Up to the High Mountain
I spend my work days seated at a desk in front of a window offering a view of what must be the most splendid skyline on earth. The Temples and Towers of the Virgin in Zion National Park. I count it a blessing every day to look up from my computer screen and scan those towering cliffs where the wide, flat cap of the West Temple and the eternal spire of the Sun Dial, and the red-washed table of the Altar of Sacrifice cut a stunning horizon against the blue and cloud swept heavens. My dear and now departed friend J.L. Crawford was born beneath that skyline, little more than a stone’s throw from my desk, and he used to visit me there and tell me stories of growing up at the foot of those towers of stone and how, even 90 years later, he never tired of the view.
Recently, a Russian journalist visited me in my office. As I often do, I offered him the chair at my desk and I sat across from him and watched as he attempted to interview me without making eye contact. I’m not sure he heard a word I said as it was obvious his eyes, his mind, and his heart, were in a state of distraction beyond his control.
When I’m in that chair I’ve learned to keep my eyes down in order to get my work done. But every time my chin rises, I have to remind myself to keep breathing. Every time my eyes lift to that skyline it is as if time stops and I can hear the blood whispering through my veins and the words of Isaiah and the notes of Handle’s Messiah scroll across my senses: O, thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. And then, slowly, I begin to feel the earth’s rotation again beneath me and my eyes fall and my mind descends once again to the business at hand. Though my heart tarries in that place where I was, and takes its time returning.
There’s something about Zion Canyon that can drive a guy to poetry. It must be an innate desire to somehow express what we are seeing and feeling. But Zion is the kind of place where, too often, mere words fail us. In thirty years of trying, I’ve never quite been able to translate to words what I see and feel in the canyon. So I often turn to others who have done it for me.
Clarence Dutton, a captain in the army whose Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon was published in 1882, was supposed to be writing a scientific monograph for the U.S. Geological Survey. What resulted was a poetic narrative which became one of the first eloquent responses to the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. He began his several pages covering the upper Virgin River with this statement:
“In coming time it will, I believe, take rank with a very small number of spectacles each of which will, in its own way, be regarded as the most exquisite of its kind which the world discloses. The scene before us was The Temples and Towers of the Virgen.”
Dutton went on: “Nothing can exceed the beauty of Little Zion Valley…in its nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison. No wonder the fierce Mormon Zealot, who named it, was reminded of the Great Zion, on which his fervid mind was bent – ‘of houses not built with hands, eternal in the heavens.’”
Frederick Dellenbaugh, who accompanied John Wesley Powell on his second expedition of the Colorado River in the early 1870s, returned to southern Utah three decades later as a freelance journalist and painter. He spent a couple of weeks in Springdale during the summer of 1903, making forays into Zion Canyon to research the article he published in the January, 1904 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, and to work on a series of oil paintings he would exhibit in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
As he made his way by wagon up the river toward the canyon he was stunned by what he saw. He expressed the impact of that first encounter in words that were read by hundreds of thousands of Scribner’s readers the next winter:
“Away below, sage-covered slopes extend to the distant green of Virgin City, overshadowed by the towering magnificence of the Great Temple, standing unique, sublime, adamantine…. There is almost nothing to compare to it. Niagara has the beauty of energy; the Grand Canyon, of immensity; the Yellowstone, of singularity; the Yosemite, of altitude; the ocean, of power; this Great Temple, of eternity…. We are at last face to face with the Unattainable…. There comes a feeling that it ought to speak, to roar, to belch forth fire and brimstone, to give some sign of the throes of world-birth it has witnessed since the rocks were dyed in the antediluvian seas. But only the silence of the outer spheres encircles it; in all that wondrous expanse of magnificent precipices we hear no sound save our own voices and the whisper of the wind that comes and goes, breathing with the round of centuries.”
Okay. Time to take a deep breath, lower my eyes, return to ground level, and get back to the business at hand.