“Come on!” yelled the guy on the four-wheeler. “People do it all the time. I’m sure you’ll make it.”
He shrugged as if our Mercury Villager minivan was made for crossing rivers, and then zoomed across the river, the water tugging at the tops of his wheel wells.
“All right,” said Mike, my husband, taking a deep breath. And in we plunged.
This trip, a kid-free adventure in Zion National Park with a group of fit friends, was all about plunging. (And not the toilet variety, although there was some questionable water involved.)
We had come to Zion looking for good hiking, a little swimming, and some climbing. Zion and the surrounding area, full of deep slots, windswept rock, and the meandering Virgin River, combines the best of nature into a luring siren song of adventure.
I was looking to find that part of myself that is full of wonder — the part of myself that I easily find in Utah’s slot canyons. The part that is sometimes squashed by daily routines, diaper changing, and keeping my children from doing dangerous things like not wearing shoes, and poking sticks in light sockets, or running into the road.
The part that awakens when I can feel and see how infinitely small I am. The part that knows that it is only when we are faced with the danger of loss that we feel truly alive. The part that thrills when I am threading my body through wind-brushed sandstone, not able to see around the next bend, with the canyon walls brushing my shoulders and soaring to the blue ribbon of sky above, and I climb, every muscle cramping to make it over the obstacle, and even though I am small, I am triumphant, and the world sings with beauty.
One of the hikes that fills me with this awe is The Subway, a beautiful adventure that, the last time we did it, included a rappel, swimming under a chockstone lodged between two walls, and climbing numerous obstacles. Only 80 people are allowed on the hike a day, and it can be difficult to obtain a permit.
For this trip we applied through the online lottery and got a spot early in June, which we were hoping would make for perfect weather. Unfortunately, due to unusually high water levels the Subway was closed from the top down.
Instead of skipping the hike altogether, we hiked from the bottom up, a five-mile scramble up the river and back out again. It was still a good hike, but nowhere near the feeling of the top-down route. The bottom-up route cuts out the swimming and the rappelling and takes away that dash of adrenaline that comes from doing something dangerous.
When we reached the section the hike is named for, because it looks like Mother Nature has hollowed the encroaching walls to make room for a high-moving train, we swam through a short section to reach the waterfall room and then climbed up with the help of some webbing to Keystone Falls, an 8-foot waterfall that is downclimbed or rappelled if doing the top-down route.
The canyon walls were beginning to darken and we were shivering at this point, so we headed back to the sunshine and to a long slog down the river, with soaking feet.
So it was that we found ourselves crossing the river in the Villager, barreling up a narrow side of the ridge on what was surely a four-wheel-drive only road behind the owner of Sugar Knoll Bed and Breakfast, Mike Rogers, still in search of the slot canyon experience we had been denied by hiking from the bottom up at Subway.
Since all the backcountry permits in Zion were taken for the day, we had driven to a small gift shop in Mt. Carmel Junction, just outside the park, and there they printed us off directions to a slot canyon called Red Cave, where we were headed now.
“Umm, I’m pretty sure your tire just went off the road there Mike,” said Matt Pebley from the backseat.
The Villager bobbed along merrily. At one point the six of us had to jump out and push it up a sandy incline through the juniper trees while Rogers waited on his four-wheeler for us to catch up. His lead to the top of the ridge saved us a couple hours of hiking on a boring dirt road.
We tried to pay him for his troubles, but he refused to take the money. “This is your land guys! Have fun,” he said as he sped off.
After a short hike through a dry river bed we approached what initially looked to be a solid canyon wall, but as we neared an opening appeared, with sand-volleyball perfect sand piled up at the entrance. We left the hot sun and entered the cool reds of the slot.
I wound my way through giant curvy pillars of cliff wall and felt the adventure take hold. A little ways in, the walls narrowed to one foot-in-front-of-the-other width, and we scrambled across a dry fall and up a four foot rock.
“Hey look at that dead rat,” said Cristina Pebley, Matt’s wife and the other female on the trip, as we encountered a stagnant pond of murky water. We skirted the smelly water by rock-hopping across it and then scrambling up a slippery 7 foot rim to the next part of the canyon.
As we continued to climb we encountered a few rocks caught between the billowing sandstone walls that were easily climbed by an experienced climber or, for those of us not-so-experienced, with partner assistance, or with the help of our 50-feet of webbing.
We walked single-file on the sandy bottom, admiring the canyon’s curves, stopping to ponder our route over the boulder obstacles or to snap pictures of the light playing in the shadows.
“All right,” said Ryan Watkins, an experienced climber, as we came to a narrow section, about 15-feet-long, full of water. “We can either head through this stagnant water, or we can try and stem it, slowly working our way to the top of that boulder up there.” He pointed to a rock wedged between the walls, about 10 feet off the ground.
Ryan easily crossed the water, pointing out a dead lizard. Soon it was my turn. My feet slipping a bit, I wedged them against the opposite wall and sat back. My shoulders and back scraped the wall as I moved like a sloth across the walls, pausing to push my feet into the wall and inch along.
“Just imagine that it’s full of alligators, Steph,” said Richard Dunkley, the other experienced climber on the trip with us. “That’ll motivate you.”
I smiled grimly, wedging my back painfully into the sandstone, trying not to slip. The water did not smell refreshing.
The slot seemed to peter out and open up ahead, but then swiftly closed around us again. As we walked we heard some eerie scratching and calling ahead. Ravens. One of them seemed to be injured and another bird kept flying in the cramped space, up and then back to it. The injured one hopped under a rock and the other followed.
“Do we dare go past it?” I asked. “You know, ‘Quoth the raven nevermore,’ and all that.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of freaky,” said Mike. But we quickly climbed over the birds and were on to the next obstacle, another live obstacle, in the form of a small rattlesnake blocking the path.
“We’ll have to kill it,” said Ryan, ever practical after almost stepping on the thing. “If we just scare it, chances are it will just hide under those rocks that we have to go over. I don’t like that idea.”
So we killed it. And by we, I mean I stood there frightened while the guys threw three or four large rocks on it. I pictured myself sucking the venom out of a wound and decided that it was better the snake than us.
We plunged past the snake’s funeral pyre and continued until the walls fell away to meet the sky and open desert again. And then it was back to the car, working the same obstacles (minus the snake) backward.
That night, back at the cabin, I felt the tender spots on my body — a scraped back, a good bloody scratch down my left shin, and a few small knuckle wounds. And I smiled, the bubbly taste of adventure still on my lips.