A full moon hangs low in the west, playing through wisps of cloud left over from the rain earlier in the night. In front of the truck, huge black sentinels jut up into the heavens, indistinct and back lit. The truck rounds a bend, and the here the sentinels jump into detail where the moonlight hits the front, jagged peaks and tall ridges. The road is a red ribbon winding through this dark obstacle course, and any manner of mystery could be hiding just out of view around the next bend. There isn’t another soul on the road and the wind is still, a deep silence reigns. On my phone, the clock reads 5:44 am.
In a few hours, this will be a bustling tourist attraction, full of the sound of motor vehicles and voices in numerous languages discussing the hikes and views, and perhaps most of note on this day: the weather. But right now, it could almost be another planet. This is a side of Zion National Park that few visitors will ever experience.
The sound of Bertha’s engine roars through the mile long tunnel, the only time she’s had it all to herself. Out the other side the moon has continued to set and now balances precariously over the West Temple, illuminating the top half of the canyon and leaving the bottom a pit of inky black where monsters may lurk. As I enter the switchbacks that descend into that darkness, another truck emerges from the tunnel behind me.
We play a game of tag, criss-crossing on the switchbacks one level removed, our headlights bouncing wildly across boulders, stunted trees, and the canyon walls. As I round a curve to the next level down, a statue appears in the ditch, a statue with what could be four legs and antlers. Is that a mule deer? But before I have time to fully articulate the thought, momentum carries me around the corner and the apparition is reclaimed by the night, monsters indeed.
Near the bottom, two new players enter the field, one coming down from the tunnel and another climbing up from the canyon floor. With four sets of headlights, we look almost to be stuck in a maze, our positions passing each other without ever meeting.
Outside of the maze on the canyon floor, soft yellow eyes peer out at me from behind a curtain of vegetation. Windows with signs of life inside. It’s now after 6, and park employees are getting ready for a new day inside their housing. They probably don’t know just how busy of a day they’re going to have. The canyon walls open up, and I become aware that the darkness is no longer as complete as it was. The moon hovers just over the horizon, yellow and diminished, but behind me in the east the sky is getting lighter.
In Springdale and Rockford just outside the park, the serious early bird hikers are emerging from their hotels, poles and backpacks in hand and ready to tackle Zion. They will not be entirely successful. I pass on through, one vehicle among several now, the quiet spell of nighttime broken.
Dark blues turn to purples and pinks in the rear-view mirror as Bertha threads her way west. La Verkin, Hurricane, and St. George appear ahead and then are passed. A sign looms up: Arizona, the Grand Canyon State Welcomes You. A star shines on the sign, mirrored by the sun rising behind me, but the tall stark walls of the Virgin River Gorge conceal it’s face. Before too much longer, dark heavy clouds will be covering it’s face. Very little vegetation grows here, the lower elevation and hotter temps probably have something to do with it.
I spy my very first Joshua trees in the flats past the gorge, and the sun finally makes it’s appearance over the mountains behind and sets the desert on fire. I15 carries me backwards in time and 8 am becomes 7 am again, welcome to Nevada. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time I’ve been in the Pacific timezone.
A blink of the eyes, and like a mirage skyscrapers shoot up from the sand, out of place in a landscape of sparse green bushes and distant peeks capped with clouds. Palm trees and hotels multitudes of levels above my pay grade line streets that are reminding me of Atlanta, ten lanes of traffic full of commuters anxious to get to work on a dreaded Monday morning. I’m actually a little disappointed that a city like Las Vegas should still be a slave to the 9-5 routine.
Helicopters tours fly overhead with peculiar regularity. To my left, a miniature but still impressive statue of liberty proclaims the entrance to an amusement park, all around billboards advertise gambling activities.
I stop into a PetSmart to pick up a couple items, then navigate the confusing corridors of McCarran International Airport, looking for Terminal 3 and trying to coordinate a pickup.
And at 8:30 am local time, I finally accomplish the goal of this drive. Julie and her cat Chance are safely off the plane and into Bertha, and we ride back to Zion and the RV. Julie is on sabbatical from work, and will be traveling with me for a few months, possibly longer, we’re going to work Amazon together this season. We chat and enjoy the sights on the drive back.
But it’s a special day for more reasons than just this. Many miles to the south and east, Tropical Storm Norbert is churning off the coast of Mexico, and sending unusually moist air into the region. This part of the country is about to experience the worst flooding it’s had in years. In less than 24 hours, three sections of I15 near Moapa between Las Vegas and Mesquite are going to be completely washed away, the Virgin River in Arizona is going to swell to many times the normal size and send waterfalls cascading over the road, and rockfalls are going to shut down Zion National Park down for the first time in over a decade.
As Julie, Chance and I climb back up the switchbacks in the park, the first of the thunderstorms are rolling into the region, and the rangers who were just waking up when I passed by in the morning are now hard at work pulling the serious early bird hikers out of the far sections of the Narrows before the river becomes an unstoppable force.
Tomorrow I shall be very glad indeed that Julie’s plane came in at 8 am Pacific on September 8th, and not 8 am Pacific on September 9th, when I might have been one of the poor souls who’s vehicle got washed away in the flash flooding.
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The park closure made for a very busy day at work yesterday and between that and getting Julie and Chance settled in this post is running late. 80% of the store was flooded yesterday morning and about a quarter of our tent campsites have become part of a stream bed and are still inaccessible, but Cas was parked on higher ground and we’re all fine. Zion did reopen yesterday at about 4 pm, and the forecast for the next five days is calling for ample sun which will help a lot. Assuming conditions remain favorable, I’ll be visiting the south rim of the Grand Canyon on tomorrow and gorgeous pictures of neat destinations will resume.