South West

Have you ever had a moment where you see something or someone and your brain goes into overdrive trying to file through all of your memories to identify where or how you know it? That is exactly the sensation I was having driving into Tucson. Everywhere there were these cactuses that I felt like I should have seen before, but nowhere could I picture where that might have been. I’ve seen representations on posters, margarita glasses, cartoons, iconic images of the South West, but it was only in this moment of perplexity that I realized I had never seen a saguaro in real life.

It was an amazing thing to behold in person — partially because the cactuses take on a persona that is almost human-like, and partially because they were all over the place, reaching and waving at us from every hill and corner. They seemed to be dancing in the orange and pink light of the 6pm sunset.

The land was so covered by these cactuses, and smaller multi-colored cactuses and bushes, I felt as if we had left the desert and entered a strange, short, dry rain forest. Everything seemed so strangely lush.  Even the coyotes seemed more alive and vibrant, but perhaps that was because this evening they were howling within what sounded like 10 feet of my tent. Remember that soothing feeling a coyote howl gave me at the beginning of this trip? Yeah, that diminished pretty quickly when the buggers sounded close enough to be within arm’s reach and I had to dodge coyote scat the size of a small house pet outside of the ladies room. Good thing my tent has zippers!

As a little girl my family took a spring trip through the South West. Bryce Canyon National Park was on the itinerary. We drove through and saw the park, but with a gaggle kids under the age of 13, there wasn’t a lot of hiking included. Looking at the canyon from afar, I was so enchanted by Bryce that I made point to remember the name and promised myself that as an adult I would come back and hike into the canyon. Here we are.

Considering that I had been planning this for years, you can imagine that I wasn’t going to be happy with a jaunt down just any old trail. Luckily the hiking map noted a trail with the title “The best 3 mile hike in the world” — decision made. This trail encompassed Queen’s Landing and the Navajo Trail. I was slightly skeptical at first. The canyon was beautiful from the top rim, but nothing uber breathtaking yet (I have high standards at this point in the trip).

We walked the ½ mile across the rim to the beginning of Queen’s Landing and my problem was solved. The canyon opened up into a beautiful expanse of sky, red dirt, hoodoos, and plateau, and the trail seemed to lead right down into the center of it all. Up, down, around a hoodoo, through a carved doorway, across a dry creek bed, and you were at the other side on the Navajo trail. The huge expanse had suddenly become a tight, super steep canyon filled with small switchbacks and vertical sides. This part of the trail is known as Wall Street, although it was nothing like the Wall Street that I left in NY. Of the two, I think this is one I prefer.

If you were thinking of visiting beautiful Zion National Park, you’d be making a wise decision to go. Just make sure you check a calendar. If it is a UEA day (Utah Education Association day – a.k.a. all the kids are out of school) prepare for a spectacle. Imagine if the National Park Service and Disney went into a joint venture; that is what you would encounter.

We arrived at Zion late enough in the season, we figured it would be wide open and deserted, ready for us to explore in solitude. One problem, we never checked the Utah Department of Education calendar. We arrived on a Thursday to overflowing campgrounds, parking lots full of buses and (no surprise!) RV’s. Kids of all ages were everywhere. I, as a Virginian who never heard of getting out of school for something other than Chicken Pox or a national holiday, immediately said, “shouldn’t these kids all be in school?” — apparently not on a UAE day.

Slightly disgruntled at losing my idyllic weekend in Zion, I forged ahead, imagining that the shear cliffs and cold water would keep the kids in check. Instead I encountered Mom’s carrying newborns in their arms on trails that seemed to drop off hundreds of feet, toddlers blatantly passing me on slick rock staircases, and elementary age kids playing in the 50 degree Virgin River. I had just busted into tears after walking 20 feet across an ankle deep portion of the river while attempting to begin the Narrows trail, and here these kids were mocking me by swimming in it.

Eventually I gave in and decided I had to embrace the experience. At a cliff side spring, I relished in one little blonde pig-tailed girl’s exclamation, “this is awesome, awesome, awesome! The most awesome, awesomest thing ever!”. As I went to bed that evening, curled up in my tent pitched at the bottom of a mesa in a campground nestled behind the Quality Inn, I had to agree. Awesome.