemic while finishing my first year of my Master’s Degree taking a full-time courseload. Needless to say, I’ve been dealing with a lot over this past year.

Yet, as the sun rose over the canyon walls and warmed my face, I heard the wind gently blowing through the wheat field.  I felt how my body moved and how my muscles stretched.  As we did our third flow from downward dog, into cobra pose, and then into child’s pose, I felt connected to the earth in a complete way: spiritually, mentally, and physically. My inner monologue said, I am here.  I am present.  I am capable.  I am worthy of peace and love.

After my Yoga experience, I drove into Springdale, UT which is the town right outside of the gate entrance for Zion.  It was around 9:30am by then and the town was already a zoo.  There was a line of cars waiting to get into Zion and finding parking in the town itself was insane.  I hate crowds.  I hate busy areas.  Being in a chaotic environment makes my anxiety blow up, so I parked at the very end of the town about 3 miles away from the park gate, took my trusty bike off the rack, and I went biking through the town.

I’ll give Springdale props because they are a very bike-friendly town.  They had a bike lane on both sides of the road, and they also had a paved multi-purpose path that was sectioned off from traffic by rope.  So I leisurely rode up the gradual incline to the park gate, and along the way, the trail called me.

I cut through a small park and took a sandy, rocky trail out along the Virgin Rr.  The trail wasn’t terribly long (about a mile) but the riding was technical and I have a phobia of getting killed by a cougar (mountain lion) — but that’s another story.  As I biked along the lower canyon, I saw lizards scamper away into the underbrush.  I heard the river’s gentle gurgling and the lowing of nearby cattle.  

Biking up to Zion’s park gate gave me a chance to take in this cute tourist town without getting into a car accident.  They had shuttle bus stops every half mile or so and people were crowded around the awning waiting for their chance to descend into the canyon.  Again … I hate crowds, so being on my bike just gave me a sense of freedom and a little bit of superiority.  There’s something empowering about going to a destination under your own power (walking/biking) rather than driving.  It also gave me a chance to play tourist and get my picture by the Zion National Park sign.  

By now, the outside temperature was hovering in the low 90s so I biked back to my car, pulled a U-turn, and drove back down to the Zion Lodge.  If you haven’t heard, the National Parks have record attendance numbers because everyone wants to get outside in a more COVID-safe environment.  I don’t fault them, I really don’t.  I’m all for people getting out and enjoying nature, but driving back to the Lodge did require some patience and grace on my end because it was a ZOO!

I parked in the main parking lot area without a problem, but once I got to the Grotto (essentially the hub for the trails in the lower canyon area), the entire place started to look like Disney World.  It didn’t dampen my spirits too much, but it made having my “John Muir” moments a little more challenging.  Oh well.

I hiked along the Lower and Middle Emerald Pool trails.  The Lower trail is about 1.2 miles, but it had a decent uphill grade, and it was now approaching 100 degrees.  I took my time and didn’t push myself.  I had plenty of water on me and I rested when I needed to.  The pool itself was indeed emerald and the water misting from the canyon walls felt wonderful.  Unfortunately, Utah’s Virgin River had high levels of a toxic Cyanobacteria bloom which was killing off pets that drank from the river.  The toxin is more dangerous to young children and small animals, but it can attack your liver and your lungs and I like both of those organs, so I decided to do the wise thing and listen to the posted warnings.

I was disappointed because I wanted to hike the Narrows, but that just means I’ll have to come back next Spring and see what the water conditions are like.  Maybe I’ll even bring adventurous souls with me.

After hiking, I drove through Zion and took some pictures of the beautiful vistas in the allocated “pull outs” for tourists.  The entire drive is about 7 miles and it takes you up switchback roads and out of the canyon.  With the air conditioner blasting and some smooth hipster music courtesy of the band Right Away Great Captain!, I just sat back and took in the ambiance of my travels.

Fun fact: There are three albums by this artist and the first song on album #1 and the last song on album #3 tell a continuous story about a sailor who discovers that his wife has had an affair on him with his brother. The third album (which is the one I listened to) is the most contemplative of the three.

Day 6 (Glamping and Snow Canyon State Park)

When I made the decision to go on this adventure, I was trying really really hard not to plan out an agenda because I wanted to be spontaneous.  But I’m such a planner so I gave into temptation once and looked up lodging around Zion (when I realized that was where my heart was telling me to go).  So I downloaded the AirBnb app and found this “glamping” site in Leeds, UT which is about 35 minutes away from Zion.  Now, now … I’m aware the idea of glamping can get contentious with the outdoor community.  Is it really camping when you are in a bed?  (Answer: No).  But I wanted to try something new.

And it was amazing!

My glamping tent was in an RV Park and it felt like I was staying in my own little fort.  I slept in bunk beds at my dad’s house as a kid, and I would love to take extra blankets and stuff them under the top bunk’s mattress to create curtains which draped over the lower bunk where I slept.  I could crawl into my cave and sleep, read, and write in darkness and security.  My glamping tent was sort of like that but better.  (It even had air conditioning!)

