Tag Archives: hiking

… not such a bad place to die: A Memory of August

Starting at Sunset Point, the Navajo Loop trail in Utah’s Bryce Canyon is a moderately difficult 1.4-miles. A series of dramatic switchbacks leads to the canyon floor before the trail moves back up through the hoodoo-laced canyon to the rim. On reaching the floor, one looks up at the dots of people looking into the canyon from various observation points and thinks Was I up there? Back at the top, looking down into the vast reach, one wonders Was I really down there?

Bryce Canyon is one of the most memorable natural sites in the United States with its multitude of hoodoos rising from the red rocks of southwest Utah’s high desert. No matter how many photos one has seen, nothing quite prepares you for the first actual view from the rim. The hoodoos are the product of millennia of erosion. Indigenous people were likely aware of the place 12,000 years ago but human habitation of the foreboding area is only documented as recently as 200 A.D. Mormons settled in the general area in the late 19th Century, but its remote location made Bryce Canyon a relative late-comer to the tourist trade. That is probably a blessing.

The Bryce Canyon hoodoos provide a noble and majestic presence, silently watching over the landscape. Hoodoos are found around the world, but Bryce Canyon is the planet’s largest concentration of the eerie, often human-seeming, forms.

A reward of living among the Mormon throngs in St. George, in southwestern Utah, in 1995 was its proximity to amazing scenery. St. George was three hours from the north rim of the Grand Canyon; Zion National Park was less than an hour away in the other direction; and Bryce Canyon was an hour and change drive from Zion. If I ever got weary of natural wonders, Las Vegas was a couple of hours away during my more superficially-inclined days off.

I first saw Bryce Canyon and hiked Navajo Loop during that summer of 1995. I was with friends, we took our time, and the hike was peaceful, contemplative, and stunning from top to bottom and back. The trail includes some of Bryce’s signature locations like Wall Street and Thor’s Hammer. After hiking Navajo Loop, we had time and energy to explore some of the adjoining, picturesque, and less challenging Queen’s Garden trail.

Seven summers later, in August 2002, I was back in southwestern Utah, conducting auditions at a theatre in Cedar City. I added an extra day to the trip just to renew my acquaintance with Bryce Canyon. I picked up the rental car early in the morning so that there would be time to make stops along the way, especially at Cedar Breaks National Monument, another spectacular hoodoo-filled amphitheatre between Cedar City and Bryce.

On the dusty outskirts of Bryce Canyon National Park, I made sure to stock up on water and supplies at the general store at Ruby’s Inn, and to get extra sunscreen for what was already a sizzling day. Teeming crowds were along the rim road at several overlooks. I stopped at a few to view the grandeur of the Bryce Canyon amphitheatre before diving in.

With fond memories of my previous leisurely hike on the Navajo Loop, I decided to start my hiking there. With hiking boots securely tied and backpack sensibly packed, I embarked on the beckoning switchbacks that initiate the trail. There were far fewer hikers than gawkers and only a few hikers were above and below me as I entered the trail and began the descent to the canyon floor.

Taking regular short breaks to hydrate and savor the scenery, I reached the bottom of the trail as refreshed and enthusiastically as I had seven years earlier. To be honest, I was proud of my vigorous endurance.

Eventually, it was time to start my ascent and plot out the next hike to end the day. Pleased with my progress so far, I set off up the trail. Looking at the dots of people at the top, I thought I’ve got this.

The more I climbed, the more my legs ached to the bone. As I trudged, I felt the sweat dripping from every pore in my body – even the more inconvenient ones. I kept looking up to the blasted rim that never seemed to get any closer. I was guzzling water by this point, but it didn’t help.

The book of Proverbs cautions that “pride goeth before the fall” and I kept hearing that in my throbbing, sweating, miserable head.

