Zion National Park, Utah
“The driver was there at 4 o’clock. Where were you?”
Americans aren’t big on swearing, I reminded myself. Utahns probably even less so. “We were here. We’ve been here, under the flag, since 3.40pm. It has been 55 minutes,” I said slowly down the phone line. “I don’t know how the driver could have missed us. Are you sure he was here?”
It was 4.25pm, the temperature was 34 degrees Celsius and I had been standing in the beating sun under the Stars and Stripes in the Zion Lodge car park for the best part of an hour.
The driver in question was supposed to take my girlfriend and me back to our campsite on the other side of Zion National Park after we completed the first trail of our 12-day hiking trip through Utah and Colorado. In retrospect, the 28-kilometre West Rim Trail was a poor choice for day one. Especially in Nikes. I now realise that 28 kilometres is a distance best tackled in hiking boots or, even better, a car.
Starting from Lava Point, nearly two-and-a-half kilometres above sea level, we had cut a cross-section across Zion, descending through fragrant pine forests, blooming meadows and dramatic cliffside switchbacks.
Just before lunch we overtook a cheerful father and his five blond teenage sons, all wielding carbon fibre hiking poles and wearing neckerchiefs. Otherwise, we were alone in the wilderness.
Every hour yielded a different window on the park’s theatrical scenery. Sandstone cliffs turned from gold to rose, their geology defying the rising sun, while trees speckled colossal mesas like goosebumps and waves of rock surged in the distance. It was sublime in the truest sense, though it must be said the awe began to fade around kilometre 20, replaced by fatigue and the irrational fear that the trail would never end.
We reached the finish line weak-kneed, amid an upbeat and activewear-clad throng taking the short hike up to the prime Instagram spot, Angels Landing. We were tired, filthy and sweating in a completely non-selfie-presentable way.
Never has the unlimited drinks refills policy at Zion Lodge been so abused. We sat, rehydrated but exhausted, waiting for a van that didn’t come.
The man on the phone was speaking to me like I was an unusually dense four-year-old. Eventually he sighed, perhaps recognising the looming threat of a tantrum. “Stay there, all right? I’ll get him to come back. Do. Not. Move.”
Twenty minutes later, a raised passenger van slathered in streaky black house paint screeched to a halt before us. The driver, a man in late middle age wearing a thin moustache, shorts and a ratty T-shirt that hugged his beer belly, told us to get in. “You weren’t here at 4 o’clock,” he said sourly. “I was here. I sat here for 15 minutes waiting for you folks and you didn’t show.”
How are you supposed to take it when someone bullshits you straight to your face? We had stayed in the same spot the whole time. Why was the driver lying to us and his boss? What had he been doing at four? Drinking? Meeting a woman? Meeting a man? That might not go down so well in Utah, I thought.
I wanted to scream at him as he eyed us in the rear-view mirror, his mouth turned down. Unfortunately, our campsite was still a 40-minute drive away, so I decided discretion was the better part of valour. “I’m not sure what happened,” I said and changed the subject. “Do you get to enjoy the park much?”
No. He hadn’t been into the park to hike or ride since he was a boy.
“Do you live nearby?”
No. Millionaires from California have made Springdale and Rockville too expensive so most locals live in La Verkin.
The conversation was going nowhere. Then we passed the Springdale Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and my girlfriend, in violation of all conventional wisdom, asked about the local Mormon presence.
“Oh yeah, we got a lot of ’em up here,” he said. “Matter of fact, Washington County is the headquarters of the Fundamentalist LDS, who still believe in polygamy.”
The driver, it turned out, used to work in the police department, and had his fair share of run-ins with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – which broke from mainstream Mormonism when it abandoned bigamy.
Rulon Jeffs, one of the church’s founders, had 22 wives. Warren Jeffs, his son and successor, may have had more than 70. Arrested in 2006 after a stint on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, it was revealed that many of Warren’s “celestial marriages” were to girls as young as 12. He is currently serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually abusing children.
“They live in these big houses, and each of the wives has a different bedroom,” said the driver. “The husband just makes his way down the hallway, visiting a different bedroom each night. It’s all about sex, if you ask me.
“They take up a good deal of the county budget, too. The state only recognises one of the marriages, so the rest of the wives can draw a government cheque for being unwed mothers.”
In 2016, he said, armed FBI agents had raided businesses in Colorado City, Arizona, just south of Zion, and arrested 11 church members for welfare fraud and money laundering.
“It’s a cult, a damn cult,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road.
The Norman Rockwell-esque houses whizzing by as we hurtled up the narrow mountain road no longer looked quite so idyllic. The towering landscape was beginning to cast lengthy shadows.
The driver seemed to respond to the enveloping gloom. “Of course, it’s never the tourists that are the issue round here,” he said. “Maybe a speeding ticket now and then. There’s drugs now, guns.”
“Did you worry about guns?” I asked, realising too late that this was risky territory for an Australian and an American.
“You know, I’ve got a buddy in the Las Vegas police. He was there in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay. Saw people shot down right in front of him, people crawling on the ground. It’s madness. There’s no reason to it. You turn on the news and it seems like there’s a new shooting every day. There’s nothing we can do to stop it. We should stop putting those people on the news and making them famous.”
I considered pointing out all the obvious things they could do to stop it, the things Australia did two decades ago, but thought better of it. I was tired, there was nothing to be gained and we had already argued once today.
Dazed by the turn the conversation had taken, I wished we could return to a light topic such as fundamentalist Mormonism.
Instead, and I can’t explain why I did so, I raised the fact that Australia not long ago experienced a similar tragedy: Peter Miles’ murder of his wife, daughter and four grandchildren, and his subsequent suicide, in the Western Australian town of Margaret River.
I immediately regretted it. The driver related how he had once taken a call to a nearby house and found an elderly man shot through the back of the head while he sat watching television. They found his wife in the bedroom. She had shot herself in the forehead.
“She left a note,” he said. “Their golden years weren’t what she thought they would be, she was getting sick and she didn’t want him to have to live without her. It’s just damn selfishness, is what it is. Damn selfishness.”
“Wow,” I tendered, not sure what else to say.
Mercifully, we were turning down the white gravel road to the campsite. Pasture faded into forest as we crossed the invisible line that divides ranch from park.
We slowed. I was ready to get out of this van, putting this conversation, and myself, to bed.
I looked at the sign on the dash – “Tipping is encouraged and appreciated” – and wondered whether anything short of killing and eating a customer is a tip-voiding offence in America.
I wrote “tip?” on my phone and slid it towards my girlfriend.
The driver swivelled in his seat to face us. “Hey, what time do you have on that phone?”
It was about six.
The driver smiled. “Say, you do know that Utah is on daylight savings time, don’t you? It’s seven.”
We tipped him 40 per cent.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "On rocky ground". Subscribe here.