• Colin Phelan

Zion NP: Lamb? Iodine? Whiskey? COVID-19? Burger King?

Updated: Jul 17



When I returned to the Las Vegas McCarran airport from the Zion Wilderness just 200 miles to the northeast, I broke down. Unlike early 20th century American (Christian) naturalists who helped bring Zion Canyon under the American National Park Service, I had not found God in Zion; in fact, I had experienced just the opposite, and view such early 20th century commentators who described Zion as a “sanctuary of the soul,” or as a “museum of the Gods – a garden of heavenly spectres,”as our history's most notorious fabricators. Yes, on Spring Break, a week that begs for relaxation and renewal, states of being which I by no means attained; I didn't sleep, I cooked almost every meal, I tirelessly broke camp with every sunrise and sunset. My desire to go to Zion was because I did not want to have the same exhausting, Satanic Spring Break experience as most of my college peers in those all-inclusive Bahamian resorts; though, let it be known that such imbibing was often mandatory before falling asleep in the cold, wintery valley, as bourbon provided both warmth and shelter in a place where we lacked both. Anyway, after this whole panic attack episode ended -- having already displaced myself to Gate 35 away from my two friends who sat at Gate 37 -- I jot down my feelings. What the hell had just happened to me?

I grabbed my pen and reflected:

“My hands got cold, pale, and very weak. My heart was pounding. I felt lightheaded, almost about to pass out.

This whole episode lasted only an hour or so, in Terminal D of the McCarran Airport. Upon first feeling weak and cold, I told my friends, ‘I don’t feel good.’ Amidst the hysteria that is COVID-19 – the pathogen that has killed merely 3,000 people in our nearly 8-billion-person world*, I was scared to share my feeling ill with anyone in the airport (don’t get me wrong, the virus is indeed worthy of attention, but the attention dedicated to it is absurd, especially considering the amount of deaths from other viruses such as the common cold; I’m sure many readers have heard this line of thought). I didn’t want to be quarantined in the adult playground and travesty of humanity that is Las Vegas. I wanted to go home and graduate.

*Footnote: Please read this COVID-19 comment with context in mind; at the point of my writing this essay, March 7th 2020, nobody had any clue what COVID-19 was nor the havoc it would wreak on our world. I do not in any way mean to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19; this was merely how I felt in the early stages of the virus, when cases up to that point had primarily been detected in Washington state -- a few days prior to university closures and government-sanctioned shut downs.

It also doesn’t help that I haven’t pooped pretty much all week. Normally, I poop every day, a few times a day at that. Healthy ones, leading with one right after breakfast, after my cup of economical Trader Joes’ (RIP Joe Coulombe, 1930-2020) Coffee. This backpacking trip I hardly pooped. All week, I figured this was caused by a disruption of my routine; I like to eat one mason jar of yogurt and one of oats every morning. In retrospect, now somewhat calming down, sitting here alone at Gate D35, I realize that my poor GI functionality isn’t simply from a changed diet. It is from stress. As I just cried on the phone to my sister, she assured me, ‘Stress manifests itself differently.’

That’s it. I’d been stressed all week. I realize that, as much as I like to explore, I like routine, I like my food routine and the comfort of my bed; when these routines are disrupted, a domino effect ensues. It also doesn’t help that the last time my GI functioned so poorly, I was all alone in Delhi, lying in bed, septic, bound to an absurdly uncomfortable IV which tried to regulate my dangerously low BP; I recorded a video of myself, wishing all my loved one’s goodbye, reflecting on what I had done wrong. I still haven’t watched this video.

I don’t mean to misclassify this feeling, or to hystericize it, or to discredit the feelings of those with serious manifestations of PTSD, but my linking these nonexistent stools to my near death experience sounds just like that.

This was similar to an experience I had last fall. In one of my first meetings with my girlfriend’s family, we went downtown near Boston Common to a nice and fancy restaurant, a steakhouse if I remember correctly. A special occasion, parents weekend. After much of our food had been eaten, and several drinks had been drunk – I think I had a beer that night – my girlfriend’s mother offered me a bite of her lamb. Without thinking, I stabbed it with my fork and decorously guided the finely charred slab into my mouth. I chewed and then swallowed.