Near the halfway point of my ascent, I flopped onto a convenient boulder and sat in a puddle of my own perspiration, trying to look like anything but a damp dishrag. Children stared as they passed with their parents; they sidled up to a mother or father, obviously asking about the desperate looking man on the rock. The parents, placing a firm hand on their back, urged them to keep moving.

A couple of times, hikers — either solo or in a pair — would ask, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I’d reply. “Just relaxing, enjoying the view.”

I was thinking This is not such a bad place to die.

I’m sure some of those early Mormon settlers thought the same thing, but probably with a more optimistic frame of mind. Although Ebenezer Bryce, one of those settlers, is quoted as saying “It’s a helluva place to lose a cow.”

Eventually, somehow, I rallied, got back up, and slowly climbed on. When I reached the connector to the Queen’s Garden trail, I mustered a wan smile, thought not today, and  got back to Sunrise Point and my rental car.

After sitting at the overlook for a spell and looking back at the depth from which I came, I drove away from Bryce, eagerly vowing to tackle it once again at some future time.

Eighteen Augusts later, I still look forward to it.

Hiking Red Mountain

     IMG_1085  Birmingham. Every Baby Boomer growing up in Birmingham was taught in elementary school that Birmingham is the only place in the world where iron ore, coal, and limestone – the three essential raw materials used to manufacture steel – can be found in such close proximity. Every local schoolboy of that generation knew that Birmingham was not in existence during the Civil War and that this unique confluence of natural resources had led to its founding as the first major industrial center of the post-war South in 1871.

The steel industry was still what drove Birmingham when I was a boy and both of my grandfathers worked in Birmingham factories – one at U.S. Steel and one at Butler Manufacturing.

I remember standing on the observation deck at Vulcan, Birmingham’s “Iron Man” statue overlooking the city, and watching with awe as the night sky turned bright orange as molten iron was poured at steel manufacturing locations in the western section, in north Birmingham, and at the Sloss Furnaces just east of downtown. For a young boy, the sight of such robust heavy industry was thrilling.

Vulcan now overlooks a city in which heavy industry is less prominent than healthcare and finance; Sloss Furnaces closed down in 1970 and was designated as a National Historical Landmark in 1981. The remains of the structures of U.S. Steel’s Ensley works loom over what is now a desolate landscape. I still look for ruins and remnants of the once vibrant industrial landscape as I drive around the area.

In 2007, as a result of the efforts of Freshwater Land Trust and dedicated citizens, ownership of 1200 acres of U.S. Steel-owned land on Birmingham’s Red Mountain was transferred and development began on Red Mountain Park (www.redmountainpark.org), an urban greenspace which now comprises over 1500 acres and twelve miles of trails. There are also an adventure area, zip lines, an 80-foot repelling tower, a dog park, and overlooks in the current development of the eastern Phase 1 of the park. At the overlooks, the hiker is afforded views of the city which have been unavailable for half a century. The Phase 2 western development, scheduled for completion in 2016, will include more trails and features. IMG_0520

Red Mountain Park has become my favorite place to hike. The layout of the trails enables one to do a quick and easy hike or a more rigorous and challenging one, such as the Ike Maston Trail, or to mix and match. The land, once active with railroad and mining activity from the 1860s to 1962, has reverted now to mostly wilderness.


A large appeal for me, though, is in the ruins of the industrial sites like mine entrances and shaft mines that pepper the site. One is walking in the woods and then there are the tightly secured masonry entrances to Ishkooda #13 or #14 mines, or the Redding Shaft Mine farther west. Encountering these ruins, it isn’t difficult to imagine the bustle of activity which once occurred in what is now such a serene and natural environment. One walks just a few feet away from these sites and is again immersed in total wilderness. It is as if the ruins are ghosts that appeared and then are gone.  They are.IMG_0516

I try to hike Red Mountain Park whenever I am in Birmingham for more than a day or two. It is a potent symbol of urban progress and commitment to the environment built on the relics of the progress of an earlier era.  IMG_1098