A President's Reflections

The Great American West

Posted on July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July.

We are spending the holiday and our vacation in that most quintessential of American places: the canyon lands of Southern Utah.  We have rented a house just outside the eastern gate of Zion National Park and later this morning will drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  This is an area that everyone should visit.  It is awe inspiring in its grandeur, beauty, drama, and scale.  It is an area that looks like no place on the east coast and like no other place I have visited in all my travels.  While a bit hokey, nearby Kanab’s town motto rings true: “The Greatest Earth on Show.”

Can I start by saying again how much I love the US Park Service?  I’d like to divert all my tax dollars to supporting it, because these parks out here (and what a concentration of them: Zion, the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches, Canyonland, Capital Reef, and more) are meticulous, well managed, user friendly, affordable to all (we bought a year long pass to all national parks for $70 — that wouldn’t buy hot dogs, sodas and popcorn for four at Fenway).  At Zion, one can’t drive the main scenic route, but a shuttle service runs every few minutes with stops all along the way, and it is clean, well-narrated, and efficient.  The rangers are incredibly knowledgeable and have education programs and still wear those retro Smokey the Bear hats.  Hands down: the best federal agency.

To get to our house we actually had to drive through Zion, entering through the west gate and the busy little town of Springdale.  You can drive the west-east route, Highway 9, through the park and oh, what a drive it is.  We drove through the stunning canyon with its soaring red sandstone cliffs and then made our way up a series of “don’t look over the side” switchbacks, moving from the canyon floor to the top some 2,000′ higher, and then through the Zion- Mt. Carmel Tunnel, a1.1 mile long unlit tunnel completed in 1930, and finally to the top of Zion and the east gate.

If you could look down upon the whole region here, the Colorado Plateau, it is actually a series of steps, geologically speaking (and is dubbed the Grand Staircase).  Each of the parks here is a step in that staircase, with the top of one park creating the floor of the next.  So Zion gives way to Bryce gives way to Grand Staircase-Escalante to Arches and so on.  All of these have been cut into deeply by rivers — mostly the Colorado and Virgin River — at about 1000′ every million years.  Humbling stuff, geology, and makes one feel very puny really. 

Erosion and calcified ancient sand dunes and weather and more all serve to create the most dramatic rock formations and colors and textures and canyons that narrow and dive deep into the earth and then soaring mesas and cliffs to which settlers gave names like The Watchman, The Great White Throne, the Checkerboard Mesa, and The Towers of the Virgin.

We  apparently chose to visit during the hottest stretch of weather in history.  It was 119 degrees as we drove through the appropriately named Valley of Fire in Nevada and made or way north to Zion.  There are extreme heat advisories all over the parks, so our hiking has been in the morning.  The first day was along the easy and usually crowded Riverside Walk up the canyon along the Virgin River.  We got there early and ahead of the crowds and the cottonwood trees and tall walls of the canyon kept us in cool shade for this lovely level walk. 


We then hopped on the shuttle to one of the stops down canyon and hiked up to the Emerald Pools, a gradually rising trail that affords better and grander views as we climbed.  We passed under cooling waterfalls

and mostly hiked in the shade until we got to the last half-mile to the Upper Pool, a shaded oasis of cottonwoods and cold, green pools tucked into the sheer walls of Lady Mountain that offered some respite from the mounting heat (105 when we finally finished around lunch time). 

We packed lots of water and Gatoraide and followed the Park Service’s repeated admonitions to stay hydrated.  Also, the 6000′ elevation makes its own demands and there was a lot of huffing and puffing along the trail.  We took the Kayenta Trail back and going down is a heck of a lot easier than going up. We were amazed to see some people just starting their hike at the peak of the midday heat.   There are enough intimations in the Park Service’s materials to convince me that they routinely deal with all manner of stupid and even reckless behavior.  A day later we were at Canyon Overlook’s soaring fenced-in viewing area and listened to a guy urge his girlfriend to climb to an unfenced area for a better photo.  I couldn’t watch.

