Utah, Land of the Gasp

By Ernie Witham   |   January 10, 2019

I love a good excuse. “Why can’t you go to the store?”

“Be-cause-ah, dear, my bad front tire could blow and sound like a gunshot. Then the police would show up and I could get arrested for creating a disturbance and be put in a damp jail cell where I could catch pneumonia and die.”


The folks at Zion National Park had one of the best excuses ever for closing a trail, though. Our Road Scholar leader explained it kinda like this: “The two evaporative toilets at Scout Lookout are being replaced with a new four stall facility. The existing toilets will be flown out using a helicopter. As it would be bad for PR if a head were to fall on someone’s head, the trail will be closed for a few days.”

“Holy crap!” I said.

That was yesterday. Today we on that very trail. We were supposed to start our four-day hiking experience with a relatively flat trail along the Virgin River to loosen up. But then we would miss out on the Scout Landing hike. So, we all watched the skies – just in case the helicopters started a day early – and started our first day on a hike listed as “a moderate, four-mile, four-hour, 1000-foot-of-elevation-gain trek.” 

“Need a breather!” I said, after five minutes of hiking. 

There were 22 of us in the group from all over the country. Road Scholars combines education with activity. The previous evening we had learned how the geologic formations in Zion National Park are part of a super-sequence of rock units called the Grand Staircase. Uplift affected the entire region, known as the Colorado Plateau, by slowly raising these formations more than 10,000 feet.

“Did he say ten thousand feet? I’m dizzy just thinking about that.”

We also learned that Native Americans and Mormons help settle the area. In 1909 President William Howard Taft created Mukuntuweap National Monument, which I guess didn’t fit well onto souvenir mugs because the National Park Service proposed changing it to Zion, a name used by the local Mormon community and much easier to spell. 

At orientation we also got to know a little about each other. One guy introduced himself as an astronaut. Two other people said they had worked for NASA. I told the group I had been spaced out most of the 60s.

I stopped to let my wife catch up and for a water break, looking back at all the ground I had covered so far. Some people on a park bus driving by on the main road waved at me. 

“Moderate!” Pat gasped. “Someone needs to change the definition of that word.”

It’s not that we are out of shape. We walk on the bike path in Santa Barbara quite often, where the elevation can go from sea level to more than 11 feet. It’s just that the air is thinner when you are this close to Mars. Plus, we don’t have a hundred switchbacks, which I was now looking up at.

“I think I see the top!”

“That’s not the top,” a fellow hiker said, breezing on by. “That’s just the first lookout point.”

“Can that be true?” Pat asked.

“Nah. What can an eighty-year-old woman know?”

We trudged on. The switchbacks reminded me of the lines at Disneyland. You walk a long way, turn, and walk a long way back, turn, and do it all over again. Finally, though, we got to a point when the trail straightened out some. “Glad to be done with those,” Pat said.

“Wait until you get to Walter’s Wiggles,” another hiker said, practically sprinting along. Jeez. How many 80-year-olds are there in Utah?

“I read about Walter’s Wiggles,” Pat said. “It’s a series of 21 steep switchbacks just before the top named after Walter Ruesch, the first superintendent for Zion National Park.”

“Just twenty-one?”

The Wiggles were much shorter and narrower switchbacks, so we only had to stop a half-dozen times. But we finally reached Scout’s Point and sat down to have lunch.

“What’s that?” I pointed across to another trail. This one had chains to grab onto.

“That’s Angel’s Landing,” Pat said. “Steep and dangerous. You gonna do it?”

“I would, but, ah, I’m afraid the angels might want to recruit me right now for heaven and I hate to miss tonight’s lecture.”



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