Friday, June 28, 2019

Non Stop

I'm addicted!

I got to see Hamilton again this week. This is the third cast that I've seen, and I still enjoy the show dearly: by now I don't think there are many elements that I haven't picked up on before, so I focus more on the individual performances, how each actor's portrayal adds to or changes my impression of a character and the overall show.

This is the new "And Peggy" touring company, which played a series of shows in Puerto Rico to help fund reconstruction from Hurricane Maria and is now focused on a long-term sit-down performance in San Francisco; unlike the first national tour's opening in San Francisco, the next city hasn't been announced yet, so they may continue extending their engagement here while demand remains high. Based on the enthusiasm I've seen for the show and the strength of this performance, I think they may remain for a while yet; there probably isn't the population here to support a run as long as Chicago's, but then again, folks are willing to travel to see the show. I chatted with a family of four who had driven up from San Diego primarily to catch the performance, and talked about how this was the only music all of them could enjoy listening to at the same time in the car.

My literal perspective on the show was different, too. I'd previously seen the first national tour from the center rear of the orchestra and the center front row of the loge, and the Chicago performance from the balcony. This time, I scored tickets in the "F" row, close to the stage right side but only six rows back. It was really cool to be able to see all the facial expressions of the actors in great detail, which adds a great dimension to many encounters; Alexander in particular will often pull a face or perform a little celebration at the end of a conversation. The tradeoff was that I couldn't see the actual floor of the stage and so the turntables were invisible, but of course you can still see their effect; as a result, a lot of the movement seemed more subtle, or else had more of a floating effect.

I mostly want to talk about the actors, so let's do that!

Every cast has a very different Hamilton. Julius Thomas, to me, seemed very relational: You really feel his deep affection for his friends, his love for Eliza, his devotion to Washington. With Michael Luwoye, I kind of felt like Hamilton was sacrificing everything to feed his ambition; not in a manipulative way, but no single relationship was more important to him than achieving his ideal of greatness. With Julius, I felt like it was more reversed: it's his devotion to his newfound friends that thrusts him into the revolutionary cause, his admiration of Washington that convinces him to pursue government. Julius's Hamilton is really appealing as a result, someone I like and don't just admire.

Donald Webber as Burr was amazing, a buttery singer and smooth mover and talker. I should probably stop writing "This actor was good at singing and everything" since that's true for everyone! I felt like this Burr was a little more... hollow, I guess, in a way that was really interesting. It's like he puts up this smooth and charming facade to hide that he doesn't have much going on inside. He emphasized the "Smile More" aspect of Burr, while the other actors I've seen put more focus on "Talk Less"; their Burrs are subtle observers who want to avoid attention, while Webber's Burr is a pleasant participant who skims along the surface and avoids deep entanglements.

The night I went, Morgan Anita Wood was the substitute for Eliza, and I thought she was great. The more I watch this show, the more I feel like Eliza might be the hardest role: as a character she's introverted and deferential, and she doesn't get as many opportunities as Burr to sing to the audience about what's going on inside her mind. She was played with a lot of vulnerability and sweetness, truly helpless under Hamilton's gaze.

As a side note, I think this was the first performance of the show I've seen where the three Schuyler actresses looked like they really could be sisters. I don't think that's at all necessary, obviously; a big part of the show's vision is its reinterpretation of historical people. But I thought that did add a fun visual element to the show, to have a more feasible resemblance among the sisters.

Sabrina Sloan as Angelica was a very different take on the role. I think the other Angelicas I've seen have emphasized the intelligence and independence; they feel emotion, but keep it buried deep. This Angelica does a poorer job at hiding her attraction to Alexander, which was awesome to see: it adds more dramatic tension to his relationship with Eliza, and it was really interesting to see Angelica as a more vulnerable woman with deep longings.

Rounding out the trio, Darilyn Castillo was an almost opposite Peggy/Maria to the one in the first national tour. That Peggy was bold and sassy, while this one is bubbly and sweet: much more the archetypal youngest sister, she's wide-eyed at the world around her and nervous but enthusiastic about participating in it. Likewise, the previous portrayals of Maria had seemed deliberately inscrutable: more sexy, and I was left unsure whether she (the character) was a good actress scamming Hamilton or a desperate woman putting up a strong facade. With Darilyn, though, I didn't doubt that Maria was scared, and needy, and in anguish over the course her life was taken.

(Lots has already been written about this, but the musical's handling of Hamilton's affair really impresses me. It would have been so easy to say "Our hero has been tricked by this wiley woman, what a poor victim he is!" The show doesn't let Hamilton off the hook: it shows the reasons why he did what he did, while making it clear that those reasons don't excuse his action. It really forces the audience to steep in the uncomfortable consequences and avoids giving him a pass.)

One returning face for me was Ruben Carbajal, who reprises his Laurens/Philip role from the first national tour. He was great! Out of all the shows I've seen, this was definitely the best at portraying the unique Hamilton/Laurens relationship; I was looking for it in all of the live performances, and this was the first time I really saw it. I think that's partly because the two actors have great chemistry, and it certainly helps that Ruben has had so many years to hone and perfect the role. His Philip is heartbreaking and sweet, and honestly this was a better physical matchup with Julius than with Luwoye, which visually was kind of funny since that Philip loomed over his dad.

Simon Longnight was also the best Lafayette/Jefferson I've seen yet. Listening to the soundtrack, I thought of this primarily as a role that demanded a fast and talented rapper, but I now think that it demands charisma even more, and Longnight has both in spades. He has a great presence as the Marquis in the first act, and really comes alive as Jefferson, from his splendid entrance through all his comedic business with Madison and his bottled scorn for Burr and his chagrined admiration for Hamilton. Internally, you also get a great sense for the forces driving him; I've previously thought of Jefferson as a dilettante, a guy who enjoys playing the game but doesn't really have any skin in it, but this Jefferson really does care about his home state and his way of life and believes he is battling for a worthy cause.

My visceral favorite character in the show might have been Hercules Mulligan, which is always a fun role but who Brandon Louis Armstrong knocked particularly far out of the park. This version felt especially profane and was a delight to watch, bobbing and bouncing and thrusting, carrying his beat with him wherever he went. (Yet another side note: While the overall lyrics are identical in every performance, there are some vocalizations that vary. In "Right Hand Man," I expect Mulligan to say "B'rah!" in response to Hamilton's statements; here, Armstrong says "Uh!" instead. Very different, and really perfect for this character, who feels simple and direct and fun.) And, like the other Mulligans I've seen, Armstrong manages a complete transformation into Madison in the second act. This version emphasizes the side-kick relationship with Jefferson, which is a fun dynamic; in the first national touring show, Madison almost seemed to outshine Jefferson, and the Chicago version seemed like a toady, so it was great to see yet another possible relationship here.