We rewarded ourselves for our five miles of hiking (that doesn’t sound like a lot, but the up and down and elevation/heat makes it feel like a lot more!) with lunch at charming little MeMe’s Cafe back in Springdale.  People sure do seem nicer here, an observation we often make when traveling from the east coast.  Whether the rangers, the waitress at MeMe, the old cowboy in the passing pickup who waves, or the hippie cat caretaker at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, we have been met with unfailing smiles and grace.  Service at the Bear Paw Cafe (I had to buy a tee shirt) was slow as can be, but the people working there charming even in their apparent ineptitude. 

The next day we did the short, but fun hike up to Canyon Overlook and its amazing views down the canyon. 

The trail clings to the cliff walls and at one point there is a walkway suspended out over the chasm. 

It looks worse than it is and there are fences along the narrowest and steepest drops and whole families were easily hiking it, but it was no less magnificent and the views at the top were sweeping and gave a great sense of the whole. 

Yesterday we spent the day at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the US.  It is a truly remarkable place, founded some 30 years ago by a group of friends (now called the Founders) who pooled their money and bought 3,000 acres of canyon land in Utah.  One of the founders, Faith, saw us at lunch in the cafe ($5 vegetarian buffet and a million dollar view out over the canyon), and joined us and shared the story.  Locals thought they were fleecing this group of hippies who were willing to pay $300 per acre for land that had been overgrazed and had poor water rights (which are everything out here in the arid west). They’ve now grown to 3700 acres and lease another 17,000 acres in stunning Angel Canyon (location for the Lone Ranger tv series and the movie The Outlaw Josie Wales).  Today, BF is the largest employer in the county with 500 employees and an annual budget of $60m.  It cares for over 1700 animals of every kind: dogs (featured in National Geographic’s “Dogtown”), cats, horses and donkeys, pigs, birds, and even wild animals need to heal and be returned to the wild.  They run a state of the art clinic, a sprawling and beautifully designed range of buildings, and even a lovely animal cemetary, and have something like an 80% adoption rate.

But the real story here are these amazing people who take care of every animal no matter the malady or dysfunction.  Many of Michael Vick’s dogs were sent here and while severely damaged, BF staffers patiently healed their damaged bodies and psyches and many have now been adopted.  Even into homes with small children.  Our guide confessed that she holds out hope for Michael Vick to maybe come visit and donate, saying “If we believe that every animal deserves a second chance, we should believe that for humans too.”  Wow — these people are something else.  After a morning of touring and volunteer orientation, we spent the afternoon in Cat Town.  They love volunteers to simply help socialize cats who have often suffered at the hands of people, so we often simply sat and let cats come to us.  Some are still too traumatized and kept their distance (some are even off limits except to staff), but many hopped onto our laps and purred and reveled in the attention.  Two kittens were cute beyond words, of course.

The many “houses” in Cat Town care for cats in all situations: overweight cats (dubbed The Biggest Losers”), old cats, sick cats, and cats with severe disabilities.  The only time an animal is euthanized is if it is in pain that can’t be relieved.  Faith even told us about a horse which needed a badly injured leg amputated and for which they found a surgeon who created a prosthetic.  We should take such care of human beings, though watching other visitors and volunteers interacting with the animals I was reminded of how animals often bring out the best in people (or the worst, as some of the animals’ stories readily attest).  An important point here: BF takes no public money either state or federal and relies on donations (the average gift is small).  Another observation from our friend Sy Montgomery came back to me again and again during our visit: “Animals love their lives as much as we do ours.”  It makes me happy to know a place like Best Friends exists and that people like those we met are there.  We  are a better species for them.

We are signed up for Saturday morning volunteering in Dogtown.  Now that should be fun!  Off to the Grand Canyon, a place none of us have ever visited and for which I am so excited to finally see.  More later.



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