“Hey you guys—make sure you check your shoelaces on this ice!” I looked up to my daughters, downclimbing along the 1400 foot vertical precipice, as they gingerly worked their way along the sandstone ledges covered with fresh snow and ice. My only saving grace was that they had a solid 3/8 inch log chain bolted to the rocks along their route to grasp with their ungloved and quite frozen hands.
But it would be compound the difficulty of traversing the knife edged ridge if they stumbled on something as basic as loose shoelace.
We took a week off from the ranch for the much warmer temperatures of St George, Utah. Here, we enjoyed sunny and warm blue-sky days with deep shadows cast by the winter sun. It made the redrock country of Navajo and Kayenta sandstones into this incredibly beautiful complimentary color contrast against turquoise skies.
I could easily see why turquoise and red are often color themes in Navajo jewelry. The Dineh (their word for themselves, meaning simply “the people”) are surrounded by these colors in the rock and sky.
Because Caryl loves plants, and I Iove rocks, we made our forays on foot into the backcountry. Yesterday was Zion National Park.
Zion is the 4th most visited National Park in the United States, with 4.3 million visitors a year. The park had just opened up to private vehicles a few days before. Until the end of December, private vehicles are parked outside the park and visitors are brought in with shuttle busses. It is not a large park, and cars were parked for a mile or so on either side of the road at popular trailheads.
Despite winter conditions of snow the night before and icy trails, many people turned out in the lovely weather with skies cloudless and airs windless.
The kids chose the Angel’s Landing trail. It skirts those 1400 feet of vertical cliffs to finally ascend a sandstone spire. In mountaineering terms, it would be considered a technical climb, as it requires aided ascending and safety devices. The Angel’s Landing Trail has been made accessible to any hiker by chains anchored to the rock by the Park Service.
After discussing safety, we opted to stop about a tenth of a mile short of the summit. Continuous ice glazings on the trail made things quite unforgiving if one slipped. In just the last few years, 10 people have pitched to their deaths on this trail, and I could see why. Even as we tried climbing ahead before turning around in the crux of the difficult area (unchained rocks covered with ice), the girls and I watched one gentleman slide toward the edge, and somehow gain friction just before literal death.
It was enough for them.
But the interesting thing to all of the girls was that the would-be mortality victim was apparently unaware of how close he had come to a 1400 foot fall to the canyon floor.
He hiked on.
It seemed he was disconnected with the reality, the gravity of his situation. It was unreal to me. I have been in many backcountry and mountaineering situations that were a little sketch, and the trail ahead was clearly dangerous. But we watched many people, even with kids, summit the peak.
I couldn’t understand it. I guess they trusted that the Park Service would protect them (we saw no employees of NPS on our hike).
This disconnection with surroundings showed up in other things I noted as we hiked.as well. There was little interest in plants or even wildlife as folks walked blithely by them (the mule deer, unhunted in parks, are usually exceptionally conditioned to human interaction).
There were interesting trees and plants to observe (I saw my first concolor fir, having never noted it in the wild before!), and even water ouzels in the Virgin River of the park (little black diving birds that we have in Idaho in the summer).
But in all of this, I categorically noticed no interest in thousands of Zion Pilgrims. Melanie surmised that they came for scenery and amusement, much as they would at Disneyland or Knotts. People seemed more interested in finding good selfie angle.
We also guessed that some were “park baggers” in that they were simply trying to visit as many of the national parks that they could. They could post the selfie results of their quest on social media like Instagram and Facebook.
Scenery and a quest for beauty I can relate to. But amusement park vibe struck a chord in me. I think Melanie was right. It seemed as though as a people, we have lost a large degree of the wonder of nature, and how important it is to immerse our flesh, our being in the soil and soul of it.
I even noted a difference in National Park infrastructure. There was a build up of concessionaire structures. But unlike what I remembered from a decade or so ago, there were almost no interpretive signs.
I took it for granted in my kids. They live in the wilds much of the summers with our cattle on pristine ranges as they seek the best native grasses for the beeves to graze. Caryl teaches them about plants. I teach them about rocks and wildlife. They pay attention.
I’ve visited National Parks for many years, starting nearly 50 years ago. And it seems like the visitors have changed, slowly over that time from an inquisitive visitor looking for the multi-pronged purpose of education, immersion in nature, scenery and personal regeneration (this is what the word re-creation means, after all) to one that checks boxes.
What happened? I am wondering if as a culture, we’ve slipped into a digital soup of virtual and narcissistic exploration of our natural world. Or maybe it is simply that people spend so little time outdoors and know so little about natural history that they are unable to notice or be interested in things. If you don’t know any plants, they all just merge into a sea of green. If you know nothing about geology, everything is just pretty rocks.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not severely bummed here. More curious, I guess.
We’ve come back to Alderspring refreshed and rejuvenated. I so hope that you all can do the same, whether you’re visiting your duck pond in the back yard or Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I have a feeling that many of you get the same regeneration we get from being outside, because you share some commonality of vision with us here at Alderspring.
Many of you partner with us on the ranch, purchasing our beef, for the reasons of supporting our stewardship vision of wild landscapes. You like that we are carbon negative and climate positive. You believe in humane treatment, even husbandry of our animals and the wild creatures we share beauty with.
And you, like us, enjoy the fruits of our labor on healthy soils. You enjoy the deep flavors and nutrient density of wild proteins.
And so, as I put my pen down here, I realize that it is OK to stop lamenting the human condition of our digital culture.
It’s because I am preaching to the choir. In a sense, I think we are soulmates.
Happy Trails. And Happy New year to you all. May you find 2020 to be healthy, prosperous and blessed.