Father had taken me to the riding area up in the Laguna mountains before, but it had always been to ride up and down the dirt road skirting the north end of Lake Morena. This time, he took me all the way up to the campground at the end of the maintained road, from which all trails were designated “ORV” or, off road vehicle area. Everything that wasn’t the main road was more challenging than any of the riding I had done up to that point in the desert, and even that dirt road had its moments. Every path was cut through sagebrush and littered with blocks of granite. A vast network of trails or varying difficulty crisscrossed the mountainside. This became Father’s favored riding area as it was much closer to home than the desert areas, and offered more interesting and varied terrain. I always felt that I wasn’t good enough to be there, and the tales Father and his friends told of the dreaded Corte Madera hill filled me with fear that certain death was waiting around every corner.
I had asked Father if we might be able to visit the Arches park, also located in Utah, but evidently it was farther away than I had imagined. By way of consolation, he offered to take me to see an arch that was located somewhere in Zion canyon. As we set out down the dusty trail, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had never seen a natural stone arch before, and I was fascinated by the idea. Father assured me that while the trail was steep, it wouldn’t be nearly so harrowing as the Angel’s Landing had been. Being a less popular and more remote location, the path was dusty and rock strewn, but for the first time since we’d been at Zion, it felt as though we had the park to ourselves. After a couple miles of hiking, we reached the base of the far canyon wall. Unlike the hard red rocks populating the rest of the canyon system, this was a white, chalky stone producing a granulated sand that coated the surface of the otherwise solid rock. Though the path cut into the cliff wall was wide enough that hikers could pass each other easily, it was steep. Though it was hewn of solid rock, the sandy white powder made my feet feel uneasy beneath me. My mind conjured recent images of the canyon floor, a thousand horrifying feet below. I tried my best to forge onward, but when my foot slipped and there was nothing to see ahead but blue sky, I froze in place. Father tried to motivate me, but I was ready to go back to where the ground was flat and the sky was above. After a couple false starts, the promise of seeing an arch helped me discover a hidden reserve of courage. It wasn’t much farther to the Hidden Canyon, which as it’s name implied was quite impossible to see from below. The canyon floor was the same white sand as covered the trail, but rising above the narrow canyon were cliffs of the same red sandstone I had come to expect from the region. Father found a wide crack in the wall, and stuffed his hands and feet into, climbing several feet up before deciding it wasn’t wise to climb higher without protection and so far from civilization. He dropped back down, and we continued deeper into the little canyon. Father carried on about how he would like to climb up to the top of the canyon wall, and how he wondered if anyone had ever been up there before. After a few short minutes, we arrived at the promised arch. It was so tiny that Father could stand underneath and touch its apex. I felt that the arch looked out of place in its environment. A dozen feet beyond it, the canyon closed to an impassable crack, further giving the impression that the arch was a tourist attraction added to give the otherwise uninteresting canyon some measure of appeal. Walking back down the trail was easier for me, as on descent the far wall was visible and the feeling of falling off into the wide, unknown sky was absent.
After the excitement of the previous day, my interest in hiking was at an all time low. I had wanted to stay at camp rather than going with my family, but Mother assured me that this would be an easy hike and that there would be a place to go swimming. Reluctantly, I followed along. As promised, it was a casual hike. I enjoyed the trail that lazily cut it’s way back and forth up the side of a tree covered hillside, making three crossings of a small stream making it’s way toward the Virgin river. There were two waterfalls, one a series of steep rock slabs, and the other a misty cataract. After a short while, we reached the end of the trail. Rising high over our heads was one of the canyon’s sheer walls, what seemed a trickle of water dampening it’s face and staining the red wall a dark green. At the base of the cliff was a circular pool of water. As promised, we got in and swam around. My siblings and I stayed near the edge where the pool was shallow, but Mother and Father swam out to the middle of the pond. I asked Father how deep he thought it was. In answer, he dove down to the bottom of the pool. When his head popped back up above the surface he took a deep breath and said “About eight feet, I think.” Despite being an expert swimmer, Mother grasped a piece of driftwood and paddled around the far, rocky edge of the pool. Father explained that during the rainy season, the trickle of water turned into a surge, and the water falling the hundreds of feet down the cliff is what made the small pool so deep. That day ended up being one of my favorite from our Utah vacation, but despite my hope of returning one day, it wasn’t long afterward that swimming in the Emerald Pool had been banned.