I'd been looking forward to seeing Isaiah Johnson again. Along with Ruben, he was the other returning actor from the first national tour, and might have been my favorite performer of that cast (alongside Emmy Raver-Lampman). Unfortunately, he was out the night I attended, but his substitute Vincent Jamal Hooper was fantastic. His Washington was more human-sized than the others I've seen; you get the sense of his fear of inadequacy, that he won't be able to accomplish what he needs to do and everything weighing on it. In this show I felt like the Hamilton/Washington relationship was more one of peers, where each man needed what the other offered, than the father/son vibe of other shows. Again, the physical aspect of the actors may have played a part in my impression; I think that in all of the other productions I've seen, Washington has towered over Hamilton, while here they have more similar builds and see eye to eye.

Finally, Rick Negron as King George was a much scarier and more menacing presence than Rory O'Malley had been. Rory's George was mostly comic relief, very expressive and goofy. Negron, though, feels coiled and compressed, dangerous, like an animal about to strike. It's still funny, especially in the later songs, but here the humor cuts the menace rather than the other way around.

Visually, I thought that the ensemble was a lot more varied than before; I'd remarked earlier, how I felt like I was seeing doppelgangers for Betsy Stuxness, Carleigh Bettiol, Thayne Jasperson, and other members of the original Broadway cast. Here, I'm sure the tracks are the same, but the body types and coloring seemed distinct. But I did notice upon reviewing the performance credits that there were quite a few substitutions in the ensemble, so I'm not sure if that's always the case for this cast.

So yeah, I had a great time! When I first saw Hamilton I was mostly concerned about whether the live performance could live up to my sky-high expectations from the original Broadway cast recording. Now, though, I'm going into these shows most interested in seeing all the ways the different casts can pull it off: fresh spins on each character, different moods being projected, reinterpreting their relationships and dynamics. I know this is a big part of what theater is all about, but I'm still astonished at the incredible range of variations you can get while still keeping every word the same. Honestly, I doubt that this will be the last time I see the show, and I think the material is so strong that it will provide even more opportunities for future casts to discover new gems inside.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Midnight Chili

I'm continually revising my impression of Roberto Bolaño. For years I was under the misapprehension that he had only written two novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, along with a lot of poetry. I thought the books were brilliant and a sort of lost opportunity, that his relatively early death had deprived the world of a long literary career. Much later I belatedly realized that he had actually written quite a lot of prose, it just took a while for it all to be translated into English. Now I'm more impressed at just how varied his books are: there are some common themes connecting them, but their structures are radically different. It kind of feels like he was starting from scratch each time, coming up with a new way of writing and inventing fresh challenges with every book.

This was further reinforced with By Night in Chile, a relatively slim book with probably the most obvious stylistic choice. The book is 120 pages and a single paragraph long - well, technically one paragraph that's 120 pages and then a second paragraph that's a single sentence. It's written in a stream of consciousness style. The narrator is Father Urrutia, a priest and literary critic on his deathbed, reflecting back on his life. Many years have passed and his memory may be failing, and he'll often admit that he can't remember certain details: who he was talking with on a certain day, or whether one incident preceded or followed another. He generally advances the story chronologically, but periodically jumps back to provide more context or forward to show how something ended, and often will digress to give his opinion on something.

I was strongly reminded of Joyce while reading this, which isn't an association I've made with any of Bolaño's other books.  One interesting difference though, is that with Joyce you generally become fonder of a character as you spend more time with their thoughts, understanding their motivations and thought processes. In By Night In Chile, though, the opposite effect occurs, as Urrutia becomes even less sympathetic as you hear more and more from him.


Urrutia is a mildly pathetic character from early on: he always seems out of place, awkwardly moving around in a large cassock, often tongue-tied. He seems ill-suited for his role; he fawns after people who are more famous than him, and betrays an unease bordering on contempt for common folk. Even they, in turn, seem to look down on him, trying to show respect for his office while not being able to take him quite seriously, accidentally calling him "Son" rather than "Father".

His position in the clergy gives him some standing and amount of respect, but he doesn't appear to have any religious feeling; he opines on culture and society and literature, but never has anything to say about faith or God or virtue. It seems strange that he's a priest at all, but that may have more to do with my unfamiliarity with the culture than anything intrinsic to the story.

Besides the formal structure of the story, this novel also seems unusual in that it's set in Chile. I have a very surface-level understanding of Bolaño's biography, but from what I know, he was a socialist Chilean who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime and lived in exile for the rest of his life after his release. All of his previous novels that I've read have been set in other areas where Bolaño spent significant time: Mexico, Spain, other Latin American countries; Nazi Literature In The Americas may have had a chapter or two in Chile, but overall I think this is the first thing of his I've read that focuses on the country, which is an interesting lacuna in his overall bibliography.

Anyways, that's something that sort of touched off my radar that we aren't meant to be too enamored of Urrutia. Particularly in the later part of the book, it becomes clear that Urrutia sympathizes with the fascist movement that will propel Pinochet into power and support his reign. He doesn't seem especially ideological, but is most comfortable moving in those circles.


While I started off this book thinking of Joyce, by the end I was more reminded of Nabokov's Pale Fire, another book where we follow the thoughts of a pretty unlikable person. In particular, there are some really odd incidents and scenes Urrutia recounts that... I mean, this book is fiction, so they totally could have happened within the book, but they seem so odd that I am left wondering if they did happen, even within the text.

I started feeling this way around the time Urrutia meets up with Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef. The cloak-and-dagger recruitment and mission were intriguing, and I was curious if he was being used as a courier or something. But... the mission he goes on is so deeply, deeply weird, basically just traveling to old European cathedrals and observing falcons being used to kill the pigeons who have been pooping on the churches. That's it. I guess he writes some reports. But... why? Who is funding this? What purpose does he serve? Maybe that was part of Mr. Etah's initial conversation in the coffee shop, which Urrutia tuned out. Maybe the junta was somehow testing Urrutia to see if he was amenable to their influence, but again, I fail to see how he could be useful to them.

So, what was going on? I realized much later that the names themselves were suspect: "Etah" is "Hate" spelled backwards, and "Raef" was "Fear" reversed. Those seem like ridiculous, invented names. (I'm now curious what those characters were called in the original Spanish.) If Urrutia is concerned about his legacy and accusations against him, he might be trying to spin together some alibi, giving an innocuous account of his time traveling in Europe to conceal a more sinister mission. Or... much like Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, maybe he's just imagining this and inventing it all. Though he does make a point of commenting that he posted his newspaper columns from abroad during this time, so... I just don't know! It's very odd.

