Gold. Black. All gold. All black.

I was blind for a moment; I was back on the road.

Matt was sleeping next to me. I remember a soft synth coming through the car speakers as we drove through a canyon in southern Utah. The sun was setting and as we rose and fell, it would streak across the windshield painting our car with a brilliant orange. Then the canyon walls drew their curtain across the sky and we fell into darkness. All gold. All black.

There is a helplessness in that area of the country. Even though I gripped the steering wheel, the earth was in control.

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Last May, Matt and I spent ten days exploring Zion National Park and the surrounding areas. We make a good travel team: Matt is a reckless Eagle Scout that likes to push boundaries and I am a middle-aged soccer Mom stuck in a twenty-something man body.

I grew up surrounded by alligators and cottonmouth snakes in southern Florida but currently live in Brooklyn, New York where the closest wildlife is the family of mice that scurry up and down the walls of my bedroom. Matt and I chose Zion for a challenge; we were ready to feel captured by nature. We wanted to see if the park would throw us into the crumbling sandstone – and if we’d make it out alive.

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

As we drove south from Salt Like City, the colors of the landscapes shifted from green to brown to red. In some places, hillsides were lush and green; in others, fields were filled with snow. We were traveling through seasons – an entire calendar year in less than 300 miles.

We passed small towns that were capitalizing on the stereotypes of the Wild West. Cowboys, Indians, and covered wagons filled their store shelves. I began to wonder how long that nostalgic kitsch would survive.

The details of the scenery begin a slow drum roll as you approach Zion. In the distance, you see a massive boulder, then a dip in the horizon signaling a ravine, and finally the park itself erupts over the town of Springdale. Once inside, you feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole where everything is ten times larger than it should be.

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“Spirituality cannot be manufactured, but it can be a gift of the wilderness.” – Stan Tate

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The monoliths that make up the walls of Zion canyon were once sand dunes, similar to those found in the Sahara desert. Over time, they compacted into a hard, barely-stable rock. On our first morning, we set out on the Watchman Trail, a small climb to a cliff edge that overlooked our campsite. Within minutes, despite my incessant arguments against it, Matt suggested we make our own way down. Every couple of steps would send a small avalanche of rocks bouncing down to the river below. I used desert plants, which felt like pincushions, to keep my balance. After about ten minutes, my fingers and wrists were bleeding in multiple places. Occasionally, Matt would pick up the pace and hike far out of sight.

After about an hour, we took toll of our rations: half a bottle of water, two halves of a peanut butter sandwich, and a Clif bar that I was allergic to. We kept passing deer pellets and a pile of something Matt identified as mountain lion scat. I kept silent about the little S curves in the sand, evidence of snakes.

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Eventually we reached the canyon wall and everything fell silent. We climbed up into a crevice where a two-story rock had fallen many years ago. I tried to imagine what it sounded like as it cut away. Out of nowhere, we heard a massive rockslide below. It began with a rush that sounded like the crash of an ocean wave before it trickled into a light rain. I don’t know if it was the intensity of the silence, my high-strung imagination, or a combination of the two, but I started to hear the growl of a large cat and grabbed the nearest blunt object to use in my defense.

We sat there in the silence again. The blood on my arm began to dry and I stared at the other side of the canyon where the morning sun was beginning to arc. No lion appeared.

Matt and I made our way back by following a trail of water that fell all the way from the canyon wall down to the main road. There were times we had to jump up to fifteen feet and then slide with the rocks to catch our balance. I fell into at least three more cacti and decided that, even though this was only Day 1, I was definitely going to de-friend him on Facebook.

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

Over the next week, we saw everything: slot canyons and toadstools made out of rock; hidden canyons; hot springs. I was chased by a family of big-horned sheep after accidentally setting off our car alarm and Matt gave me a conniption every time he decided to leap to the edge of a cliff.

It was exhausting. My cactus wounds were innumerable alongside my allergies and sunburn. By the end of our trip, Matt was having a hard time walking up stairs. Still, we kept pushing ourselves to the edge, feeling coaxed by nature to work through the pain and see everything we could. I wasn’t ready to go back to the city where my skin became plastic and my eyes lost their glow.

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

Michael-George-Greatest-Earth-on-Show

Bryce Canyon was our final destination. As we approached, we saw a placard that stated: “If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.” The quote was by Lyndon B. Johnson. I was reminded of the recent scandal of a woman painting graffiti in national parks and posting them on Instagram. I worried about our detachment from the natural. I remembered growing up with Zoo Books and Jane Goodall, feeling like my body was a machine built to climb trees rather than a vessel for my brain to stare at a screen. There’s a feeling you get when standing on the edge of a canyon. It’s a mixture of vertigo and incomprehension. Your iPhone can’t capture it.

All gold. All black.

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The sun eventually faded and the performance was over. The ring leader of southern Utah closed the curtain on the final act. It was like an extraordinary circus. Fitting, as we drove through Kanab, Utah where the welcome signs proudly announced ‘The Greatest Earth on Show.

Nature has an unpredictability that ignites a special corner of human curiosity. Even the forests just outside of New York City are unpredictable, not curated, and forever evolving. The longer I live in a metropolitan area, the more I realize that work-life balance is just as important as city-nature balance. My time in Zion was a reminder that awe can be inspired by something as bold and dazzling as a broadway show, or something as simple and affordable as the dirt and the trees.

All gold. Fade to black.

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Michael George is a freelance travel and portrait photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. His images have appeared in publications such as WIRED, Popular Mechanics, American Photo, Runner’s World, and Hello Mr. magazines. He is also a “professional” adventurer. In 2010 he cycled 4,000 miles across the United States to raise money for affordable housing. In 2012/13 he walked over 1,000 miles through southwest France and northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage. Michael’s documentary, “Portrait of a Pilgrim,” will be published as a Photo Journal by National Geographic next year. You can follow his journey on Instagram @migeophoto.