Greetings everyone! We are halfway through week 10 of â€œthat spring we lived in Zion.â€ When we got here there was still significant snow in portions of the park, but next week has forecast temperatures of triple digits. Weâ€™ve â€œcelebratedâ€ April Foolâ€™s Day, our 9th wedding anniversary, Easter, Motherâ€™s Day (well, we wished our mothers a happy day), and now Memorial Day from the basement of the Cackleberry Ranch here in SW Utah. Itâ€™s obviously not the amazing climbing expedition we expected, but we both feel incredibly lucky to be healthy and also able to keep our adventure alive to some degree.
As Iâ€™ve mentioned, we rented a basement apartment here for one week to try to figure out what to do next. The weather was really crappy, and Cragginâ€™ isnâ€™t exactly a spacious rolling palace in which we could wait out days of rain. We still werenâ€™t even sure we shouldnâ€™t just go home, but our house is rented out until August, and itâ€™s not like much was happening in P-Town. For that 1st week, we really enjoyed having so much space and catching up on NetFlix when we couldnâ€™t go outside. At the end of the week, we cut a deal with the owners; they are normally always booked but suddenly had vacancy until June. They are an incredibly nice family, and this place has really come to feel like a second home.
We made it up to Zion that first Saturday, unsure what to expect in terms of crowds. They werenâ€™t collecting fees, which protected rangers, but it had only been a week since Utahâ€™s governor had announced that parks were a GREAT place to go in order to escape the pandemic; also, it was Spring Break for Utahâ€™s schools. We got there early trying to minimize crowds and foolishly headed for Angelâ€™s Landing. The first part of the trail wasnâ€™t bad for social distancing, but when we came to the base of the landing, we both cringed: shoulder-to-shoulder people going hand-over-hand on the chained handrail up to the top! This was the very scene that got out nationally; locally, it was used to lobby for the parkâ€™s closure (Angelâ€™s Landing did close two days later) because of all the outsiders; however, the vast majority of sweatshirts bore the names of Utahn schools. Anyway, we turned the opposite direction and enjoyed a great hike up to the West Rim of Zion Canyon insteadâ€¦saw about 10 people over 7-8 miles.
It was quite clear that weâ€™d have to set some rules if we were going to continue trying to have fun. First, we couldnâ€™t drive all over the place; Iâ€™ve since seen 50 miles as a guideline during stay-home orders. We usually stayed within 15 miles of home, but we never stop for bathroom (except for the odd pee along the road) or snack breaks, and all the visitorâ€™s centers were closed. Second, weâ€™d always turn around if social distancing wasnâ€™t possible; since neither of us likes to turn around, it made us plan better to avoid troubles. Third, weâ€™d keep the risk factor low in our activitiesâ€¦I can see this one being tougher as things open up now and we begin to regain climbing fitness. So far, though, weâ€™ve been conservativeâ€¦for instance, we walk our mountain bikes if we arenâ€™t 90% sure a section is within our limited abilities.
At first, we worried that conflict might arise over our Oregon license plates. We read news accounts of places like Moab warning visitors to stay awayâ€¦they werenâ€™t welcome and wouldnâ€™t be allowed to shop. We totally understood that viewpoint and didnâ€™t want to be a burden to small communities with few resources. La Verkin, however, didnâ€™t seem stressed; the grocery store was well-stocked and hardly ever busy. They barely had any Covid cases and, at the time, probably didnâ€™t even believe the threat was real. We kept a low profile and made sure to be friendly, and soon we found that everyone was very welcoming and kind. Our landlordâ€™s neighbors even brought us a loaf of warm homemade bread!
After that first day in Zion, we wanted way more solitude than the main canyon offered, but itâ€™s surprisingly easy to enjoy the park without crowds. Of course, the big attractions along the scenic canyon drive are magnificent, but the parkâ€™s outskirts also offered all kinds of striking beauty and great hikes. All that rock was tempting, but we stuck to our guns and kept our ambitions in check (the periodic snow helped limit those also). If you ever want to visit Zion but donâ€™t like crowds, we are the people you want to ask before you go! Although, sometimes we got eerie reminders that we werenâ€™t alone!
