Sunday, May 24, 2009

Inspiration in Zion: Explorations in Utah

Zion National Park, Utah Saturday May 23

I’m situated snuggly between visor-wearing, map-carrying tourists on the Zion Canyon Shuttle Bus. (I say tourists without derision. I count myself in their ranks.) Upon departure, we crane our necks upward at the giant sandstone pillars climbing into the sky. An omniscient narrator carries us from the beginning of time to today in approximately two minutes:

“A vast desert once covered an area extending from Wyoming to here. The sand dunes were 2000-3000 feet deep. Compare that to todays biggest sand dunes in the Sahara at 200-300 feet.”

A little girl with blonde pig tails adds her two cents: “Daddy, that’s like thousands and thousands and thousands...”

Her thousands runs to the rhythm of the bus narration: “Then, an ocean formed over the sand, the minerals of which began to solidify the dunes, creating these huge monuments you see around us. The process took around 200 million years.”

The little girl continues: “That’s like thousands and thousands...”

Her big sister rolls her eyes and finishes for her: “...thousands and thousands of years.”

A man in dark sunglasses behind us grumbles. “200 million years? All of this took seven days.”

But, who’s quiveling over numbers? Seven days or 200 million years, the sites of Zion National Park are enough to bring the faithless--and faithful--to their knees. Judging by the nomenclature, the faithful have won out. Here at Zion, we find the Temple of Sinawava, the Court of Patriarchs (Isaac, Jacob, and Abraham), the Towers of the Virgin, and Angel’s name a few.

Most of the names come from a Methodist explorer, Frederick Vining Fisher who named the formations on a whim in 1916. The name Zion came earlier in 1863 when the first non-native settler, a Mormon named Isaac Behunin, came to the area. He christened the area Zion from a biblical reference for “a place of sanctuary.” Having reached the majestic peaks and sandy valleys of Zion, Behunin felt he had escaped religious persecution.

The religious titles have stuck, and today, any visitor feels the sacred nature of this space. The gem of the sacred crown is Angel’s Landing. A strenuous 2.5 mile climb straight up, sheer red rock face and sand tower above hikers as if to say: “Do you have any idea how ridiculously small you are?” As such, Zion has a way of putting things in perspective--as I ascend, all the trivial worries and annoyances I have carried with me from California to Vegas to Utah lift like sweat from my pores.

It also has a way of telling you that life is fragile. Trail signs show a stick figure slipping off the side of a cliff and warn: “People have died on these trails. Be Attentive!” You wouldn’t know it for the dozens of children scurrying about--I’d be a nervous wreck at these high altitudes with slippery footing. I meet a couple from near Salt Lake who plan to wed in the Monterey area (synchronicity) and one of them tells me that last year, a 50- year-old man teetered off the ledge and died.

“I had my filter on enough not to tell you while we were up there,” Tonny says.

Thank you, Tonny :)

I’m not normally afraid of heights, but part of the Zion experience is definitely seeing your life flash before your eyes a couple times.

After the long hike, I jump on Zion Canyon Shuttle again. The shuttle itself is a revelation,a transportation device created in 2000 to reduce congestion and pollution. Zion National’s tourism guide proudly announces that the tour buses have reduced CO2 emissions in the park by 12 tons per day--and its convenient, too. It runs every 5-6 minutes shuttling the amazing mass of tourists from one trailhead to the next. I’m amazed at the infrastructure of this park, which seems to have the day planned before it begins.


From the park, I hop back into the dusty little red engine that could and head to a little blemish on my map: Grafton.

I’m looking forward to a night on the town and I’m like, “Dude, this place is a total ghost town.” (So, I couldn’t avoid a lame joke- I’m just human, ok?)

The little empty town tells a sad story of how nature can triumph over humans. All that remains is a restored school house and a single cabin. At the edge of town lies a cemetery whose inhabitants share one thing in common: tragic fates. Killed by Indians. Died during childbirth. Drowned. At the edge of the cemetery, three grave markers reading “Ind” mark Indian resting places. The here-after residents of this ghost town share birth dates in the mid-1860s and death dates in the early 1900s.

As I hurriedly photograph the small cemetery, a family (including mom, dad, and four children) enter the gates. Dad calls out to me: “You from around here?”

My camera and lack of 4-10 children entourage must give me away: “No, I’m from Indiana but live in California now. You?”

“I was born here, in this area, yes.”

The man explains that his great grandmother and great grandfather lived right here in the settlement of Grafton under the directorate of Brigham Young who sought to create a self-reliant Mormon society.

He goes on to tell me that his Great Grand Dad fought in the Civil War and moved here from Alabama, while his Great Grandma was born in this area.

“I’m half from a line of Mormons and half from a line of whiskey peddlars,” he says with a laugh. “I ended up somewhere in between.”

Dark-haired with grey peppering, he further explains his lineage, identifying himself as one of the Flannigan clan. He tells me that Grafton was abandoned due to repeated Indian attacks and devastating floods every 2-3 years. Today, he brings his kids out here to keep them connected to their roots, wild west roots that even today seem volatile.

“It’s rough terrain out here if you haven’t noticed,” he says.

“Yeah, what would we do without water bottles and automobiles?”

Walking back to the little red engine that could, I’m amazed to have encountered the living descendants of a ghost town. It makes everything so un-ghostly, this glaring glow of life moving forward through the ages. With the 200 million year (or 7-day) old mountains around me, dust billowing out from behind my car, I feel like a pioneer fleeing a wasteland of time that would chase me down but would rather just sit and wait.


Back at Camp Kelley, I had yet to have a single visitor even after two days...until tonight. As I hungrily cook my dinner over a camp stove, I hear a rumbling in the bushes, a breaking of branches. I look around but nothing...until MOOOOOOOO. Just across the creek, four pairs of eyes stare back at me, three cows and one bull. The three cows seem weary, backing away--but the bull...well, he just doesn’t give a shit. He comes straight onto Camp Kelley and completely ignores me. We make a silent arrangement. This vegetarian is chowing on rice pilaf and that vegetarian is chowing on desert brush. I’ll stay here and he’ll stay there....I hope...


  1. Exclusive video-Shuttle landing to California !!!
    The video from the scene:Shuttle landing to California-online-video

  2. Thoroughly enjoying your musings Kelley! You mentioned the love/hate relationship to cities. It is a tough call, as urban areas are generally more environmentally sound, but beautiful countryside they ain't!


Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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