Friday 20 September

Meadow Creek to Cable Mountain, Zion National Park

Got out of the bag around 0630 when pre-dawn was beginning to show me where I was. Nearby to the east, across a small valley, was a wooded mountain with a rock face. I was camped in oak scrub by the side of some newly buldozed roads. Being on holiday, I thought I should have a look around rather than just hitting the road, so I walked downhill to the stream. There I found a little earth dam holding a shallow pond. On a rock in this pond there was a dark wren-shaped bird somewhat smaller than a thrush. Occasionally it would bob or duck rapidly down and up, then swish around in the water with its beak. I walked back to the car and got the binoculars to have a better look at this, my first American Dipper. Buoyed by this good fortune, I rolled up my bed and hit the road.

In Meadow Creek, I passed local youngsters playing by the roadside, waiting for the school bus, I guess. I also watched a large hawk feeding on a rat or rabbit it had caught.

Arshel's CafeI drove a bit before breakfast, and enjoyed the first warmth of sunrise from scenic overlook atop a lava flow. The town of Beaver came into sight at breakfast time. I eschewed the empty Bambi Diner (much touted on billboards) and ate at Arshel's Cafe, a nice small-town place with mauve decor, tasters for an "Anthology of Cowboy Poetry" on every table, a bouncy dyed-blond waitress and one very talkative local diner. I ate a tall stack, sausage, hash browns and drank several cups of weak American coffee.

Somewhere north of Zion, driving along next to thousands of acres of freshly burned woodland, I passed a huge American Flyer RV land yacht pulling a classic 1960's vintage Mustang for its dinghy. The license plates of the RV read NAM POW. At first I took this to be some type of Thai fish sauce, but then realised that the man behind the wheel was probably a Vietnam War veteran, ex-POW. America, love it or leave it.

Cable MountainI actually arrived at Zion National Park's entrance around 1130. The park entrance is at the mouth of the gorge of the Virgin River, surrounded by sandstone cliffs and spires. The sandstone is red, but this is only the beginning. It is streaked and banded by mineral stains, shaped by rain and by rock-fall, highlighted by sun and shadow. This is not something easy to describe. The joy of Zion is watching these colours shift throughout the day and detecting the subtle changes of geology and biology from placed to place within the park.

I wandered around visitor centre looking at guides and maps, then asked a ranger for advice on an overnight hike. She suggested hiking in from the East Entrance to Cable Mountain-eight miles with many good backcountry camping spots. I had to fill in a "backcountry permit," which is basically a toe tag and liability disclaimer. At least it meant someone knew my intentions.

Before heading for the trail, I shopped in Springdale, just outside park. A sign on one of the curio shops said "Internet Cafe," and since I'd been disconnected for a week, I checked it out. For a moderately scandalous $4.50 ($3 plus $1.50 for the first 15 minutes) I communicated with my parents, in-laws and siblings around the world (not to mention my wife and cats). Food shopping was marred by the sky high prices found adjacent to a national park. I paid more than $20 for three 32 oz. bottles of Gatorade, 1.5 L of water, beef jerky, trail mix, four big banana muffins and a box of granola bars.

A long tunnel connects Zion's main entrance to the east entrance. This was just inside the edge of a cliff in 1930, before the advent of the great American Land Yacht. Consequently, whenever one of the behemoths has to traverse the tunnel, opposing traffic must stop and wait. It must be a real circus in the summer. I sat for 20 minutes looking out at the sandstone cliffs and arches before being allowed through. At least this inconvenience means that the East Entrance is relatively uncrowded. There were only two other cars at the trailhead, where I downed one bottle of Gatorade, packed the sack and set out into the heat. (1425 hours)

Just as I set out, a misplaced older couple got out of their car and set off with a canteen and a day sack. When they got to the sign describing the trails, he said "I guess this isn't the main entrance. We don't want to walk 8 miles, do we?" She says "No, I think we want to see some of everything today." This goes in part to illustrate the hierarchy of wilderness tourism, which descends from climbers, through backpackers to day-hikers and finally auto tourists. Having been a member of each stratum at one time or another, I can say that each looks down upon the lower and envies the higher, to a certain extent.

The trail was gentle, rising into blind canyons, then looping back upon itself in long switchbacks. The trail above was never obvious, but looking back down from the outside bends I could see back to the road, and across the valley to the sweeping skirts of Checkerboard Mesa, bright white sandstone with surprising criss-crossed bedding.

Cable "Mountain" is a bit of a misnomer, as the goal of the path is the plateau which forms the eastern rim of Zion canyon. In ascending to the plateau and crossing it, the path traverses oak scrub, pine forest, and mixed juniper and mesquite thickets. Stave Spring (5 miles, 1711 hours) held no water, but was surrounded by a cool pine forest full of birds. Here I saw nuthatches, jays, chickadees and a red shafted flicker. Here also, the glare and heat of the afternoon merged into a cool pine-scented evening of slanting yellow sunlight.

After climbing and crossing the high plateau, I caught a glimpse of the canyon ahead and the derelict cableway which gives the place its name. The cable system was used by the Mormons to move logs from the plateau to the depths of the gorge. After descending a final sandy step, I was into the juniper and mesquite scrub land of the rim. Here I found the only people I would see all day, two young men already ensconced in the prime campsite on the very edge of the canyon. They were in animated conversation, and I didn't interrupt, just walked around them and up to the cliff edge.

"Breathtaking" is the only appropriate word. Two more steps would have placed me on tourist road at the floor of Zion Canyon, 2000 feet below. I swore out loud and thought briefly of my mother and sister, both of whom would have been petrified by surprise vertigo. The canyon floor was already deep in gloaming, the rims and high plateaux catching the sunset. A large bird of prey, perhaps a Golden Eagle, soared by a few yards below us on the day's last thermals.

(Arrived Cable Mountain 1830 hours, 8 miles)

I searched for a second bivouac site at world's edge, but gave up after getting a warning prickly pear in the foot. I settled for a site back along the path out of earshot of the other two, but with a good view of the sky, and made a small camp.

For dinner I had a second bottle of Gatorade, some trail mix, beef jerky and a granola bar. It became obvious that I had brought too much food. I stood around watching the cloudless sunset beyond the canyon then lay in the sleeping bag watching the stars come out, looking at the moon through binoculars, listening to the constant chortling of the crickets. A bat flapped over, hunting. The milky way come out, despite the moon and after nine or ten satellites I dozed off.

I set my internal alarm, and woke several times after moon-set to examine the sea of stars through binoculars. In the middle of the night I discovered a galaxy directly overhead, probably M51, Andromeda. I also spotted a comet or globlular cluster, but I don't know enough constellations for these desert nights. I can see why astronomy was such a popular pastime with my parents, since they spent every summer out under this beautiful western sky.

Once, in my stirrings I must have made a particularly interesting noise; I looked up just as an Owl glided over.

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