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THE SPIRIT OF THE CANYON

The majestic red mountains. I had just summited them. I did not tame them, nay, I had simply monkeyed up and perched on top.

 The  dunes  of Snow Canyon State Park in Southern Utah

The dunes of Snow Canyon State Park in Southern Utah

I had neither conquered nor had been conquered. 

As I sat atop the ‘dune’ in bliss, from the physical effort of getting there, I felt the breeze caressing my face, my mind emptying and a strange stirring within, the beginning of a release. I cycled back downhill. Wings took shape. Where once they had been tied down by circumstances, they hesitantly spread out and I learnt to fly, once again.

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The Beginning

The mountains speak to you, you’ll see, they said.

The desert is a fountain of life, they said.

Take a trip alone, they said.

You will find yourself and come back with new understanding, they said.

 Along the Angel's landing hike at Zion National Park.

Along the Angel's landing hike at Zion National Park.

I went. Not because I believed any of that new-age sounding mantras. Me, a rational and logical being, beset by unknown, intangible wisps of what exactly? No, not likely. But, I was drawn by the excitement of a new adventure, the chance to finally explore a region from my bucket list.

So, on a clear Spring-like morning, in March, I set off from over crowded New York City to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at the Western edge of Utah.

Landing into Salt Lake city, I caught a glimpse of the breathtaking ice-capped cliffs, a beauty akin to nothing I had seen before. Rivers of ice cut across the grey backdrop of mountains like the lines on a well-aged palm. The memory invokes a visceral pull in me even now.

A short shuttle took me to St. George and my final destination, the Red Mountain Resort, nestled at the foothills of the Snow Canyon State Park. Here I was, in the middle of a red desert, in a valley bordered by gorgeous cliffs cut centuries ago by the mighty power of rivers.

This is, probably, a good time to make a confession. This is the second canyon region I was visiting. The first, the Grand Canyon, was indeed quite grand, but lacked appeal. They say that the awe-inspiring sight of a never-ending canyon provides perspective on life. However, I only felt diminutive, and a sense of despair, of insurmountable confrontation. And, with that came the self-defense of disinterest.

So, before I began this journey, I had, deep in my heart, a cynicism, throwing a jaunty challenge at the region to impress me. Compounded by the fact that I found myself in a ‘Spa/Health’ resort, I was, let me make no bones of it, in a fairly prejudicial state of mind. I am one who judges a place firstly and lastly by my plate and spa dining is typically associated with the bland and the flavor insensitive.

Yet, as I stood outside the reception house and gazed at the towering cliffs, I had my first opening. There I was watching the rays of the rapidly setting sun bounce off the red rocks, and, I perceived an inexplicable sense of benevolence reflecting back at me. I was a touch jolted, I will acknowledge. But, my skepticism remained.

My first dinner at the resort proved to be a revelation of sorts. The plate placed before me was a nicely balanced, perfectly cooked pork ensemble with a supporting cast of seasonal and local vegetables and fruits. Everything had bite, just enough to know that it was cooked from raw rather than from can or box.

This was beginning to get surreal!

At the crack of dawn, woken by my alarm shrilling through the silence, I sluggishly stepped outside. Only to be slapped awake by the nip in the air that I had not dressed for. I made a run for morning sustenance, house made granola with a deeply satisfying crunch of nuts, good for the planned day trip to Zion National Park.

Zion is the reason I had come to Utah. In my former life, I had worked alongside a recreational climber who swore by the magnificence of the peaks here. Ever since, I have been hankering to experience them. As you can see from the photographs, the cliffs are indeed spell bindingly gorgeous. But, there is also something else here.

I have been on several hikes before, some with astounding views, some with steep, treacherous cliffs that in fog conditions were a test of physical and mental fitness, some with deep trenches that made one stronger for simply having the nerve to climb down them. But none, had the powerful resonance as my experience at Zion.

There were moments, during the hikes, when I looked up at the face of the mountain ahead and felt the space between contract and stretch at the same time. Several times, I was surprised by a presence that could not be rationally explained, an enveloping draw that seemed to embrace me like an irradiance. There were spaces of time whence I stood and got lost, swept away in the moment(s), awash in strangely powerful sensations within me.