I hadn’t eaten lamb since the summer, since I had travelled from Delhi to the northern hill region of the Gurhwal, in the present day Indian state of Uttarakhand. At around two in the afternoon after I had finished work for the day I met Bajju, a close friend of mine with whom I had lived and studied with for the month prior in Kolkata. At the Delhi rail-station I waited and waited, until finally one of the screens hanging from the colorfully embroidered terminal ceiling flashed that the delayed Deranto Express had finally arrived from Kolkata. A few minutes later, there he emerged, strong and stocky as usual -- one of India’s mountain folk -- a cap on his head, a backpack on his back – likely protecting some of his favorite Ruskin Bond novels (Bajju is learning English) – and a duffel in his right hand.

We quickly purchased bottles of rum and whiskey, supplementing what I already had. Apparently Bajju was not satisfied with the 750 mL bottle which I had bought for the both of us in accordance with his June 23rd request, “Buy some RUM and WHISKEY. For Uttarakhand.” We mixed right there-- right next to a dhaba-- rum and cokes, before hopping on the first leg – a twelve-hour journey – of our nearly day long ride into the Himalayan foothills. About halfway into the first leg of the journey the bus pulled over at another dhaba and we passengers hopped off for provisions; you guessed it, we mixed and re-filled our bottles.

Prior to this instance, Bajju and I had seldom interacted by ourselves. Bajju, a Gurhwali-speaking truck driver from northern India, and I, an American college student, had met through nothing short of a miracle. Although we had now known each other for about three years, my Hindi and Bajju’s English were still improving; on top of our linguistic barriers, we espoused vastly different worldviews. For the month prior in Kolkata, even as we studied Hindi and English together, our most productive bridge had been the third of our trio, Babu; without him, we took to rum.

We drank that night, so much so that upon arriving in Rishikesh, a sort of boundary city between the desert of India and the fertile Himalayan forests, Bajju had completely lost his mind. He stumbled all around the bus, begging people to lend him a light and a biri smoke. As we neared our stop the driver screamed, “RISHIKESH, RISHIKESH,” and Bajju deafened with alcohol, continued to slur his words and flimsily collapse onto our driver. I tossed our bags off the bus, drunkenly added to the already loud, panicky sounds circulating our bus, and then kindly landed Bajju to the pavement beside our bags.

About midnight. Bajju took his clothes off right then and there, on the sidewalks of Rishikesh; it was on that sidewalk that we spent the rest of our evening. I zipped my passport, wallet, and phone into a fanny pack, and lodged the fanny pack under my butt -- a means of double security. I turned my backpack into a make-shift pillow. I dazed in-and-out of sleep, filthy from the streets, suffering from a slight case of the spins until only a few hours later Bajju screamed, “COLIN! MY PHONE MISSING!” You can guess how the rest of the night went. Preview: Bajju’s prolonged visit to the police station; my being interviewed by a Guru sage who had somehow not only known my home state of Connecticut, but had lived there – and even been to the Stew freaking Leonards in Norwalk.

Eventually, we made it to Bajju’s isolated home in the mighty northern Gurhwal. There, I tried to recover from what I then thought was a severe hangover on that second leg of the journey, one on which I couldn’t stop throwing up; every time the bus stopped, I vomited. When I tried to eat simple white basmati rice, I vomited – on people, on homes, on Bajju (jerk, I thought at the time). I had never had a hangover that bad. Bajju, as a Himalayan truck driver not too acquainted with medicines or biology, and I, dazed by being severely ill in a region of the world wholly unacquainted with, didn’t know how to approach the situation. Naturally, I called upon Babu for composure and wisdom, who at the time was likely seated in Kolkata having a cup of chai from the pastel green mugs we had bought him the month prior. After explaining my suffering as a bout of car-sickness -- which, in part I believed it to be -- Babu told me, “Bottled water, ok? Eat light. Packached dahi and lassi are both available in Ukimath. Stay Chill.” I was suspect about the nature of my condition; I really hadn't drunk myself into oblivion the night prior, nor was this any regular case of car sickness.

