It’s summer in Zion National Park, and I am thinking about water. Thunderstorms have felled trees and left silt in the air, and the river slicing through the center of the canyon rushes high and murky, the warm red brown of long-brewed chai. Sagebrush sweetness mixes with evergreen; cedar leaves rustle; and in the morning cool below mountains of rock, it doesn’t feel like Utah. The desert I imagined is higher up in the textured sandstone above us, an ocean of sand collected into striated slickrock and beehive mounds of swirled gray sediment. A history of wind and water has imprinted itself upon the mountains, and it’s easy to imagine the process that drained rusted reds into dilute ochres and left long tar-black rivulets of manganese dripping from orange facades; how once porous rock hardened into smooth impenetrable slabs. It feels possible, looking up, to see time.
This is high season, tourist season, and the park is thrumming. The other tourists have come from Michigan and South Carolina, Japan and Germany. RVs on their way to Bryce and the Grand Canyon, the Four Corners, California, church retreats, young families on weekend camping trips from border states. They have read the same websites and guidebooks that we have read, and their questions are often our questions, their itineraries our itineraries; the picture they stop to take with the expanse of reds and oranges behind them is the background that will moments later include our faces. I am not a hiker or camper, have never before been to a national park, and have come on this particular trip only because I am newly in love with a woman who feels in nature the way I feel in the company of a secret. It is not a test, M. says, just time together, a trip and fun, but I worry. I am one of eight: M. and her five rugby teammates, the park ranger sister of one of these rugby players, and me. I exercise sometimes and eat vegetables most days, but I am a person whose mind often loses track of her body.
For M., it is different. She is better at noticing the physical and the concrete, more likely to feel that being happy depends upon what a person can see and touch. For her, being here outside in a new place, moving, is what it means to be alive.
The park’s guidebook lists our first real hike, Angels Landing, as a difficult trail with strenuous climbing and exposed cliffs sharp enough to remind the minister who named it of the end of the world: The Great White Throne for God to judge souls, the ridge beside it for angels to land. The first two miles take us through a series of switchbacks along a paved trail, up steps and sloped paths, higher with each turn, until we arrive at a large flat overlook, where several groups of people are sitting on rocks, taking pictures and drinking water. There are outhouses and an overlook, plenty of space for pictures and water, but we keep going.
A metal sign warns us six hikers have died in the next half mile since 2004.
“One per year,” M. says behind me. “Less than one per year.”
I laugh. I am okay. I follow M.’s friends across this first sharp slope, and then, quickly, before the path narrows and my feet begin to feel unsteady on the sand, I feel the promise of fear without yet being afraid.
Soon, the incline rises and, in the space between the rock-bolted chains that guide hikers, I have to lower my body down to the sandstone and crawl in order to keep myself balanced. By the end of this initial ascent, my legs are shaking.
“You can stop,” M. tells me. “It’s fine.”
I hesitate. I try to calculate how long it takes to walk a vertical half mile and how far it is I have left if I keep going, but I cannot see the whole trail at once—just one small raised band before the path curves back around the mountain. It seems possible that we could keep going for another ten minutes or another thirty.
“I’ll stay with you,” she says. “Or you can wait.”
I shake my head. “I’ll go,” I say. “Just slowly.”
M. looks from my face to my fidgeting hands and back up to the mountain ahead of us. She is smaller than me but stronger and more steady. She can stand up here and stay still.
“We can go slow,” she says. “We can stop if you want,” she says again.
She is worried that she has pushed me to do something I don’t want to do, but mostly, I want to impress her friends. They are strong people, I explain, athletes. They will not understand a person who quits.
She thinks this is funny. “You don’t have to prove anything,” she says. “You came with me. You tried it. You can stop without being embarrassed.”
For long stretches at a time, I can’t look past my feet, the pebbles, the tree roots burrowed into the mountain path, and the next rock where I can safely stand, and it seems to me that I am hiking in the wrong way. I am here but not really here. I have left my daydreams to come into the world, but my mind is busy worrying. When we pause at a landing, I make myself look down at the river tugging itself through the canyon floor and the red rocks rising above it, but my chest stays tight and full, and I know that I am not really seeing.
