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July 29, 2014

[Please excuse the lack of photos in this post. I’m not sure whether the problem is with WordPress or with the mediocre motel wifi connection, but every time I try to upload anything I get an error message. I’ll circle back to this post and the others in a day or two when the tech issues have been resolved.]

I don’t think my hopes could have possibly been higher for Zion National Park. Several friends raved about it. Every list of the best National Parks mentioned it prominently. Plus today many of the Jews in New York attended a rally outside the UN in support of Israel, and although we couldn’t be there we were in a park called Zion, so there had to be something to that, right? Yeah, I know it’s a bit of s stretch, but Israel is at war and my family is hiding from rockets and Jews in my own country are being told to go to gas chambers by neighbors and classmates who claim to be advocating for freedom and equality. It seems like the whole world has gone into a tailspin while I’ve been running around the country playing and having fun, so I’ve been dealing with a little bit of guilt. You can forgive me just this once if I see some sort of symbolism in my visit to Zion.

On a lighter note, the day started with great promise. The sun was out, the heat was reasonable, we drove with the top down, and our journey to Zion–sorry, the drive to Zion–took less than an hour and a half. We entered the park from the east, which meant we had a 20-mile drive through winding roads to get to the Visitors Center, but along the way we saw a bighorn sheep and lots of interesting rocky hills that looked like they were made out of still-liquid cake batter. We didn’t realize it at the time but we learned at the Visitors Center that bighorn sheep have only recently been reintroduced at Zion and are pretty rare sightings, so we were rather lucky to see even just the one.

We also stopped off for our first hike of the day, a 1.5-hour hike up rocky terrain that was not easy but ultimately gave us incredible views of the canyon below.

From there we drove through an extraordinary mile-long tunnel through solid rock that deposited us in a different world, where we were suddenly surrounded by monstrous sandstone cliffs.

When we got to the Visitors Center, however, things started going downhill. I knew the park has a free shuttle bus that makes several stops at points of interest throughout the park. What I didn’t realize was that the bus is mandatory–no private vehicles are allowed in the main parts of the park. The purpose of this Draconian rule is noble: to manage crowds and to cut down on pollution and damage to the park caused by those crowds. I appreciate these goals, I really do. But this policy caused several problems. The biggest was that there was nowhere to park. When you require everyone to leave their cars behind, the very least you should do is to give them somewhere to put their cars. Parking at the Visitors Center is woefully inadequate for the number of visitors required to park their cars, and of course the lot was full when we arrived. So we were told to exit Zion and park our car in the neighboring town, Springdale, where we could take a free shuttle bus to the park. Oh hooray, we get to take a bus to get to the bus! I actually got pretty lucky and found a parking spot a mere half-mile from the Visitors Center. It doesn’t sound too bad, but Zion is a hiking park; there’s not really anything worthwhile you can see or do without going on at least a couple of hikes. But now I had to hike before I could even start my hiking! First a half-mile walk from the car to the Visitors Center to talk to a Ranger and hash out a plan for the rest of the day, then a half-mile back to the car to pack up what we needed for our hikes, then a half-mile back to the Visitors Center to catch the shuttle bus. We had walked 1.5 miles and we hadn’t even been hiking yet.

Leaving our car behind for the entire day also meant that we had to carry everything we would need for the entire day (camera, extra lens, two cans of sunscreen, two jackets, six water bottles, etc.) all at once. All that gear and water meant we had to carry extra weight on all our hikes, which made them more uncomfortable and more difficult and more sweaty. And then after getting extra sweaty we had to share our stench by getting on a bus full of other park visitors. Our hikes were not just more physically taxing, they were also less enjoyable. Our first hike, the Riverside Trail, runs alongside the Virgin River and allows hikers to wade in the river at several points. This was a welcome treat on a very hot day. But I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying different footwear for different hikes, not to mention towels and a change of clothes, so we left the sandals in the car, wore sturdy, comfortable shoes, and stayed out of the water. I considered taking our shoes and socks off temporarily, but the banks of the river were so muddy that it would have been a messy disaster.

And of course we forgot to pack snacks, so when we were famished after our first two hikes we then had to take the shuttle all the way back to the Visitors Center and walk that half-mile back to the car again to grab something to eat, then walk that half-mile a fifth time to catch the bus and resume our park visit.

