Coach Trip – USA National Parks, Zion National Park and a Nuclear Test Site

Zion

We left Kanab this morning and drove northwards again along Kanab Creek until we turned west at a junction of the road and joined West State Highway 9 on the route to Zion National Park.  We were climbing again and there were some twists and turns in the road that gave good views over the mountainous plateau that we were ascending.  We followed Pine Creek, which gave a welcome slash of verdant green slicing through the rocks and mountains that was otherwise all around us.

After about sixty five kilometres we entered the east entrance of the park and joined the Zion-Mount Carmel highway that was completed in 1930 despite the fact that many believed that this was a road that just could not be built and construction costs spiralled to nearly two million dollars, which was a huge sum in 1930.  The most famous feature of the highway is the nearly two kilometre long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which when it was completed was the longest tunnel on the U.S. highway network.  Entering the tunnel from the sandstone slickrock mountains called the Checkerboard Mesa we emerged into a landscape of enormous contrast.  The windows cut into the mountain to light the tunnel gave fleeting tempting glimpses of what was to come but the exit from the tunnel delivered us into the Zion Canyon and it was truly a marvellous spectacle of colourful sandstone cliffs soaring into the sky above a flat-bottomed, thickly forested valley floor in brilliant red and gold autumn foliage that accentuated the colours of the cliffs.

Zion National Park encompasses some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States and is characterised by high plateaus, a maze of narrow deep sandstone canyons and striking rock towers and mesas.  People have lived here for thousands of years but in modern times people only became aware of it when Mormon pioneers began to farm the canyon in the late nineteenth century.

In 1880 a geologist called Clarence Dutton visited the Canyon and he described it like this: there is eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind. Nothing can exceed the wonderous beauty of Zion, in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison’.

Many people refused to believe that it was possible for such a place to exist because until a hundred years ago Zion Canyon was practically inaccessible to outside visitors; and only a few had laid eyes on the majestic towering cliffs.  Zion Canyon was declared a National Park in 1909.  It was well thoughtfully named because Zion is an ancient Hebrew word meaning a place of refuge or sanctuary and it was in a temple on Mount Zion near Jerusalem where Jesus and the disciples had the last supper together.

Once through the tunnel the road started to descend into the valley down a switchback road through six precarious hairpin bends, still following Pine Creek to Mount Carmel junction and arrival at the visitor centre.  There was a peaceful ambience at the bottom of the valley and the air tasted of mountain air that cleared your head and filled your lungs with freshness.  Being at the bottom of the canyon this provided a complete contrast to the  top down view that had been the feature of the Grand Canyon and the views looking up were spectacular and awe inspiring.

After a short break we took the short drive into the heart of the canyon that terminated at the Temple of Sinawava (Sinawava was the Coyote God of the Paiute Indians) and here we left to follow the footpaths and trails around the North Fork Virgin River.  There was a lot of choice and certainly not enough time to see as much as we would have liked so we choose the riverside walk towards the Mountain of Mystery and a famous, much photographed, narrow gorge called the Zion Narrows.  Zion is a unique place with diverse wildlife for whom this place is a safe and bountiful refuge.  A little way along the trail we heard a rustling in the bushes and on examination came face to face with a wild deer.  Given its close proximity we were a bit startled by this and on account of its size left quickly so I am afraid that I am unable to identify exactly what species it was.

The trail was quite steep because the headwaters of the Virgin River above are at about two thousand, seven hundred metres and it empties into Lake Mead three hundred and twenty kilometres southwest after flowing two thousand, three hundred metres downward.  This gives the Virgin River one of the steepest stream gradients in North America.  Naturally therefore we didn’t get as far as we had optimistically planned and soon it was time to return and leave the park, which was a real shame.

We stopped for lunch along the way and when we returned to the coach the tour guide and the driver pulled a well-rehearsed scam.  Vance, who had never left the coach all week, was strangely absent and the guide suggested a collection and said that he thought that the sum of a dollar a day per person was about the going rate.  We quickly calculated that such a generous sum would net nearly a thousand dollars to be shared between them so we rejected the suggestion and left an alternative amount that we considered more appropriate.

There was about two hundred and sixty kilometres to Las Vegas and most of this was across the Mojave desert, which is an area of barren inhospitable land that only receives about two hundred and fifty millimetres of rain a year and is situated in the south of Nevada and spreads into Utah and Arizona.  Most of the land in the State is of no use at all for agriculture and the Federal Government owns 86% and much of it is used for military purposes.

Although we didn’t know this at the time the road that we were travelling along was only a hundred kilometres or so southwest of The Nevada Test Site that is a United States Department of Energy reservation which was established in January 1951 for the testing of nuclear weapons and is an area of approximately three and a half thousand square kilometres of desert and mountainous terrain.  The location is infamous for receiving the of the highest amount of concentrated nuclear detonated weapons in the U.S.

The Nevada Test Site was the primary testing location of American nuclear devices during the Cold War and began here with a one kiloton bomb on January 27, 1951.  From then until 1992, there were nine hundred and twenty eight announced nuclear tests at the test site, which is far more than at any other test site in the World, and seismic data has indicated there may have been many unannounced underground tests as well.  During the 1950s the familiar deadly mushroom cloud from these tests could be seen for almost a hundred miles in either direction, including the city of Las Vegas, where the tests instantly became tourist attractions as Americans headed for the City to witness the spectacle that could be seen from the downtown hotels.  It is an amazing fact but even more recklessly many others would thoughtlessly drive the family to the boundary of the test site for a day out and a picnic to view the free entertainment.  In doing so they unsuspectingly acquired an instant suntan and their own personal lethal dose of radioactive iodine 131, which the American National Cancer Institute, in a report released in 1997, estimated was responsible for thousands of cases of thyroid cancer in subsequent years.

No one can be sure that there test site and the surrounding area are completely safe but it doesn’t stop millions of tourists visiting Las Vegas every year and anyway we didn’t know about the close proximity of the site at the time so we continued into the city blindly oblivious to the matter.   After we had checked into our hotel, which was one of the older casino hotels on the famous Strip we were back out again in the coach for an evening tour of the city.  It was loud, gaudy, lavish and unsightly and I have to say that I didn’t really care for it that much at all.  I put this down in the main to being unprepared for the culture shock of the contrast from only a few hours ago being in beautiful natural Zion to this ugly tarmac and concrete monstrosity.

We drove the Strip, which is a wide boulevard of ceaseless activity, flashing bright lights and enormous hotels, and eventually we stopped to visit the famous Caesar’s Palace.  The sheer scale of the place was awesome with shopping arcades and entertainment centres and most prominent of all of course the casino where croupiers at rows and rows of gaming tables were busy taking money off of the gamblers trying their luck there.

The coach tour introduction to Las Vegas over we returned to our hotel where we had an evening meal and a drink or two and then watched the hundreds of mugs working the gaming machines and feeding them fistfuls of dollars and each hoping to strike it rich.  I wished that I was still in the National Parks and went to bed ruefully contemplating a full day ahead in Las Vegas as the last day of our holiday.

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