I'm feeling pretty grateful right now. I promised that this month's update would be a big one, but it's turned out to be even bigger than I expected. I'll get to my writing update toward the end, but first, a personal update for the month of June.

Zion and Bryce National Parks

The highlight of the month was a trip Rachel planned for my birthday: a change of scenery after so many months cooped up in fear of a deadly virus, out to Utah to visit Zion and Bryce National Parks. This post's photo is from the top of Bryce Canyon, near Sunset Point, where Rachel and I donned our big goofy hats for a tripod-mounted camera capturing a beautiful vista that we're getting in the way of. Seriously though, it hit 100° F in Springdale, the town just south of Zion, every single day we were there – big goofy hats were mandatory. Utah is a sight to behold, but the heat can make you want to hole up in a hotel room, which we often did. It was often too hot to go to the hotel pool.

Do I look nervous in that picture? I think I do. And with good reason. Above that awkward smile, behind those sunglasses are calculating eyes. Beneath the hat lies a secret. This was our last day of hiking and we'd arrived at the spot. The camera's remote shutter wasn't working as planned, so I had a short 10 seconds to get everything right... But we're jumping ahead.

/* For more pictures, check out the Photos from Zion and Bryce 2021 page! */

Let's go back to the first day we arrived in Zion, and our first hike: the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools trails.

Overlooking the Virgin River on the way to the Emerald Pools. Our first view of the breathtaking canyon.

The beauty of Zion canyon quickly impressed itself upon us. Around practically every turn is a vista that demands attention. It's awe inspiring. It slows the hikes because you simply must stop and appreciate the millions of years of nature that forged such a landscape we mere humans crawl over.

The Emerald Pools trails are tucked away in a sort of geological cul-de-sac and divided into three sections of increasing difficulty: lower, middle, and upper. The upper trail is rocky and arduous (especially as the sun peaks over the canyon walls and the day's heat begins to swell), but at the top awaits a verdant pool seeded by a waterfall spewing from the rock face.

Or, well, it would, if it hadn't been so dry the past couple of years. Instead, we found a silty, much-diminished pool that looked like it could use a drink of water as much as we could. At least there was some much-needed shade. Oh, and we saw a chubby squirrel that should probably cut back on the trail mix.

Rachel didn't know why I was obsessed with photographing this squirrel. "We have squirrels back home, you know!"

After making our way down from the upper trail, we were already tired and the day was already in the upper 90s despite it only being around 10:30 am. So we scrapped our plan to do the middle trail and went straight for the lower trail, which headed back toward Zion Lodge. Here, we finally found the promised waterfall, at which almost everybody on the trail stopped for five minutes to cool off in the mist.

Water causing falling rocks: bad. Rocks causing falling water: great.

After this refresher, we continued along the trail to Zion Lodge just in time for lunch, and to overhear a great exchange between the mom with two young boys in front of us in line and the cashier:

"Do you have kid's food?" the mom asked.

"It's all kid's food," the cashier said. "We just serve it to adults, too."

True enough. We ate our hot dogs and soft pretzels on the lawn beneath a shade tree along with everyone else, then caught the shuttle out of the canyon to put a wrap on our first day of hiking.

The Zion Lodge, where "if you know what you're doing in two years, you might be able to book a room," our shuttle driver told us.

The next day (my birthday), we woke up bright and early, slathered on our sunscreen, grabbed our hiking sticks, and caught a private shuttle to the farthest stop in the canyon. From there, we walked a paved trail of red sandstone and undulating curves. The Virgin River flanked the path as the canyon walls pressed in closer and closer, until finally the path descended down a set of stairs and continued directly into the river.

This is the Narrows, where the rocks shield hikers from the sun for all but a scant few hours each day. Most of this trail courses through the river, with slick rocks turning underfoot, and the occasional reprieve on dry (albeit often muddy) land. I found it exciting and relaxing; Rachel found it mentally taxing, and no wonder. Hiking sticks and careful footing are required, and I saw a few people fall painfully into the cold waters.

The water, though beautiful, is full of deadly toxic algae – a wonderful reminder that Mother Nature is a double-sided coin.

We hiked a mile or two up the crowded river before, shoes filled with water and snacks running low, we decided to turn back. Emerging into the harsh sunlight after so long in the Narrows was kind of a shock. It might have been the hottest day of our trip, but the air remained mercifully cool for the entire hike. Only one or two spots along the trail got any sunlight, and where it hit the water bright green algae bloomed.

"Let's just go around one more curve, to see what sights await." I didn't want to turn back, but it's impossible to see it all in one trip.

We left the Narrows and returned to the hotel around noon, but we hadn't gotten our fill of the outdoors yet. The day before, we stopped for a water break and got to talking with a man hiking with his wife and daughters. He told us of the Canyon Overlook, where the most picturesque view of the canyon can be found. That hike wasn't part of our itinerary, but we could hardly turn down the opportunity. He made it sound like an easy hike as well, so I suggested we relax at the hotel for a bit, get dinner, then head to the overlook in time for sunset.

