The first day in Zion our Road Scholar group walked on the canyon floor along the Virgin River, and I craned my neck to look up at a landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. Eons ago the sand dunes that covered this plateau petrified, and now the red rock walls towering above us offered a sense of the river’s long and languorous lovemaking with Navajo sandstone.
Early the next morning half our group began the hike up to Observation Point, knowing we would climb 2100 feet over the next four miles. The sun had yet to clear the eastern rim, so we walked in shade, bundled in warm clothes, just the twelve of us as opposed to the hundreds we’d encountered the day before. The trail was mostly wide and even as it switch-backed up the canyon wall and offered sweeping views down to Weeping Rock where we’d begun and across the canyon to the western wall. I fell into a slow and steady pace.
Perhaps an hour into the hike, the trail turned down a gorge called Echo Canyon into a scene so surprising and lovely that it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of being on the edge of a canyon wall I was suddenly inside, folded into the curves and undulations of stone, which were touched in this moment by the sun’s first tender kisses on red rock and secret pools.
It took nearly three more hours to reach Observation Point. As the group spread out, I often walked alone, up, up, up, taking breaks to peel off layers, drink water, and look at the desert world around me – slickrock paintbrush growing improbably out of a crack in the rock and striations in the curved canyon wall that I paused to study as I would a work of art in a museum. At one point I heard rumbling nearby and with the instincts of a city girl whirled around looking for a truck almost in the same instant that I realized how ridiculous that was. Instead, somewhere close but out of sight, rocks were crashing down the hillside. This is unstable country, I remembered our geologist guide saying. Was I about to be buried in an avalanche? The clatter faded. Or had Tom hiking somewhere ahead of me been hit by falling rock? I pressed on. Eventually the trail leveled off, and I came out to the point, where I found the rest of the group safe and sound. At 6500 feet we snapped photos and enjoyed stunning views down the canyon.
In the following days, as I hiked in Bryce, the Valley of Fire, and Red Rock Canyon, my thoughts kept returning – not to the height I’d attained at Observation Point, but to the quiet moment when the trail veered into Echo Canyon. What was it about that place? I guessed it was the intimacy of the lusciously curved red rock walls surrounding me. We’re used to being onthe earth, but in that passage of undulating stone I had the sense of being init. Unlike in a tunnel or cave, though, I was immersed instead of enclosed, in the light instead of in darkness. Maybe this glimpse of geologic time, a peek at eternity, hints at what the cave of the heart looks like.