May 11, 2019
“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” -Rachel Carson
Here I am, from the mountains to the sea. Dwelling among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, and gaining perspective and humility in the face of the natural world. A force so powerful and majestic that even the most jaded succumb to its spell. These grand parks of ours, so earthly yet otherworldly, stand in timeless repose – barely aware of our existence; and thank the stars for that. With any luck they will remain long after we are gone.
At the beginning of the trailhead to Angels Landing, in Zion National Park, is a sign that warns “Since 2004, seven people have died falling from the cliffs on this route.” The sign is the same one that was posted when I last visited a few years ago, making me wonder if the tally of fatalities needs to be updated. The trail begins at the Virgin River in the bottom of Zion Canyon and climbs 1,488 feet in 2.7 miles to the apex of a narrow fin of red sandstone jutting out into the middle of the canyon like the prow of a massive rusted shipwreck. The trail is all uphill. Up the canyon. Up the canyon walls. Up Refrigerator Canyon. Up Walter’s Wiggles steep switchbacks. Up to Scout Lookout. Then the hard part. By now I am doused in sweat. Baked by the sun. Breathing heavy. Heart pounding trying to feed blood to my muscles and creaky knees. My brain buzzes trying to calculate my electrolyte intake over the past 12 hours. This is the point at which I chickened out twice before. The trail is a challenge physically and mentally; and this time, even ten years older, I pressed on with deep welled determination. The last stretch is a 1.1-mile so-called trail that consists of a sturdy chain bolted into the living rock for you to pull yourself up the steep sandstone slickrock with a vertical drop to one, sometimes both, sides. This is hiking with two feet, two hands, sometimes knees, and butts. Up and up and up, your mind reels with the exhilaration of the accomplishment and the contradiction of eminent death at the slightest misstep. At the top you are rewarded with an incredible view south down the canyon. It is one of the few places to see the near totality of Zion Canyon from one perspective. You gain another perspective as well. The understanding that all of your sweat and strength and effort and taunting death is wholly insignificant in the face of such natural beauty. The canyon doesn’t notice. The canyon is timeless, and we are fleeting.
Underneath the giant Sequoias, with their massive trunks, it is easy to visualize the columns of a vast cathedral. The awe and reverence wash over you, and the experience is as spiritual as any other known to man – but only if you are open to dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth. I have my doubts that the long line of tourists queuing up for their turn to take a selfie at the foot of the General Sherman Tree are as enlightened by such. Regardless, the tree does not notice. We are merely ants at its feet, scurrying about the forest floor. Impermanent. Unworthy. Inconsequential. Even the deer and marmots and bears are transitory compared to these trees who measure life in millennia, not decades. They have much to teach us, those ancient trees. Stoic, stalwart, and steadfast through time. Each concentric tree ring added year after year reveals the trials and terrors and joys of life. The fires and droughts and disease all recorded, all part of the whole. Like our lives, each year a new layer of subjective experience. Layer upon layer of pain and hurt and heartbreak, along with the bliss and solace and love reinforce our sturdy trunks of character – our fortitude and adaptability. And we grow tall to learn – to not bend in the breeze, to not be broken, or burned by the fire. We adapt to heal and recover and grow on and upward reaching new heights – layer upon layer built on the wisdom of a thousand generations.
I am not alone within the canyon. I am not alone under the trees. I dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth. I am kindred and never weary of life. I am here.
Parks visited since May 1st:
Zion National Park
Pipe Spring National Monument
Grand Canyon National Park (revisit)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area (revisit)
Sequoia National Park
Kings Canyon National Park
Pinnacles National Park
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Fort Point National Historic Site