Inspiration from Zion
By Laura L Mays Hoopes
Driving from Denver to Los Angeles with my first husband and baby son in 1973, I wanted to enjoy parts of the country I'd never experienced. Tiredness interfered with that often, sending me into uneasy dozes as Richard drove and Lyle sang with the radio, banging out time on his carseat. And so, only one sight has really stayed with me for all these years: Zion National Park in Utah.
We passed through Springdale near sunset, on our way to our motel in Saint George. The curtain rose and I sat up with a zing, a giant red-fire peak in my forward view. Richard and Lyle felt moved too, in spite of our exhaustion. We had to walk and soak in the beauty of that view. I put Lyle in his baby pouch and we moved along the road, little traffic to interrupt our approach to timeless wonder. The sun sank closer to the horizon and then vanished, leaving behind the kind of ruby glow only a sunset can paint. The peak changed color constantly, seemingly alive. Darkness eventually sent us back to the car and on down the road to our motel.
"We have to come back here," Richard said, his eyes aglow. I could only nod, speechless and overwhelmed. But it never happened. Richard passed away from an early and unexpected heart attack, Lyle grew up, I remarried, and time washed us along its river. I became dependent on a wheelchair to get around. People said to me that it was too bad I could no longer hike and get out in nature.
The 100th anniversary of the National Park Service reminded me over and over of what I'd lost, until I decided to do something to breach the barrier. I applied to be an Artist in Residence at Zion in 2017, intent on developing activities for mobility-handicapped visitors. Access for that was already planned in, according to the park’s website. I’d had some similar experiences planning hikes for the Sierra Club, which I initially belonged to as a spectator, attending talks and perhaps a dinner—I did not partake in outings. At some point, I thought, why not try to participate as a handicapped nature-enthusiast?
I initially offered to help the Pasadena chapter of the Sierra Club develop some hikes for people like me. Emails flew fast and numerous between the national office, the Pasadena leaders, and me, and soon they invited me to take their leadership course. I had to acquire Red Cross certification in first aid and CPR—I registered for classes and crossed my fingers. There was no way I could actually get on the floor and deliver enough CPR to a patient to save him or her, but I also thought that if I were a leader I could tell someone else how to do it, or find someone on the hike who already knew how, and recruit them. I hoped the Red Cross teacher would agree. At the physical practice, my teacher said I must show that I knew how to do it correctly or she wouldn’t be sure I could explain it to someone. With a lot of help from two others in the class and a stack of floor pillows, I tried to perform CPR on the model human prone on the floor, but my knee and hip joints cried out with searing pain, and I had to stop. My teacher then let me demonstrate with the model atop the desks in the classroom. I did it correctly enough times for her to be convinced, and I passed.
The Sierra Club had a full day workshop then, covering topics from planning hikes to managing unruly hikers. Lunch was spent with a small group planning a hike I knew I could never take, because it involved narrow rock-strewn trails over the ridge of a large mountain. But it was fun to make the detailed plans. I wanted to lead handicapped hikes and not regular hikes, and so I persisted. The measure of how unique my offering would be was evident in the difficulty of finding five hikes that I’d be permitted to lead. Maybe it will work out, I thought. I completed two more official Sierra Club outings before being considered for a leadership position. One that my husband Mike and I took was a trip to a desert oasis at Ash Meadows, inland from Death Valley. Though most of their hikes are not accessible, the boardwalks at Ash Meadows worked well for my wheelchair. We saw desert pupfish, the ash trees for which the site is named, and many other desert plants and animals. It was clear to the others on the trip that I was not already an accomplished nature guide, as I was forever asking, “What is this plant? What is this animal?”
The Sierra Club members recommended that I take the docent training class at Eaton Canyon Nature Reserve, on the east side of Pasadena. In ten-weeks I crammed my head with the knowledge; I learned the geology of the canyon, and that, amazingly, there are no sedimentary rocks there at all. It probably is in as good condition as it is because there was little mining there in the early days. People did pan for gold and found small bits, but no big strikes.
In the plant world, I learned to distinguish not just herbaceous wildflowers but also numerous bushes and shrubs: Toyon or Christmas Berry, mule fat, lemonade berry, mountain mahogany, laurel sumac, and many more. The trees are fairly limited, most on the reserve being cottonwoods, coastal live oaks or Western sycamores. We learned that the oaks were part of the staple diet of the Tongva Native Americans, who used this canyon every year as they trekked between coast and mountains to collect acorns from many types of oak. We learned a few of the Tongva botanical usages, including making rope from Yucca leaf fibers and soap from its sap. Yucca whipliei, or Our Lord’s Candle, is common on the reserve. I demonstrated yucca fiber bracelet making and helped kids try it, at the Spring Awakening celebration at the reserve. I learned what animals, from bears to coyotes to millipedes to centipedes, had what-shaped skulls and also how many teeth they have, a useful tool for identification. We docents in training formed close bonds and enjoyed joking around with some of the teachers, but our heads were stuffed with important ideas, facts, and issues related to the Eaton Canyon Nature Reserve. We put our new expertise to the test on field trips on four Saturdays, and for the most part, recognized more than we had expected to remember. We completed a final examination with both test questions and practicum of identifications of real organisms.
At the end of the training, we heard from docents about their tips and tricks for leading others on tours of the reserve. I heard some great teaching advice from these docents and hope to put some of their good advice into practice this fall. The summer season was a quiet time for the center, due to fire danger and lack of school tours.
The reserve director has invited me to develop accessible hikes for them. I plan to do that in addition to my outings for the Sierra Club. I’ve bought a second-hand scooter to get around on, to save my husband’s back from uphill wheelchair-pushing. Without the dream of returning to Zion National Park, I'd perhaps still be sitting, moping in front of the TV—but instead, I am actively pursuing some good for all of us mobility limited people who love nature.
Laura L Mays Hoopes is Emerita Professor of Biology, Pomona College. She lives near Los Angeles with her husband. At Joslyn Senior Center, Laura and Anita Zachary teach free writing courses for seniors. Laura is training as a Sierra Club leader of hikes for those with limited mobility. In 2013, Hoopes received the MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University and a Certificate from UCLA In 2009. Hoopes has published the memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, and fiction, poetry, and non-fiction pieces in Chaffin Journal, North Carolina Literary Review, Fat City Review, Panoply and others.