Unbidden, I felt overwhelming love and a strengthening of commitment. I had never felt that strongly before. I spoke aloud these feelings, at once acknowledging them, and, pledging to love deeply, and, without restraint. I made a sacred promise to the spirits there. Nay, I made a promise to myself that was blessed sacred by the spirits. It felt liberating.

Although the rest of day, back at the resort, possibly paled in comparison to that spiritual experience, I cannot deny that another wonderful meal followed by rejuvenating spa experiences only added to mysticism.

The second morning, curious to see what other ‘experiences’ could be had, I rented a bike. Cycling around, I got lost again. This time, physically. In my quest to find a nearby town, I wandered away and found myself at a dead end. One, abutted on one side by a towering range and on the other by farm land.

For as far as my eyes could see, the land stretched in endless emptiness. Aside from some tractor treads and some seemingly abandoned old farm equipment, it was devoid of any of human essence. I stood there for several minutes, breathing deeply the fresh desert air and marveling at the expanse of the empty plateau in front of me and feeling very serene. I had escaped the clammy grip of civilization.

Then, I looked down. There it was, the tiny pin prick. By my feet. A carelessly discarded used sanitary napkin! In one swift stroke, reality returned. I could not but laugh at my naiveté and at the innocuous reminder of the far reaching tentacles of civilization.

Back at the resort kitchen, a chat with chef Chad Luethje, over lunch, revealed the secret of the un’spa’ like dining experiences. As I had premised, everything is made from scratch. This ‘style’ of cooking is itself differentiating within the industry. And, it makes the food healthy and wholesome without losing flavor. To be clear, the Red Mountain Resort is not, and, will never be, the spot for transcendental food experiences. But, it doesn’t need to be. Transcendence abounds just outside, in the canyons. What it does offer is a truly rejuvenating place of rest with a fortifying and nutritive menu that draws on the surrounding land for its strength and depth of its tasty offerings.

That afternoon, I cycled to Snow Canyon State Park. Along the bike trail, I attempted, several times, to capture the panoramic beauty through my laughably inadequate camera lens. Eventually, I decided, it would be better to capture the moment in my mind’s memory. For a city dweller, glued to her cell phone, this was an enoromous breakthrough.

The trek itself was fairly challenging. At several points, I had to concede my lack of fitness, dismount and just push the bike. At the end of the trail, I hiked up one of the several ‘dunes’ in the area. This may, technically, be desert land but these dunes were anything but shifting sand. The elements had packed the soil in over the centuries creating ridged mountains that you can easily climb up.

As I sat at the summit, looking on to the wide expanse of raw beauty, I had an epiphany. I was falling deeply, utterly in love with the canyons of Utah, attracted by their utter openness and embracing spirit. Mountains are largely perceived as a challenge to surmount and conquer. Yet, these red ranges emanated an entirely different vibe; of approachability, acceptance and forgiveness; of empathy, support and love.

This was the embracing spirit that had triggered that enormous outpouring of love. Because, amidst the vast emptiness of the region, I felt safe. Safe enough to be vulnerable, to feel inside and let the innermost surface.

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The canyons of Utah have a certain aura about them. Majestic and awe-inspiring, their cliffs rise high in vibrant colors of sunset red. Spending any time among them is a concerted effort in connecting with a deeper part of self.

Surrounded by the grandeur, I did not feel small or inconsequential. Rather I felt encouraged, emboldened, empowered and a powerful surge of confidence. A rush of something pulsing inside me.

Cycling back, I tried to let myself glide into the valley without controlling the speed and let go of fear of crashing. I tried to recapture the invincibility I had felt in my youth that had been weathered by time and life. I did better than I had hoped. I did brake. I did slow down. But, I did let go, just a little. I found a little of that youthful confidence inside. For that I am happy. And, grateful.

To the mountains. To the spirit that lies within. For opening my eyes to myself.

Yes, I had neither conquered nor had been conquered. I was at peace.

This post originally appeared on Medium.


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