It gets even odder, though. Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef reappear after the putsch and recruit Urrutia to instruct Pinochet and his top generals on Marxist theory. Which... what? Why? The idea of this dictator sitting in a classroom, doing assigned reading from this mumbling priest, debating Marx, is just absurd.

I feel like Farewell sort of draws a line under that when Urrutia confesses with him. That scene is a little hard to parse - what exactly is Farewell thinking? - but to me, it sounded like he was extremely skeptical and suspicious of Urrutia. Taken from the outside, though, what happens is that Urrutia makes a ridiculous claim, Farewell challenges him to provide details, Urrutia cannot, Farewell asks him again, Urrutia cannot, Farewell presses him more, then all of a sudden Urrutia gives this big and detailed story. Which, maybe you can say that Urrutia was just nervous or whatever, but to me it seems like he was lying: stalling for time, then coming up with a story.

Which, if it's true, is pathetic, but maybe in a weird way kind of endearing? Like, you get the sense that Urrutia is a failed artist: he's a critic who wants to be recognized but cannot produce great work himself. But he is (maybe) telling stories here, inventing something out of his life. It's self-aggrandizing, sure, making himself out to be connected to important people. But it's still a form of artistic creation, which, at the absolute minimum, is better than actually supporting fascism.


So, yeah. I'm left with a lot of questions - I suspect there are a lot of things in there that I may have overlooked, so I'll likely do some additional reading and see if there are theories about What It All Means. Then again, it would be very much in keeping with Bolaño's corpus for there to be ambiguity left in. With all the variations in his style and settings and stories, I feel like the most constant thing in his work is an absence, a sort of unnamed and unseen presence that lurks at the heart of his novels, and that might be the case here as well. I'm not sure if I'll ever know exactly who Father Urrutia was, but I won't forget him soon.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

He's Literally On Fire

I've continued to amble through my Steam backlog, making some gradual progress. I abandoned my second playthrough of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I was having a lot of fun, playing as a Malkavian with the Clan Quest Mod it felt like a new game. I eventually ran into a game-breaking glitch in Romero's cemetery mission; that's just a side-quest so I could easily have skipped it, but I'd already done my favorite parts of the game and decided it was a good time to set it down.

I also spent some time with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and can immediately see why it got such fantastic reviews. The sound design of the game is incredibly strong, both on its own technical terms and in how well it integrates with the story. You're playing as a Norse woman apparently afflicted with psychosis, and throughout the game you hear all these voices regularly whispering to you and commenting on your progress. It's actually very similar to a Malkavian playthrough, but these voices are a lot more helpful! The art design is also amazing, very raw and impressive, where you feel like you're on the threshold between a grim realistic world and a supernatural one. I gave up after getting frustrated with the combat; the early fights were fun, but I just couldn't adapt to the bigger fights where multiple enemies gang up on you, and the in-game punishments for failure were stressing me out.

So I moved on to something considerably lighter: Pyre! This is the latest game by Supergiant, the San Francisco studio that also made Bastion and (one of my all-time favorites) Transistor. Right off the bat I was struck by the gorgeous graphics: cartoony, hyper-saturated backgrounds, full of life and movement. The characters are all wonderful too, there are a ton of them and they're deeply varied, from the unbelievably cute drive imp to the hulking and glowering demon to the mesmerizing Scribe who lives in the orb. And, just as I'd suspected, the music is terrific, perfectly matching and driving the mood of the game, and often dipping into more vocally-focused pieces that seem like they belong on an album but work perfectly to drive the game forward.


The structure of the game reminds me a bit of The Banner Saga, yet another impressive game that I didn't finish because my failures were depressing me. You're going on a journey, with a large collection of people coming with you. Along the way you make various choices, in dialogues and by choosing destinations; these have consequences, but in Pyre those consequences are more like "You found a shiny rock!" or "Person X feels less hopefuly" than "Everyone you care about dies and it's all your fault."

The main gameplay element in Pyre, though, is three-on-three basketball games. Yeah, I know, I'm surprised too! I was not a fan at first; I picked up Pyre specifically because I was hoping for a tactical combat game, and was nonplussed at this real-time game of tossing around a ball and dunking it into the opponent's goal. As I've gotten more into it, though, I'm loving it more and more. It's backed by a solid character progression system, where you earn XP, level up, learn new abilities and can equip and upgrade items. Party composition is important, with many strategies viable but offering solid traditional approaches like a slow and powerful defender alongside fast offensive strikers. You can synergize strategies and builds between characters, building on each others' strengths and weaknesses. And the series of fights are incredibly dynamic: each opposing team has their own special abilities and strategies, and each "court" you play on has its own distinct features, whether holes or rocks or whatever. All that leads to a lot of strategy for each fight: you can have your own go-to approaches, but you don't just repeat the same techniques over and over again. Instead you'll study the ground, who you're up against, and think through the best folks on your roster to see you through.

It's looking like this might be a very long game; there's an in-game book you read, and I'm currently still in Chapter 1 of that, out of what look like around 10 chapters altogether. I'm pretty hooked by now, though, and I imagine I'll see it all the way through to the end. If so, I'll write up a full review post at the end. In the meantime, a quick summary of my current approach:

I now have about 8 potential party members. When choosing a lineup, I'll disqualify anyone with a temporary penalty. If possible, I'll try to select three people who have green inspiration/resting XP pending, which helps me shuffle everyone from match to match. Within that group, I'll generally choose my two highest-level people (not necessarily highest XP, but with the most abilities), and also my character with the lowest total XP; that gives me a strong core to win the match, while ensuring I'm leveling up my bench as well.

I don't think I'm great at the game, but so far I haven't lost a match (hopefully this post won't jinx that!). I'll either keep my biggest-aura person, like Jodi, near my own pyre to defend, or else have them sprint to the center, grab the orb, and immediately toss it to one of the faster folks; the latter approach can be nice on maps with lots of obstacles, since a big aura can make a chokepoint.

My faster guys will usually walk as far as they can to the east, then sprint or fly their way to the pyre. Each does relatively low damage, but I equip them with an item that does a flat-value damage boost, so e.g. Rukey is now doing 24 damage per dive instead of 10. I have been mulling that strategy, though. If things are going well, I'm usually constantly outnumbered 2-3. If I was focusing on my bigger players, I think it's more likely that my opponent and I would trade scores back and forth, but I would be taking more points each time and would have a 3-2 advantage for each score.

In recent matches I've started to experiment more with casting my aura to help clear the field of opponents, as well as tossing the orb around when a striker is under pressure instead of risking a dash. There are a lot of special mechanics, too, with many characters having completely different moves and behavior. I'm digging the game, but I also feel like it's the sort of thing I need to play daily, otherwise, I'll lose track of how everybody works.


