Wednesday, October 25 – Driving through southern Utah, the landscape changes are often immediate and stunning. From a rolling sea of slickrock to high-altitude pine forests to towering red rocks, it’s hard for us East Coast flatlanders to absorb. Approaching Zion National Park, the rocks again change to red – and so does the road. Jagged, majestic peaks jarringly transform the landscape.

We were on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and entered the Mt. Carmel tunnel, meandering through total darkness until we exited and encountered another series of switchbacks down to the Zion valley below.

You could stop the car every five yards and take a picture.

(I try to describe all these scenic byways and landscapes. We have photos and videos that do a much better job.)

Zion is quadruple the size of Bryce and attracts about 3 million visitors a year. Through October, visitors are required to ride a shuttle to the various trailheads and sights. We rode it to the very end, the Temple of Siniwava, and walked along the Virgin River to the famed Narrows. The river glistened among the fall foliage as the peaks loomed overhead. It was a beautiful walk on a paved surface, about 2.5 miles round trip, that we shared with hundreds of tourists from all over the world.

At the paved trail’s end, through hikers waded into the river in waterproof gear and then into the depths of The Narrows for a 3.6-mile hike that National Geographic ranked #5 of America’s Top 100 Adventures. But families of tourists also took off their shoes and waded into the chilly stream among the rocks, capturing the experience on their phones.

During our shuttle ride, we could look up and see tiny hikers working their way up Angel’s Landing, an infamous climb that ends on a narrow precipice with a 1,500-foot drop on either side. There is a chain to hang onto, that’s it. After we watched several GoPro videos of this climb, Sue decided it wasn’t for me (I agreed).

The most popular easy hike in Zion, Lower Emerald Pool, was closed off to hikers and access to the pool was now via a more difficult trail. I also hiked The Watchman, rated moderate, which begins near the Visitors Center.

A major road construction project made getting around Springdale and down to the park difficult. Our hotel was located out of town along a shuttle stop that was closed because of the torn-up road that created long one-way-traffic delays. The project will last until April 2018. But you could always look up at the mountains.

A testament to our underlying greatness

The trip was spiritually powerful for us. When you’re gazing out at the Mittens of Monument Valley or pedaling alone into the silent back country near Moab, you can’t help but feel reverence for this amazing creation. Well, not just one creation: the landscapes, topography, colors, vegetation, and rock formations would change as you rounded a bend and a totally different vista would roll out before you.

The purpose of these posts was not to be a blow-by-blow travelogue. The American West is a land everyone should visit. It’s far away from Washington, and not just geographically. You can understand the suspicion of bureaucrats and regulations and people trying to tell you how to live your life and make your living. These folks are Americans, too. In fact, they are probably what most of the foreign visitors to southern Utah imagine when they think of “Americans.” (We actually saw two cattle drives led by cowboys.)

Given how we are currently presenting ourselves to the world, I wondered what they thought of our national parks, our vast open spaces, our majestic scenery. Would that be their fond memory of America when they left? I wondered if the President had ever visited a national park as an awe-struck tourist, a camper, or a hiker.

The trip definitely helped me grasp our greatness and gave me hope that we are indeed bigger and better than the divisiveness, hostility, and pettiness playing out in the 24-hour news cycle. Nothing overcomes those artificially created divisions like eyes-wide-open travel and meeting your fellow Americans who don’t live and think exactly like you.

Next: Back on the plane

Photos from Zion National Park and Springdale