I stayed at this site for two nights, and on Saturday evening, I had a hike scheduled with a guide in Snow Canyon State Park which is outside of St. George, UT.  This was the second of the two excursions that I had “planned” and it was another highlight of the trip.

My guide was a gentleman named Kim and we met in the park at 6:30.  There were some folks running late, so we got started hiking around 7:15pm and he took us along a paved multi-purpose trail, onto some single track dirt trails, and then completely off road as we hiked up rocky hills.  He brought along spray bottles for the heat and entertained us for two hours with witty banter, interesting insights into the area’s geology, fauna, and foliage, and took us to some super exclusive locations that aren’t touristy.  

I had another, very brief, John Muir moment here when we were coming back from the turn around point.  As we descended the rocks, I looked around and saw nobody else except us.  I saw the trail marker and then the rolling rocky desert scrubland, the rusty canyon walls which glowed orange in the sunset, and the brilliant blue sky overhead.  As I inhaled, I took a quick moment to let the peace and the calm flow in.  A smile played on my lips and Kim said, “It’s beautiful isn’t it?  I love it here because it’s not full of people.”

I think I replied with my typical self-effacing bluster of, “I like it because I hate people,” but truthfully, I liked it because being alone in nature reminds me of the moments when I’m fishing alone on the Chippewa Flowage.  I hear the waves gently lapping at the boat, I see a deer carefully pick her way along the shoreline, and I watch dragonflies bump into my bobber or quickly mate tail to tail in the air, and I feel completely at peace.  I truly don’t hate people.  (Hate isn’t an emotion I indulge).  But I do dislike how distracted we can get as a society.

Another credo of my trip was that I was going to be as technology-free as possible.  I brought my cell phone with me for pictures and to call my Mom, but other than that, I tried really hard to stay off of social media.  I wasn’t perfect.  I struggled with the need to compulsively check my e-mail like I do when I’m teaching.  I even answered an e-mail because it was in fact crucial and time-sensitive (the Minnesota Teaching Licensure board waits for no one). Nevertheless, we all need moments of complete and total disconnect from the digital world.  We need to go back to our roots, both literally and figuratively.  When was the last time you stood outside in the middle of a wild space and simply existed? 

That is why I bike, hike, and cross country ski. Note that all three of these activities are considered “endurance sports,” and I think seeking spiritual enlightenment or healing through nature shares a lot of the same traits with pushing your body and mind to the brink.

Growth of all kinds comes from a place of discomfort and (sometimes) pain. The most important thing that I learned through therapy was that I had to learn how to sit with the pain of my depression rather than self-medicate through overeating. It’s still a struggle to not seek out food as comfort, and that’s why I started biking. I needed an outlet for my pain that wasn’t food. I needed to do something that was challenging because that’s the type of person I am (I’m goal-oriented and ambitious). That’s why I signed up for my first Korte last year, completed it (yay!) and signed up for my 2nd “real” one for this February.

I experience a similar sense of peace when I’m in the middle of the woods on the cross country ski trail wanting to puke up my lungs while I climb a hill as I do having my “John Muir” moments in nature. The remoteness means that I need to rely on myself. I need to tap into the deepest parts of myself and figure stuff out alone. Nobody is going to come save me out on the trail. Nobody can “save” me from depression or anxiety. I need to find the strength within myself to walk out of the literal and figurative wilderness on my own.

In my past posts, I talked about moments while biking when I bonked or when I had to push beyond my mental and physical limits. This trip was just another way of pushing past a limit. Traveling alone, especially as a woman, can be scary. But I can’t live in fear my entire life, and I’m not the type of person that likes to rely on others. In true Transcendentalist spirit, I am self-reliant because when it comes down to facing my inner demons, nobody can do it for me.

During the pandemic, I watched a documentary on Amazon Prime called Finding Traction: The Ultra Marathon Documentary. It follows ultra marathon runner Nikki Kimball as she attempts to break the men’s and women’s record as she runs 274 miles through Vermont’s Green Mountains. The documentary shows Nikki at her best moments and her worst moments; its inspirational and it normalizes mental health in a way that I don’t often see. Nikki often speaks about her mental health during interviews and you can read more about how she manages her depression with a combination of exercise, medication, and therapy.

You can read more about Nikki here: https://www.trailrunnermag.com/people/profiles-people/the-hope-seekers

She says something in the documentary which stuck with me, and she mentions it again in the interview.

With depression comes power. Ultrarunning is hard, and sometimes it hurts. But the pain I feel in a race is nothing compared to the utter bleakness I have felt as a result of depression. Knowing that I have transformed from a person who planned her suicide to a person who is in love with life gives me the confidence to do anything.

Nikki Kimball, Ultra Marathon Runner

It’s not a coincidence that endurance sports take athletes to remote places. For its only in nature that we can defeat the dragon and return home victorious. In my case, I slayed the dragon when I was in corpse pose out in that wheat field with Sera.

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