Over the next few days, Bajju introduced me to his Gurhwali speaking friends and showed me around his village. For such an introspective man back in Kolkata, Bajju was a celebrity around these parts, drinking bourbon-waters with just about any-and-everyone around; a swig here and a swig there. One day, as we drove upwards into the sky towards Bajju’s favorite temple in Tungnath, he and his friend pulled over for a quick rip of their (self-proclaimed) invented drink. Both scarred from the day prior and upset with Bajju's indulging, I adamantly resisted. I couldn’t encourage this. As they drank, they ate raw lamb together, some lamb Bajju had purchased that morning from the butcher. My conscious told me, “don’t eat it,” but of course I did just that. Lamb peppered with a little bit of namak, salt, as had been recommended by Bajju. Only a week later, as I lie in that Delhi hospital bed, I remembered that moment and that decision with such painful clarity.

Lamb, lamb from my girlfriend’s mom. At the steakhouse in downtown Boston, I began sweating profusely, and I couldn’t really pinpoint why. I excused myself to the bathroom. At that point of the summer, I had an absolute mane, a lot, a lot, of hair. Beads of sweat gathered on my forehead and inched up towards my hairline. I sweat like a pig. Lamb. I gripped the edge of the marble sink with outstretched arms and stared towards the faucet. Breathe. Flashbacks.

As my – our -- memories churn, both disclosing instances and shrouding others, I’ve recently realized that it was not lamb which did me in in India, which infected my GI tract and turned me septic; it was a Burger King chicken sandwich I had that day before I met Bajju at the rail station. That day as I waited and waited, hunger kicked in and I went for it; I knew better than that. It’s simple: eat where the locals eat, nobody eats at BK in India. It’s not a good business model to get people sick. Americans get sick in foreign places because we crave our imported comfort, an import whose only customer base are expats and tourists who are bound to fall ill. The American in me wanted American food; I still see and taste it now, this suspect looking, bitter tasting meat from the worst looking restaurant I've ever seen in India. This proved to be a recipe for disaster, and as my sister who is a nurse had previously informed me : a stomach infection will manifest itself within the first 24-48 hours, then subside, and then return with a fierce onslaught. As my memory now clarifies, the 24-48 hours after that BK proved disastrous: the ride up to Bajju’s hometown, the incessant throw-up. The next 72 were fine. Upon returning to Delhi, something in me festered until on the 4th of July, as I yearned for more American – a classic Budweiser at that – I realized I didn’t just feel a ‘little bit sick.’ After a night on the town (by myself), I walked back to my homestay feeling slightly strange, hazy. I got in bed and the shivers came again; and so I went, north on the Delhi Metro yellow line until I stumbled into the emergency room of Moolchand Medcity. Upon being admitted to this Delhi Hospital, you guessed it, I called my sister.

In McCarran airport: memories of weak stools and their associations -- parents weekend with my girlfriend’s parents, memories of lamb, of throw-up on the ride to the Gurhwal, of the Delhi hospital -- all compounded by the inherent stresses of backpacking and the insurgent coronavirus.

It took speaking with my sister this day in Terminal D at Gate 35 to reconcile this onslaught of complex emotions, these memories, ones exacerbated by the coronavirus which I normally wouldn’t fear but which all news outlets ‘daily briefings’ nevertheless decide to exaggerate the prominence of; it is, in fact, news, and after returning from a few days’ without service, I inevitably joined the hysteria. It also didn’t help that I had drunk iodine-purified water for the last few days, and had been paranoid of the cloudy La Verkin Creek water which I normally would have trusted but in the spirit of my energizer-bunny franticness, I began to reconsider and vigorously interrogate. As she walked me through my feelings, in her ever so calm and ever so supportive way that only a sibling can relate, I gradually swallowed my pride and cried. I began reflecting on this stressful, sleepless past week in Zion and on all of the above.

