November, 2013

Angels Landing


Bryce Amphitheater

This is the view that etched itself on my memory fifteen years before, and sustained my impression that it was perhaps the most fantastic place I had ever seen. It is named for a pioneer rancher, Ebenezer Bryce, and the story goes that when he was asked what it was like to live around there, he said, “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

(Mormon sources change that to “heck.”)

A glance at the trail map reminded me right away that the hike I did last time was called Fairyland Loop, and I remembered it as living up to that description. In the park newspaper it was listed under “Strenuous Hikes (steep grades with MULTIPLE elevation changes),” and described this way: “See the China Wall, Tower Bridge, and tall hoodoos on this spectacular, less-crowded trail.”

They had me at “spectacular” and “less-crowded”—I would take it again.

(Hoodoos, incidentally, are the individual spires and pinnacles that make up that intricate landscape. It is from a similar root as “voodoo,” and likewise has to do with “spell casting.” Those hoodoos certainly are spellbinding. Paiute myths say the hoodoos were “Legend People,” turned to stone by the trickster god Coyote.)

(Love those tricksters—like Loki and Raven.)

Fairyland Canyon

The plateau above Bryce Canyon rises to over 9,000 feet, and the overnight temperatures were in the 20s. Sheltered walls of the higher overlooks showed a dusting of snow. Looking out in the early morning, I saw my car covered in sparkling white frost. So I took my time over breakfast and gathering my provisions for the day, seeing no reason not to let the morning warm up a little.

Wearing a windbreaker over a fleece jacket, gloves, scarf, and toque, I headed down from Fairyland Point. Almost immediately I stopped and took out my camera, pointing it in every direction. A smile spread across my face and stayed there for a long time. It seemed that every few minutes, around every bend in the trail, I was stopping to take more photos. As I had reported back in 1998, I took more pictures in Bryce Canyon than I had ever taken anywhere, and the same was true this time. It was impossible to get one image that was “emblematic,” as might be done in most areas of natural splendor—Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Monument Valley, Yellowstone, even Death Valley from Dante’s View. So many panoramas offered completely different impressions.

The Acropolis

I don’t know if that is the official name of this formation, but it’s certainly what I thought of. (On the map it appears to be Boat Mesa). Other groups of hoodoos and eroded fins suggested pagodas, castles, melted ice-cream cakes, or sculpted bricks of wax. Around another corner would be a massive coral reef across from an array of gothic battlements, towers, and spires. Curving amphitheaters suggested a spectral choir, armored giants turned to stone (by a trickster), or the gigantic female figures that support the Parthenon—caryatids, I think. (Yes.)

A larger, or deeper, analogy occurred to me the first evening, outside my motel at Zion. I stood with my post-drive single-malt whisky and watched the evening light play on the mighty gray walls around me. The light seemed to penetrate the gigantic slabs of rock, or radiate from them. The power of that light seemed amplified by the sheer scale of those cliffs, and I sensed a kind of “hum.” Or maybe something more like a steady “om,” a vibrating chant of power and endurance. The words came to me: frozen music. Nothing mystical or psychedelic, just the notion that this was how frozen music would look, especially great symphonies and operas.

(Though I remembered a comparison I once made about Grand Canyon’s visual impact being like “a power chord.”)

Zion might be Beethoven, and perhaps Puccini, grand and impassioned, while Bryce might be Bach, an intricate monument. Somehow Capitol Reef suggested Mahler. I wrote in my journal, “Those rocks are not eternal, except compared to us—but they speak of eternity.”

Sing of it, maybe.

Wonderful to reflect that it’s all water music, too—all of those formations created by either moving water or ice. The fins and hoodoos of Bryce were gradually shaped by the cycle of frost and thaw in their crevices.

I learned something new from the recorded narration on the Zion park tram, too—that these massive slabs of sandstone had been formed not only by immense pressure from above (from ancient mountains and plateaus that had long eroded away), but also by a chemical reaction with minerals leaching through it, forming a kind of cement.

Fairyland Trailhead

The Fairyland Trail was the opposite of my usual preference—descending at first, with several ups and downs (“MULTIPLE elevation changes”), then a steep climb to the rim trail. I prefer to attack the hard part of a hike first, when I’m fresh, then have a “homeward cruise” downhill at the end, when I’m tired. And have lunch at the top. But never mind. The scenery was clearly worth it, and could only be experienced that way.

