There are moments in nature that test your courage, condense your reality into your most immediate surroundings, and ensnare you in a world of blissful wonder all at the same time. This is how I felt this past weekend hiking Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park in Southern Utah. Zion is a canyon oasis in the surrounding desert region both for its beauty and for its sustenance.
The Virgin River runs through the heart of the canyon, gentle and unassuming. In many parts you can walk across the river without much trouble at all, as it’s only ankle deep. And yet, looking around at the massive cliff walls of limestone and Navajo sandstone that rise thousands of feet into the crisp, blue sky, you can see its power over time. While the river is subtle in the moment, it is a destroyer over time. It’s a mighty force that carved through the uplifted land of the Colorado Plateau, exposing its many wonderous layers that tell of its age.
Learning about the geology of the land always intrigues me. There are 270 million years of exposed rock layers dating back to the Triassic period. There are basalt deposits from volcanic activity and lava flows that solidified. There are siltstone layers from past river systems and ponds. There are limestone layers that tell of a sea. But what sets Zion apart from any other canyon is the top layer of Navajo sandstone that has been exposed to light. This striking layer of sandstone is almost white and sits at the top of most of the cliffs in the canyon. When the morning sun hits it, it glistens and illuminates in the most entrancing of ways. As you look up at it from the canyon floor, its radiant glow and textured flow make it seem like another world entirely, like some unattainable, blissful realm. Trees dot their wavering, sloping angles, giving you a reference point for the sheer size of this heightened, illustrious rock.
Angel’s Landing hike begins at the river. It is a 5.5 mile, 1,500 feet elevation gain trek up a daunting series of switchbacks followed by chain climbing on the upper part of a 1,488 foot rock formation jettisoning out of the heart of the canyon. Angel’s Landing is an infamous hike for its steep, strenuous chain climbing and the intimidating slope of this beast of a rock.
I made sure to get up extra early as I wanted to experience the hike in the morning light as the angle of the sun’s light reveals more depth to the varied colors of the canyon walls. Starting at the river first thing in the morning was a blessing. The gentle trickling of the water, the frequent sightings of deer and turkey walking in and out of the trail, and the lush greenery of deciduous trees and brush really gave me the impression of a serene oasis.
As I continued, a part of the trail goes into a narrow corridor between the canyon wall and the rocky outcrop of Angel’s Landing that I would be climbing. As I hiked, I could hear faint echoes of distant voices from hikers around me. The muffled sounds dissipated into the air over time and it suddenly made me think about how fleeting our lives are. We come and go as quickly as the muffled voices fade into the sounds of the distant wind.
I remember dragging my hand across the sandstone as I hiked, feeling its grainy texture against my fingertips. The sandstone layers here are remnants of an ancient and once mighty desert. Over time, the sand dunes piled on top of each other from wind movement and the tremendous weight slowly compressed the sand into rock. The textured layers of the stone are from the shifting angles of the dunes over time by the wind that create different angled deposits.
I looked at my fingers and could make out several grains of sand from the rock. I imagined the life of those grains as I imagine the lives of each of us. I imagined a single grain’s life, being tossed about endlessly by the winds of some ancient desert. I imagined it being buried and compressed into stone. All the history of the grain fading into oblivion, becoming engulfed in a monolith of stone. It intrigued me how time just swallows it up, transforms it, as it’s lost in the whole of the rock. And how the rock isn’t even permanent, but is slowly changing and eroding too and will inevitably be powdered and swept away by the flowing river. How brief and inconsequential a single grain seems in the context of time and yet how marvelous and special it is upon closer inspection. Like us, I suppose.
It’s amazing to me how a desert millions of years old can still command such a presence and a beauty today. It just happens to be in another form. It reminds me of a William Faulkner quote about a way to think about history…“The past is never dead, it isn’t even past”. Here in Zion, the past is very much alive and encapsulating to the wandering observer.
About two miles in and up the switchbacks, I found myself at Scout Lookout. Here was a flatter, sandy rest stop that revealed stunning views of the canyon and the last half a mile stretch up the infamous Angel’s Landing rock. I am not usually scared of heights, but my first gaze at the half mile ahead of me up the rock took me aback and gave me pause, but on I went.
As I climbed the series of chains secured on the steep sections of rock, I remember adrenaline flooding my body. I could feel my heartbeat and my heavy breathing. My world condensed to my most immediate surroundings. Everything simplified and my senses became intertangled and ethereal as I cleared my mind and took in the moment in a whole new way. My attention was clear and focused, succinct in the here and now.
I could feel the sweat on my palms as they glided across the chains. I gripped them with vigorous intent, holding on for dear life. In some spots, there were narrow sections of rock I had to cross with 1,000+ foot drops on both sides of me. My only emotions were paradoxically fear and exuberance. There were times when I overcame the fear and I felt like a kid on a playground, except one misstep could mean death. I paid attention to every step as this was a challenge to both the mind and the body.
There were bottleneck moments where it got crowded and so I had to stand in cramped lines holding onto the chain feet away from a sheer drop-off. Some people were having panic attacks and were trying to turn back. There was a tension in the air in those moments and I found I retreated back into my mind for comfort, reassuring myself that I was secure and safe as I tightly gripped the chain. In those moments your mind can easily be sent into a panicked state. You learn the power of deep breathing and refocusing your mind in those tight situations.
The top of Angel’s Landing is a narrow, flattened strip of rock where I decided to sit and relax. I had made it! The tension never left me. The top is almost 1,500 feet straight up from the river and it is tight and compact. I got the sense like I was teetering on the edge of my demise and yet it was exhilarating! The views of the canyon were breath-taking and unmatched. The sky was clear and the morning sun was in full force illuminating the colors and complexity of the layers of rock. Some of the cliffs shoot straight up from the river over 3,000 feet. The cliffs become monsters, both alluring and powerful and you become lost in their detail.
The feelings at the top were paradoxical. I felt powerful and yet humbled by my surroundings. I felt mighty and yet meager. But mostly I felt a peace and a oneness with the whole of my surroundings. Sitting there, legs crossed, shoulders relaxed, gazing out over the heart of the canyon, I found my Nirvana, my Zion. Time and energy flowed differently in this place. It was magnetic. I felt tears come to my eyes, and I breathed a deep sigh as I took it all in. I felt entranced, hypnotized, baptized in the majesty of it all. It was my moment, quietly at peace with this world, with myself, and with all of matter, energy, life, and time. For a brief moment, sitting still in the open air of a wondrous oasis, I had slipped into heaven.
On the way back down, full of a youthful vitality, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love. I felt the love of my family and friends. I felt the love I was developing for myself and for all of life. I felt the love for the moment I was in. I felt a light in me. I felt a light in everything. I feel like this hike was a spiritual journey for me. It was a test of my fear, my patience, my dedication, my courage, and my desire to feel wonder and something larger than myself. I fell in love with life all over again in that moment, and I hope to take that energy with me going forward. My pilgrimage to Angel’s Landing was challenging and revitalizing. I think my soul needed to get lost in a place of might and beauty, of age and flux, of wonder and bliss. I shall carry the light from this venture with me and be humbled and grateful that I get to not only observe but participate in the shaping of this marvelous world. ❤