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Ask Me If I’m Sore

by on May 29, 2019 5:00 AM


The boy stood on the opposite bank from his grandfather, who had just crossed the creek on a bridge of rocks.

“Grandpa,” he said, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

That kid, maybe 6 years old, was way smarter than I had been the day before.

Three days before, I had arrived in Salt Lake City, intending to hike and camp in one of Utah’s “Mighty Five”: Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Zion, Canyonlands or Arches National Park.

It was raining and the forecast said it would continue to rain. Left to my own devices, I would have ditched the outdoor plan and explored the indoor wonders of SLC, whatever they might be. But I was visiting my son Ethan, whose thirst for adventure was only whetted by the prospect of dirty weather.

Our first stop, once we passed the anti-evolution and “are-you-going-to-heaven-or-hell?” billboards along I-15, was Cedar Breaks National Monument, just north of Zion.

The good news: The rain had stopped.

The bad: There was snow on the ground.

I thought back to the only other time I had camped in snow: Spring break — Rocky Mountain National Park — a girl named Carol who had long blond hair, round wire-rimmed glasses and a lovely laugh. The wind blew so hard that night that only the parts of the tent that were anchored by our bodies made contact with the ground.

Forty-five years, three children and one grandchild later, I was thinking cabin with kitchenette. “I’m so over it,” the desk person at the Brian Head visitor’s center said of the late-May blast of winter weather. My sentiments exactly.

She suggested we try Zion, where we might find camping at lower elevation. So we did, though the campground where we pitched our tent looked less like wilderness than like the tailgating lots around Beaver Stadium on game day. In other words, there were more RVs than tents.

On the plus side: flush toilets and running water. Also, the rain held off until after we had set up camp and assembled our burritos. By then we were into the bourbon.

In the morning, after breakfasting on bagels with cream cheese, tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers – you can take the old man out of New York City, but you can’t take the New York City out of the old man – it was hike time. The National Park Service helpfully categorizes Zion’s trails as easy, moderate and strenuous.

“Strenuous hikes,” says the NPS, “are physically challenging, but some can be mentally challenging as well. Several of these trails include walking along steep cliffs and holding onto chains for safety… Your safety is your responsibility.”

Naturally, we had to do strenuous, and if you’re only going to do one strenuous hike in Zion, Ethan thought it should be Angels Landing, where eight people have died in the century since Zion became a park. NPS description: “Long drop-offs. Not for young children or anyone fearful of heights. Last section is a route along a steep, narrow ridge to the summit.”

The first chunk of trail was cake: flat, wide, paved and dry. Then came rain and Walter’s Wiggles – a series of huffy, puffy, but unscary switchbacks that brought us to a dramatic lookout that would have been a perfectly reasonable place to have a snack and snap some pix before retreating to the valley floor.

But the distance to trail’s end was only a half-mile. A stroll — though the sign indicating the distance featured a silhouette of a falling body.

Entirely up to me, Ethan said. No pressure.

This was my “I-don’t-think-this-is-a-good-idea” moment. Instead, I thought, surely the Park Service wouldn’t let people do this if it were truly dangerous. 

Russell Frank, foreground in blue, on the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park.

Up we went, Ethan goat-footed, only occasionally availing himself of the cold, wet chain; me, hanging onto it for dear life. Picture a path the width of an airplane aisle, except steep, uneven, with 1,000-foot drop-offs on both sides – and wet.

I can’t believe the Park Service lets people do this, I thought.

Given the weather, when we reached the summit, we were a little like Everest summiters: Instead of resting and basking in our triumph, we took a quick pic and turned tail. Going down was just as hard as coming up.

One very cool thing, though: Dozens of waterfalls that hadn’t been there before were pouring off the cliffs and into the canyon, and when we got below the wiggles, the once-dry creek filled and flowed.

There were other silver linings:

If it hadn’t been raining the trail might have been crowded.

If it hadn’t been raining, it might have been hot.

If it hadn’t been raining, we wouldn’t have seen a prismatic curtain of color on the mesa as we pitched a new camp in sagebrush country outside the park.

If it hadn’t been raining, we wouldn’t have felt like a couple of crazy bastards, father and son, sipping our bourbon and resting our weary bones.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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