Thursday, September 04, 2008

Remembering Zion

The Zion national park in Utah is breathtaking, by every definition of the word. The red cliffs and mountains rise rapidly all around you, and the Virgin river looks placid enough, but was in fact responsible for those massive canyons and “narrows”. The place is absolutely perfect for some spectacular hikes, on trails that cling tightly to one side of a mountain, while on the other side there is a few thousand foot vertical drop. This place is not for those with an uncontrollable fear of heights.

The hikes were fantastic, the river was wonderful, the water icy cold, the rocks were picturesquely jagged, and the wildlife plentiful. And the place is far out in the southwest, with the nearest decent airports hours away in Vegas or Salt Lake City. So it was a little surprising to find the place filled with visitors. Sure, it was Labor day, and there were plenty of Americans, and plenty of adventure seeking foreign nationals who live in America (such as yours truly). But what really surprised me were the number of European and Japanese tourists in the park. On the trails, the languages most frequently heard were German, German, German, English, Japanese, more German, Italian and Spanish. The Germans (and I’m including the Austrians, Swiss and sundry here) were everywhere. Break out a few kegs, and you could have early Oktoberfest.

Why Zion National Park, and why not any place else? Is there some tourism agency somewhere in Berlin or Munich or Frankfurt telling all Germans to head out to America, and while there, to make it a point to get to Zion national park?

And not surprisingly, at the more scenic view points at Bryce and at Zion, away from the harder hikes, there were plenty of Indians around, as we discerned voices in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Punjabi as cameras clicked away.

Zion and Bryce canyon were very contrasting in many ways. Sure, Bryce had some more impressive geological formations that ice and water (and some wind) had carved out, not least the abundance of hoodoos and natural bridges, but to me Zion had a more “intimate” feel to it. Hiking up steep peaks or wading through the river towards the narrows seems like a timeless pleasure. But after a while of looking at gargantuan grand natural amphitheaters or massive canyons, you can actually tire of them. I love the Grand Canyon, and was suitably impressed by it, but have tired of it after a couple of visits. Bryce gave me the same feeling. But I cannot say the same of Zion. It is a place well worth visiting repeatedly, with something new to discover each time.

The National Park Service was at its best at Zion. The park was as well maintained as could be (given the sizeable number of tourists), and the shuttle service around the park was great. I can only imagine the nightmare the cars that crisscrossed the park before the shuttle service was established must have caused. Now all you need to do to get around the park is to hop on a shuttle and head out towards the next sight or hike. But what was really impressive was the design of the visitor center. It blended perfectly with the mountains all around. Importantly, it had been designed to minimize its energy requirements and consumption. The building had large cooling towers on all sides, which would cool air as it brought the air in, hence keeping the building cool (and it can get pretty hot down there). For heating during the cold winters, the long, south facing roof panels could trap solar heat, and warm the inner rooms. And the building maximized natural lighting as well. The landscaping around the park avoided lawns and water-pools and instead used only native plants. That meant that most of the landscaping around the visitor center needed little or no care or watering, but the plants thrived in the unique climate of the region. “Appropriate” can be used as a dull and boring adjective. But in this case, the visitor center was appropriate, and anything but dull. Since conservation is at the core of the park service, it was gladdening to see the message being implemented, and so elegantly at that.

We discovered that great pizza can indeed be found in pizzerias in the unlikeliest of small towns, even if they are not called Papa Del’s or aren’t located in Urbana, Illinois. The little town of Springdale, right outsize the park entrance, is about as touristy as it can get. There are some delightfully eclectic stores or historic inns amidst a mix of outrageously overpriced restaurants and souvenir stores. While wandering around looking for some decent and affordable food, we came across the uninspiringly named Pizza & Noodles (a pizza and pasta bar), and entered it expecting pizza mediocrity. Instead, we found an outstanding assortment of gourmet pizzas, and our taste buds exploded as the crust and toppings touched our tongues. The pizzas were superb, and there were more vegetarian options here than I had ever seen (perhaps catering to those eco-conscious vegetarian Germans?). It was well worth our time and money (cash and check only, no credit cards please).

This is more a general observation than anything else, but why are national parks filled with people who are mostly white or Japanese (with a smattering of Indian or Chinese visitors)? In most national parks I’ve visited across the country, there seem to be a few Hispanic visitors, and fewer African-American visitors. Any conspiracy theories out there?


FĂ«anor said...

Hi: very evocative! I've never been to the Rockies, but if I ever go, Utah is top of the list... Your observation about the absence of minorities in parks is accurate. Here in the UK, there's an organisation called Ramblers who support and encourage hikers and walkers, and there are few minorities of any ethnicity that participate in them. You might see the odd school-child, but few adults of Indian or African ancestry. In fact, in a bid to promote health among these minorities, many municipalities have tied up with the Ramblers to organise free walks in the city and country; an elderly desi woman who participated in one recently and enjoyed herself thoroughly remarked,"I thought this was something only white people did."

A similar aversion seems to exist in matters cultural too. In the US, I rarely saw any black people or desis or Hispanics at Broadway shows or art exhibitions or the theatre. In the UK there's possibly a slightly better participation, but still far less than one would expect given their share of the country's population.

Sunil said...

feanor....I think you'll love the rockies. There is a rugged, stark beauty to them that is unmatched.

Its interesting to see your observation of minorities in the UK as well. Why do many of us dismiss stuff as "stuff white people like", as if it will not appeal to us? Is there a cultural component towards recreation?

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Sunil said...

destination infinity....thanks for that pointer. I actually haven't heard that one before, and it seems to work fine in my IE, but i'll investigate this. Could you tell me which version of IE you are using? That might help me figure this out.