The trail head was the most boring thing I had seen at Zion Canyon. Sister spun in circles as we walked a wide, blacktop paved, straight-as-an-arrow trail, which led us toward the massive promontory overlooking the canyon below. Despite the obvious change in altitude required to reach even the lower ridge, the path had little incline. I wasn’t entirely convinced were were on the correct trail, but eventually it met the base of the cliff and with a marked increase in inclination, began a series of switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. The day’s boredom was officially over. Looking back down the wiggles, it occurred to me that one could jump from the edge of one switchback and entirely miss the one directly below. In only a few minutes of walking, we had reached a dizzying height. Eventually, the paved path emptied out onto a moderate sized landing of red sandstone. “We made it to the top” I declared as sister squealed in delight, throwing her hands out as she ran a wide circle around my legs. The landing was wide enough that several groups of hikers could rest easily, but narrow enough that unless I looked down at my feet, blue sky filled my entire field of vision. The feeling of exposure made me uneasy. I sat down so that the sky below couldn’t suck me off the ledge and to the canyon floor some thousand feet straight down. Father walked confidently out onto the landing. Looking around he said “No, we still have to cross the ridge. That’s the top, over there.” He pointed across a razor narrow ridge, at a block of rock which was indeed clearly the summit. My stomach sank as I imagined walking across that ridge, narrow as a sidewalk, vertical as building, jagged as a tooth. As nervous as I was, Sister took off down the path at a near run. Mother yelled at her to hold Father’s hand, and the two of them started across the broken blocks of rock which served as the trail. Mother would remain on the landing with Brother, so I had to decide quickly if I would go to the summit, or stay behind. I swallowed back my fear, and set out with much trepidation. There was a guide chain I could hold onto, but my sweating palms didn’t give much assurance that I could actually keep my grip, should it be needed. To both my left and right, I could see the ground below,as distant as the view from an airplane window. Despite my fear, I forged onward. After several feet, the chain guide ended abruptly at a notch in the rock, where I had to choose whether I would take a wide step across, or sit down, step in, and climb up the other side. I crouched down and in a feeble voice called out “…dad?” “What?” Father called back. “I need help.” He turned and faced me for a moment, “Just step across, it’s easy.” I looked again at the notch and had to admit “I’m scared.” even as Sister pulled on Father’s hand in her excitement to continue. “Well, either come now or go back and wait with your mom.” he told me. Carefully, I turned around and made my way back to the landing. I sat on a rock next to Mother as she held Brother in her arms. I looked down at the canyon floor, feeling rather dejected that my sister who had yet to start school was already brave enough to tread where only angels land.
Before cutting its way through the bottom of Zion Canyon, the Virgin River runs through a sixteen mile long stretch of canyon some thousand feet deep and often no more than forty feet wide. While the river is seldom more than a couple feet deep, it just as seldom has banks which are more than the occasional sandbar pressed against the vertical walls. As such, Mother stayed at the campground with my siblings as Father and I took an afternoon hike a couple miles into the slender canyon. I marveled at the walls of rock that reached up to the heavens as we walked upstream. The comfortably cool rush of water was challenging to walk against, but it filled me with excitement. Father casually pointed out various rock formations, and places where the river was easier to traverse. While the water was barely knee deep for him. it was mid-thigh for me, and in places I had to raise my arms to keep my elbows dry. We walked for what felt like at least an hour, chatting as we enjoyed our surroundings. At one point, there was a dry sandbar hugging the opposite wall of the canyon. Father suggested it would be a good place for us to take a short rest. As we crossed to the far side of the river, I looked up in awe at a tree that grew right out of one of the cracks in the wall above. It was then that I stepped into a relatively deep hole in the riverbed, the water rising clear to my shoulders. I gasped in a panic, but Father was quick to catch me and pull me up to my feet. “You’re alright.” he told me. We sat for a few minutes on the sandbar, but since I was now mostly soaked, Father decided it would be a good time to start our return trip. The walk back was easier, as we were now traveling in the direction of the current, but I was nervous about finding another deep spot. We didn’t talk as much then, but Father was kind enough to point out the best places to walk. If it was even slightly deeper, he would wait for me to pass before continuing. That sliver of blue sky, so far above… it scarcely seemed the same sky we take for granted most every day.