The hike ended up being a bit more strenuous than we were led to believe, but the view?

It was only fitting for me to bring my Stormlight Archive shirt to Utah. One kid in Springdale got super excited when he saw it – my only regret on this trip was that I didn't give him the Bridge Four salute.

Worth it.

As with all great vistas, pictures alone don't do it justice. From here we could see the entire switchback we drove up to get to the starting point of the trail, cars so small in the distance they're hardly visible on camera. To put that in perspective, there's about 20 minutes' drive time of road captured in the above photo. To travel that distance, then climb on foot for another 40 minutes to the summit provided an overwhelming sense of scale to this place we inhabited.

Yes, that is indeed a wedding dress you see there. An entire wedding party was up here taking pictures when we arrived.

The overlook was full of people taking in the sights. Apparently it's a popular stargazing sight, which I would love to see someday! For now, however, Rachel wisely suggested we make the return journey before it gets dark. We were not equipped for night time hiking, and neither of us wanted to fall into a gorge. That would have made the trip memorable, though not in any desirable way...

The following day, we took a drive to a different entrance of Zion National Park, called Kolob Canyon. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the woods here seemed thicker, the trees taller. the greenery brighter. I guessed this part of the canyon collected more rain than the last, although certainly the vegetation around the Virgin River herself was unmatched. Here we hiked a trail following a smaller body of water – the Taylor Creek. All the while, one lonely mountain peered above the rest, never out of sight.

"The woods shall wave on mountains. And grass beneath the sun; His wealth shall flow in fountains And the rivers golden run." J.R.R. Tolkien

It was also a fair bit cooler on this hike than the other two days, especially since the woods were thick enough on the trail to provide ample shade. It had been dry for a few months prior to our trip, so the creek had diminished to a trickle, barely ankle deep in most places. That was fine by us – after the Narrows, we didn't want wet feet again.

This spot in particular had a cold breeze that felt like someone turned on the air conditioning. That was all the reason we needed to set up the camera tripod!

As the trail continued, we saw squirrels foraging in the brush, lizards skittering out of our path (which we joked was one single lizard, following us the whole time), and the mountain looming ever larger.

I wonder, if we kept going, whether we would have found ourselves at the foot of this great mountain, staring straight up toward its peak.

As with the Narrows, a gambler's mindset kept urging me to go further – just one more mile, then another, another... Who knew what we would find if we just pushed ourselves to keep going? The above picture is as far as we got, but I find it hard to believe we would have found a spot more gorgeous. I considered whether this should be the spot, but there were a bunch of people (off camera), the framing would have been bad... No, this wasn't the spot. But my time was running out to find it – we only had one more day of hiking ahead of us before flying back home.

Remember how I said I looked nervous in the first picture? At the end of day three, the nerves were already starting to set in.

On our final day, we didn't hike in Zion Canyon at all. Instead, we took a two-hour drive northeast to Bryce Canyon, another national park in Utah. Bryce's elevation sits at over 7500 feet above sea level, compared to Zion's 4000 feet. Higher altitude means less air pressure, and as we all know from high school chemistry, PV = nRT. So while those suckers in Zion were baking in the 95 degree heat, we were hiking at a nice, balmy... 85 degrees. That 10 degree difference felt like a huge relief! Another huge relief came when we stepped out onto the trail for the first time, and I saw the landscape we overlooked.

This was after we'd descended the Queen's Garden trail a bit. The view from up high was even more stunning.

It didn't take long before we found the spot. Of course, when we arrived, Rachel didn't know it was going to be a spot. She had no idea anything was afoot. Even while taking a panorama with my phone and she saw my hand shaking, the nerves didn't tip her off. This wasn't the nervousness of before – this was the nervousness of immediacy, the shakes that set in when you're about to do something important and you don't want to mess it up.

While Rachel had her back turned taking some pictures of the scenery, I rifled around in my bag for something that I'd had with me the entire trip. I quickly put it on my head and covered it with my hat, and even checked my reflection in my own sunglasses to make sure it wasn't too obvious. Then I took the camera back from Rachel and set it up on the tripod. That brings us back to the beginning, with this photo:

'Don't screw it up now, Josh. You've only got one chance.'

You see, this was just a test shot. I wanted to make sure the framing was good, and that the remote shutter was working, as it had been pretty unreliable throughout the trip. Of course, I couldn't get it to work – life doesn't always go according to plan – so I had to improvise. I set the camera to a 10 second timer, asked Rachel if she wanted to take one more picture but without our hats on. I knew Rachel hated her hat, so to my surprise she said she'd keep hers on, but take off her sunglasses. I said that was fine, clicked the shutter, ran over to her, took my hat off and tipped my head forward to drop something into my hidden hand.