With the end of college nearing, I told her, ‘I didn’t really make any best friends in college.’ Once again, she both assured me and offered a different perspective, “We got closer in college.” She was right; we lived together my junior year; probably just a year ago I wouldn’t have called her. And, I had in fact made great friends in college; I truly love these guys I had just camped with. We merely had just spent a week together in the wilderness – some moments of tension or disagreements are inevitable; if this doesn't happen, are they really your friends? As she told me to take deep breaths, I was ready to do as she suggested, to run my cold hands under warm water. I would resituate the amped fears of COVID-19 into a rational perspective and bravely walk into an airport bathroom - arguably a second epicenter of the virus, if there had to be one - and unzip my fly next to a procession of masked-pee’ers.

End. Next time I hear Rihanna's corny, “We found love in a hopeless place...” which blasted in Terminal D this day, hovering among the strangely placed slot machines, I’ll instead try my best to remember not the bad, but the good, the love of my sister; I’ll remember how on an eventually healthy day in that Delhi hospital, I watched Up. That movie of course still reminds me of my illness, but above all it reminds me to live a grateful life, to consider and respect my health deeply, to love to live. The good and the bad often overlap; if we are lucky enough, lucky to have support and guidance in our lives, we have an option to choose the good.”

A few hours later, I grabbed my journal and reflected once again, this time even further removed from the panic attack:

“And now I am on the plane. I got through it. As Bajju, Babu, and I would say, I am aram se. I combatted my descension with the help of another. There was a moment as I sat on the phone with my sister, in which for a split second I contemplated: do I be honest or do I hold it in? I made the right decision, and now I’ve not been – and I’ll use the words again – hysterically quarantined in the fake place, the adult playground and travesty of humanity that is Las Vegas. A few breaths later, I realize this was a productive spring break. I learned more than I ever have on any one-day outdoors trips I’ve lead. I learned about myself. In instances when my friends had been unhelpful, I realized that they had been so because of me, because I had unrealistic expectations from my camping partners, expectations which I had not, in fact, even articulated.

As in most instances of frustration we ourselves are to blame. Despite my friends having less backcountry experience than me, I didn’t treat them as I treat my participants on other backpacking trips; I tried to be both a friend and a field guide. When one of them insisted on packing some bulky clothes for our backcountry excursion – thus affording little room in his backpack for group gear – I didn’t properly counsel him on the importance of packing light, packing strategically (as legend now has it, being an adamant midwesterner, he in fact brought all three 2010, 2012, and 2015 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Sweaters into the backcountry). If I had operated as a field guide speaking to a participant, I would have done just that; but as a friend, jesting, I told him he was a fool and in an attempt to compensate for the lack of room in his backpack, I carabineer’ed a sleeve of tortillas to his backpack. A funny move, sure, one that got some laughs out of the boys, but a more durable solution – one which would have eased my load which then pained my back and gave me a headache – would have been to speak calmly, deliberately, and educationally. I should have been more of the latter (a field guide) because doing too much of the former (a friend) made me far worse in both these roles. I could’ve been more communicative and stern with my directions and the expectations for our group; I feared coming off an jerk. Of course, this took a toll on my psyche, which, when contextualized with these other, numerous factors whirling around my mind, led to this moment in the airport. A few breaths later, I have learned a thing or two, so don’t go telling my friends my break-down was their fault; our memories and our brains' convoluted associations yield complex realities.

