Let me tell you about a day I spent alone in Zion National Park last month. My husband and brother-in-law set off at 7:30 a.m. to hike the Narrows, the most popular hike in the park. The Narrows is a train of steep, high canyon walls along the Virgin River, and the only “trail” is upstream through the river itself. The fellows wanted to hike a minimum of 6 hours upstream, then back in knee-deep water hiding infinite ankle-twisting hazards. Not wanting to go that far, nor get my feet wet (or my ankle broken a 2nd time), I opted for the more moderate 3-mile hike on the Watchman trail, followed by an hour in the museum, an afternoon nap in the shade of a giant oak at the lodge, topped off with a cappuccino from the coffee cart. Not exactly “wilderness” but delightful nonetheless.
The Watchman is an uphill trail along a dusty, rocky path of switchbacks and ledges on the south and west sides of the east-side canyon wall. In the early morning, when I hiked, it is gracefully shady and cool, and much less crowded with hikers (Zion N.P. has 5 million visitors per year, so it’s not a place to seek out wilderness per se). The trail begins at the Virgin River and rises about 600 feet to a football field-sized outcrop with a 270-degree view of the park. I found myself thinking about the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built this trail in 1934. CCC Who were they? Could they conceive of the millions of people who would hike here for the next 100 years?
Toting 64 oz. of water, two granola bars, an apple, a hiking hat, my camera, and hiking poles, I set off alone, thinking of the distinctions Henri Nouwen makes between loneliness and solitude. It can feel lonely hiking alone in such a beautiful, magnificent place because there is no friend or lover to share the experience. But, Nouwen insists that solitude does not depend on outer circumstance, rather an inner orientation of solitary rest that underpins our spiritual health. I did feel lonely at times, but it was also an inspiring, uplifting, strangely restful day in the canyon. Besides, I made a few friends along the way.
I had silly conversations with a chatty canyon wren that was flitting gaily amongst the juniper and prickly pear.
I spent 10 minutes studying a green lizard near a wet patch of seep, and kept busy sweeping the heights with binoculars in search of peregrine falcon and California condor. I saw mule deer with their laughably large, light-filtering, body-cooling ears. I kept watch for the western rattlesnake. (Since I am easily startled, I like animals and people who make noise to announce their presence).
Still, it was already pushing 80 degrees, this was an upwards hike, and because I am prone to acute altitude sickness, I had to rest often, yet keep going, albeit slowly, watching carefully where I put my feet, and leaning -sometimes too heavily- on my trusty hiking poles. About halfway up, some people approached coming down. And I thought I had started out early! Then commenced the “dance” that occurs on narrow, gritty trails alongside high, dizzying ridges- no one ever wants the outside position, nor do you want to flatten your back along the canyon wall looking “craven” -as they’d say in Game of Thrones. Onward and upward, through pinion pine, scrub oak, mosses and ferns doggedly rooted in the sandstone cracks and seeps until I was nearly level with the tree line. Here, the trail turned abruptly southward, still climbing toward a large plateau just made for walking, sitting, snacking, sunning, and thinking. There were about 30 people already here, and more streaming in behind me, but I had the strange feeling that I had the place to myself. That is the inner serenity that Nouwen speaks to, and that nature beckons us to immerse ourselves in.
The views are always the reward for hiking up.
True, I didn’t hike a Rocky Mountain 14er, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless. With the binoculars, I could make out our old RV in the far parking lot, and the throngs of people at the Visitors Center. To think this was all carved out by the Virgin River over time.
It made me wonder what God is carving out, ever so slowly in my life, and if the result is as beautiful as all this. And that unfolded another secret of solitude: it creates in us a deep, inner, carved-out space for the Spirit of God. Always worth the climb.