Saturday, February 6, 2016

Lessons I Learned While Hiking Through The Narrows

Hiking the Narrows: A Refresher Course on Life 
By: J. Foster 
As a recreational hiker and nature-enthusiast I frequently read outdoorsy magazines and enjoy researching cool, earthy places. For the past several years I have had Zion National Park’s, Narrows, at the top of my to-do list. After seeing a picture of two hikers trekking through the high-walled canyon, I was immediately compelled to follow in their soaking, wet footsteps.  
Several months ago, my hiking buddy and I began planning an epic road trip from Denver, CO to Mt. Carmel, UT with the Narrows as the ultimate goal. We took the southern route going down through southwest Colorado and up through southeastern Utah. We saw many attractions along the way but my spirit was most fulfilled accomplishing this bottom-up, half-day hike.   
After preparing our dry bags and finalizing our footwear choices, we entered Zion National Park. We parked at the Visitor Center and waited for the park shuttle to transport us to the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the line. This stop is where the Riverwalk Trail begins, a paved trail shrouded in lush habitation that follows the Virgin River and eventually leads into a deep, narrow canyon. Thus, the Narrows hike begins.  
We arrived at the trailhead at 10:30a.m, an hour and a half later than we intended but it did not deter us. Eight hours later, at 6:30pm, we arrived back where we started. Those eight hours hiking over rocks and small boulders, through a steady river flow taught me a lot about myself. It also reaffirmed several key lessons about life. Here are some reflections from our trip. 
*The processes of life are all around us.  
At the very start of our hike, just after the first bend in the river, we started to smell an alarmingly foul smell. I started having conversations with myself about how over-used such trails and parks have become, chalking up the odor to people not packing out their human waste. However, as I looked down and to the left, inside one of the first carved out openings that set back from the water there were maggots on the bottom of the rock wall. Of course, maggots symbolize death so as Rebekah and I looked to see what was decaying, we quickly saw the remains of a dead, rotting deer.  I imagine that the poor thing must have wandered into the canyon and got swept away by a flash flood, coming to rest where we now stood. Of course, this was not the most pleasant way to start out our adventure but later on in the day this experience took on new meaning; almost as clear as an Aesop fable.  
Throughout the hike we were surrounded constantly by three elements: rock, sand, and water. The entire canyon was a visual reminder of process, change, and the power of water. We observed the way the canyon walls curved and were carved, the way some rocks were smooth and others porous (Rebekah’s favorite word) from water’s presence. What is life but time and pressure? What is life but the processes of  burgeoning and decaying?  
At the very end of our awesome journey, as we walked with sore hips and tight quads back to the shuttle we came across a large deer, feeding on the bushes about six feet away from us. This lone deer noticed us and continued to feed on leaves, letting us watch. It was a striking end to the day…beginning the trek with death at our feet and ending the day with life and nourishment. The cycles of life are all around us.  
As we rode the shuttle back to the Visitor Center, I couldn’t help but overhear the people next to us. A lady who looked in her early forties, who was from Michigan, was talking with a woman in her sixties about all of the National Parks they have seen and hikes they still want to do. When the subject of retirement came up, the younger woman stated, “I think you just have to do it now. We aren’t promised retirement. You never know how much time you have.” 
*New Adventures Create Opportunities to Conquer Self-doubt 
As eager and excited as I was to participate in this uniquely beautiful and slightly challenging hike, I had moments of wondering if I was overestimating my abilities. Of course, taking a self-assessment is wise when undertaking such adventures but sometimes our inner critic can often judge too harshly.  
During the hike there were moments when my anxiety reared its head. Moments when a three feet width of river suddenly started to cause me panic (even hours into the hike, after already trekking through rushing portions of the same current). At times the dialogue in my head began asking such questions as: Am I going to fall? Can I make it? But I reminded myself that not only can I do this but, in fact, have been doing it for a few hours now.  
I remember reading some of the writings of Chris McCandless in my favorite book Into The Wild where he says, 
”…And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.” 
I took a deep breath and cautiously but with determination put one foot in front of the other, giving a silent middle finger to the voices of self-doubt. The feeling of accomplishment I felt as we walked out of the Narrows will stick with me the rest of my life.  
*Adventures Are Better When Shared 
Continuing the theme of Chris McCandless writings, he wrote in his journal toward the end of his life: “happiness is only real when shared.” And I must concur. 
I’ve always been an independent person (mostly) and I have done solo hikes and solo trips before. But there is something about having a friend or fellow traveler along that makes the moments richer and altogether more fun. I mean, every few minutes while hiking the Narrrows we had to stop and just say out loud, “Whoa! Look at the beauty” or some variation thereof. I imagine if either of us had been hiking solo people would of thought us mad, as we stopped to proclaim the beauty so exuberantly before us.  
But seriously, the laughs, the talks, and the shared experiences add to the enjoyment of the journey. And such is life….But even more, there will always be another soul with flesh on somewhere on this spinning globe that will know exactly what I mean when I say: remember when?  
*One Hike: Two Different Experiences 
The half-day, bottom up hike is one where you can only hike so far before you have to turn around and head back the same way you came (unless you have a special permit). On the way up the Narrows the sun was shining mostly directly down upon us. The canyon was bright and sunbeams danced all around us. On the return hike, the sun was less direct and the canyon became less illuminated. Thus, the canyons own natural colors became more visible. The river became more greenish-blue. Instead of sunbeams dancing it was now shadows that danced before us. Both directions were beautiful. Both directions offered different experiences; something I wasn’t expecting.  
I am reminded that sometimes I miss things the first time around.  
Sometimes I misjudge people. Sometimes I turn off my mind before the ride is over. Or I close my eyes before the real performance begins. If I had kept my eyes down on the return hike, thinking that I had seen it all before, I would have missed out on the canyons true beauty. 
 I must remember to keep my eyes open. And to remember that the elements of surprise and wonder may just be around the corner…even if it is a path I have already journeyed.  
*Sometimes it is helpful to plan your steps. Sometimes it is helpful to go with the flow.  
The river showed me things about myself.  
Besides bringing to the surface bits of self-doubt it also showed me parts of my personality and that of my hiking buddy.  
There were numerous times when we had to criss-cross the river due to boulders or one side being more or less rushing than the other. About twenty minutes into the hike I began to develop my own system of navigating the hike for myself. I would look upstream and see what was coming and where the white water was so that I could go around (if possible) the more powerful currents. The river became like a chess board as I tried to think two steps ahead. My hiking buddy was fearless. I noticed her several times taking on the river in sections where I chose to go to the left but she was chill with going to the right side. She was spontaneous and fierce; taking the river as it came to her.  
I believe life is best lived when balanced between these two approaches: planning and spontaneity. I must be mindful of how I tread and yet if I try to plan out every step I will certainly take all of the joy out of life (not to mention be very frustrated when unforeseen events occur). I must also learn to go with the flow.  
Like the river, I must remember that I am strong. But I must learn to bend. It is okay to have both deep and shallow moments. And it is okay to let people in.