Then I bent the knee and asked Rachel to marry me.

Our Story

Rachel and I met how most people seem to these days: online. Namely, we used an app called Hinge. I can't speak for what it's become since then – thankfully, we've never needed it again – but at the time it allowed users to post pictures of themselves and answer three questions meant to spark conversation. Potential matches could then like individual pictures or responses, and add a comment if they wanted to kick off the conversation. In our case, we connected over something silly: she had a Halloween picture up, and I owned the same kangaroo costume she wore.

It was love at first sight.

It was a fitting start to our relationship. Say one thing about us, say that we're silly. We can't help but make each other laugh. That's one of my favorite things about Rachel, how funny she is. Our shared sense of humor has definitely kept us sane as we lived together through the COVID-19 pandemic.

After chatting for a day or two on the app, I asked to meet up with Rachel at a coffee shop near her apartment. She graciously accepted the invitation, and I consider myself very lucky because what I didn't know at the time is that this was her first ever online date. She had absolutely no idea what to expect, whether it would be a decent time or whether she'd have to pull the eject lever and get the hell out of there, away from some creepy dude. Neither of us knew it would go as well as it did.

From the moment I joined her at the table in the cozy back room of a local coffee shop, it was like we had been friends for years and we were finally catching up after a long absence. Our early morning coffee date turned into several hours of conversation, so many that it called for a change of venue when we decided to get lunch together down the street. We bonded over our love of reading, told stories about the times each of us spent in Europe, and started our still-ongoing habit of easily making each other laugh.

Eventually, we had to part ways. I didn't realize it, but when we walked to the restaurant for lunch it put us about two blocks away from Rachel's apartment. I offered to drive her home, thinking it would save her time and it was a gentlemanly thing to do. She walked with me seven blocks in the opposite direction to my car, and then we drove all the way back together. Neither of us really wanted to say good-bye.

The first beginning: Not exactly the smoothest line, but it worked!

So that's where it began, with a silly comment on a Halloween picture and the best first date I'd ever been on. Since then, our relationship has only grown, especially since we had to weather a pandemic together. Even in those months, cooped up indoors thanks to a seemingly never-ending lockdown, when we were far from our best selves, we found ways to have fun and make the disaster bearable. Now, we've caught up to where we're at today: she said yes!

The next beginning: I maintain that this is the happiest I've ever looked in a photograph.

But Wait, There's More!

That's where I expected the news to end, but it turns out that the month of June was even more momentous than we planned. When we returned from vacation, our goal was to hit the ground running and start looking for a house to buy. In this chaotic market, we thought it would take months of searching for us to find something, and that we'd go through the heartbreak of being outbid on several houses we loved. Instead, we got extremely lucky and had an offer accepted on the very first house we picked.

So, in addition to planning the JERK (Josh Edwards + Rachel Keatley) wedding, we've also been working hard to get everything in shape for our closing date toward the end of July. So there's been a ton of things changing in our lives in June, but luckily they've all been good things. Fingers crossed that our luck continues to hold!

Writing Updates

So as you can see, things have been pretty hectic in June! That doesn't mean that I haven't also gotten work done on my writing projects, but there is some changes here that I'm enacting.

The first should be no surprise by now: rather than weekly updates on this site, I'm going to be sending out monthly updates. My plan is to send them out on the 4th of each month, so if the date comes and goes without an update you'll know I'm behind! The reason for this was twofold: first, I spoke with some other writers online and learned that most readers find weekly updates too frequent; second, I've started another project, so I won't have as much time to dedicate to these posts.

In June's update, Year 30 // Goals & Projects, I tossed around the idea of starting a serial, tentatively titled Grave World. Early in the month, I decided to commit to this: the outline is now coming along nicely, though it will still be a few months before it's ready to see daylight. I'm still hoping I'll be able to start releasing chapters toward the end of this year, but since I'm interspersing that work with the third draft of An Ocean of Others, I can't promise it won't instead be an early-2022 start date. Either way, I'm excited about the project! I've updated the Current Projects page to include to progress I've made so far.

And of course, there's the third draft of An Ocean of Others. From what I've read online, most writers absolutely hate editing and revision. But I've been immensely enjoying this draft – I'm only a few chapters in so far, but it's gratifying seeing the story really start to shine. I'm so grateful to all my beta readers for providing such excellent feedback! Like I said, I'm alternating days working on Grave World and this, so it's been a bit slower than I'd like, but I'm still confident I'll be able to publish the book before June 2022.

Well, next month probably won't be quite so exciting, but I think that's a good thing. After this June, I need a break and a return to normalcy. I got behind in my writing this month, but I should be able to make up for it in July. So, until next month, thanks for reading!