I am enjoying the time to dig into this game. Like lots of folks, I'm looking at Q1 of 2020 with a huge degree of anticipation and dread. Between VtMB2, Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 all dropping, it'll be an overwhelming time. For now, I'm grateful for the chance to hang out in the Downside, getting to know these colorful characters and help them win basketball games.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Four Course Meal

The other book I read during my vacation was A Moveable Feast. As with Death Comes for the Archbishop, I've read the author before but not this particular book. Unlike the other Hemingway fiction I've read before, this is more of a memoir, focusing on Hemingway's life in Paris in the post-WWI years.

Probably the single most surprising thing to be about this book is just how gossipy it is. He writes a lot about the other famous expats he knew in the city, like James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. One early chapter recounts a lengthy conversation between him and Stein wherein she addresses his homophobia, including a run-down of various homosexual writers and what they think of each. Stein herself has some rather shocking opinions on the relative merits of lesbian encounters versus gay encounters.

Stein recurs in multiple chapters, and you get a sense for the role she played as a locus of literary life in the city: she knows many people and meets with them and spreads her opinions. As presented by Hemingway, she and many other real-life people come across as likeable but flawed. He ultimately comes down on her for being overly obsessed with her own career, noting that she would praise people who supported her and disdain those who did not, regardless of the quality of their own work. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that Hemingway values skill above all else: he's willing to forgive all sorts of slights and eccentricities if someone is (in his view) a very good writer, and he will cruelly attack even people who are kind to him if he dislikes their work. Hemingway seems to view this as a noble and good way to live life, and as presented in the book it feels more honest, but... I dunno. Personally, I'd rather spend my time with people who are personally fun and nice, and not judge people primarily by their output. Maybe that's why I'm not a famous author!

The most amazing section of the book recounts his friendship with Scott Fitzgerald. These passages are really, really funny: Fitzgerald himself is a charming but helpless man, and the scenarios they get into are bizarre comedies. A lot of the humor revolves around automobiles. Fitzgerald is convinced that cars don't need oil, and that all the French mechanics who are desperately trying to get him to add oil to his car are all trying to cheat him. He has bought a nice Peugeot, but Zelda convinced him to remove the top, and so every time it starts to rain he needs to pull over and park it somewhere dry. On their epic road trip, he and Hemingway thus end up downing bottle after bottle of wine while waiting for the rain to clear, then continue their journey, only to have it start to rain again an hour later and repeat the process. Hemingway also points out his own foibles, noting in retrospect his ridiculous belief that the best way to handle Fitzgerald's alcoholism was to serve him white wine, rather than abstain from alcohol altogether. There's a sadness that hangs over these sections of the book, and you can sense the larger tragedy of Scott and Zelda's lives, but sentence by sentence it can be really funny. After finishing this, I'm now curious to read The Crack-Up and see things from Scott's perspective.

The edition of the book I read is apparently a bit different from what was originally published. The initial book was never finished and didn't have a title, and was posthumously published by Hemingway's final wife. His heirs later re-examined Hemingway's last edits and work on the book and came out with this new version. Based on the introduction, it sounds like it's a bit kinder to Scott and has a different focus on Ernest's relationship with his first wife Hadley. Some chapters and passages have been cut entirely, which at first glance seems like the opposite of what you would want from an updated edition, but do reflect the last guidance we have from Hemingway. This seems very appropriate for this particular author; this isn't a book about writing, but he does write about writing in it, especially in the later chapters, and he continually emphasizes just how important cutting is. In Hemingway's opinion, the quality of a novel can be judged by the quality of the content you cut from it. If you're cutting out very good stuff, then it's going to be a very good book. Because of this, the subtractions do seem like a positive addition to the originally-published manuscript.

Of course, that also means there's a lot of stuff that I'd like to know more about. I'm particularly curious about "The Rich," who make a late and sinister entry in the book, ruining the skiing refuge of the Hemingways and somehow associated with, though not responsible for, the dissolving of his first marriage. There are a lot of specific things that I'm sure I could find out through Wikipedia, but stuff like that is probably lost forever.

Overall, this book didn't resonate with my surroundings in the same way Death Comes for the Archbishop did - cosmopolitan Paris isn't exactly the same as wilderness in the Colorado Plateau. But it was fascinating in its own right, humanizing many of the literary giants from my high-school English classes and making them relatable: poor, happy, passionate people looking for love and trying to create something good.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


I read two novels while on vacation. I'd planned on bringing some from home, but none of my library holds arrived in time, and I failed to visit any bookstores out here, so I ended up visiting the Back of Beyond bookstore in Moab. It was a really good spot, larger than I expected, with a great collection of new and used books. I found two used paperbacks for pretty cheap, perfect for tossing into a backpack where they were likely to get beat up and/or damp, and also grabbed some really pretty post cards.

Both of the books came from the "Classics" section, and the first I finished was Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. I think I might have read My Antonia at some point in high school, and I'm pretty sure I've read some of her short stories, so she seemed like a good candidate to read more of. I'd heard the title before but had absolutely no idea what it was about; in my mind I'd vaguely assumed it referred to the assassination of Thomas Beckett. It turns out it's much more contemporary than that, and it proved to be the perfect companion for my first visit to the Southwest.


The book is set in nineteenth-century America, and focuses on the efforts of two French priests to establish and strengthen a new Catholic diocese in the Southwest. America has seized this territory from Mexico, and as the new country continues to expand into it this will be an important area of influence.

We learn very early on that the historical situation here has been complex and turbulent. This area has been Catholicized before, during the original Spanish conquest of the New World, when Spanish Padres initially established missions and converted the native tribes, through persuasion or force. In the centuries since then, though, there had been a massive and bloody uprising of the indigenous people, and all of the foreign priests had been killed. There's now a situation where many families have been maintaining their Christian traditions, but they have no priests to hear confession or churches to visit, and are usually illiterate as well, so many people in the Church hierarchy are eager to bring them back into the fold.

At a more political level, there are broadly three sorts of people in the area. The native Americans have lived here by far the longest, and have their own religious traditions and culture, which can seem baffling to others. There are the Mexicans, who controlled the region until recently and still make up most of the population; they are usually nominally Catholic, although the level of observance and devotion can vary significantly. And there are the anglo Americans, who are a minority, but are extremely active, especially the Yankee traders coming to buy and sell goods and the military scouts seeking to map this frontier.