Another factor at nearly 9,000 feet was the thinness of the air, apparently providing only seventy percent of the oxygen at sea level. I felt that on the uphill part, breathing deeply and steadily. (I noticed I used the same rhythm I do for long-distance swimming—three paces per breath.) I was glad to meet the Rim Trail, and know the climbing was over, but on the three-mile return on a more-or-less level section, my legs and feet seemed to ache more than they usually would. Perhaps the diminished oxygen affects recovery time, too. Surely it couldn’t be my . . . “tender years” . . .

That phrase has a worthy connection with another recent adventure. Just a week or two prior to this journey, in early October, I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Drum Workshop. They had asked me to try out a new line of drums and see what I thought, and I was looking forward to doing some “aimless playing.” For the first time in five years or so (see “Autumn Serenade”), I would sit behind the drums without serious intent, not rehearsing, recording, or performing, just playing.

Photo by Ryan Poyer

On my way there, as I drove into the farming country around Camarillo and Oxnard, I saw a number of fields groomed into brown blankets of bare earth—lying fallow to regenerate their nutrients. I smiled to think that during my own period of rest, my mind was allowed to be fallow—to refill the aquifer, and simply absorb energy to promote new growth. I was trying very hard not to have any ideas. Just a few minutes later, some idle train of thought led me across the phrase “tender years,” and a spark lit up in my mind, “song title!” (Thinking with a dark smile, “You’re not supposed to be doing that yet.”)

“Tender years” refers to youth, typically, but I was struck by the larger application—because all our years are tender, aren’t they?

From first to last.

From the Rim

Finally trudging my way back to Fairyland Point, I was relieved to climb into the car. I cruised easily (in both senses!) down the scenic road once more, thinking I would visit a few viewpoints I hadn’t stopped at the previous day. Along with a few other vehicles, I paused to watch a herd of pronghorns feeding at the roadside. Sometimes wrongly called antelopes, they did display that characteristic delicacy and grace, and I had never seen so many together. “Prongers” had been headed for extinction in the previous century, and in thirty years of traveling America’s backroads by bicycle, motorcyle, and car, I had never seen more than two at a time, and that rarely. Now they were on the rebound, largely thanks to the national parks.

I was still looking for the one overlook I remembered so well from fifteen years ago. I had a hunch it might be the one named after Ebenezer Bryce, so I parked there and walked toward the edge—hobbling at first until my legs unstiffened again. Out on the fenced-in point, I looked out and . . . there it was.

I looked left toward Inspiration Point, and around the indelible scene of what in my mind’s eye I had thought of as the Heavenly Choir. (More frozen music.)

Three boys aged ten to twelve or so, with the clean-cut “whiteness” and sturdy clothing of Mormon children (in Utah, after all), were fooling around on the edge. One of them was kneeling down with his smartphone, then on his elbows, pretending to take “artful” photographs. He directed his two buddies, or brothers, in increasingly bizarre poses, and they all giggled.

With a smile, I held out my camera to him and said, “Could I get you to take one of me, please? You seem to be the photographic expert around here.”

The boy looked down modestly and said, “Aw, I was just foolin’ around.”

I was left smiling to myself and thinking, “No! Really?”

Kids don’t always get grownup humor—I remember.

The boy took my camera and stood back, carefully composing the frame, then took a few shots. He still didn’t seem satisfied, and continuing eyeing the composition, until I said, “Thank you, I’m sure that’s got it.”

I took back my camera, smiling again. Maybe someday that boy will see this and know that he helped me to capture the frozen music. ­

Bubba in Fairyland

Photo by A. Kid

Early the following morning, at o’dark o’clock, the Ghost Driver loaded his luggage into the frost-covered car, and fired it up. (He had considerately parked away from the rows of motel rooms, knowing he would be leaving at an “antisocial hour.” No DILLIGAF here.)

Headlights on bright, he drove into the cold night, heading for home, feeling good, and watching for deer. Over the mountains on a dark, winding two-lane, then onto the interstate and breakfast at Denny’s in St. George. Down through Vegas and across the wide Mojave, the Vanquish handled it all with alacrity and comfort. A ten-hour drive was no strain in that car, truly a Grand Tourer, and the 1,500 miles had been an absolute joy, as were the fifteen miles of hiking. Altogether, a memorable experience—one of his favorite road trips ever.

Now he was aiming for home, and the following night his wife and daughter would be returning from New York. He wanted to be waiting when they opened the door.

Angels Landing.