View of West Temple from the Watchman Trail
On this last day of 2020–this annus horribilis that we have struggled through–I find myself looking backward. I do not want this year to end without celebrating the occasion of my finding my way to Zion National Park fifty years ago. Those of you who have been reading this blog for the last nine years may recall that I make fairly regular references to Zion in my posts (see, for example, Staircase to Heaven,Part 5: Words). Many who know me personally know my abiding love for this place. I love Zion, not only because of its adjective-defying beauty, but because of the peaceful, happy, and worry-free season it afforded me in the spring and summer of 1970. I could use another such season now, but I think the memories will be almost enough.
Why I went to Zion and how I got there*
In the spring of 1970 I signed on for summer work in Zion National Park in Southwestern Utah. This was fifty years ago, and Zion was not the trendy park it is now; it was more like the back of beyond. I was tired of my local summer job at Camp Dearborn in Milford, Michigan. Also, I had been fired up about environmental issues and the west by, among others, my young zoology lab instructor from Teton Country Wyoming. I had never been farther west than the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and I knew nothing about Utah. So, I went to the undergrad library at my college and I found and then was mesmerized by Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country. Before I knew it, I was spending the summer in Zion Canyon. I can say that summer and (mostly)** ever since, just being in Zion makes me happy and as close to content as I have been so far in this life.
In April 1970 I flew from Detroit to Omaha, Nebraska. I somehow found my way to the train station where I boarded a train bound for Las Vegas. I was decked out in, I think this is true, a suit and a raincoat and, as enjoined by my mother, I had an iron grip on my purse. I immediately met another girl, Pat, similarly attired and gripping her purse. Pat went to my college and was also heading out west to spend the summer working in Zion National Park. As it turned out, she hailed from Walled Lake, a little town seven miles from Milford. This must have been the summer for small town mid-western girls to head out into the wilderness.
I hired on as–what was called then–a salad girl and Pat hired on as a cashier at Zion Inn, inside Zion National Park. Our train ride was free because the company that employed us, Utah Parks Company, was a subsidiary company of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Of course, I never forgot the ride. The trip was long, cold (we had only our raincoats as covers), and somewhat sparse in meals (they were pricey for our budgets, but I still remember the dining car). Otherwise, the ride was transformational. All that land I had been reading about and watching on Bonanza was becoming real.
After a while, maybe a day and a half, I can’t remember, we ended up in Las Vegas. I am chagrined to notice that I am forgetting some of the particulars, but I think we found the bus that was to take us to Cedar City, Utah, where we would be met by a man with the unlikely name of LeMar Snyder. (Note: This only seemed like an unlikely name until I became familiar with a traditional Mormon naming convention—they seemed to like adding prefixes to both male and female names. Tom told me that families sometimes took part of the father’s name and part of the mother’s name and to make up the new name. I don’t know the provenance of LeMar’s name). However it happened, Pat and I did come to find LeMar, a big comfortable sort of man, who drove us to Zion where we were going to work at the inn, now gone these many years (Not really gone, the wood-and-sandstone building is now used by the U.S. Park Service). I don’t know what I was expecting, but Zion in all ways surpassed my preconceptions.
I had been going to parks all my life—municipal parks, state parks, national forests, and even Shenandoah National Park (my only national park before Zion)— but they had not prepared me for my first view of Zion Canyon. Inside the canyon, I was almost surrounded by red, grey, white, green, and black rock walls up to two thousand feet tall. An apparently inconsequential (to my eye) but restive river, the Virgin, flowed through the canyon. The narrow canyon was filled with grass, cottonwoods, many kinds of desert plants, birds and lizards, rocks and sand in an abundant jumble. On my first day off work, I walked from the inn, near the mouth of the canyon, to the end of the road about six miles to the Temple of Sinawava and back. I think this walk took me all day, and my jaw must have gotten tired because I was open-mouthed at the magnitude of everything as well as the unfamiliar beauty. I stayed in Zion from April to July, and I never got over the feeling of awe.
What I did there
My first actual Zion hike was on the short, moderate Watchman trail that started close to the campground near the inn. I had been on trails before at state and local parks in Michigan, but I didn’t know what to expect from a trail in a national park in the west. (Note: I checked online and the Zion National Park website claims that the Watchman hike is 2.7 miles round trip and climbs 368 feet.) I must have started out in the early afternoon after my morning shift. I was surprised how wide and well maintained the trail was. I think I was expecting a trail where moccasins could tread quietly and carefully single file—not a freeway for tourists to huff and puff up in expansive style. The trail followed the contours of a small side canyon— first heading east toward the cliffs and then back westward—for a view of the canyon floor and the little town of Springdale. After I got to that overlook point, finding the trail onward was more difficult. Here the trail was more like my single file ideal. In fact, sometimes I was a bit confused about where the trail was and where it was leading.
