I was surprised how much had changed.
I suppose this is an odd thing to say about Zion Nation Park considering that the area surrounding the Virgin River is well over 150 million years old. We were down in Southern Utah for a much needed weekend retreat. Our friends, Matt and Kat, had invited us to stay with them at their St. George condo and to make day-trips into Zion National Park for a series of hikes. I was excited to have a couple of days off from Keys On Main and to revisit Zion after a 25 year hiatus. I love my schedule and the work at the bar but I was beginning to fall into some bad habits at the club: namely, I started to hate every single person who walked through the doors. I needed a break and when the opportunity to go hike Zion came up, I jumped at it.
Loading gear, food, beer, wine and liquor into the truck, we headed south to St. George. Our plan was to hike Angel’s Landing on Saturday and tackle The Narrows on Sunday. Bookended with two nights of boozing and eating, our four day trip had all the makings of a great adventure. Our last outdoor adventure outside of Salt Lake City was in Moab last year, where we decimated Arches National Park. Camping alongside the Colorado River, we were able to hike every trail in Arches minus Klondike Bluffs. The weather was horrible (blazing hot with unbearable wind bursts) but Erin and I had a wonderful trip. In addition to seeing some of the most iconic images of Utah, we learned a lot of what not to do on camping trips. My biggest takeaway? I don’t need to ever drink a pint of Sunny Brook Blended Whiskey. Ever.
This trip was different. The only camping we were doing was in the casita at the condo. We had all of the necessary equipment for both hikes, plenty of water bottles, food and good hiking shoes. Our friends had rented us river hiking boots and hiking sticks for The Narrows. There was no bargain basement whiskey on this adventure—only premium tequila for post-hike margaritas. We had planned the trip down to the last detail including where we were going to watch the Utah/BYU game that night in St. George.
I have been to Zion NP twice before. The more recent trip was a friend’s wedding that allowed us only a little bit to hike the very beautiful but not very challenging Emerald Pools. A short 3-mile round trip hike to the waterfalls and crystal pools was probably the best the wedding party could tackle considering the well placed hangovers with the majority of the group. My first trip to Zion, however, has been ingrained into my memory and will never be erased. I was 12 years old and living in Las Vegas. My Boy Scout troop had planned a trip down The Narrows—a perilous 16 mile hike down the Virgin River over slick river rocks. The vast majority of the hike is in knee-deep, swift moving water over bowling ball-sized basalt rocks with no escape in the 1,300 foot gorge walls. The walls of the canyon are overwhelming both in their natural beauty and inherent danger. Flash floods and falling rocks could easily turn any hike deadly.
As a kid, I was very excited about the hike. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I blindly signed up for the hike thinking it was going to be a quick jaunt down a river followed by campfire S’mores and sing-a-longs. Moreover, my mother had bought me one of the coolest things of all time: a framed hiking backpack. Stretched over an aluminum frame, it was a clunky pack with space for a sleeping bag and a couple of water bottles. I was told prior to the hike that I would need to make sure that everything was sealed against the water in case I fell into the river. I spent the nights prior to leaving for Zion wrapping and rewrapping my limited gear in Ziploc and garbage bags. I even test my wrap on my heavy cotton sleep bag by throwing it into the swimming pool. I was ready for anything that a chubby, suburban kid from Las Vegas with limited outdoor experience would encounter. Simply put, I was ready for nothing. My mom had given me a Subway sub for my lunch and dinner and I think I had a couple bags of candy for snacks. My water supply was carried in a washed out gallon milk jug and I was wearing Chuck Taylors. My backpack weighed as much as I did and I had no idea how I was going to get dry at the overnight campsite. Yet, my enthusiasm outweighed by caution and I figured as long as I didn’t lose my pocket knife, I should be fine.
We caravanned to Zion and camp outside of the visitor’s center the first night. Waking up early to a meal of sausages and biscuits, I figured there was no challenge that could not be bested. Sausages often have that effect on me. To get to the top of The Narrows, we took a shuttle through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel to Chamberlain Ranch. From such a humble building, we began our trek through The Narrows. It was smooth sailing at first. We didn’t have to wade through the river yet and I was still comfortable with a belly full of sausages and the confidence the hike would be over before it began. The scenery was breathtaking. Even for a Vegas kid, it was hard to not recognize how jaw-dropping lovely Zion is. Between the Ponderosa Pines and Junipers, the trail was lined with all sorts of wildflowers, shrubs and cactus. It was exciting to be on my own, far away from friends and family, and hiking quietly in the most beautiful place I had ever been.
