Into the Desert

We spent an extra day with Will and his family in Denver before taking off for the next leg of the journey. Despite our setback the day before, I really cherished our time with Will, and left inspired by how tangibly he was manifesting the growth he had incurred at Bowdoin by returning to his old high school to teach underprivileged students from the Denver area. It was a beautifully cyclical process of growing and giving back, and merging one’s “why” motivation with a grounded understanding of “who I am” and “who I want to be.” It left me with renewed confidence that if I continued to cultivate and follow these core aspects of myself, the “what” would intersect with circumstance and fall into place.

We were headed to Zion National Park in Utah, but took a hiatus en route to watch the US-Belgium soccer game. At this point we were thoroughly hooked on the World Cup, largely because it was such a global spectacle that brought so many different people together. I could feel the energy emanating off the field in most every game, and the excitement was infectious. We found a place that was broadcasting the game–a dive bar in Western Colorado–and comforted our nerves by going to town on an all-you-can-eat salad bar. My emotions vacillated with the ebbs and flows of momentum, and my heart clenched every time Tim Howard made a superhuman save. To my dismay Belgium pulled away with the lead, but as I was beginning to undergo the grieving process of defeat, the US scored a late goal. I was borderline spastic at this point, yelling irrationally at the television in a state of neurotic optimism. Eventually time ran out, and our World Cup run came to an end. We exited the bar in a state of dejection, and I resolved that I wouldn’t drink a Stella for a good long time…

As we made our way through western Colorado and into Utah, I was captivated by how the dramatic topography of the landscape persisted yet became enveloped in a ubiquity of dryness. Imposing mountains covered with the woodiness of coniferous pines gave way to jagged precipices of bare sedimentary rock, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had entered the surface of Mars. I was amazed to see how much open, undeveloped space we have in the United States, but humbled to observe that this place seemed so hostile to the existence of life. I realized that throughout my life, I had an implicit presumption that I could easily adapt to the dynamic temperament of nature, even without clinging to the comforts of civilization. I retained a sense of adaptability through some the coldest winters in Maine, and some of the hottest, most insect-ridden parts of Sri Lanka. But in this place, I experienced a real sense of fear of the endless abandon that surrounded me. Wherever home may have been, it was surely far from here.

After a long day of driving through the unforgiving desert heat, we arrived at Zion National Park on July 1st. The dramatic cliffs and explosive red coloration of the rock became that much more accentuated, converging together to frame a beautiful valley with a flowing river that provided vitality to the barren landscape. From the entrance of the park, shuttle buses escorted visitors to a series of stops along the way, with a dramatic narrative providing a slightly informative yet awkward backdrop to the ride. Eager for some taste of adventure away from this trodden path, we headed off the road to go swim and mess around in the river. We attempted to build a dam, had a rock throwing competition, and rode down the current on a giant log. In retrospect, I think our antics were large an expressive embrace of youthfulness—a way of rebelling against the formality and expectations of how to engage with nature in this place, as well as an affirmation of our adventurous spirit that could not be suppressed or tied down by the pressures of the “Real World.”

We found a campsite for the night, though were discomforted to witness the temperature plateau around 90 degrees. We arose the next morning committed to finding a respite from this treacherous desert sun, and decided to take on a trail called the Narrows. The Narrows is a hike in which you trek up the Virgin river—at times piting you as much as chest deep in the water—with canyon bluffs spanning thousands of feet in the air on either direction. As we embarked on the trek and towering walls of rock converged upon us, I realized this was a landscape unlike any I’d experienced before.


Ethereal beams of light descended from the sky as the morning unfolded, interplaying with shadow and the contours of the surrounding rock to dramatize the experience of trudging through the river. And as the sun grew stronger, our refuge in the cool riverflow became that much more welcome. I thrived on the raw feeling of fully immersing my mind and body in this place, with the trappings of technology and the modern world tucked away from the unforgiving will of the river.


We reached a distinct high water point in the trail, and decided to turn around so as to abbreviate the 16-mile round trip hike. As we returned back to the head of the trail, I was startled to encounter a bustling crowd of visitors bathing in the river. My fixation on the beauty of the landscape subsided as I tried to reconcile the irony of people delighting in this place en masse and the ostensible retreat from civilization it provided. As we weaved through the crowd, I couldn’t help but think we had found our way into a waterpark.

Our time in Zion prompted my friends and I to think a lot about the ethos of a National Park, and the kind of natural experience it really provided. On the one hand, we were somewhat disappointed that such a remarkable land area was subject to such a paradigm of consumerism–ogling rock formations through the glass of a bus window as a narrative voice offered an awkward semblance of suspense, snapping photos incessantly to encapsulate an image of perfect equanimity between (wo)man and nature, and chowing down in a food court as the kitchen churns out pizza and hamburgers and ice cream and all the culinary indulgences of the modern world we enjoy that bear little resemblance to the fruits of a place like this. In addition, we were very much “unnaturally” sheltered from nature in the confines of an air-conditioned shuttle bus and under the surveillance and protection of the National Park Service. Zion offered less of an escape from civilization and more of a civilized objectification of nature itself.

Perhaps less romantically, however, we appreciated the pragmatic access to the natural world that Zion National Park provided. In a “Real World” of consumerism, this place offered a glimpse of the undeveloped world as it is, and as it can be. The park constituted the use of a modern paradigm by delineating this land area and providing an accessible means of experiencing it, while also preserving it from development in a way that transcends this paradigm. In that way, it was a feasible means of reminding us of our origination from the natural world, and prompting us to reflect on and appreciate our relationship with it. Those who might not have otherwise had access to the outdoors were able to experience this place, and were thereby given a stake in understanding how we Americans navigate our complex relationship with the environment in the 21st century.