This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.
In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.
At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.
In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.
The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.
After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.