Saturday 21 September

Cable Mountain to Nephi

Woke when it started to get light, about an hour before dawn. The day-old banana muffin wasn't particularly easy to eat, but I washed it down with a 32-oz bottle of Gatorade. The breakfast of champions.

I walked over to the rim of cable mountain to have another look down. The road through the park, 2000 feet below, was still dark and deserted. The two guys who had bivouacked at the very edge introduced themselves as being from St. George, just an hour down the road. This was their first time at "Zion's". They didn't offer much other conversation, or perhaps I didn't, and I wandered back to my camp to pack up and get going. I wanted to cross the plateau in the still morning, seeing some birds, and finishing before the real heat of the day. I left just after 8.

It was cool until the sun came up, then it warmed up rapidly and I had to stop and change into shorts and t-shirt. There were plenty of birds, but without a field guide, I had a hard time classifying and remembering them. I did see the Red Shafted Flicker and both types of Nuthatch, along with blue Jays of various species.

I must have been moving quietly. At Stave Spring, I surprised a group of hikers (two men and a woman) just waking up and getting dressed after a night out. I looked away and shuffled my feet until they took notice and became more discreet. We exchanged good mornings, and I kept moving.

By the time I reached the switch-backs the sun had been up for a couple of hours, and it was too hot to be comfortable. Where I could find shade, I stopped and drank. The people from the Spring, who turned out to be Dutch-folk, caught me up at one of these stops, and we discussed the magic of the GPS, which I was using to plot the twists and turns of the trail. I spent the rest of the hike down trying to stay far enough behind or ahead of them not to hear their almost constant conversation.

If I had a hiking companion, I'm sure I wouldn't have as much to him or her as the people I came across on this hike have to say to one another; they seemed to talk and talk (usually one person talking at the others).

Travelling the same path in both directions is usually a bit of an anticlimax, but this time I noticed things on the way down that I had missed on the way up. The path makes a hairpin bend where it comes closest to the National Park boundary, and if you look just a few yards off the inside edge of this bend, there is a narrow canyon of smooth sandstone sweeping down hundreds of feet. Somehow I never noticed it on the way up.

The Dutch overtook me, I overtook them, and as we got lower we passed the morning's parties climbing up. Mostly, they asked whether Stave Spring had any water in it, and, upon hearing that it did not, they tried to rationalise how their meagre water supplies would last them the trip. One man (not in such good shape) was lugging his large video camera to Cable Mountain and back in one day, carrying a single can of drink. "I find that the more I drink the thirstier I get," he said. From the car to the top and back to the car, I consumed two 32 ounce bottles of Gatorade, and 2.5 litres of water. I also had a litre of water left over. They recommend that you take a gallon of water per person per day into the desert back country.

Although I didn't see any mammals (aside from my fellow humans), there were plenty of reptiles. Mostly short lizards skittering across the sand and basking on the rocks. Just before hitting the car park, I also saw a small snake: thick as a pencil and about 12 inches long, with a brown and black checker-board pattern on its back.

I got down to the car at around noon, and moved it into the shade to do my unpacking and organising. Just as I was driving off, the three Dutch came trotting down the path, and hailed me. They needed a lift around to the other side of the park to pick up their car. It took some doing to cram three people and their rucksacks in alongside my hiking and my conference gear, but we did it. Fortunately, we were equally sweaty and unpleasant. We waited a while at the mouth of the tunnel, and followed a tour bus, which had to drive down the middle of the road so that it's roof wouldn't scrape the top of the tunnel. I gathered that my travelling companions were a family, although I could never quite figure out where the woman fit in. I think that she was the wife of one and the mother of the other, but I'm not sure. They were on a long tour of the western states, and seemed to be widely-travelled folk. They had made a crossing of Greenland on skis some time ago. Like most Dutch, their English was nearly as good as mine.

Driving into the gorge was a shock: bumper-to-bumper cars, RVs and motor-cycles crawled down the two-lane trying to figure out which of the inadequate parking lots to try. It would have been utterly impossible to have a natural experience in such a place, and I thanked my good fortune for having seen only two people on my hike Friday. This park sees more than 2 million visitors per year, and it shows.

I dropped off my hitch hikers and drove to the end of the gorge. It's a dead end, and beastly hot with no breeze stirring. I found a parking space, but when I got out of the car it was so unpleasantly hot that I only took one picture before getting back in. I think I was a bit hungry and dehydrated, since playing taxi had knocked me off my planned time-line for drinking and lunch. Not entirely groggy, I did notice some rock climbing parties on Angel's Landing, a 2000-foot sandstone face (in the shade). I did not particularly envy them, with their heavy haul sacks dangling below them and thousands of us ground dwellers watching through binoculars.

On my way out of the park, I stopped at the visitors' centre and had a look around their small natural-history museum. One exhibit, of the "who's sign is this?" type seemed to say that the droppings I'd seen all along the path were from the grey fox. If so, this fox must eat a fair amount of fruit, from what I saw. There weren't any really compelling books to buy, so I changed clothes in the rest room and hit the road just before 1500 hours.

I decided to drive to St. George to see if I could find a mall and do some shopping. I needed new luggage (mine partially destroyed upon arrival in SLC), and I had some errands to run for Karen. Distracted by sign offering a scenic overlook, I ended up on a gravel road strewn with beer cans and trash heading out into the desert. Just when I was ready to give up, there was a worthwhile view back across a near arroyo to the high buttes of Zion. There was also a picturesque slice of Americana: a shot-holed "dead end" sign.

For the trip to St. George, I tuned into one of the baseball playoff games on AM radio. Even though I have no real affinity for the game, listening to the commentary while cruising through the desert was a true American experience which brought home just how much I identify with the States even after 11 years ex-patriotism. The mall in St. George was also a bit of home. European malls are still too small, and so clearly imitating American affluence. I got my luggage in a Meijer's and a book of 35,000 (more) baby names in B. Dalton's, where the bookseller said to me "Utah's a beautiful place, but awfully conservative."

Shopping done (although I never could find a real grocery store-perhaps the UK is ahead in this department), I headed north. On the outskirts of St. George, I saw suburbia trying to take over the desert. Two model homes for some future subdivision sat side-by-side with their lush green lawns in the middle of a sandstone wasteland.

I drove for three hours (from 1700 to 2000) north toward the Great Salt Lake. True to my personal habit, I let the car almost run out of gas at one point, only getting off when the red light came on.

The nice thing about cruise control is that the cars don't bunch up so much as they do on the British motorway. Everyone sets the controls for 70 or 75 miles per hour and glides along smoothly. The huge trucks loom up in the rear-view mirror and move past, their drivers half asleep, but kept on the road by subtle ruts in the tarmac. I stuck the camera out the window a couple of times, once when passing through an area of volcanic cones, and once as the sun set behind the mountains. I pulled into Nephi, only 120 miles from SLC, having averaged almost 75 miles per hour!

I unloaded all my junk from the car, showered and had a disappointing steak at a truck stop before turning in. I also managed to log into Compuserve from the hotel phone, so I guess my modem wasn't blown up after all.

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