In contrast, our protagonists are outsiders, Frenchmen by birth and Ohioans by recent assignment. Father Latour is scholarly and thoughtful, a man who keeps his eye on the big picture and tries to move towards the ideal outcome. He can be ambitious, but his ambitions are always on behalf of the Church, or at least appear so. His companion is Father Vaillant, a more down-to-earth man of strong personal faith and passions; unlike Latour, who is very constant over the years, Vaillant can be much more excitable, pursuing one goal and then another, always most interested in whatever he has most recently heard. Latour seems to be the superior of the two men: better looking, more intelligent, wiser. But by the end of the book I'd come to like Vaillant more; he's deeply genuine and selfless, pouring all of himself into his work, and happily works alongside others as equals, whereas Latour might be more admired but tends to be more cerebral and aloof.

I'm pretty sure that Cather was Catholic, and she shows many instances of the positive aspects of faith: securing justice for a wronged woman, or peacefully resolving disputes, or producing a beautiful building. But it's also filled with examples of wicked priests who abused their position, and they are probably the main antagonists of the novel. This corner of the New World is far removed from the watchful eye of the Vatican, and priests often run their parishes as their own fiefdoms: in extreme examples, they extract slave labor from the natives, collect heavy tithes from the villagers, charge exorbitant fees to perform sacraments like baptism or marriage, and openly father children with multiple women. While Latour's official purpose is to establish a new diocese, his real goal is to rein in this terrible behavior, and he uses every tool to try and do so: persuasion, forceful diplomacy, threats, and, eventually, excommunication.

It's impossible now to read a book about the clergy and not think about the rampant sexual abuse within the church. I was reminded of this in a roundabout way, during one particularly affecting scene where Latour meets a native woman who has been enslaved by a wealthy Protestant family. They left Georgia when they were unable to produce documents proving that they "owned" her, and now prevent her from socializing with anyone lest she escape. Anyways, she was raised Catholic but hasn't attended Mass for decades, and one night she sneaks out to visit the church but finds it locked. Latour lets her in and speaks with her, giving her physical comfort (lending his coat) and spiritual comfort. She's utterly terrified of being found out but derives great solace from his words. He tries to give her his coat, but she reacts in horror, knowing she will be badly abused by her mistress. So instead he gives her... hm, I don't remember, I think maybe a small crucifix or picture or something, that she had admired. She tries to refuse it, and he admonishes her, saying something like "Please do as your priest asks and keep it." So she does, and treasures it.

And... it's interesting. That whole kind of paternalistic sense of "I have your best interests at heart, and when I ask you to do something, please do it." This book shows a very positive version of what that can look like, when it gives us permission to ignore our personal fears or insecurities and do what's best for us. But, of course, it's that very same attitude or orientation that has been abused for a very long time as priests and others in position of authority take advantage of their positions and the conditioning of their flock to gratify themselves and hurt others. Ultimately, is it worth salvaging this by getting rid of the bad priests and making sure that only good men (and, please oh please, women) fill that role? Or is that role itself improper and/or dangerous, would we be better off getting rid of it and training people to care for themselves? Of course, as someone who grew up Protestant I lean towards the latter idea of direct intercession, but reading books like this makes me see at least some value that may be missed.

The overall structure of the book is interesting and discursive; you're generally following Latour, Vaillant and the growing Church, but there are long digressions where people tell stories from the old Missions or about events elsewhere in the world. It's interesting how little mention the Civil War gets, although it's probably true that New Mexico saw very little of that conflict. There's a lot more attention paid to Native Americans; this story reminded me slightly of the novel Silence and the overall idea that Western conceptions of Christianity can't be directly transferred to other cultures. Some natives are, understandably, very hostile towards the Church based on their past actions; others participate in the church, but bring their own culture with them while they do so, making a sort of syncretic faith. Both protagonists look very fondly at the natives, who come off much better than the Americans do, but they also seem skeptical that their faith will truly set root here. Near the very end of the novel, Latour is cheered by the news that the federal government has returned the Navajo lands to the tribe, viewing it as one of the two great injustices righted in his lifetime, together with the abolition of slavery.

I definitely perked up at that, as I'd spent a fair amount of time in the Navajo Nation on this trip and had seen and read a lot about the Navajo in my various parks. Even though I never made it to New Mexico during my vacation, so much of the physical description in this book lined up with my own experiences: the red rocks, the blue sky, the steep canyons, the long expanse of desert, the precious water, the high mesas. Early in the book I was somewhat bemused at the story of an earlier priest who had successfully navigated between two canyons and was nominated for canonization. "What's so special about that?" I wondered. "You walk down one side, you walk back up the other: boom, you've navigated a canyon. How is that a miracle?" My attitude changed after I finished my Canyonlands hike, descending into and ascending from Lost Spring Canyon, Elephant Canyon, Chesler Park and The Joint. "Phew, that guy found a way to navigate a canyon?! That's amazing! They should make him the pope!!"


I'm sure I would have enjoyed this book in any setting: it's well-written, personal but political, humanistic, thought-provoking. But I'm really glad that I got to read it now, on this particular trip, reading about these men viewing the landscape for the first time, just as I was doing the same. It's nice to read a fairly positive portrayal of religion that doesn't minimize the harm it has caused, and see the profound ways it can reach people's hearts.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

My Southwest Vacation: By The Numbers

Parks Visited: 8
National Parks Visited: 6
Bags Packed: 4
Total Miles Driven: 3526
Top Speed (Passing): 98 MPH
Top Speed (Cruising): 90 MPH
Speeding Tickets Received: 0
Warnings: 1
Trails Hiked*: 27
Total Miles Hiked**: 168.2
Mean Backpacking Speed: 2MPH
Median Non-Backpacking Hiking Speed: 3MPH
Injuries: 0
Blisters: 0
Moleskin Patches Applied: 6
Nights Camping: 5
Other Lodgings Visited: 8
Days with Rain: 5
Ranger Programs Attended: 4
Photos Taken: 3126
Photos Kept: 1077
Flowers Photographed: 38
Selfies: 6
Blog Posts Written***: 10
Gifts Purchased: 5
Novels Read: 2
Smiles: Countless

* Trailhead-to-trailhead. So all of Canyonlands is counted as a single trail, even though I technically was on like 7 different named trails, and my first day at Arches was 5 trails, most of which were less than a mile long.
** Only counting distance on the aforementioned trails, not in park facilities or wandering canyon rims in stupefied awe.
*** Including this one.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Red Rock and Red Roll

I had a longish drive from Zion to Red Rock, though not nearly as long as the following day's drive would be. I reflected that this was probably why Zion is one of the most overcrowded national parks: it's one of the very few top-tier national parks within a few hours' drive of a major metro area. If you live in Vegas, you could wake up at 6AM on a Saturday and be in Zion shortly after 8AM. Folks flying into the airport can easily make a day trip out of it, unlike more remote parks that require more of a commitment to travel and establish lodging closer to the park.

I gradually left the mountains behind as I drove, moving into the desert. Traffic moved quickly, now that I was back on an Interstate highway for the first time in over a week, and very few people were headed in my direction.

