Wharton: Zion National Park -- a spiritual place
The half-mile trail leading to the Zion Canyon Overlook seemed especially crowded for a late March day as families, youngsters, seniors and couples scrambled across its dusty path.
Stopping occasionally to chat, I met a couple from Buffalo who took the train across the United States and then rented a car to reach this spot. A family of Spanish speakers smiled as we kept crossing paths. They left their car lights on accidentally after riding through the tunnel and I volunteered to give them a jump start. Other languages, perhaps French, maybe Portuguese, were also being spoken as happy tourists posed for photos.
One of the great things about visiting a popular national park is the universality of the experience. I was served by a Polish waitress in the lodge, watched a volunteer with an English accent in the visitor center give my granddaughter her junior ranger badge and kept meeting foreign visitors.
I know this because Zion, which is celebrating its national park centennial this year, has played such a big part in my life.
It was the first Utah national park I visited when I first drove through its long tunnels as a lonely 20-year-old.
My late wife and I spent the first two nights of our honeymoon camping here in 1972. She was trying to turn me into an outdoor lover but didn't help her cause when we climbed to the top of Angels Landing on a hot June day with no water.
There are few trails in the park I haven't explored. I've backpacked to Kolob Arch, walked up the Virgin River to the Zion Narrows, rappelled into the Subway and explored Coal Pits Wash.
I've watched as snow covered Checkerboard Mesa on a Thanksgiving weekend and as a late summer monsoon storm created waterfalls nearly everywhere. Zion was one of the last national parks my late wife visited before her death. We hiked the Watchman Trail, her once sturdy body struggling with the combination of cancer and chemo.
I had to take my second wife to the park as soon as I could. Seeing her walk up the Riverside trail with her nephew, his wife and two young kids proved that it is possible to see an old place in a new way by viewing it through the prism of different sets of eyes.
Last March, I waited patiently in the South Campground for a rare family reunion with four children, two daughters-in-law, one son-in-law and six grandkids. We hiked, watched the kids get dirty and wet, laughed and told stories around the campfire late into the night.
After reading a couple of dozen stories about Zion submitted by Tribune readers for the centennial celebration, it's obvious that I am not alone in my feelings for this place. On warm March weekends, first surrounded by strangers from all over the world and then by kids and grandkids, I realized that Zion is a spiritual place. I can only marvel at the wisdom and foresight it took 100 years ago when few visited this land of towering sandstone cliffs for someone to see its value and set it aside so millions of us can now enjoy its largely unspoiled views.