And so, upon reflecting, I’m reminded again of those early 20th century American thinkers who helped popularize the special affect of Zion National Park, with whom I felt so at odds with as I hyperventilated in the airport. One explorer even once wrote in a 1926 brochure promoting the park that he/she who visits Zion and “declares there is no God, he’s got more courage than I have;” unfortunately, following this experience my faith in finding God in Zion had been obliterated. Just as many of my college friends had descended to Satan's depths in the Bahamas, I thought myself to have accompanied them into the blazes. But, given a second thought I realized that sure, this experience -- and subsequent breakdown -- was not euphoric or spiritually productive in the traditional sense. I did not return to campus relaxed and renewed, having had peaceful revelations as I peered up at Zion’s sublime walls; but, would that have been an encounter with God? Or had the rationalization of my feelings, or at least my attempt at doing that, been what I needed? This skip-tracing, time-jumping synthesis of my bad memories and subconscious associations had, if not been resolved, then maybe been somewhat addressed. Maybe this was a confrontation with God, reached via a journey to the depths of myself, not experienced within Zion Canyon but maybe stimulated by it.”


*P.S. ( if yearning for some photos of Zion NP)

**P.S.S. If interested in a more history of Zion NP (which I reference in the essay), scroll to bottom of page

*P.S.


Pictured: The Zion Valley (read the History below if you're curious about the religious components of Zion)


Pictured: The snowy backside of the west-rim trail, in the main Zion Valley

Pictured: My good friend Ronald absolutely parched after a long morning


Pictured: Our other peer, known colloquially as 'Kokodysnk" eyeing the other (quieter, less trafficked, remote) valley as we head out for our backcountry excursion, supplied with limited iodine pills and plenty of Chicago Blackhawks sweatshirts. Legend has it that 'Kokodynsk' brought all three 2010, 2012, and 2015 Stanley Cup Sweaters into the backcountry. If you're in Zion for more than a few days it is highly recommended you escape the main valley and check out this western valley in the NP.


Pictured: A couple of young stallions bronzing their washboard abs on our rendition of a beach.



**P.S.S.

If you are interested in the history of Zion NP, for which I researched for my undergraduate honors thesis which discusses the globalization of the National Park idea and the creation of the first national park in India. (As so happened, American national parks - especially Zion – proliferated in global media and found an audience in Indian film, especially in that nation’s emerging cultural capital, Bombay). Here is an excerpt from my research:

The religious dimensions of American nature spaces stretch back several centuries. Several scholars, especially William Cronon, have noted how beginning in the early 19th century, wilderness spaces in the United States began to be perceived as “sublime” spaces, spaces evoking so much awe that only god could be present in, or must have had a hand in crafting, these spaces.[1] Into the late 19th century when America’s first national parks were established, these revering perceptions of forest spaces continued; these places were endowed with a God-like beauty, so much so that they often resembled temples of god, Gardens of Eden (on earth), among many other religious comparisons. According to Cronon, the shift towards this commemoration of natural spaces proved dramatic. As he traces the etymology of the word ‘wilderness’ in the English language, Cronon deduces that even into the 18th century “its (wilderness’s) connotations were anything but positive, and the emotion one was most likely to feel in its presence was terror.”[2] Explaining this point, Cronon cites several stories from the bible; he mentions the stories of Moses, Jesus, and even Adam and Eve, and recalls how in each of their lives they had been thrust into, and subsequently intimidated and tempted towards sin by the wilderness.

Several influential American authors and explorers revised this perception of the wilderness in the 19th century. Prominent among them were John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, as well as philosophers Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and Edmund Burke. According to Cronon, all of these players contributed to the changing perception of wilderness spaces from the home of Satan into a sublime temple of god.[3] Among the primary places which evoked this change were the sites of Americas first national parks, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainer, and most obviously Zion. While Cronon mentions the writings of these philosophers and authors of the late 19th century, this same ethic continued into the 20th century, and even after the First World War.

Zion had been coined “Little Zion Canyon” by a community of Mormon settlers - including Brigham Young - who had been pressured westward in the 1860s. Gradually, this Mormon community began naming several of Zion Canyon’s remarkable peaks, plateaus, and features with religiously oriented names. First of all, naming the canyon “Zion” itself is important because in the Old Testament the name “Zion” was the given to the hills on which Jerusalem was eventually built; thus, for most Christians, the name “Zion” refers to the homeland and holy-land of the Jewish community, which was historically a part of their own community too. In addition, the movement of “Zionism” is one which ultimately calls for the creation of a Jewish state situated in this holy-land of Jerusalem; the present day manifestation of this is the Israeli state.[4] Although the Mormon community’s religious beliefs extend beyond those articulated in the Old Testament, the understanding of “Zion” as an original holy place persisted. According to these Mormon settlers this was a place where god was ever-present, and thus they named this vast canyon in Southern Utah Zion Canyon.[5]