I took the trail upward and back eastward toward the cliffs and followed it as it continued around again onward skirting around the small side canyon. It seemed like (and maybe was) hours later my path stopped dead at the sheer cliff face of the Watchman itself. It was beginning to occur to me that I might possibly have made a wrong turn somewhere. I turned around and tried to retrace my steps. This was not so easy because there were faint trails crisscrossing everywhere. It had been dawning on me for some time that I might not be following human trails, but those of deer or other animals. Luckily, my general destination was clear: to wend my way back from where I had come along the canyon walls and scree. I did this and I finally found myself back at the overlook, where I now understood the human trail ended. I had been somewhat scared at my inadvertent bushwhacking to the sandstone ramparts of the Watchman, but I was also exhilarated at my small adventure. There was no time to waste in reflection for it was getting dark and I didn’t have a flashlight. Thinking back, I hope that I had been smart enough to have acquired a canteen by this point. I headed quickly down the now-wide trail. A bobcat crossed the trail very close in front of me trotting purposefully somewhere. Then and now, I read this as some sort of minor miracle or at least a benediction. I was a fool who had almost gotten into serious trouble, but, instead, some deep magic crossed my path.
The Watchman and the Virgin River
Any chance we got, Pat and I went hiking together. We hiked the Virgin Narrows, the Kolob Canyons, the West Rim Trail, and even Grafton***, the little ghost town below Zion that was featured in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park
Note: It is already December 31, 2020. and I want to finish this before the anniversary year ends. I have so many words already, but there is so much more I want to say about this season of grace. I will tell you a couple more stories and then be done for now.
Time passed and farewell
I needed to go back to Michigan before the end of the summer to be maid of honor for my friend Priscilla’s wedding. That was going to be exciting, but it was hard to leave Zion. For one thing, Pat and I were taking Senior Lifesaving at the Zion Lodge Pool but, luckily, the examination was scheduled for the day before I had to leave. If you’ve been to Zion Lodge in the last many years, you are probably saying what is she talking about, there’s no swimming pool in the canyon. Not now, but back in the 1970s there was a pool situated where the Zion Lodge lawn is now. The lifeguard at the lodge decided to offer a lifesaving class, so Pat and I would hitchhike the three miles from the inn to the lodge for instruction and to practice. The experience of swimming in Zion Canyon is worth recalling. We would swim round and round in the small pool surrounded on all sides by red Navajo sandstone cliffs and with the almost unbelievably blue skies—a dome of heaven—above.
It was already getting dark when Pat and I passed our swimming exams at the lodge. When we got back to the inn, we were whisked away somewhere outside for a going-away party for me. I remember three details about the food we ate. After I had asked for a well-done hamburger, one of my Mormon friends said he knew why I didn’t like rare meat. He said it’s because you are so civilized. Maybe yes and maybe no, but I appreciate the thought. In fact, the comment and the party highlight the civility and the hospitality that the people down there in Southern Utah showed to us and which I have never forgotten. We drank root beer—homemade for the party—and we ate Mrs. Cope’s spudnuts. She was a baker for Utah Parks Company and the mother of one of my friends. As Zion is to a municipal park, so Mrs. Cope’s spudnuts were to commercially produced donuts.
What I’m trying to say: I was entranced by the stories told by the older people I met at Zion. I met people whose own parents knew Butch Cassidy. There was my supervisor in the pantry, Mary, whose family—if I am remembering this right—had run cattle in what is now Bryce National Park. There was Chef Brown, who’d been a cook on the Union Pacific when doing that was really something. The people in Zion were hospitable in a way that seems uncommon these days. In that canyon and during that summer it was like I had fallen into an earlier time—a time my father would have understood. Plenty of the hospitable people that summer weren’t Mormons. Some were Jack Mormons, some were other locals, and some were outlanders drawn to this land. I want to sound grave and respectful here, but I think I might be babbling. Thank you for your part in my happiest summer (so far). Thank you for the spudnuts. Thank you, Zion.
A wish: May we all have more beauty, peace, hospitality, grace, and deep magic in the new year. Thank you for listening and Happy New Year.
The Altar of Sacrifice, Zion Canyon
Virgin River beach
Zion near the East Entrance
Entering Zion Wilderness, Coalpits Wash
*(Some of these words are adapted from Losing It: Deconstructing a Life, unpublished work © Lynda Terrill, all rights reserved)
**The crowds almost everywhere in Zion these last years discomfit me. An important element of being in Zion was the feeling of peace, quiet, and of being in a back of beyond sanctuary. I do not feel that much now.
*** I haven’t been back to Grafton since 1970. I understand that the town may be a destination spot these days. When Pat and I visited, it was an empty, overgrown actual ghost town.