Following the GPS instructions, I skirted along the northern perimeter of Vegas, then headed into my next and final recreational destination, Red Rock. Unlike most of my parks on this trip, this one is run by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the BLM properties I'm familiar with are relatively bare-bones affairs, but Red Rock is pretty thoroughly (and nicely) developed: a very well-maintained scenic drive with a day-use charge, a large visitor's center with many exhibits and a gift shop, good restroom facilities and water, and many hiking trails.

I'd considered doing the Grand Circle Loop, a collection of trails leading from the Visitor's Center that would take you to many of the park's destinations, but decided instead to focus my time on the Turtlehead Peak trail, and otherwise take advantage of the road.

I did have a lot of fun at the very first stop, Calico Hills. This is a really picturesque collection of, uh, red rocks that form a rambling, interesting slope. This is a very popular climbing area. A lot of people like me just scrambled around and climbed up as far as we felt like going, but I think some more serious people use this area for more intense climbs.

I continued slightly farther and then started my main hike at Sandstone Quarry; a few trails lead from here, but I had my eye set on Turtlehead Peak, yet another trail that advertises a worrying ration between a long trip time and a short distance traveled. You start off crossing several broad washes through the canyon, then make a gentle ascent through the scrubby desert. I peered at the mountain ahead and to my right. "Is that Turtlehead Peak?" I wondered. "I guess it kind of looks like a turtle's head."

Yes: as I would learn, it was Turtlehead. The face you see while approaching looks extremely forbidding, but I anticipated that the trail would wrap around and find a more reasonable purchase up some slope that I couldn't see.

There were a good number of people on the trail at first, but it thinned out dramatically once it reached the foot of Turtlehead and began climbing. The trail became a lot more obscure, too. This was the one time on my vacation when I got significantly lost: not terribly lost, I doubt I was ever further than 1000 feet from the trail, but 1000 feet can be a long way on a rocky, steep, scree-filled mountain.

Looking back, I think my main problem was unfamiliarity with local trail-marking procedure. Throughout all my hikes in the desert, and in other Western parks over rocky or sandy terrain, I'd gotten used to having cairns as trail markers. You look for the pile of rocks, walk towards it, look for the next pile of rocks, walk towards that, and so on. I'd been thrown off because there were some cairns early on in the rocky portion of the hike, but they almost immediately vanished. Instead I should have been looking for blazes: small daubs of white paint on rocks that mark the way. Though even this wasn't foolproof: many of the rocks around here are naturally white, and I suspect that in other cases the markings have been covered up by rockfall or other debris.

As it was, I was inching my way up a precarious slope, thinking "This is probably not a trail," when I suddenly saw two people walking up the hill a ways to my right. "Oh," I thought, "That is the trail!". I carefully moved laterally along the slope in their direction, found their trail... and went "Oh, crap, this isn't a trail, either."

Still, you can only get so lost when walking up a mountain. I mean, it's Turtlehead Peak, so I'm going to end up on top no matter what: just keep going higher up! And with all the rock I was less concerned than I would have been otherwise about messing up the resources by continuing off trail. I kept my eye on the ridge and carefully chose a route over the most solid surface I could see, favoring long and gentle curves over short steep scrambles.

I finally emerged at the top and rediscovered the trail. The blazes were a lot more visible up here, and there's a lot less loose rock, so the route was really clear from here on out. I greeted a man coming down, who would be the last human being I would see for the next several hours. I was pleasantly surprised at just how deserted the peak was after seeing the large number of people down below. (Again: Not a misanthrope!)

Now that I could recognize the blazes, I had a lot of fun following the trail. There were a few spots where it seemed a little cheeky, breaking out oversized arrows or other overly-explicit directions. The steep part of the ascent was mostly done now, with just a few short scrambles necessary along the generally-gentle slope towards the top.

For almost the entire time, I'd been looking back and down at Red Rock Canyon, marveling at how its distinctive, uh, red rocks shrank and became a single discrete object. Once over the ridge, though, the entire area opened up and revealed new vistas. Once I reached the top I finally saw Las Vegas itself, as promised. There was a bit of a haze that day, but it was clear enough that I could make out the Strip and the overall sprawl of the city. I wandered the crest, marveling at the panoramic view, and also noticed an interesting device of mysterious origin and purpose perched against the ledge.

I ate, I drank, I descended. It was a calm and quiet return, though I very nearly got lost again once I reached the scree-filled middle portion of the hike, which oddly reassured me that I hadn't been uniquely dumb on my way up. I knew what to look for now, though, and while I suspect that some of the blazes were lost or invisible, I knew when to turn back and retrace my steps to try another potential route.

The valley floor was a lot quieter when I reached it, with only a few hikers on the trail and the parking lot nearly empty. I continued along the loop, stopping at a few more spots to see more sights. As with nearly every park I visited on this trip, I could have used another day or so at Red Rock to do all the hikes that looked interesting. I think I'd made the right choice for the one I'd done, though: the view and challenge of Turtlehead felt like a great cap to my two-week journey.

I bypassed the stops that only served as trailheads, hit up a view more with nearby viewpoints, and before long was headed into Vegas. I'd booked a room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Summerlin, pretty close to the Red Rock area. I got to experiment with using their app as a key to my room, which was a neat experiment and makes me feel like I ought to deduct at least part of this trip as a business expense for research purposes. The hotel itself was great: corporate, like I'd expected, but super-comfortable and clean. The staff was incredibly friendly, too. It kind of pains me to say it, but I think that the best service I received in my entire trip was in Las Vegas: Every employee I met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, which I greatly appreciated, even if it does make it harder for me to be snarky about Vegas.

Even if the people are great, the city of Vegas itself is definitely not for me: it absolutely demands a car to travel even the shortest distances. I'd hoped to walk to dinner from the hotel, but found pointless walls blocking my desired route, so I sighed and drove a half mile to get the 500 feet to my destination.

I had dinner at The Bar, a smallish and friendly establishment that was exactly what I expected. An enormous bar with four counters sits at the center; there are barstools all around it; and tables up against the walls. I had a pint of Newcastle and an enormous and delicious club sandwich. I took my time munching down while watching The Force Awakens silently play on the large TV as the bar slowly filled in. It sounded like a lot of the folks there were regulars, starting or ending their shifts at nearby casinos. Like almost every other building in Vegas, but unlike my hotel, there were slot machines all around the bar, but folks seemed happy to focus on the drinks, food, and conversation.

Back at the hotel I watched the sun set over the western mountains, slept soundly, and woke up early with the sun. There was yet another free breakfast in the morning, a step above the Continental breakfast I expected. Taking advantage of my early rising, I hit the road and had no traffic at all heading out of Vegas and back towards California.