Several decades later, this godly perception of Zion was continued by non-Mormon communities, and two writings discussing Zion National Park, one in 1916 and one in 1925 exemplify the continued popularity of these ideas in the American mind. In 1916, Methodist Minister Frederick Vining Fisher sojourned to Zion Canyon in an attempt to take photographs for a planned lecture considering the scenic wonders of the west. Fisher’s language is especially reminiscent of those thinkers and philosophers from nearly half-a-century prior. As he described the Canyon, Fisher repeatedly referred the Canyon as the exact word which Cronon uses, “sublime,” and even noted that Zion is a “place of pilgrimage... only folks who pray have any right to go here.” Fisher continued, “How fitting the name: ‘The home of God,’ or Zion,” and also offered up that while America’s other national parks were similarly beautiful and sublime, none evoked such religious connections as did Zion Canyon. On this visit, Fisher also continued the tradition of naming Zion’s features with religious names. Upon his departure, names such as “The Court of the Patriarchs,” which included Isaac, Jacob, and Abraham peaks, “Angels Landing,” the “Temples of the Virgin,” “The Great White Throne,” and “Cathedral Mountain,” among others, defined the landscape of the Canyon.[6] Established as Zion National Park just a few years after Fisher’s visit, these names had stuck, and even do to this day.

Even after roads were paved through Zion National Park — in contrast with Fisher’s wishes that only “folks who pray have a right to go there” — this same reverence for Zion’s sublimity continued. A 1926 promotional brochure for the park emphasizes this continued perception. In order to attract visitors, this author cites spirituality as the main reason as to why visitors should visit Zion Canyon. He first describes how the Lord God fashioned the Mojave Canyons –both Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon – with a chisel; however, he clarifies that while these other Canyons evoke similar religious passions, it is in Zion Canyon where the visitor will be ablest to contemplate his spirituality, stating, “from the bottom of Zion, you look up and worship and appeal...my spiritual eyes gradually opened as we progressed into Zion Canyon.” The descriptions in this article are unremittingly dramatic, as the author continues to praise the Canyon and lift it above all of America’ other national parks, prizing it for its spiritual stimulation, adding, “the others fascinate me, but I don’t love them.” As a sort of of litany, the author relates Zion as a “sanctuary of the soul,” as a “museum of the Gods – a garden of heavenly spectres,” and even says that, “let any man stand there in those beautiful silences and declare there is no God and he’s got more courage than I have. Or he is a bigger fool.”[7]

[1] William Cronon. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Norton and Co., New York, 1995, 69-90; While American Environmental Historian Roderick Nash —who is often recognized as a chief authority on the subject —attributes the creation of American national parks to a combination of factors, he too includes religious factors in the story of the National Park creation; as in: Roderick Nash. “The American Invention of National Parks. The American Quarterly, 22, 3 (Autumn, 1970), 726-735. [2] William Cronon. Uncommon. 70. [3] William Cronon. Uncommon. 71. [4]Arthur Hertzberg. The Zionist Idea. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1997). [5] Nathan Waite. “Introduction: Imagining Zion.” As in A Zion Canyon Reader, ed. Nathan N. Waite and Reid L. Neilson, University of Utah Press, 2010, 1-17. [6] Frederick Vining Fisher, “The Canyon Sublime,” The Washington County News, 1916. As in A Zion Canyon Reader, ed. Nathan N. Waite and Reid L. Neilson, University of Utah Press, 2010, 100-102. [7] Henry Irving Dodge, “All Aboard in Zion,” originally published in Union Pacific, 1926. As found in A Zion Canyon Reader, ed. Nathan N. Waite and Reid L. Neilson, University of Utah Press, 2010, 125-131.

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