As I See It: Ah, Vacation!
May 11, 2009 Victor Rozek
The tiny specs on the massive Navajo-sandstone face are two men. They are hanging from absurdly long ropes, inching downward toward a spot a few hundred feet above the ground. The sun is merciless and they work quickly. One man begins boring a small hole in the sheer rock wall, while the other waits to insert a stick of dynamite. When he lights the long fuse, both men scramble up the ropes as high as they can before the explosion tears a portion of the wall away.
The year is 1924. The men have no sophisticated climbing gear, no specialized protective clothing, no OSHA to tell them they’re insane to be doing this and would be better served to take up farming. History doesn’t record it, but it’s likely that at some point one man turned to the other and asked, “Whose crazy idea was this, anyway?”
The answer is Walter Ruesch, the first superintendent of Zion National Park, who thought it would be great fun to build a trail so visitors could climb an impossible chunk of stone called Angel’s Landing. The monolith got its name eight years prior when Frederick Fisher, an early explorer, looked up at the imposing peak and exclaimed, “only an angel could land on it.” But Ruesch had a more secular idea. The trail he eventually finished, winds over a mile up the smooth cliff face, disappears into the crack of a slot canyon, then scrambles around the back of the monolith in 21 annoyingly steep, but beautifully crafted, switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles.
It is Ruesch’s bright idea I am cursing as I effort up the switchbacks to a saddle known as Scout Lookout.
Still, I’m blessed to be here because vacations are iffy these days. Money is short and jobs are tenuous. And even those with money are becoming vacation shy; 39 percent of those with incomes exceeding $100,000 report postponing or canceling vacations. Their poorer relations are settling for “staycations” (vacationing close to home), which is like playing bingo when you really want to be shooting craps.
With the shaky economy, vacations pose a dilemma. If you’re lucky enough to be working, you don’t want to be away long enough for your boss to discover he can get along without you. If your job is at risk, you probably can’t afford to spend money frivolously. And if you’re unemployed, vacationing would be a slap in the face to the Protestant work ethic. But I say that like it’s a bad thing. To the contrary: guilt-provoking ethics need a good smacking every now and then, so secure job or not, I determined to go on vacation.
But I, too, live in the recessed economy, and not wanting to incur a year’s debt for a week’s pleasure, I recruited my long-time friend, backpacking buddy, and self-made frugality expert, Stew. Stew can squeeze a penny like a boa constricts its prey. He’s cheap and proud of it. Actually, that’s not totally accurate: Stew demands full value for his money, because the time it took him to earn it represents irreplaceable hours of his life, and he does not surrender his life energy lightly.
So when I suggested flying, Stew checked airfare costs, did some mileage calculations and announced that it would be less expensive to drive the 2,100 mile round trip. Gas is cheap again, he said, and there will be no rental car expense once we get there. But it’s a two day drive and there will be accommodation costs, I counter. No there won’t, says Stew, we’ll camp. And that’s how I ended up without room service, cable, or concierge, and sleeping in Stew’s familiar tent, stained with the blood of mosquitoes past, looking at a sky pocked with stars.
Zion National Park, 200 million years in the making, sits in Southern Utah on the Western edge of the vast Colorado Plateau that hosts many of the nation’s most spectacular natural wonders, including Bryce Canyon, Arches, and America’s most famous hole in the ground, the Grand Canyon itself. Originally, Zion was beach front property, albeit with some killer sand dunes that reached heights of 3,000 feet. When a geological upheaval sent the ocean flowing inland, the dunes were covered and briny minerals leached into the sand, solidifying it. When the waters retreated, sandstone remained. Then, some 12 million years ago, the Virgin River began its canyon-carving antics, and 12 million years later, voila, instant national park. The results were so dramatic that when Frederick Dellenbaugh exhibited his paintings of Zion at the 1903 World’s Fair, people didn’t believe the scenery was real.
But real it is: a visual assault, a grandeur overdose courtesy of that most extraordinary of artists, erosion. From Scout Landing, surrounded by massive stone facades, I look down to the valley floor where the river is no more than an rippling ribbon, and shuttle busses look like matchbox cars. (Several years ago Zion, to its eternal credit, banned cars from the canyon and provided free propane-powered shuttle busses for visitors–are you listening, Yosemite?)
However dramatic, Scout Landing is not our final destination. The trail continues up a steep, exposed rock fin with a 1,200-foot drop off on one side, and an 800-foot drop on the other. My first impression is “You’ve got to be kidding.” Indeed, continuing upward is not without risk. Five people have died climbing Angel’s Landing in spite of the chains installed to help hikers negotiate the most treacherous sections of trail.
But unless you have a fear of heights, the risk is well worth it. Fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, you can see the canyon stretching in both directions, revealing many of the park’s landmarks including the massive Great White Throne, Big Bend, the Organ, Cathedral Mountain, Observation Point, Cable Mountain, and of course the Virgin River that helped create them all.
It’s hard to leave the summit, but eventually Stew and I return to camp satiated, tired, and ready for a beer. OK, two beers, which we can afford, by the way, because we are not paying $150 a night for a motel room. Even camping, however, is getting expensive, according to Stew. Just entering the park costs $25 per vehicle, and a camp site, which is a slab of dirt with a picnic table, runs $16 a night. But Stew has a solution: Aging. Yes, if you travel with someone over 62, they are eligible for America the Beautiful, the National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands pass. That gets you into National Parks for free, and halves the camp site fee. So it cost us $4 each per day to visit and take up residence in the park. A 12-day trip with four days of travel cost less than $50 per person per day. The beer was extra.
With all that money saved, we decided to eat out occasionally in the nearby town of Springdale. Lots of good choices here, but if you’re ever in the area don’t miss the fish tacos at the Whiptail Café. They’re to live for.
Darkness came early in the canyon. At sunset, the wind picked up and in one, continuous, raucous yowl, blew throughout the night. It was a symphony of wind, with each instrument playing at full howl. At first the wind was balmy as it raced down canyon. Then, toward morning, having stripped the warmth from the land, it blew cold. For four nights it blew, then suddenly went silent, which instantly woke me up. But it was only the symphony taking a fortissimo break before striking up again. And just when I thought the wind would never stop, the tips of the dark eastern peaks ignited and it was morning again, the wind banished to wherever it hides between nightly performances.
“There’s a natural longing to find the upside in the downturn,” says Nancy Gibbs writing for Time. And for many that upside may be reconnecting with nature, the ultimate cost-free entertainment. But there may be another. Many of the trails, bridges, tunnels, and facilities in Zion were constructed during the Great Depression. Two Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established in Zion. They served for nine years, during which time hundreds of enrollees built levees, carved trails, and constructed buildings that are still in use.
Today, public money is again being invested as a hedge against economic collapse. And although men will not be asked to hang by slender threads while dynamiting trails, who knows what legacy projects may survive the Great Recession.
Someone once said that vacation is what you take when you can’t take what you’ve been taking any longer. Well, if things don’t improve quickly, we’ll all be needing one soon. May yours be affordable.