When I was young, my parents would cram my sister and I, our camping gear, and a month’s worth of reading material into our bright blue Westfalia camper van and set off on the road. Though most of these trips are a blur in my memory, I still remember the desert of the Southwest: the arches, the buttes, the red earth, the heat and the days spent scrambling through canyons and up sandy dry hills.
After years of dreaming about going back, in late April of this year some pals and I flew to Las Vegas, rented a car and drove off into the desert hills. Vegas was strange and hilarious and overwhelming and sometimes a little sad. We spent most of our time there looking for food and gaping at everything around us, and I was glad to leave it behind for the quiet countryside. Within the first two hours on the road, however, our journey was delayed by a mishap involving a runaway semi-truck tire, a kindly stranger, some zap straps, medical gauze and duct tape (for the car, not for us thankfully), some new skills and finally a replacement rental car. It was, at least, a great excuse to stuff our faces with ice cream.
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The first thing that struck me as we drove out of the city was the colours. Often it is the colours that mark the immediate differences for me between my lush green west coast home and the places I visit, and the colours are what later evoke the memories and feelings and smells I associate with certain places. In the southwest it is the blueish-green of sagebrush and juniper berries, the warm reds and oranges and pinks of the rocks and sand and dry earth, the deep reds of cactus flowers. It is the blinding blues of cloudless skies, the red-browns of the ponderosa pines, the easily overlooked purple and orange flowers growing here and there.
We used only a few colours in our journals; we tried our best to wear all of our orange and turquoise and red clothing.
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Our first stop was Zion National Park. Zion is stunning, otherworldly, with red rocks rising thousands of feet straight up out of a river valley lined with cottonwood trees and sagebrush and flowering cacti. Our first day there we took the shuttle out to Weeping Rock Trail: a brief little wander up to a lush overhang dripping with water. We ate our lunch by the shady creek below the cliffs and then hiked the Emerald Pools trail all the way to the Zion Lodge. The pools were more murky than emerald without the direct morning sunlight, but they were still cool and lovely and filled with frogs making the loudest and most goat-like racket. A potbellied grandfather imitated the frog sounds for an unreasonably long time. It was great.
The next morning we woke up early to climb up to Angel’s Landing, probably Zion’s most well-known (or notorious) trail. Angel’s Landing rises 1488 feet above the river valley, and the entire hike there is less than 3 miles long; in other words it is a sweaty, vertical slog. Angel’s Landing itself is the hike’s final destination, and can only be accessed by scrambling along a steep narrow ridge that is at places only 5 feet across (though we felt it was much narrower at times), with a vertigo-inducing drop off on both sides right down to the valley floor. We had to stop often to close our eyes and breathe deeply and to let people pass coming in the other direction while clinging to the rock face for dear life. I have a fear of heights, and was occasionally overcome with vivid and nausea-inducing visions of falling down the side of the mountain, but for the most part it was thrilling and fun in the best possible way. Though people have died here it felt relatively safe and folks much older and less spry than ourselves managed it just fine.
The third day we reluctantly packed up our camp and drove out of the park by way of the scenic byway, a winding road that takes you up out of the canyon and through the mile-long and very narrow Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. On the recommendation of our friendly campsite neighbour, we did one last little hike on the way out. This fun little wander takes you along the side of a cliff, under overhanging rock, along a little rickety bridge, up through a landscape of boulders and dome-like rock formations, and finally to the most incredible view of Zion Valley. We stayed for a long time gazing at the reds and greens and blues and taking a million photographs, unable to resist trying to capture this otherworldly landscape. I kept rubbing my eyes. It all felt too weird and prehistoric to be real, as though dinosaurs were about to appear around every corner.
Eventually we tore ourselves away and set off again on the road.
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Those muted colors, smells. Waking up early every morning with only the mesh of the tent between me and the desert sky. The moon shining like a flashlight into the tent, the cliffs in relief against the dark blue night. Mornings spent drinking coffee, huddling quietly in sweaters, or endlessly chatting and joking with my dear friends, making lewd jokes about canyons and hoodoos. Drawing and writing in our journals, telling stories and sitting quietly in quiet places. Singing along to music as we drove through an ever-changing ever-overwhelming landscape. Reading books and playing cards every evening. Life without wifi. Walking for miles each day through some new but always dramatic and scorching landscape. Watching lightning storms pass over the horizon without ever reaching us in the vastness. Vertigo, awe, discomfort, sweat. The smallness of small worries waiting back home. I miss this.