I wasn’t very close to my fellow scouts. I was a member of a predominately LDS Boy Scout troop and being the odd guy out, I wasn’t as active as the rest of the guys. I figured if I could go on hiking trips and participate in the weekly meetings to play games, I could do without the church related activities they did the rest of the week. Besides, I didn’t want to go to church on Sundays or be a Mormon. Out on the trail, it made no difference nobody really talked to me. I was moving along at a good clip and really enjoying my experience. For the first day, we hiked halfway down The Narrows, sporadically dipping into the water to cross particular portions of the trail. We made it to the campground around dusk and set up for the night. I ripped open all of my gear, putting on dry clothes and ravaging through my Subway sub. I don’t remember when I went to sleep but I am sure I slept like a log. I was tired from hiking and not resting much from the night before.
I woke up early and stated repacking my stuff. While eating whatever candy I had left, I figured since I didn’t need to worry about my stuff being dry, I sloppily loaded pack. We had a little under eight miles to hike down the river and I mistakenly thought the worst was behind me. We set out early and I quickly realized that I had made a fantastic error. Sure, I didn’t need to sleep in a dry bag but I certainly didn’t need to hike the rest of The Narrows with a water-soaked sleeping bag. My already heavy backpack became unbelievably heavy after my first slip into the river. My sleeping bag turned into a sponge holding half of the Virgin River as I gingerly scampered across slick river rocks.
Instead of taking in the natural beauty of Wall Street with its various color-changes under sheer cliff walls, I was grimacing into the river trying not to fall for the umpteenth time. Every step became a challenge and I was falling dangerously behind. I was sloshing through the water all the while my bag became increasingly heavier. I didn’t have any friends, sausages and any idea how much further I had to hike. Minutes turned to hours and I was constantly slipping into the Virgin River, banging my shins and becoming soaked to the bone. What should have been the most beautiful stretch of river turned into a sea of tears as I tried desperately to maintain my composure through the most physically agonizing trip I had ever been on. Miraculously, I knew that I was getting close to the end of the trail when I started seeing hikers from the bottom up intersecting me and telling me it was just a little bit further. It felt like a cruel joke because every turn in the river just led to another bend. The walls of the canyon prohibited having any sense of when the trip was over. For the last hour, I constantly contemplated throwing away my beloved backpack and just limp to the van. Sure, I wasn’t molested by my Boy Scout scoutmaster but I would have traded a little diddling to be back in the van heading home. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make some sort of Faustian deal to get out of the river. By nightfall, I had made it to the Temple of Sinawava. Saturated in river water, blood and self-pity, I was happy to be done and ready to go home. The adventure of a lifetime had been a miserable experience.
I am happy to report my second trip through The Narrows was much better. Instead of sliding across rocks in Converse, we had rented river boots with neoprene socks. We only hiked from the bottom up but we were able to cover the three miles to the beginning of Wall Street in great time. The change in my attitude and level of preparation was dramatic. Instead of stifling tears, I joyously bounded through the water and chased down every turn. We were in great spirits the entire time. My only complaint about our hike through The Narrows on Saturday was we didn’t have the foresight to leave a couple of beers in the truck for the drive home.
Our trip to Zion wasn’t without hardship. While nothing compares to my first time down The Narrows, my ascent to Angel’s Landing was a bear. If I had to surmise my ability as a hiker, I would compare it to an old dog that has the spirit but not the legs to climb a mountain. Angel’s Landing is by far the most stunning hike in Zion and the most treacherous. After climbing a couple of miles through switchbacks to Walters Wiggle, we made it to the base of Angel’s Landing. To get to the top of Angel’s, you have to climb a half mile along the ridge lined with protective chains. I was beat but I made it to the top. The view was spectacular and I even saw a California Condor gliding through the vast canyons. Amazing.
In the end, it was a much needed vacation. Big thanks to Matt and Kat for being gracious hosts. It was nice taking a break from work and getting out of Salt Lake. One of the best parts of living in Utah is that there are so many natural wonders to explore. I think sometimes we forget that Utah is absolutely amazing. If you think I am wrong, ask the army of Germans who invade Southern Utah and take full advantage of all of our national parks. Four days in Zion is enough for me to sling drinks for the next four months.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin or subscribe to his Tumblr feed. Become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.