It’s a chilly, damp, morning in Zion National Park. I enter the mouth of the Narrows – a sixteen-mile trek – alone at 5:30 am.
I hear the leaves on the aspen trees whisper and collide like dominoes, watch the Virgin River careen effortlessly around bronze and black boulders the size of small Volkswagens, and glimpse the first rays of sunlight peak over Angels Landing – a dangerous 1,500-foot cliff of sandstone rock and jutting juniper trees. The hues of the morning sky – sapphire blue, gold, ruby, and the fading pitch-black of the night – are pure and clear.
I am where I should be, I tell myself
“I suppose that what in other men is religion is in me a love of nature.”– Henry David Thoreau
City life echoes the centuries, but nature tells millions of years. I care, but the wilderness does not. I search for meaning and purpose, anticipate and forget, cherish and despair, but the river flows. The mountains stand and erode. Wildlife forages and preys. Life and death continue ad infinitum.
Somehow, it’s easy to lose sight of simplicity when I’m busy looking for it. I want peace, happiness, time, and fulfillment, but my desire for these experiences prevents me from having them.
“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” – John Muir
Problems are relative, and I give them shape. Nature reminds me of this fact. The more I want something, the less likely I’ll have it. The more I resist – an emotion or thought– the sensation intensifies. My life floats between the walls of desire and aversion because I enforce these impulses.
As I trudge waist-deep through crystal blue and turquoise water, pulling my weight back against the current, and allowing the dry Utah winds to run through my soaking garb, I realize the confinements of polarity – good/bad, desire/aversion, failure/success – has dissipated. I’m confined, at this moment, only by the sheer cliffs that tower thousands of feet above.
The world is quiet. I call out to strangers to reassure my isolation, to no one; the echo ricochets like a pinball down the narrowing gorge and drifts out of reach.
Once I experience the tranquility in my mind and body, I’ve returned to the world of abstraction. The train of hikers funnels past me like a conveyor belt, and the sun rises over the cathedrals of rock, illuminating the dark crevasses and alleyways between the mountains.
I’m back where I started. The visitor center churns in the peak of high season – retired men and women, young children, and 20-something couples – scour the park. It’s all very safe. Most aren’t there for solitude; the canyon is a two-way highway after 9 am, as hikers unload off the Zion Shuttle into the park.
People want certainty, familiarity, and stimulation. There are those, however, that defy convention and look for more than a spot on the trail map; a spirit of discovery in a world gridded and mapped down to every small contour, and marked by the most daring seekers. Our thirst for adventure is what makes us human.
However, breaking the duality of desire/aversion, good/bad, and pain/pleasure can’t be scaled like climbing the high mountains.
The wild is a reflection of ourselves; a place that’s familiar and unfamiliar, beyond abstraction, and also wholly liberating.
I connected with this place in myself in Zion and found the quiet, content space underneath my troubled mind is always there, despite times feeling a million miles away. All I need is the courage to search again.