Eventually I got over my annoyance at the park’s lack of user-friendliness that I’ve come to expect from National Parks and we enjoyed ourselves. The park is breathtaking. Unfortunately the best parts of the park were completely inaccessible to us, as they are to most people. The Subway, which is by far the coolest-looking part of the park, can only be seen as part of a 12-hour hike that requires permits and hiking skills and time that we don’t have. The Narrows, a hike through the river in the narrowest part of the canyon, is similarly demanding. Less intrepid hikers can just do the very beginning of the hike and turn back, but today heavy rains and flash floods were expected, so the Narrows was off limits. The third of the three most awesome parts of the park is Angel’s Landing, a cliff-top that offers extraordinary views of the canyon but requires a five-hour hike, parts of which are so steep and narrow that you have to hold onto chains to pull yourself up and keep yourself from falling off the edge of the world. Honestly I would have liked to give that one a try despite its harrowing nature, but I was with a 12-year-old and there was no way he could even hike on flat terrain for five hours, let alone balance on steep cliff edges going uphill the whole time.

The is the first park I’ve been to where all the really cool stuff is only for the most skilled and experienced and none of it can be enjoyed by normal people. As I was planning our day with the Park Ranger everything seemed like a consolation prize.

Our first hike, the one alongside the river, was highly recommended but turned out to be a little blah. The scenery was nice but not spectacular, the river was so muddy that it looked more like chocolate milk than water, and I was starting to wonder why everyone seems to love Zion so much.

The more we hiked, though, the more the day started to turn around. Our next hike was a relatively short one called Weeping Rock because it takes you to a wall of the canyon that leaks water and thus is partly covered by hanging gardens. The walk was pretty, the hanging gardens were cool, and we started to see a bit of wildlife (mostly squirrels but an occasional chipmunk, a couple of lizards, and a few mule deer in various places).

It was at about this time that we had to go all the way back to the car for snacks, but on the bus trip back we saw several deer, including an impressively antlered buck and a pair of does walking with three adorable fawns.

Our last hike of the day was the best. We walked about half a mile to what is called the Emerald Pool but is, in fact, brown. But instead of turning around and going back to the trailhead we picked up another trail called Kayenta, which was  longer and took us in another direction and gave us new views of the canyon and the foliage. It also brought us to more hanging gardens and a group of teenage boys who started yelling across the canyon to hear their own echoes. We were hundreds of yards away from them but heard them clearly, and Sam eagerly joined in the yelping and was rewarded by hearing his own echoes and the boys’ responses.

While this was all going on the sky was getting progressively cloudy, and occasionally we heard thunder. Normally thunder does not worry me but it’s different when you hear it echoing off canyon walls. It’s louder, it’s longer, and it’s exponentially more ominous. It never did really rain though–just a few drops here and there, so the canyon made it out to be scarier than it really was.

By the time we exited the trail we were exhausted. But I was starting to get it. The voice recording that played every time we were on the shuttle explained that the park’s name comes from the Hebrew word for “place of refuge” or “sanctuary.” This road trip has been exhausting and we miss our beds and our family and friends, but it’s also been something of a sanctuary for us, a refuge from the events of the world, which have been so depressing and infuriating that I’ve been relieved to be able to tune out, at least to a much greater degree than I would if I were home.

On our way out of the park we saw two separate and large groups of bighorn sheep, one group climbing the rocks and the other nibbling shrubs along the side of the road. Their numbers are still dangerously low but clearly at least a handful of sheep have found their Zion.

Further along the road, outside the park, we passed a farm where we saw buffalo. My eyes were on the road so Sam spotted them first, and gleefully pointed them out to me. His glee turned to horror, though, when he noticed that right next to the farm was a restaurant called Buffalo Grill.

In the end we had a really good day and the park really is quite beautiful, even if it doesn’t have the same ease of use of most other National Parks and it didn’t quite live up to my (probably unrealistic) expectations. Honestly I think my favorite part of the day was watching Sam spend half the day trying to call his sister, who got her phone at camp today for reasons too complicated to explain here. We didn’t have reception in most of the park, and she didn’t have reception in most of the camp, so he kept calling her every time he got a signal and she kept trying to call him but they didn’t really get anywhere until we were leaving the park and they finally spoke for a few minutes. They bicker a lot when they’re together and it’s always nice to see glimmers of real caring and love between them. I’ll take that over a National Park every time.

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