My leading candidate was my preternaturally cheery friend Jackie, a talented photographer with an obvious joie de vivre and an outdoorsy wardrobe. Of course, I didn’t know then about her robust fear of wild animals or her balky right knee, but hell, everyone’s got their share of baggage these days.
Before we could do so much as a shakedown dayhike, we blasted out of Vegas with the top down. I had a big overnight planned for our first stop in Zion. In retrospect, I’d say the trip down the Hop Valley Trail to La Verkin Creek was a challenging adventure: a long trek through a lush, grassy canyon flanked by red rock and an ever-changing sky, an unexpected improvisation descending a dry streambed, a scenic campsite nestled above a tumbling creek. Or, for variety’s sake, there’s Jackie’s version: a 14-mile slog under alternating skies of menacing thunderheads and blistering sun, a missed turn that led to pour-overs and scraped flesh, perilous interactions with bite-sized lizards and a head-hunting hummingbird, and a swollen creek that required fording. We returned to our car the following morning, exhausted, triumphant, and maybe a little frazzled. One down, six to go.
Now that it was in our faces, the daily schedule seemed all-consuming. Drive like David Letterman to the next park. Settle backcountry arrangements. Purchase food and fill water bottles. Talk through logistics and potential wildlife encounters. Hit the trail. Eat dinner as the sky purples. Sleep like a stone. Hike out. Ingest 240 milligrams of caffeine. And then repeat–again and again and again. Our itinerary was a convoluted clockwise loop that would take us from Zion to Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Petrified Forest, and finally, the Grand Canyon.