Backroading It in a 2013 Volvo S60

We drive through Utah's national parks in search of the Valley Tan

By Jason Davis | Photos By Jason Davis | November 14, 2012

Zion National Park and America's Better Idea

In Zion National Park, a high desert wilderness carved from water and wind and time, there are two major hikes that define the geology and allure of America's last great frontier: The Narrows, a slot canyon that, for nine miles, submerges hikers in the north fork of the Virgin River, and Angels Landing, a strenuous hike providing panoramic views of the ancient canyon.
I didn't have time for both. Information boards and pamphlets scattered throughout the visitor's center warned visitors that even a single inch of rainfall could be deadly in the slick-rock Narrows. The National Park Service also served to remind visitors of the 22 flash flood deaths since the 1990s. With rain in the forecast, and thunderheads billowing in the distance, as they had each day of the week previous, the NPS had predictably shuttered access to its red and orange and yellow canyon of death, leaving me to consider only the formidably dangerous Angels Landing, a seemingly-inaccessible perch of rock that explorers in 1916 exclaimed, "only an angel could land on it." In my mind, no better place existed to enjoy the distinctly Utahan landscape, and a shot of the Valley Tan. At least, that was the plan. Of the two-and-a-half mile trail that ascends Refrigerator Canyon, Walter's Wiggles, Scout's Lookout, and finally, the rock fin once known as the "Temple of Aeolus," the NPS says: "The route to Angels Landing involves travel along a steep, narrow ridge with support chains anchored intermittently along the route. Footing can be slippery even when the rock is dry. Unevenly surfaced steps are cut into the rock with major cliff drop-offs adjacent. Keep off when it is wet, icy or thunderstorms are in the area. Plan to be off before dark. Younger children should skip this trail; older children must be closely supervised." Most of the trail is paved, so I took my time. It was hot and getting warmer by the hour. Walter's Wiggles, the thigh-and-calf-burning section of switchbacks before Scout's Landing, ensured a slow pace. I paused often to etch into my camera the surrounding texture of the canyon's multicolored walls. At Scout's Landing, I walked past exhausted travelers crouched to the floor, and others, too psyched out by the half-mile conclusion. "It's totally worth it," one man said as he led his wife and young children toward the Wiggles. Others had chimed in, saying, "It looks way worse than it is," and "The beginning section isn't hard, and it gets easier." Even a 7-year old boy chimed in, saying, "It was pretty easy for me. But for you, it might be too hard." The chains on the first fin were nerve racking. They led horizontally along the cliff ledge. One false step or slip of the hand would send you first sliding down the jagged rock, then hurtling toward the valley floor almost 1,500 feet below. And with hikers coming down the chains, and a line of followers behind, there was no room for delay or second-guessing. Further up, where the trail appears more foreboding and deadly, it actually got steeper -- and easier. That's where I met a young man about my age, of boundless energy and sweaty muscles, with no water or pack to weigh him down, jumping up the rocks, swinging around the cables, and smiling as if he was on a playground swing. He had one leg and an athletic-looking, carbon-composite prosthetic for the other. It was his third trip up the mountain and he was storm chasing, he said, hoping to stand on the rock beneath a shower of rain and lightning. I saw in him the youthful vigor for life that commuting was killing in me. Further up, I encountered a large family of Mormons. They were resting on a rock, at one of the few spaces off the cables with more than a few inches of real estate to allow for others to pass by. I had been speaking with two Eagle Scout-types behind me of my quest for the Valley Tan, and as we stepped toward the family to allow others to pass, I asked the waiting father figure whether he was local. He nodded, and I asked him if he had ever heard of "Mormon whiskey," of Brigham's home distillery, or of Orin Porter Rockwell. He replied in a piously condescending tone, "Well, if it's alcohol related, then I just wouldn't know anything about it." So it goes. When I climbed the last cable, the fin widened at the center like a diamond with scrub and boulders down the center. The trail had peaked and meandered further until the sides inched ever closer and when finally, the sides met, there was an end, and at the end there was uninterrupted sky and cloud. And the valley below. I sat with my feet over the edge of the jagged cliff, next to hungry squirrels, chirping birds, and shirtless frat bro's. This was what I had come to see. This was the nadir of a 1,500-mile journey to a foreign land. This was where the Volvo had brought me, to a rock throne hanging above a canyon. Henry David Thoreau called these places "little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization," no doubt unaware that in the future, they would become the desktop background for countless millions of hikers and adventures across the globe. Probably some French teenagers vacationing in the States with their parents, right then, had just updated their Facebook profile photos with the same photos I had taken from the same locations. Overhead, the clouds continued to lift and balloon, and the 90-plus degree heat became bearable and pleasant under the best breeze in the state. The fearless squirrel ran off with fallen bits of my trail mix. The frat bro's packed up and descended the hill, being replaced by a succession of fashionable hikers clad in neon-colored spandex, like the ones you'd see at a Disney dance party. That's when I realized, while biting into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that Wallace Stegner and Ken Burns were wrong: the National Parks are not "America's Best Idea." Protecting these places was a great idea, and preserving them for future generations an equally great idea. But the better idea was the road system, like the back roads of the early National Park-to-Park Highway, that afforded every American and international visitor access to them.
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