No grand tour of America’s wild places would be complete without at least a night in Las Vegas. Having been to Vegas multiple times in my younger years, I had fond memories of fascinating light shows, futuristic arcade games, cruising sports cars, and fliers of indecent call girls. In my adulthood, however, Vegas represented a different kind of fascination. I have been struggling to understand America’s wild places, but focusing almost entirely on natural wilderness. Las Vegas, on the other hand, showcases human wildness.
As I drove the Strip, I marveled at the messages of human desire on overdrive. Signs for sex shops, all-you-can-eat buffets, opulent outlet malls, exotic car rentals, and gun ranges bombarded from every side. Then, of course, there were the casinos themselves. The powerful light of the Luxor shone into the heavens, while the New York, New York rollercoaster curled through its faux Manhattan skyline. Passing the Belagio, the fountains swayed back and forth, sending countless gallons of water skyward to evaporate into the desert night. Just a block further, a ball of flame erupted from a contrived volcano at the Mirage. Traffic moved chaotically, as motorists gawked at the gaudy light displays all around them, while simultaneously trying to avoid the constant flow of pedestrians wandering the Strip. Even as the anthropological side of my brain attempted to categorize and understand this sensory overload, I found myself sucked into the illusions of excitement and desire that surrounded me. Then, a young boy yelled at me from the back of a stretch Hummer. That brought me crashing back to reality relatively quickly…
I drove the entire length of the Strip, starting at the Fabulous Las Vegas sign and ending in downtown Las Vegas. For most of the journey, the golden windows of Trump Tower glittered on the horizon. Characteristically of the man himself, Trump Tower seems to sit at the very end of the straightaway of the Strip. It looms high in the middle of your vision as you pass by countless other obscene displays of human overconsumption. Its seeming importance, however, is an illusion, greatly diminished as the road swerves away at the last minute. Beyond Trump Tower, I passed through a shadowy world of Elvis-themed wedding chapels, seedy hotels, and shuttered windows. Transitioning from the dazzling lights of the Strip to the gloom of nighttime in downtown Vegas shattered the spell of this city of wonders. Sick of the traffic and fantasies of reckless abandon, I abandoned the Strip and headed towards a lesser-known casino to catch a five-dollar showing of Batman vs. Superman. It turns out I just swapped one dark, twisted fantasy for another…
Later on that night, I woke to a knock on my window from a Wal-Mart parking lot patroller. This being the first time that anyone had interrupted me in the night, I couldn’t help but be a bit surprised. With a grim smile, he simply mentioned that I had left my lights on. Damn. I fell back asleep knowing that I would have to jump my car in the morning. Personally, I am bit surprised that it took me this long for both of those things to happen: someone waking me in the night and having to jumpstart my car. Happily, both proved extremely painless experiences. After touring Vegas’s endless interstate exchanges for forty-five minutes to recharge the battery, I headed to Sunrise Coffee, a quiet coffee shop with an excellent vibe near the airport. With a few vegan options and an incredibly engaging staff, I passed the next few hours working and waiting for my friend’s incoming flight.
Kat and I were friends from Bates, but hadn’t really stayed in touch much at all since graduation. Relatively early on in my trip, we reconnected and started hypothesizing about her joining up for a section when she was traveling in April. Surprisingly, all of the puzzle pieces had fallen into place and she would be arriving for today. Once she arrived, our first stop was Whole Foods to stock up on supplies for the next week. Snacks in hand, we headed east.
Leaving Vegas behind felt like a natural regression back into the nature that has defined this trip. Our route cut sharply through the epic Virgin River Canyon, giving us a taste of the carving power of this seemingly gentle river. When compared to the likes of the Columbia or Colorado rivers, the Virgin River does not rank very highly in the public eye. It is nowhere near as massive or as powerful. Don’t let its size deceive you though. After a star-filled night on the BLM land outside of Rockdale, UT, we headed into Zion National Park. In doing so, we returned to the Virgin River, as it was, and is, the shaping force behind the wonders of Zion.
Zion holds a very special place in my heart. My memories of hiking Angels Landing have never faded, despite the intervening decade since my family’s western road trip. Hanging off of chains high above the valley floor has a way of captivating the imagination of a thirteen-year old boy… Now, I get to go back!!! I was beyond stoked to have another crack at the canyon.
