I used to believe that stoicism was the higher virtue, that when heading to the desert, I needed to prove I could survive with basically nothing. Wanting to be comfortable made me weak, a liability; a girl. After years of camping and backpacking, I know I can “go light,” I know I can make do. But if I don’t have to, and if the situation doesn’t call for it, then why? And so, I’m standing two days after the New Year, kicking snow off my boots on the porch of Bryce Canyon Pine’s “honeymoon” cottage on Highway 12. The cottage is in a little white outbuilding reminiscent of CCC camps from the 30’s. Inside, the fire place is stone lined, wood is stacked next to our door, the sheets are high thread count cotton, and the pillows are down. I look over my cozy little house and think, “%#&@* it” and flop down on the bed, propping my feet up with some of the half dozen pillows stacked against the wooden headboard. After building up a commendable fire in the fireplace, Heather disappears into her room and I snuggle down to watch the logs transform into embers, shooting off sparks that flit through the air before extinguishing.
The next morning I wake up early, rolling over in bed to peek out my window. The sky is blazing, the sun just beginning to illuminate the tall pines across the street; flocked and glistening. After making tea, I step out onto the porch and look around. I’ve never been here in winter and the usually beige and stone landscape of John’s Valley and the Mud Hills of the Sevier Plateau is softened and crystallized by snow; an angular landscape made round. The plateau where the hotel is situated is a blank canvas, sparsely vegetated, riding the back of a cretaceous seaway, where Dakota Sandstone blooms out from purple and grey badlands. The newly blanched plateau gives nothing away about its red interiors. One could drive past the turn-off for Bryce Canyon National Park and have no idea blushing spires and cardinal totems stand eroding exquisitely below the lip of this austere covering.
An hour or so later, we head into the park. I have never been to Bryce, winter or summer. The vast wilderness that is Escalante has always drawn me over this plateau, past the turn-off for the park and into its sinewy and secret embrace, away from crowds and entrance fees. But it’s snowy and freezing. Hole-in-the-Rock road is impassable and I feel the need for something new, a slightly gentler adventure that doesn’t entail being potentially stranded by mud and patches of wet and sticky bentonite.
After a short drive through thickly wooded flats and a brief pow-wow to decide where we should go, Heather and I find ourselves poised at the edge of a steep and icy descent into a fiery valley. From the tip of the Navajo Trail, I can see north to Powell Point, jutting out from the Aquarius Plateau as it rises up, stunningly green. And below us: red, red, red.
We descend slowly, iron stained ice impeding quick movement. It’s part way down this first stretch that I slowly begin to feel I am actually here; smooth skin-toned walls rising up around me, natural arches and peep holes revealing shattering blue sky behind, above, beyond. I spend all winter tucked away in the city, usually suffering from inversion and between-teaching-gigs-income (ie: flat-ass-broke), aching for this color, this texture, this landscape and now I’m here. I could lick the walls.
The sandstone formation making up Bryce National Park is an amphitheater of red towers, spires, and minarets clustered together like a pipe organ. This steepled wall begins high up on the plateau, extending semi-circularly for several miles and descending to a labyrinthine valley, open in areas and steeped with ponderosas in others, green specks in the sea of red. As the formation spreads out along the valley floor, some sections extend as blank walls between towers, stretching along to connect to one another. These walls separate discrete valleys, flesh toned arms hikers have to climb up and along and over to descend into the next tree-studded basin. Today, everything is frosted, making each collection of irregular shoots appear as though they have been iced like a cake.
I wander down in a dazed rapture. Heather meanwhile chats up everyone we meet along the way. She has a gift. People just want to talk to her. The first people we meet are a thoroughly sexy Belge couple from Antwerp (or was it Ghent?). Probably in their late fifty’s, the woman wears an off the shoulder cashmere tunic, a bit of lace from her camisole peering out from her bosom, skin-tight jeans with knee-high boots and snow-shoes. Smokin’. I look down at my men’s nylon pants, stained and cut from backpacking, and my poly-pro top and smile. Nearly everyone we meet throughout the day is from somewhere else: Swiss boys on holiday, a group of New Zealanders, and finally a nervous sounding guy from Queens. In all my time hiking in the back country and National Parks of Southern Utah, I’ve never actually met anyone from Utah.
After a brilliant and blindingly blue day we begin our ascent, chasing the sun as it sets. In order to maximize daylight hours and because we set off on a series of connecting trails that have wound us away from our initial trailhead and car, we set up the Bryce Point trail rather than the Navajo. The park trail guide describes the route as “extremely steep”, we will gain 1,555 feet in elevation in the next mile. Beginning to shuffle along in our ungainly Tubbs, I decide the trail description is insufficient. The steepness doesn’t bother me. The fact that the trail ribs along a narrow shelf halfway up a sheer wall, a trail that is currently snowed over in mounds, sliding down from chutes where it was piled this morning before day time temps warmed to forty degrees; that bothers me. Yes the trail is steep, but it’s the exposure and the ice and the potential for avalanche that has me doubled over, hyperventilating. I might be over-reacting, but the shelf of ice I just crossed groaned and the edge is so snowed over there isn’t an edge, and the abyss that is the canyon is right there. So I make Heather cross long after I do so that our combined weight doesn’t bring down the mountain and I cry when we reach a solid stone saddle. Still, the view is stunning, all the way to Navajo Mountain and Lake Powell. And I’d rather be here hyperventilating then in Salt Lake, unable to see out my window.
Upon reaching the top, we petition an elderly couple from South Dakota to shuttle us back to our car. Heather chats as I scarf the remainder of my snacks in the back seat and soon we are driving back towards our little home, our fireplace, a hot shower and bed. Stoicism be damned.