Tonight we’re sleeping at the bottom of Zion Canyon in southern Utah. After a typical “budget travel” dinner of bagels and cheese in our quaint cabin at Zion Lodge, we walked back to the Lodge for some postcards. Looking up at the clear night sky, I swear the stars are brighter here than I’ve seen in years. Even though the sky felt infinite and so close, I had to remind myself that we are at the bottom of steep towers of sandstone, like a cathedral standing solemn and majestic around its humble patrons, possibly further away from the night sky than I was back in Illinois.
Zion is a spiritual experience, to be certain. It’s impossible to stand at eye-level with these vast, looming canyon walls and not feel insignificant, but I’m also entirely in awe. Being in places like this brings my visceral flesh and humanity to the forefront of my mind. The things I’ll accomplish in my own life will pale in comparison to what the slow trickle of a thousand rains carved into this landscape over centuries. The rocks I grasped while climbing Angels Landing this afternoon have stood here forever; I am only one small living being to graze their surface. Even so, the entire park feels isolated, solitary, untouched. They say that swarms of tourists fill the canyon every spring, summer, and fall, but in mid-February we had nearly the whole trail to ourselves. By the time we descended the Landing around sunset, we knew there were only two other people still on the trail behind us. It felt peaceful to know we were alone and wouldn’t be bothered by anyone else, even though it was also a little eerie.
I didn’t hike all the way to the apex of Angels Landing and ended up waiting for Sam to return from the peak. Watching him scramble over slick sandstone while clinging to the chains wasn’t the scariest part. As I sat on an overlook halfway out on the chain-guided path, nestled under an ancient Bristlecone Pine, the unmistakable sound of a man’s fear-filled voice rose up from the deep valley to my right. At first I thought it was some jocks goofing off by making their voices echo in the canyon, but in my heart I knew I’d heard exactly what I thought I’d heard because he was only shouting one thing:
Adrenaline instinctively shot through my blood stream, my heart started racing, and I felt instantaneously dizzy. He shouted again, and then again, each time drawing out that single word as if emphasizing his need. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to leave my spot and risk leaving Sam behind if he needed help, and I didn’t really know what I could do if I happened to find this man because Sam had our backpack. It wasn’t clear where he was down below, as the echoes roll far and wide through the rocky pass, and there was a good chance I couldn’t even find the right place to go.
As quickly as they started, the screams stopped. The canyon walls were silent once more, if not more silent than they’d ever been. Minutes later, a group of guys wearing Vans and DC shoes breezed past me from the top of Angels Landing back toward the trailhead, telling me they heard the man and had a medic pack. It made me feel slightly better that they could at least help this man, even though they didn’t look equipped to help themselves, and I felt significantly less guilty for standing still, immobile, while someone cried for help.
I suppose I shouldn’t waste my time talking about this one minor event from our hike—the whole thing lasted maybe five minutes out of our three-hour trek—but it was still significant. It emphasizes the fragility of our lives. Even with the best gear, beautiful weather, and a plethora of backcountry knowledge, everyone is still at the mercy of the wilderness. These trails are well-maintained and traversed by many, but nature always prevails. I felt this again—a sense that we humans are visitors to the wild—when we came across a mule deer in the middle of our path as we came down from Angels Landing, bounding across the trail and quickly climbing the stratified orange rocks overhead.
But maybe that’s what pulls me back outside time and time again: it makes me feel smaller next to something so grand, and yet fills my heart and soul in a way that nothing else can. Money can’t buy these kinds of experiences (even though, technically, money did get us here) and we take that risk of death or injury each time walk into the woods or up a mountain. Sometimes it can be frightening, as Angels Landing was for me today, but those moments when I fear for my life remind me of how alive I truly am in that moment. We live for those adventures, those breathtaking panoramas, those gasps of fresh air as we climb higher into the wild.
These are the things that my heart will forever chase. These are the visions that fill my dreams. These are the moments I hold in the core of my soul at all times, the fuel feeding my every desire. I will live my life pursuing these places and absorbing the wisdom of nature all around me.