“You’re okay?” M. says every couple minutes, but I don’t give her more than a nod or one a word answer. I’m counting my steps. I’m watching my feet. I believe her that she has not meant to test me, but what simpler proof than a mountain? A body starts slow and moves higher. A person climbs to the top or she doesn’t.
We tell M.’s friends to go ahead of us, but the path is clogged with hikers. At the most slender section of the path, a stricken-looking gray-haired woman clings to a chain, immobile, and we have to walk, untethered, around her. I meet her eyes and glare. She stares back, unblinking and unapologetic. Trust me, she seems to say, I am more afraid than you.
At home, before our trip, I read about the drop-offs and about the chains connected to the mountain that keep hikers from falling, but I pictured myself on a suspension bridge between mountains, looking down upon a valley and feeling the lurch of height from a position of relative safety. I did not think about the loose stones and rocks that cover a sandstone mountain, the spaces between the intermittent chains where there is nothing to hold on to, or the panic of standing between two sides of a 1400-foot fall.
When we reach the top of the mountain, a rocky ledge wide enough for several groups of hikers to eat lunch and take pictures, I crumple toward a large flat rock in the center, sheltered from the edge.
“You’re okay?” M. says.
I shrug. “Still scared.”
“Do you hate me?”
I shake my head.
“Do you hate hiking?”
I catch myself smiling a little. “Maybe.”
She hands me a water bottle and asks if I want a sandwich. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t want you to hate hiking. It’s usually not like this.”
I want to take in the canyon and its walls of red rocks and see the views that make M.’s friends scurry across the boulders and snap pictures, but I’m drenched in sweat and preoccupied with moving back down the mountain, retracing our steps. I am wondering if it will be harder going down than walking up and if my legs will soon feel solid.
“Hannah’s scared, too,” M. says, nodding toward her friend, the park ranger’s sister, eating her sandwich on another rock across from us.
Hannah nods. She has hiked a lot, she says, she knows how to position her body and understands that she will not fall, but still, she hates to look down.
A French teenager asks me to take a picture of him and his friends, and I refuse. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Someone will take a picture of you but not me.”
We stay on the top of the mountain for what seems like a very long time, and then when we are back on the trail, I go as fast as I can without falling. I clutch the chains until they disappear and then, where there are none, I slide down to my butt and touch each rock with both hands. We stop every few minutes to let hikers pass and, every time, I stop breathing. Soon, in what feels like a lot less time than it took going up, we have reached the overlook separating the scariest final half-mile from the rest of the trail, and immediately, at the first step onto a wide flat path, my panic dissolves. One feeling and then another feeling. I am a child, trembling, and then I am not.
The final descent through the switchbacks and paved trail is faster in spite of the sun rising and the crowd gathering. My knees hurt walking down hill; the sun is bright enough to wrap our arms and faces in a sheen of sweat that reappears each time I brush it away, but I am buoyant.
“It wasn’t so bad.” I say.
“It wasn’t?” M. says.
“Honestly.” In this moment, the mountain behind me, I believe it. The hike was fine, enjoyable even, and I, therefore, am fine, too.
The hikers beginning the trail now at mid-day look tired and sweaty, and they are still so close to the beginning. Many of them seem to be without water, people in flimsy sandals with soft bellies, people who are unaware or unconcerned that a hike at this time of day will be hot, crowded, impossible. I watch them breathe hard and move slowly. Lipsticked French girls, college boys in baseball caps, sunburned children, men with walking sticks. I scan their faces for signs of who among them will keep going and who will stop. As if life is a slow untangling of the chosen from the damned, the good from the bad. As if I am the one who is ready.
Marian Crotty‘s writing has appeared in journals such at Third Coast, The Greensboro Review, Confrontation, and Michigan Quarterly Review; stories are forthcoming in the Southern Review and The Atlantic.