Adjusting to having a guest in the car always takes a night or two, so I woke after a relatively restless night and headed into the park. After readying our gear, filling up on water, and checking in with the rangers, we hopped on the park shuttle and headed towards the Angels Landing trailhead. Crossing the Virgin River, we soon encountered our first switchbacks. Those switchbacks, and those that remained play directly in my memories of Angels Landing. I had not remembered, however, that the entire trail up to Scout Lookout is paved! The popularity and severity of this trail necessitate the increased infrastructure, but the cracked pavement was no substitute for the soft sand and gentle sandstone of the canyon. Despite my excitement for the hike, I couldn’t help feeling the concrete betrayed the ground below.
Continuing upward, I realized once more that my memory of the trail had been selective at best. I am not entirely sure how crowded my family’s ascent of Angels Landing had been in 2003, but it couldn’t have been this crowded. Glancing up Walter’s Wiggles, the last section of twenty-one formal switchbacks before Scout Lookout, I saw dozens of bodies moving in unison up and down the path, as if on opposing conveyor belts. In moments like this, I must remind myself of the importance of crowds in National Parks. Sure, I am naturally inclined to seek solitude off of the beaten path, but many visitors simply desire to experience the park from the relative security of well-known and well-traveled trail systems. Regardless of how which path we choose, I hope that we all leave the parks with an appreciation for the natural beauty that the parks celebrate. Finding the balance between accessibility for casual visits and safeguarding the opportunity for wilderness travel is not an easy concept to enact.
Some parks succeed. Others struggle.
After bypassing the comforts of Scout Lookout, Kat and I headed towards the impossibly narrow ridge leading towards the summit of Angels Landing. Clambering out onto a thin, cramped promontory of sandstone bounded by 1,500 foot cliffs isn’t necessarily everyone’s idea of fun. Lucky for me, it is like waltzing into a dreamscape. On Angels Landing, a person’s pace has nothing to do with their aerobic capacity. Instead, the limiting factor for each hiker is their affinity for vertigo and risk. Like the via ferrata hike on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the CCC’s workmanship plays a crucial role in the experience of Angels Landing. Thick, heavy chains line the route up Angels Landing, providing the semblance of security as sheer cliffs reveal the valley floor far below. Just below the chains, smooth slabs of sandstone bear evidence of almost a century of concentrated footsteps. Grooved footholds and stair-like indentations mark the path of the prudent up Angels Landing. The crowds, however, overload the narrow path, forcing hikers to huddle together while others pass at “safe” intervals. For some sections, progress slows to a snail-like pace as groups navigate around one another. The delays, however, encourage hikers to focus their concentration away from their next footfall and let their eyes and mind wander to the surrounding landscape.
Eventually, the traffic subsided and we crested the final ascent, arriving on the slanted top of Angels Landing. Zion Canyon spread out around us in every direction. To the north, the canyon closed in on itself, funneling the Virgin River deep into the tight slot of the Narrows. Above us, Observation Point demanded homage. Below us, the gentle din of the river swirled through the canyons curvaceous profile. To the south, a blanket of lush cottonwoods on the valley floor pulled my gaze into the distance where the Watchman standing guard at the canyon’s mouth. In every direction, the oxidizing Navajo sandstone of Zion conjures fantasies of martian landscapes. In those panoramic moments, those seemingly endless vistas, the crowds and traffic of the ascent melt away into inconsequential memory.
On the way back down, the crowded tension of the trail returns. From atop one section, I spied a mustached man waiting among an ascending group. It triggered a response, but I couldn’t place the face. Then, I glanced once more, realizing that this was none other than James LePage, another Batesie! Of all the places to run into a familiar face, the upper reaches of Angels Landing feels like a pretty unlikely spot, but there he was! Our contrary paths didn’t allow much of a check-in, but I doubt I will ever forget that moment.
Once we had cleared the section of chains, our descent to the canyon floor came quickly. With the roles reversed, we watched out of breath hikers ascending the countless switchbacks, working their way through the heat of the day. Eventually, we reached the Virgin River, where I popped my shoes off and tested the icy waters. From there, we hiked along the Virgin, stopping by Emerald Pools and following the trail back to the visitor’s center. Having opted to finish the hike shoeless, my feet welcomed the cushy Crocs that awaited me at the car. After some quick peanuty zoodles, we headed towards the campground to spend the rest of the night with James and his Denver friends. With a fire crackling just behind us, we whiled away the evening under an ever-growing canopy of stars.
Later, as I lay in bed, I tried to imagine a better way to kick off my time in Zion…
This adventure sponsored by a map.