Zion National Park

Zion Lodge sits on the green floor of Zion Canyon, several miles in from the park entrance. Just across the road from the Lodge the modest North Fork Virgin River curls its way beneath an uneven wall of oxidized Navajo sandstone. The narrowness of the Canyon makes you feel as if you’ve tumbled into a lost world from which you might not be able to exit anytime soon. Meanwhile, though, amidst the beauty rustic comfort beckons.

The Lodge, especially under the partially overcast skies that prevail at our arrival, seems to huddle permanently in the shadows. The original Lodge burned down in the 60’s and the Park Service hastily erected a charmless, utilitarian replacement, along with similarly bland motel-like structures to house visitors. But we have the good luck to draw one of the cabins, which date from the 1920’s and are on the National Registry of Historic Places. Restored in 2010 based on Union Pacific Railroad photo archives, the cabins are furnished with blankets, pillows and curtains woven by Pendleton Mills and wicker-and-oak furniture made by the Old Hickory Company of Indiana, which has been manufacturing furniture for the national parks since 1904. Carpets were torn out and fir flooring installed. In the corner near the door is a diminutive stone gas fireplace.

Our cozy cabin in Zion National Park

These days all the national parks are going “green.” Zion, which is run by Xanterra, the current incarnation of the venerable Fred Harvey Company , appears to be in some sort of green vanguard. On the vintage-reproduction oak desk I find a thick, glossy corporate report by Xanterra detailing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint while still making a profit. I learn from the report that bottled water is no longer sold in Zion. Instead there are water stations where you can – and should — fill up your own bottle. (A similar initiative in Grand Canyon National Park has just been put on hold by the director of the Park Service, apparently to avoid offending the Coca Cola Company.) There are recycling bins in the rooms, of course. And rather than providing the usual travel-sized toiletries, the park has installed wall-mounted shower gel and shampoo containers, which make an inelegant first impression. But to begin with, you don’t come to the national parks expecting elegance —though when the old railroad lodges like El Tovar and Many Glacier were first built, they were supposed to deliver just that. And these days sustainability is becoming the last word in luxury, at least for eco-tourist wannabes like me.

Jim and I have just enough time for a short hike before dinner. This will be the rhythm of our road trip: pulling up, checking in, heading out – if we’re lucky – for a brief hike, eating, and, inexplicably tired long before 10 p.m., toppling into bed. So our hikes tend to belong to the “easy” and “most popular” categories, including this afternoon’s to the Emerald Pools. We wind our way up the first part of the trail, carved out of rock and covered in red dust, with a Babel of foreign tourists: Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Australian, along with gaggles of American children (what are they doing here at this time of year?) and their parents. Above the Lower Emerald Pool (there are three) the knots of hikers begin to thin out. Making it to Upper Pool involves an extra mile or so round-trip and some rock-strewn switchbacks. But when we clamber around the last corner and look down on the Pool, we see a small crowd of the Emerald Pool Trail elite milling around and taking pictures. A long-legged young Asian-American woman in abbreviated hiking shorts bounds up a large boulder at the Pool’s edge and exhorts a young, unattached male hiker to join her, which he’s pathetically eager to do. “If we get more people up here,” she announces, “we could do ‘YMCA.’”

No one wants to audition for the Upper Emerald Pools amateur hour. Maybe because they don’t understand English, or have never heard of the Village People or are attached to someone and don’t need to chat up babe hikers. Or maybe because they cling to a nineteenth-century notion of Nature as Cathedral. For such folks, of whom I’m one, this severe , sandstone sanctuary shouldn’t echo too loudly with human voices.

Jim at the Upper Emerald Pool

The next morning we have a little piece of Zion Canyon to ourselves. We take the shuttle to Weeping Rock and walk up the quarter-mile trail to a natural hanging garden formed by the hollowed-out underside of a cliff. Small springs seep out between the layers of porous Navajo sandstone and non-porous kayenta shale, creating a natural watering system. The Park has installed signs along the Weeping Rock trail to identify trees, flowers and ferns: box elder, shrub live oak, velvet ash, Oregon grape, scouringrush (a spiky, bamboo-like plant that was actually used by early settlers to scour pots), maidenfern, and golden columbine, which may be the yellow flower clinging to the wall in the photo below.

Weeping Rock

Without the signs the short hike to Weeping Rock would likely pass in a blur of green and, under today’s overcast sky, brick red. And even with the signs I can only manage to keep a couple of trees and plants in my head, undoubtedly the result of increasing age but also of long-abandoned practices: most of us aren’t in the habit of taking time to learn the names of trees and plants around us. In grade school I had to collect leaves and press them between sheets of notebook paper: locust, black walnut, pin oak. These days I couldn’t name all the trees out our livingroom window.