We left Joshua Tree and headed northeast. It was a time of transition in many ways. For us, it was the beginning of the end of our travels. My brother and sister-in-law had joined us too in J Tree, and for them, it was time to head home and pack up their home and leave it. Jesse and I had sat high up on the rocks and talked about the future. We delayed the departure and goodbyes as long as we could, and then finally it was time to go. As we pulled away from the parking lot in our little green car, we spun the car to face north and drove slowly forward. Jesse and Sandra spun their car to face south, and with a final honk and wave, we forced ourselves to drive away from each other. It was time for our southwest adventure to begin.

We started in Utah. We came to Red Cliffs State Park late at night. Setting up our home in the dark, it was warm and summer had made one final attempt at infiltrating the autumn. It was a relief after unexpected snow in Shasta and icy nights in Sequoia. We left the fly off the tent, and when we rose in the morning, deep red cliffs rose around us. We were tucked in next to a dry stream where the banks were edged by yellowing trees. We were eager to explore, eager to stop in town for supplies, eager to get to Zion, eager to stay among the red cliffs, eager to find fossilised dinosaur tracks that we had read about. I was excited to be there, at last, deep in the world of red of the southwest, without a single commitment, and free from the imprisoning heat of early August and late July.

We walked, our feet stained red with the rust coloured sand. We saw ruins from an old pueblo, we  stared at the fossilised footprints of dinosaurs and the scene transformed for me into an ancient river bed where their pointed feet sunk into sediment as they bent down, stepped around, foraging, hunting.

After a sticky perfect cinnamon roll at the Red Rock Roasting Company, we eventually we arrived in Zion, catching the last of the light and watching it ignite the rising mesas and cliffs in a luminous warm glow. Our southwest adventure truly had started, but I felt weak and distant from the magic unfolding before me. Somewhere in the stress of losing my belongings I had gotten run down and my body felt it now. I needed rest.

The next day we rested, instead of racing to grab a wilderness permit to escape the busy campground, we moved slowly through the valley, absorbing views from the car and taking short walks. The river was edged here with yellow too, yellows and light greens and dusty oranges. I never imagined autumn in the desert, in this familiar burnt landscape of postcards and National Geographic pictures, but it exists here, and in its softness it is stunning. It draws your eye into the sparkling light and highlights the warm colours of Zion Valley. Even among the surprisingly immense crowds of autumn, I felt peaceful and at ease among the rustling yellow leaves of November.

Regardless, we were still eager to put distance between us and the crowded valley. The next day, we headed towards the popular Angel’s Landing, but turning away from it at the top of the ridge we hiked into West Rim. Within 100m of forking away from Angel’s Landing, we found the solitude that we missed from Sequoia. We didn’t see more than 4 other people the rest of that trail. We climbed up and across and down and back up, skirting cliffs that must have been blown open with dynamite to expose space for our path.

As we gained ground the park opened up before us, and we were able to see the tops of mesas now too. The deep emeralds of the evergreens against the striations of red and white and pink in the Zion rock. Here and there were hints of snow in the shade that hadn’t yet melted since the last cold spell. I had to admit that autumn was ending, and as the day grew colder, I had to admit that winter may already be upon us.

We reached campsites at the top of the west rim trail and wished that we were setting up camp there that night, but we had already decided that morning to return home to our tent in the valley. It was a complicated tradeoff between wanting to give my body rest, and wanting to escape the hoards of people in the valley, sit out on our own on a cliff edge, watching the sunrise and sunset.

More than anything this is what I remember now: how integral and important to our day the sunset and sunrise came to be with more time in the southwest. But we weren’t to watch sunset on the mesas that evening. Eventually we left west rim and made the trek back to camp, happy to curl up in an already made bed by the river. The following day we made the choice to move on from Zion. Part of me looks back now and wishes we had spent the whole time there on a wilderness permit. Part of me is thankful for the time I rested. Part of me believes we’ll be back there to explore the backcountry of sunset and sunrise mesas. But that particular day, we decided to move on. Despite having too many destinations and not enough time to see them all, we had decided to make the journey to Bryce Canyon, and we were on a mission to catch sunset.

See Zion

Read the next part of the story…

Jump back in time to Joshua Tree


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