The other early highlight was a daytrip to nearby Bryce Canyon. Iâ€™d wanted to visit this park for as long as I can remember, and it certainly didnâ€™t disappoint me. Bryce is really high elevation (8,000-9,000 ft.), and early spring might be a little lighter traffic even on a normal year, but heading up there on a Wednesday made it downright deserted. Iâ€™d guess that there were, at most, 20 cars in the park that day. Most of the hiking trails were closed, but we hiked a couple of miles down to the Queenâ€™s Garden and to Sunrise and Sunset Points. From there, we did the scenic drive and enjoyed the hoodoos, arches, and spectacular views down the Grand Staircase all the way to the shadow of the Grand Canyon. Iâ€™d love to go back sometime, but it was an amazing taste of a fascinating place before it closed a few days later.
We got two full weeks of exploring the outskirts of Zion before the park closed, so we felt pretty fortunate to have seen so much. We were disappointed, but we had been expecting the closure since weâ€™d arrived. Plus, with the park closing, it made it even easier to relax among the locals who might have been worried about travelers; by now, I think Cragginâ€™ was familiar to the small community. Iâ€™d like to think that Sarah and I have become pretty resourceful travelers, and a little research revealed plenty of off-the-beaten-path local outdoor areas to explore.
After the parks closed, we have basically spent 6 weeks roaming the desert. Sometimes, we start on trails but often end up following washes or sporadic cairns using maps, GPS tracks, and common sense to figure out our routes. I love that the same section of desert offers a different experience with each visit–a new cave, a blooming plant, or even just slightly brighter light or darker shadow creates new sensations. The sand also tells a storyâ€¦itâ€™s common to see tiny tracks or deer sign meet a predatorâ€™s prints; they travel the same line for a bit, and then you see where the real hunt began! Since we stayed the entire spring, we also got to see the desert transform from basic sage, juniper, and small cacti into a wide variety of bright flowers everywhere you look. Red rock reefs, rainbow-tinted sandstone mesas, and the peaks of Zion provided constant reminders that we were in an incredible space!
As things have opened up here in Southwest Utah and Covid-19 cases have remained extremely low in our county, weâ€™ve started to branch out a little in our adventures. This area has some ghost towns and petroglyphs to enjoy; in fact, nearby Silver Reef is the only sandstone in the United States to ever produce enough ore to be mined. We â€œclimbedâ€ Baldy Mountain, which was sort of a high-elevation hike with seasonal snow travel and route-finding skills. We discovered the thrill of mountain biking. For the past week, weâ€™ve even clipped some bolts on easy sport climbing at a couple of deserted local crags.
Whatâ€™s next for us? Iâ€™m really not sure beyond the next couple of weeks. Weâ€™re most likely going off the grid and returning to life in the Cragginâ€™ Wagon; we have masks and a good supply of hand sanitizer that we found in quart bottles designed for motor oil at a 7-11. Idaho opens next weekend, and we are hoping that City of Rocksâ€”where we began our Still Mooninâ€™ Tourâ€”will offer relative isolation and fun. We have a few things in mind, but the plan is to go fewer places but stay for longer.
Iâ€™m not sure whether there will be another blog; Iâ€™m really not even sure many of you want to read about this stuff right now (and I donâ€™t blame you if you donâ€™t). Sarah and I have struggled to figure out how to feel since getting backâ€”is it possible to grieve the premature end of a trip weâ€™ve long planned and saved for but also to feel extremely fortunate to be so lucky right now? Itâ€™s surely required flexibility and reflection on our part, but I guess those qualities are part of what you seek when you travel. No matter what the next two months bring, we hope that you all remain healthy and enjoy some sort of return to more happy circumstances. As for us, well, I guess weâ€™ll do our best to use good judgment and still keep on mooninâ€™!