I have always loved hiking and backpacking, but I have never loved crowds.
In fact, most of my excursions into the outdoors have been for the precise purpose of escaping my life of crowds and interacting with people. Now, though, on a week long trip to visit three National Parks in the western part of the United States, I need to accept that I will not always be hiking alone. I cannot escape the crowds at Zion National Park.
The shuttle bus is crowded with people. I sit pressed up against the wall, knees drawn into my chest, head tilted up towards the cracked skylight where I can see a sliver of blue sky, the bluest blue I have ever seen, and the bright glaring red of chiseled sandstone. Over the loudspeaker, the melodic, pre-recorded voice tells us that when we walk the trails of Zion National Park, we should learn to listen to the wind and the water in order to hear the song of the canyon.
No one seems to be listening to the voice of our guide. The other hikers around me thrum with nervous energy. Boots tap a staccato rhythm against the plastic floor. Several young men who look to be in their early twenties huddle close together, pointing to a map. All around me, people are talking in whispers, as if we are children on a school bus again, and the driver has yelled at us to be quiet. The bus shudders to a stop, announcing that we have arrived at a trail head, and the bus car surges into motion. Like a confused herd of animals we rush the bus doors. It is a relief to step outside into the cool morning air (yes, it is cold in the desert). I stand a few paces away from the bus and wait for my family. Once everyone is assembled, and we have made sure that we have enough water, we start walking to the trailhead.
Today we are hiking Observation Point at Zion National Park. With several thousand feet of elevation change and steep drop offs, it is going to be an all day, challenging hike. I tilt my head back when we reach the trail sign and see nothing but jagged red rock and sky. The trail is carved into the sandstone, and while I know it is safe and broad, from this distance it simply looks like jagged crevices in the rock. We start walking.
I have always loved the solitude of hiking, and I wonder how I am supposed to listen to the song of the wind and water, as the guide suggested on the bus, when I am constantly surrounded by other panting, tired hikers. Still, I wanted to come to this park and I wanted to experience the desert. At this particular moment, that means dealing with crowds.
As we continue to hike I find that I do not mind sharing the trail. Passing other hikers means small nods of encouragement, shared water breaks, shared laughter and an odd sense of community. The other hikers are here for the same reason I am: to experience the wonder of these rugged mountains. I am from Ohio, and come from a world of green fields, forests and rushing rivers. Zion National Park is completely foreign to me; around every corner there is a new discovery—a flowering cactus, a lizard skipping across the trail to safety, a snake, once, sunning along the side of the trail. As we hike the increasingly steeper switchbacks near the summit, fierce winds and steep drop offs force me to hug the side of the cliff. As I stand clinging to the cool sandstone, I see a few other hikers up ahead, hear their incredulous, exhausted laughter drifting back towards me on the wind. Maybe that is the song that the guide was talking about?
Hiking in the desert for a week was an interesting experience of both community and solitude. In the crowds at Zion, both on the bus and on the trail, I found a sense of community, of shared wonder for the beauty of this incredible world we live in, where rivers carve canyons in sandstone and humans dedicate their lives to preserving the natural beauty of the desert. In Bryce Canyon National park, I stood in the desert surrounded by sand and watched snow fall in the middle of May, alone on the trail except for my family members. In Grand Canyon National Park, I experienced a crowded trail again, and cried when I looked down into the seemingly endless canyons and crevices because I could not believe that something so beautiful existed.
My week in the desert taught me that hiking does not have to be about solitude. Hiking can be about a shared community, a shared desire to preserve, protect, and experience this incredible land on which we live.
Sometimes, listening to the wind does not mean listening to the silent stillness of the desert. Sometimes, listening to the wind means hearing laughter up ahead, the breaths of the hikers in front and behind you, a silent acknowledgement of: yes, we are here and we are alive, and isn’t the color of this rock amazing?
I learned that the desert is the Earth’s heart scraped raw, that in these layers of rock I can see the history of this planet, bloody and filled with iron and minerals. I could not have learned these things without a community of people who fought to protect, understand, and educate others within these National Parks.
You do not have to be in the desert to learn to listen to the wind. The next time you go outside, pause a moment to listen. I think you’ll find that it’s song is more beautiful than you could have imagined.