My last day of driving was nearly as long as my first. Long ago I'd considered taking a route through Death Valley on my way back to squeeze in one more national park, but by now I was eager to get home, and hadn't heard many positive things about the park from other travelers on my trip. Following the GPS, I took I-15 to Barstow, CA-58 to Bakersfield, CA-99 up to Madera, then CA-152 all the way through Los Banos and into Gilroy. From here I was on familiar turf: US-101 up to San Jose, then I violated GPS by taking CA-85 to I-280 for the scenic route home. All in all, it was a little less than 9 hours of driving, broken up with some In-N-Out burger and fueled with a massive random shuffle of my entire Spotify library.

I swung by home to drop off all my gear and luggage, then brought the rental car back to the airport. It had served me very well, through rain and heat and days full of driving and days motionless by backcountry trailheads. I had picked it up with four digits on the odometer and was returning it with five, adding nearly 50% to its lifetime mileage. The return to Enterprise went really smoothly, just a quick scan and I was on my way home again, this time for good.

Vacation was wonderful, but as always it felt great to be home. I love being in nature, and it helps me appreciate civilization far more: for a week after I felt profound gratitude every time I could acquire clean drinking water just by turning a tap, or go to the bathroom without digging a hole in the ground. The memories of that beautiful land will continue to linger for years and years, aided by my excessive number of photos and this overly verbose blog.

That's the end of my journey, but not of this series! One more post to come, in which I will present the statistical quantities that can be derived from my trip.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Youth of Zion

My approach to Zion ended up being very similar to my approach to the Grand Canyon. Instead of the more popular southern entrance, I arrived from the east, seeing some additional parts of the park and getting a quicker entry than I otherwise would have. Along the way I was listening to the very-appropriate classical piece Des Canyons aux étoiles by Messiaen. My dad had turned me on to this a few months prior when we were chatting about the trip: Messiaen had also gone on a trip to Utah and been inspired by the parks there, especially Bryce and Zion, and had composed this piece to capture his own impressions. After experiencing it myself, I thought the music was wonderful, and the title particularly evocative, as so many of my own journeys had taken me from the deep embrace of canyons to the endless views near the stars.

The road from Bryce comes through Highway 9, a very pretty route that alternates between scenic high-speed sections and slow crawls through picturesque villages. Just past the eastern entrance, I parked at the East Rim Trailhead for my first hike. You can technically take this trail all the way into the main part of the park, but that would be a very long trek. I was aiming to reach an overlook of Jolley Gulch and then turning around.

I smiled when I saw the sign "Entering Zion Wilderness." Our country's top national parks have huge visitations and have to one degree or another been transformed to accommodate them, but they also sustain much larger acreage as primitive backcountry. It's a bit startling how many fewer people you find in those regions than the well-trod main parks. The wilderness areas aren't as spectacular, with once-in-a-lifetime views or completely unique features, but they exude a wide-open sense of serenity and primal energy that I never get tired of feeding on.

Two largish groups of backpackers passed me as I headed in, clearly pleased with their own adventures in the park. I felt a sense of kinship with them, though I wasn't going to be doing anything nearly as strenuous during my stay. I was now firmly in wind-down mode, looking forward to day hikes and not much else.

The gulch itself was a nice hike. In contrast to the relatively open trails in Bryce, this had a denser forest and canopy, so the views along the trail weren't especially remarkable, but the trail itself was cool, including a nice short scramble across a narrow rocky ledge - once again, I was grateful to be wearing proper boots with strong traction.

I started monitoring the time, worrying that I was spending too long on my amuse bouche hike and wouldn't be able to enjoy my entrees. But then I abruptly came to a clearing and saw the promised overlook. There's no sign or anything there, but it was clear that I was looking at Jolley Gulch. It was really cool to finally get some perspective on the land that I'd already hiked through and see it in detail. I also got my first good look at the cool hills surrounding it, with unique striated rock layers.

I walked around a bit, hopping up some mounds and along outcroppings, getting more looks at the gulch, then turned around and headed back. The trail had taken most of my remaining morning, but it was a nice, calm, peaceful introduction to Zion before reaching the main zone.

Back in the car, Highway 9 continued forward, with periodic pullouts for scenic points, including the cool Checkerboard Mesa, a large stone face cross-crossed with regular lines. A lot of people parked their cars and walked along the road, which was cool but also worrying, as there is absolutely no shoulder, rarely a trail, and lots of curves. I passed through a short tunnel, then a very long tunnel, which finally brought me into the main Zion Canyon.

It's a majestic, awesome view, and the road adds to it nicely, dramatically sweeping you down and back and forth as the landscape unfurls. And this wasn't even the main canyon! Once again many folks parked by the side to take photos and stare up at the walls. I pressed forward, hoping to get some good time in the main park.

My misadventures with parking in the Grand Canyon had made me wary of official guidance, so I headed directly into the Visitors Center parking lot despite the multiple signs warning that the lot was full. I probably spent about five minutes looking for a spot until a very kind person waved to get my attention and then pulled out of their own spot, which I gratefully occupied.

Zion has become famous for its difficult parking; if you check their Twitter feed, they report each day the time when their parking becomes full. The main part of the park is completely off-limits to private automobiles and you need to take their shuttle. They further recommend that people park in Springfield and take another shuttle into the park. In principle, I think that's a great idea. It was disappointing to later discover, though, that all of the parking in Springfield is paid; it looks like $20/day is the going rate near the entrance, and $15/day further out. Which is especially annoying since that isn't part of the park's communication, which emphasizes the free nature of the shuttle, so I suspect a lot of visitors will be surprised. Furthermore, once you actually come to the shuttle stops you'll see signs encouraging you to walk into the park and stating that the shuttle bus is often full. So... yeah, while I was fully prepared to park in town, I'm really glad that I didn't. I think this is another area that will require some careful thought and planning in the future. My immediate thinking is that Springfield derives an enormous benefit from being next to the park, driving its tourism and lodging and restaurant business, so it would be in their best interest to partner with the park and provide free parking. But there's just no financial incentive for them to do so, and obviously people are willing to (probably grudgingly) pay for parking, so I don't see them changing, and there's no way for the park service to compel them to do so. I dunno.

Hey, wasn't this post supposed to be about my hikes?!

I hopped on the shuttle bus and headed north. The buses in Zion are great, I liked them significantly more than the Grand Canyon shuttles. They're huge double buses, with a front and a rear cabin, giant windows, and a nice mix of pre-recorded messages about the park and chatty drivers who share their own personal (and interesting) thoughts and tips on the park. They also run really frequently! I think the signs say something like "You'll rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a bus," but I don't think I ever waited more than 5. There were even a few times when two buses would arrive at a stop practically back to back; unlike Muni, though, this didn't mean that the third bus would be significantly delayed. I feel like the Zion setup was a lot more conducive to hopping off and back on than in the Grand Canyon, where you would fear losing a seat on a crowded bus.

