Friday, January 16, 2015

Out West: Redwoods, Zion, and Bryce

No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. 
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Having spent far too long away from wilderness, my trip out west reminded me of its importance. Living in DC and working an office job, I spend a lot of time behind a computer and not nearly enough outside. I've really missed being in wilderness. I happened to be reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire during the trip (thanks, Dave!), which helped to make that point even clearer for me.

After one night in San Francisco, Aurora and I drove five hours north through the wineries and pastures in Sonoma County. Once at our destination in Arcata, we stayed three days with old Peace Corps friends Dave & Kristin LaFever and their two children, Madeline (now 4) and Juniper (<1). I hadn't seen Dave & Kristin for more than four years, meaning I'd never met Madeline! It quickly felt like we were back in Morocco and we were reminiscing about food, host families, and ill-timed bowel movements. I envy the two of them because, by living together and regularly talking about their shared experience in Morocco, their memories of the two years in Morocco are much sharper than mine. It could also be that my memory is shit. In addition to the pleasure of hanging out with them, it was also great to get to know their smart, thoughtful girls.

In between food and beer, we found time for two hikes in the redwoods. The area around Arcata is home to some of the oldest, largest redwoods in the world. Only 5% of the original old-growth redwoods remain, harvested for their valuable wood in the 1800s and 1900s.

It's so hard to take a good picture of redwoods because of their enormity. The size of the trees is their most immediately noticeable feature and that is just impossible to capture. Or at least I can't. Even in person it's difficult to get a feeling for how huge they are. When Dave was describing how redwood height is estimated - basically you need a clear line of sight of their base and peak - I realized that it is rare to see the top of a redwood. You see a gargantuan trunk and the beginning of the canopy, hundreds of feet above you, but...where is the top?

We parted from the LaFevers and drove 16 hours straight to Zion National Park. Highs and lows of the drive included: great vistas, a speeding ticket (77 in a 65), four cups of coffee, many hours on the road branded "the loneliest highway in the US," and John Grisham on book on tape.

Stepping out of our motel room the next morning, I was shocked by Zion's towering canyon walls. We arrived after dark, so were unprepared for what a beautiful place we'd entered. Zion is the smallest national park I've been to, the main attractions are two incredibly steep canyons, formed by forks of the Virgin River, that meet near the entrance of the park. We had an amazing 4+ days in Zion, but a few hikes really stood out to me:

The Narrows. The Narrows is at the end of Zion Park. Up until this point, the canyon is wide enough for roads, campgrounds, trails, etc. But at the Narrows, the canyon isn't much wider than the Virgin River itself, which has carved the Canyon. To hike up the canyon further you have to wade back and forth across the river (as deep as my waist at points); to enter the 40 degree water in the winter, you need dry suits! Aurora and I suited up and trekked through the water, hiking for maybe 4-5 hours before calling it a day. It was cold and exhausting to hike through the river. At its narrowest, the canyon is only a few meters across, with the red and black canyon walls shooting vertically out of the water. Spectacular!
The Narrows

Canyon Overlook. A nice short trail with an amazing view of the East Fork of the canyon.

Canyon Overlook
Sand Bench. We decided on Sand Bench trail on short notice after we found out that our planned trip for the day - a long trail in nearby Kolob Canyon - was closed due to snow. Sand Bench was maybe a five hour hike that slowly climbs from the canyon floor. It was by far the most solitary hike that we did and where we saw the most wildlife: mule deer, wild turkeys, and many other birds.

Angel's Landing. A short (3 hours), but demanding hike that climbs 1,700 vertical feet to a spectacular vantage point. I did this on our last morning and the view from the top was a nice mental picture to leave the park with.
View from Angel's Landing

Looking down from Angel's Landing

From Zion we drove to Bryce Canyon (which isn't a Canyon at all!), where we stayed two nights. Bryce is known for spectacular geological features called "hoodoos." Fractures in the earth form long plateaus that jut out perpendicular to the "canyon" wall. Erosion eats away at the plateaus until they become long narrow fins. Water seeps into cracks, freezes, thaws, freezes, thaws (200 thaw/freeze cycles per year at Bryce) until the fins become hoodoos: thousands of red monoliths in row after row.

Our first morning we caught the sunset at Bryce Point. Then we drove south along the main road in the park, checking out every view point along the way. It took us 1.5 hours, round trip. Later that night I came to this passage in Edward Abbey's book.

Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while. 

Abbey is furious with the park service for industrializing national parks by paving roads, improving campgrounds, and generally making the parks more accessible to tourists. Partly this is selfish: Abbey loves these parks in part because of the solitude. Partly this is snobby: Abbey looks down on the "motorized tourist." But there is one part I sympathize with:

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.

After our drive, Aurora and I did a 2-3 hour hike along Queen's Garden and Navajo Forest trail. By then, the clouds had cleared and we were left with blue sky, green and brown trees, white snow, and deep red hoodoos. It was one of my favorite hikes I've ever done. As we finished, climbing out of the hoodoo forest and onto the ridge, looking back over the vast open space of hoodoos and forest, I didn't want the moment to end. It was cold, but we were warm from hiking.
Hoodoos and trees on Navajo Trail
As we stood at an overlook, soaking it all in, dozens of tourists would rush up to the overlook, snap a quick picture, and run back to the car. On to the next Thing To See. Paving roads right up to the Thing To See makes national parks extremely accessible. You can see Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, and, as we found out, some of the best views of Zion and Bryce just a few steps from your car. Standing there at Bryce I wanted to shout at people: "if you walk just 1/2 mile down the path, you'll appreciate this more and even be happier!" Having the park car-accessible I think suggests to people that barely leaving the car is an acceptable and even encouraged way of visiting a national park.
Overlook at Bryce
One the other hand, the obvious benefit from accessibility is that it allows the most number of people to visit and appreciate our national parks. For some people this is the only way that they would ever see these parks. I also started to think about my sister and her husband and what they consider wilderness (for the uniformed, Franny and Mudd hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada). They probably would look at my 2-3 hour hike in Queen's Garden and say "Duncan, you're missing everything!"

So I'm trying to come to terms with roads and cars everywhere in the parks.

Before driving back to San Francisco (via an expensive night in Vegas), we had one last day in Bryce. We'd gotten a recommendation from a ranger on a full day hike, so, given my obsessive need to get away from the cars, I was raring to go. Unfortunately it was 18 degrees, plus some gusty moments, and snowing. I don't mind the cold so much, but it was too cold for Aurora. And, with the heavy snow, the amazing views of Bryce were harder to appreciate. After a full day freezing her face off, Aurora was grateful to see the car.

From there we drove on to Vegas and San Francisco. Had a wonderful reunion and New Years with Swat friends Maria and Colton as well as a great afternoon with Sean and Justina.