Finding Desert Solitaire

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I recently got back from a solo trip to Zion National Park.  It’s pretty amazing how crowded the place has become. Every year I return to the canyon, it seems to be more of a tourist trap and less  of a place of inspirational grandeur. To get to a trailhead I have to ride a bus through the main canyon, feeling like a minority because no one in the crowd speaks english, and the majority of the people are glued to their phone screens checking emails and Instagram as the canyon walls pass them by. Thankfully I know a few tricks about how to beat the crowds and find my own desert solitaire.

I don’t mind a good hike– anything over 10 miles gets the best of people, and most tend to avoid “hiking” beyond a paved walkway. It’s a shame for them, but I don’t mind. On this trip I chose to tackle Cable Mountain, a 16 mile round-trip hike that begins at the Weeping Rock trailhead and ends at the top of the towering cliff above.  I started early and only passed a handful of folk near the bottom of the trail, the last time I saw another soul until the same place on my way back down. 14 miles of solace.

The morning was beautiful– switchbacks at sunrise, a grazing herd of big horn sheep, narrow slot canyons, and ponderosa pines firmly growing through cracks of the weathered sandstone. The beauty of this trail unfolds and expands as you cover ground that introduces every type of landscape Zion has to offer. By late morning I arrived on the east rim through a desert meadow full of Indian Paintbrush and Sage. With most of the climbing behind me, I cruised the last 3.5 miles of the trail as the sun started beating down. I ate lunch with my legs dangling off the edge of the cliff, towering over the bazillion people hustling up Angels Landing below. I was content with myself and with my surroundings.

When I stood up to make my return, I realized that the heat was affecting me more than I had anticipated. I checked my water supply– depleted a bit more than it should have been. I decided that hydrating now would be a better option than reserving it, so a took a few gulps and set out with the resolution to run any downhill sections in order to spend less hours without water. I was still sweating– a good sign that I wasn’t yet dehydrated. As I was running down a rocky section I was startled by movement and realized I had almost stepped on a baby rattlesnake. Thankfully he slithered off in the opposite direction of my leg, curling behind a boulder with his little rattle disappearing last.

I started thinking about what I had learned of myself in the past few hours. I had checked in with myself regularly to make sure that I was doing ok, but what if I did run out of water and heat exhaustion set in? What if the rattlesnake had jumped fangs first into my leg? Could I still have gotten myself out the the situation even though I was miles away from the trailhead and hours from the help of another person? Probably, but who knows. It doesn’t make me any less willing to set out into the desert alone, but its healthy to think about such things.

There’s a little stream at the base of the hike where the spring water from Weeping Rock drains. When I arrived at the bottom I tore off my pack and fell face first into the four inches of water. It felt like a final congratulating gesture from mother nature for completing my journey– a reward for my decision to brave the unbeaten path and find a little bit of solace amid so much chaos. As I got up I realized there were groups of people watching me as curiously as I had watched the big horn sheep hours before. I smirked at the thought of it all coming together in full circle.

My advice to you, my friends, is to brave the unknown and see if you can’t find a little bit of yourself out there in the wild– but maybe bring some extra water and good friend in case something goes wrong.

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