I'd been keeping tabs on the status of trails in Zion, mostly because of the Narrows but I'd also noticed that there were several other trail closures. A few of the hikes that I'd been interested in like Observation Point and Hidden Canyon were still shut. The big hike that I still wanted to do was Angel's Landing. I'd been concerned by a Twitter post several days earlier warning that the wait to do that hike was several hours long. I don't think I've ever seen a line for a hike before! Still, it sounded like a great hike so I departed the bus and hopped on the trail.

There was a slight hiccup at the very start. The map had said that there was water available at the trailhead, but none was to be found; they were doing some construction, which might have contributed to it. I'd filled up in the morning and still had a bottle and a half, so I wasn't overly concerned, but after closely monitoring my water during long desert hikes I did worry a little about it.

The trail starts off extremely easily, with a wide and paved stretch that runs along the Virgin River. You then start to gradually ascend, still with a paved surface, hugging the rocky cliff side as you go higher and start to get better views.

After a while, the switchbacks grow more pronounced. There were quite a few people on this trail, of all sorts of fitness levels, from bare-chested dudes sprinting up and down the trail to elderly folks slowly making their way up with canes and stopping at every corner. I took advantage of a few shaded nooks in the hot day, sipping some precious water and eyeing the distance left to go.

You eventually reach a nice saddle, which opens up to some great views of the canyon and has a ton of people resting on the rocks. However, this is only the beginning of the hike. Just to the right are the chains: steel cables bolted into the cliff face. To go further you need to grab onto them and hoist yourself higher and higher up the ascent.

This area definitely got congested, but there were a lot more people coming down than going up. While there are no posted signs, there's a definite etiquette at play, similar to crossing a single-lane bridge. A group of people would make their way down a section of the chains, folks at the bottom would patiently wait for them to finish, then start coming up. More people coming down would then congregate around their end until that squad had passed, then they would descend, and so on.

With all the people on the trail, this was far from the fastest hike I've taken, but honestly that was totally fine by me: it was technically challenging, even with the cables, and strenuous, and hot, and having some built-in down time helped make the overall experience easier.

I finally hauled myself up to the top, which is a lot bigger than I had imagined. I'd envisioned a peak, a small place for people to huddle around, but there's actually a very long ledge, so even with a lot of people up there it felt a lot less crowded than the climb up had been. Even better, the views were absolutely incredible, everything that I had hoped for. I kept looking back and forth: to my right, the southern entry to the park, where the tree-lined canyon walls swooped dramatically down and the landscape spread out. To the left, the northern half of the canyon, with the Virgin River bursting from the Temple of Sinawava and tall peaks glowering down at the valley far below. I also marveled at the trail below me, surprised at how far up I had come with relatively little horizontal distance to travel.

Sitting down on a rock, I munched some celebratory snacks and a delicious gulp of water, then carefully made my way down. As is often the case on steep routes, going down can be more difficult than coming up. The crowds were further thinning out now, though, and as I already knew the route, so I made good time. I also offered strategic encouragement to those making their way up - people looked really beat, as I'm sure I must have before.

Once I hit the pavement, the rest of the descent went much more quickly, and I was soon back at the shuttle bus. I back-tracked to the Zion Lodge, where I had a late-afternoon lunch in the form of a giant chicken Caesar salad. I think I ate more salads on this trip than I do in a typical year, and enjoyed them more than I normally enjoy pizza (which is a lot!).

It was late enough in the afternoon now that I could check in to my lodging, so I headed out of the park, expecting that it would be quieter in the evening. This was my second lodging splurge of the trip, Flanigan's Inn in Springfield. It's located just a few minutes' walk from the park's pedestrian entrance and is on a beautifully landscaped estate, with meandering paths around a swimming pool and mature trees, and a short rail up to a hillside meditation labyrinth (which seemed to be under construction during my stay).

The room itself was great, very modern and comfortable with plush chairs and stylish lighting, and a nice balcony overlooking the courtyard, with a little patio table and chairs. I'd also read good things about the spa at Flanigan's, so I called to see if there were any openings for a massage. They were booked for the rest of the day, but had a slot available for the next morning, which I gratefully reserved.

I walked back into the park. It felt a little odd to go through a pedestrian kiosk, which looks and is staffed just like the typical auto ones. It was after six by now, and the friendly-looking ranger just waved me in.

I got back on a shuttle bus, which was now almost completely empty. My soft goal was to get off at every stop; I ended up skipping ones that didn't have any trails or scenic viewpoints, but still hit quite a few. This late in the day the Court of the Patriarchs wasn't very photogenic, with the sun directly hovering over them, but I bet it's stunning in the morning. I had more luck with Big Bend, a crook in the Virgin River that's positioned nicely to reveal the canyon around you.

I was particularly interested in Weeping Rock, the one trail still open from that trailhead. True to its name, there's a significant volume of water that seems to gush out directly from the side of the tall, flat cliff face. Apparently, this is ancient water that seeped into clay in pre-historic times, then was crushed under heavier rocks in subsequent geological ages. The weight on top eventually forces the water out, leading to the surprising display we see today.

My trip ended at the Temple of Sinawava. If all had gone according to my original plan, I would have been walking out of this at around this time. As it was, I enjoyed the leisurely and accessible stroll up the Virgin River. The paved portion of the trail stops right at the entrance to the Narrows proper, with a cool little stone staircase descending into the river. There were several signs warning that the Narrows were closed due to the river flow level. I stared wistfully in. The Temple area itself looks really cool, two guardians keeping watch over this passageway between them, and if the stars align in the future I would like to try that walk myself.

But I had no regrets: missing the Narrows had allowed me to visit Bryce, the most beautiful park, and climb Angel's Landing, one of the most unique and interesting hikes I've done. I happily rode the shuttle back to the entrance and returned to Flanigan's, where I had a late supper on my balcony and watched the sky fade into dark.

The next morning, I was one of two people at the opening of the great and inexpensive breakfast buffet at The Spotted Dog, a restaurant on the Flanigan's property, and we chatted about our experiences at Zion and nearby parks. I cleaned up myself and my luggage, then had a fantastic massage at the Deep Canyon Spa with Drey. Over the last decade or so I've gotten in the habit of getting a massage near the end of my long vacations, and it's always a wonderful way to sort of lock in the relaxation I've been feeling, along with loosening any sore muscles I've picked up during my hikes.

Feeling refreshed and happy, I hopped back in my car and started driving towards my next - and final! - park: Rock Rock Canyon.