Coming out is always hard. Leaving Timber Creek, the trail steeply climbs the back of the ridge with few switchbacks. The ground is baked clay. What little shade is found under the twisted branches of junipers and pinion pines. I pant hard and slow down. I’m not use to the altitude or carrying a pack. “One foot in front of another,” I tell myself, over and over again until the trail reaches the crest. Occasionally I pause and gaze at the red cliffs to my left, sticking out like fingers and rising upward of 3000 feet above Timber Creek. 3000 feet of sheer red rock; the sight is even more breath-taking than the climb. Finally the path levels out; I pick up my stride, cross a small saddle and scramble up one last short climb up to the parking lot at Lee’s Pass. T. is waiting, sitting on the curb by the truck.
John Doyle Lee, from whom the pass is named, lived in the small community of New Harmony, nestled up on the east side of the Pine Valley Mountains with full view of Kolob fingers. In 1857, as the head of the Mormon militia, he guided an attack by Mormons and Paiutes on the Fancher Party, a wagon train traveling from Arkansas to California. They were attacked at Mountain Meadows, on the west side of the Pine Valleys. The wagon train, thinking they’d been attacked by hostile Indians, held the attackers at bay for several days. At this time, Lee rode in under a white flag and offered to broker a truce. Running low on ammunition, the party agreed to be taken into custody of the Mormons who promised they would safely lead them back to Cedar City. Having surrendering their guns to the Mormon militia, every man, woman and child in the party over the age of six were killed. It’s estimated that 120 died in the bloodiest massacre of “white settlers” in the American West. For twenty years, Lee laid low. Whenever the heat was close to him, he’d leave his wives in New Harmony, cross over this pass and head to safety in the Virgin River Country. Later he operated at ferry on the Colorado River, at another spot that bears his name. Although he’d certainly had not acted alone and many think he was taking orders from his adopted father, Brigham Young, Lee became the scapegoat for the crime. In 1877, twenty years later and on the spot of the massacre, Lee became the only man punished for the murders, executed by firing squad while sitting on his casket.
I’ve made this hike so many times I can’t remember, but this is the first time with my son. We hiked into this area yesterday, dropping down this same ridge to Timber Creek and hiking a couple miles along the creek before climbing a knoll and then dropping into LaVerkin Creek. At the point where the trail joined the creek, we stopped and rested, leaning our packs up against the cottonwoods and reclining against them. T lit up a cigarette. I hadn’t said anything yet, but had noticed that this has become a routine for him. Every time we’d stop, he’d light up. It was probably against park regulations, but I see that he’s picking up his butts and hasn’t littered, so I cut him some slack. But this time he’s puffing away upwind and I tell him that I’d appreciate not to have to breathe the smoke. T apologies and moves to the other side of me, downwind. A few minutes later, I’m out taking pictures as the wind begins to howl, catching my hat and tossing it into the creek. It runs down between rocks, in and out of eddies, till I’m finally able to retrieve it at the bottom of a series of falls. T thinks this is funny and snaps a picture of me “half- nekked,” with my wet hat on. When my hat washed out of the last hole, I was stripping and getting ready to dive into the water and retrieve it.
From this point, the trail follows LaVerkin Creek into the canyon. We travel on up the canyon and into Willis Creek where we set up camp. T tells me that he’s been in here twice before, once with the scouts and again, about a year earlier, with some friends who hiked from Lee’s Pass, through Kolob and Hop Valley, across the Wildcat Canyon Trail and then down the West Rim Trail into Zion Canyon. I’ve done all these trails at one time or another, but have always wanted to do them in one hike of four or five day. I’m glad he’s had the opportunity. Before dinner, we hike up into the narrows of Willis Creek. Having hiked over ten miles that afternoon, I’m tired and we’re in our bags shortly after dark. Lying there, I listen to the wind howl through the canyons and watch the stars appear overhead, between the tall Ponderosa pines up on the bench and the cottonwoods down by the creek. For a couple hours, I doze off and on, scanning the skies when awake. At first the bright cross of Cygnus, the summer swan, is prominently displayed. As the evening progressed, it drops toward the west and Pegasus, the great square in the sky, the legendary winged horse, rises and fills the spot between the trees. Then I fell asleep and don’t wake until early morning when the stars are fading from sight.
The sun doesn’t get into the canyons until late in the morning, so we slept in. Or at least T sleeps, I don’t sleep much; I, mostly laid in my bag reading a book and watching the sun slowly descend the canyon walls. Then I got up and fixed oatmeal and coffee. Afterwards, we explored a little more around Willis Creek and slowly make out way back to LaVerkin Creek. There we dropped our packs and climbed ½ mile up a side trail to the base of the Kolob Arch, believed to be the largest arch in the world. Although I’ve seen it many times, I’m always surprised when I come around the bend and look up and behold again the arch, a thousand feet above me.
According to Mormon mythology, Kolob means “the first creation,” and is also the name of the planet nearest to the celestial, or the home of God the Father. These ancient yet magnificent cliffs could easily be God’s first act in creation and if I believed that the divine had only one place to dwell, I would think a place such as this would be tempting. Once when hiking out of the canyon alone, I heard what sounded like a rifle shot. I turned around to see a small section of rocks crack and give way from the top and fall below, creating a huge dust cloud that took fifteen minutes to clear. It was amazing to experience such power and a reminder that although the rocks seem to be eternal, they are constantly changing.
As we head out of the canyon, we stop at the knoll between LaVerkin and Timber Creeks, taking a last look into the canyon where we’d spent the night. I sit my pack up against a rock and sit down and lean back. This has always been my favorite recliner. T hasn’t been talking much this trip. But he seems glad that I asked him to join me. Sitting downwind, he lights up a cigarette. I fall asleep and am awakened a bit later as he’s shouldering his pack on. “I’ll meet you back at the truck,” he says, and heads off. A few minutes later I follow, knowing he’s got his own path to travel and can’t always stay behind in my footsteps.