Week 26: The Narrows
In the canyonlands of the Southwestern United States lies Zion National Park, replete with soaring cliffs, red-rock monoliths, and slot canyons carved by one Virgin River. Five miles of this emerald snake's body comprises the route - and yes, the river itself is the trail - known as The Narrows.
But first, some national history. The state of Utah is, for the most part, a land of the Mormon people. The area around the national park was first settled in the mid-1800s by Mormons who named it Zion, a biblical word that means a place of refuge. This symbolizes a concept central to their history, or more specifically, to their heritage as refugees and pioneers in the western U.S.
And some family history: in 2011, my aunt and uncle retired from Montana to a town neighboring Zion. Since the drive from Los Angeles is a mere day's drive, and not the 20-something hours it takes us to reach Missoula, Montana, my mother makes kind-of-frequent trips to visit her brother.
I come with her whenever I can. Even before my relatives moved here, we have had some history with this land. My mother used to visit friends here in the 70s and my parents honeymooned in Zion and the surrounding areas after their 1988 marriage. Somehow, my mother and I stumbled upon Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in 2001, and came out to volunteer in the week-long cracks in the monolith comprised of my school years.
I've never been to The Narrows, and neither has she. And ever since my April hike to Angel's Landing, another popular hike in Zion that does NOT include the river bottom AT ALL (read: heights), my desire to traverse this enchanting waterpath has increased. So here we are in early July, along with everyone else and their children.
The Narrows are accessed in two ways. Bottom-up hikers start walking upstream and, at some point in the same day, turn around and follow the same trail back downstream. A 5-mile stretch of river is accessible before they (or, I should say us, as we participated in this approach) must turn around, but most don't make it this far before heading back. Walking upstream is hard work.
Top-downers, who all buy an overnight permit, begin at a ranch and hike a 16-mile trail, the last 10 of which include - you guessed it - the river running downstream. Their endpoint is the same as the starting and ending point for us normal folk.
So, there are a lot of children here in early July, and judging by the smell at the starting point, I assume that I'm walking in a lot of pee. It's hard to ignore the amount of people here, but I try to anyways.
Since my forest bathing sessions, I've been meditating on the idea that these small 'nuisances' need not ruin an experience. With a shift in perspective (albeit a profound one), we do not need to try to separate these flies of annoyance - the distant roar of a motorcycle, hundreds of people milling about a gorgeous viewpoint, the blather of an unregulated tongue - from our experience.
They are equally part of the experience. As much as we wish people were not around. there they are. As much as we ignore mankind's invention of obnoxious bicycles that, as far as I can tell, don't really serve a purpose (sorry if you like motorcycles), there's that guttural Harley. As much as we value peace, there's that man blabbering on (you know which one).
It's not to say that we should embrace or even be neutral towards these nuisances, but understanding that they are part of our reality eases the edges off of existence, and - if we do want change - is actually the only honest launching pad we have in attempting to address them.
Back off my soapbox and into the river: as someone who does value tranquility, it is hard to internalize these meditations and accept being in the midst of so many loud people. I try to make my way up river as fast as I can and, two hours later, when my mother decides to turn around and head back, relief surges through me. I can continue at my own pace.
In quick time, I reach Wall Street, the most slotcanyon-esque part of The Narrows. The vermillion sandstone giants looming above shadow the fluidity, unhindered by high ground, flowing towards me. I go stretches of minutes without human convergence.
Although I wish to reach in place in my internal quest where I have the same level of profundity in my experience, no matter what is happening around me, the truth is that the further I go along the waterpath, the more my heart opens, the more vulnerable I become to nature.
The hands of time, deft with the tool of erosion, carved this place. And here I am, in a body hundred of years younger than the newest layer of exposed rock embracing the river bed, stunned by this grandeur that, for all our skyscrapers and electric cars, my kind could never dream of creating.
Perspective rolls along with the leaves and sticks floating downstream: we, occupying these tiny bodies in our tiny blips of time, have become so okay with destroying the wisdom of the earth, millions of years in the making.
In a way it makes sense, though. In creating Wall Streets of our own, we have literally walled ourselves off from experiencing our home in this way, and it becomes much easier to desecrate what we turn an irreverent eye from.
When we do decide to encounter nature, we are usually so ingrained with our enjoyer mentality that we want to consume it all: in the form of endless pictures, with the idea of 'getting the most we can' from our forays into wildness, through 'conquering' mountains and cliffs.
I'm not exempt either. On my way down, I meet a deer plodding her way up the river. I've come back down enough for there to be smatterings of humans everywhere. We all appreciate her through the lens of our cameras, rendering us the more curious of the two species.
The rocks and water have, for their part, destroyed my shoes, and it is bare feet that must traverse the last two miles. It hurts, but it's grounding.