Emerald Pools and Turkeys
Soon enough, the stars faded. To our east, the mountain ridges grew backlit with the glow of the approaching sun.
We still had our parking space in Zion. Unlike the other Zion hikers, we didn't need to take a chartered bus to get into the park. We were in it already. We only needed to claim our place in the line for the Zion trail buses.
We reached our car in the lot at dawn. When we'd arrived at four, we'd been alone. Now we weren't. Other folks had parked around us, occupying most but not all of the spaces. The tourists were still arriving. Diane and I tried to rest. After a while, we knew we couldn't. There were too many lights, engines sounds, and people getting out to talk right next to us. We hopped out and followed the other hikers, who were forming a line at the shuttle bus stop.
After a few minutes in line, I felt awfully glad to be early. We weren't even going to make it onto the first bus. Before dawn, hikers travelling alone or in pairs had crowded to the front. What's more, the people arriving after us formed a human snake that wove back and forth between the guided fencing for a hundred yards and spilled out to become an unruly double-wide line for another hundred.
Eventually, slathered in sunscreen and wearing our sensible hats, we climbed aboard the second shuttle. Diane had decided our course of action. We were headed to the Emerald Pools Trail.
The Emerald Pools walk requires multiple trails, really. They aren't supposed to be particularly popular ones, either, but this is Zion National Park. We saw people ahead of us. And behind us. This, despite how we had arrived on only the second bus taking tourists into the lower park.
With our mild-mannered, semi-professionally hiker-dressed crowd, we crossed the road to the trail head. We formed a line and marched in. Fortunately, it was a shared trail, early on, which meant it soon branched into multiple paths. Different hikers chose various ways. Others who stayed on our trail fast-marched far ahead of us. I suspected we wouldn't see most of them again.
"Which way?" I asked Diane, pointing to where we had reached our split.
"Not the Lower Emerald," she replied with an eye to the hikers who had proceeded us.
"Upper, then?" I felt pleased by her choice because we were venturing onto the path almost no one had taken before us this morning.
As it turned out, the route to Upper Emerald got fairly steep and rocky. Mostly, though, it proved to be a winding, wooded lane that led us upwards, mostly gently, to a small, mossy pond. The source of the pond was obviously (now that I understood what generating one entails) a seep spring to my view. The emerald pool gets filled by way of the drips from the cliff overhanging it.
Still, it's a pond. Even with the tadpoles in it, there's not much to do there except glance around, nod with satisfaction, and move on.
We hiked down to the Lower Emerald, which was a bigger and better site than Upper Emerald. We could see at once why it was more popular. Fortunately, the place had emptied after the first rush. We strolled around it and found ourselves on a different path, which was also marked as belonging to the Lower Emerald. According to our map, it should have looped around to take us back to our launch point. That's not what happened, though. It didn't curl back. Instead, it took us south next to the Virgin River all the way to the Court of the Patriarchs, a mile away.
When we realized what was happening, we shrugged and continued because we had come to hike. A mile in the forest, even an unexpected mile, is not too much. Soon enough, we could make out the bridge leading over the river. We knew we could cross there and hop on the bus to have a rest or find another trail head.
Except we couldn't. A sign there said the bridge was closed. The park service hadn't updated the map they gave us, obviously, but the bridge was in pretty terrible shape and must have been that way for a couple of years. So they had time to update it but they didn't. They had posted a sign instead. It told us that if we wanted to get back to the other side and catch the shuttle, which by this time we certainly did, we needed to go to the bridge at Site Six, which we had just left, or at Site Four, which lay to the south by way of a trail called Sandy Bench. We chose to continue to Site Four, which was named Canyon Junction.
"This is a horse trail," Diane announced as we dodged piles of horse poop at the entrance to Sandy Bench.
"We expected it." A hundred yards earlier, we had pointed to the stables.
For a while, I dreaded running into a line of horses in the narrow pass. We would have had to climb out of their way. There was barely room for a single animal so large. We had seen no place at all where a horse could fit comfortably with a pair of hikers. However, the Sandy Bench trail soon widened and turned to sand. Sand is a tough surface to hike but we slogged through it. Along the way, we spotted wild turkeys followed by their peeping, meandering babies, some weird insects, squirrels, turkeys again, lizards, and more. And turkeys again. And more lizards. And more turkeys.
Everywhere there was sand, we saw lizards. Everywhere there was underbrush, we saw turkeys. There was a lot of sand and underbrush along Sandy Bench.
Finally, after more than three hours of hiking, we emerged at the Canyon Junction bridge, which was Site Four according to the signs and map. We paused to stare at a unicycle someone had abandoned in the woods, shook our heads in disbelief, and crossed the bridge back to the road. We saw the bus shelter and marched for it.
When we noticed three hikers emerge from another trail and turn toward to the shelter, I glanced at my watch.
"I think," I said, doing the math, "it's been more than ninety minutes since we've seen other people."
"You complained," said Diane. She was right. I had.
"It wasn't a good sign that everyone else disappeared." My thinking, such as it was, had been: experienced Zion hikers knew about the inaccuracies on the map. They knew about the horse poop on Sandy Bench. They understood about turkeys and the risk of cougars hunting them. They weren't impressed by lizards. They had learned the difficulty of slogs through the foot-deep sand.
"I thought it was nice," she concluded.
And it was. I was almost always pleased to see the turkeys. I'm still sort of impressed by the lizards.