Return to Zion

A ranger halts westbound traffic during road work on SR9.

Every return to Zion opens the heart.

The thin-layered red rock, like piles of tinted puff pastry; the deep gorge that is the centerpiece of the park, carved by the deceptively named Virgin River; the waterfalls; and the wildlife—for all these my husband and I keep coming back to this national park in southwestern Utah.

And so, when a change in itinerary at the end of September brought us to the area, we hoped to camp in the park. Road repairs on SR9, the single road through the park, slowed traffic to 20 miles per hour, which enabled us to get better-than-usual views as we headed southwest toward the visitor center and campgrounds.This would be our sixth visit, and it would make up for abortive visit No. 5, last year, when an attack of severe back pain made me realize, after we had located a campsite, that I couldn’t put up a tent. I felt then that I had turned my back on Zion. Perhaps I had become an anti-Zionist.

This time, fate was conspiring against us again. The sky lowered and it rained occasionally. A massive storm system covered the entire southwest, and thunder showers were forecast. Not great indications for tent camping, but we were still hopeful. Then a ranger told us that one of the campgrounds was already full and that another was filling up quickly, though it wasn’t even noon. We would have to hurry. But it’s hard to hurry at 20 mph.

By the time we got to the campground, it was full. The visitor center, which looks more like a supermarket for books, T-shirts and tchotchkes than a place to get information from a ranger, was full. Its parking lot was full.

Michael McLory, who was manning the register at the visitor center that day, told us that the park has 3 million visitors a year.

“Between Easter and Thanksgiving it’s always busy,” he said. “They’re lovin’ us to death.”

And it’s been that way for decades. Until the end of the Sixties, the park was not well known, Ranger David Rachlis said in 1995 in a wry evening presentation entitled “All roads lead to Zion.”

But completion of Interstate 15 in 1971 meant that “25 percent of the population of the United States lives within a day’s drive of Zion.” Instead of being a mysterious part of the wilderness, the park had become just an “exit off the interstate,” and visitors were coming “not just to see nature’s spectacles, but for recreation.” The national park, he said, was becoming part of the vast “Las Vegas recreational park.”

In the 1970s, 12 to 14 tour buses arrived each day; by the 1990s, 60 to 70 were jockeying for parking space.But, Rachlis added with a wistful sigh, after eight years in the park, he had come to realize that “the true Zion has always been just a few steps from the roadway.”

And we undoubtedly would have been reminded of that, as we were in 1995, had Zion allowed us to stay. This time Zion rejected us. Does this make us post-Zionists?

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.


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