06 October 2010

where angels fear to tread

We hiked to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park. Almost to Angel's Landing, in reality. That last half-mile along a razor's edge was too dangerous in the wind and rain.

Even in the sunlight, beams streaming down from heaven in a “this is the place” kind of way, even then, I might have been hesitant. Climbing up to the Landing I could imagine: holding on tightly to the chain anchored in the rock, stepping precisely and looking diligently before every step, never leaping.

It was the coming back down that made me practice my deep, calming breaths. Would it be better to back down, squeezing the chain so hard it becomes twisted, stepping just so and never looking to the right or to the left? To the right, an 800 foot drop. To the left, a 1,200 foot drop. I couldn't face forward on that descent from Angel's Landing; every step would look like a free fall.

It hadn't been raining when we started the hike from the Grotto. It started around lunchtime, and we'd stopped in a rocky overhang to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stuffed into the bread bag and then stuffed into a backpack.

Rain soon paired with thunder and lightning, and I diligently counted the seconds between flash and sound: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three...it's five seconds to the mile, my mama taught me, and so I measured how far away the storm was.

It was very close.

We stayed in the alcove, pressed up against the red rock, reading. I had Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my mama read a Barbara Kingsolver, and my dad had his Kindle with that day's edition of the New York Times. It seems a technological miracle, or perhaps just a sign of the times (or the Times), that he could read about the Supreme Court's first day back at work—during a thunderstorm on the side of a mountain in Zion.

The three of us reading got plenty of comments, mostly about the Kindle. One woman even asked for a summary of that day's headlines. No one commented on my Annie Dillard.

Eventually, the storm moved on, as they always do, and we moved on, as we often do.

It was still raining, but rain we can deal with. Lightning on a mountaintop, though, is something better reserved for the Bible.

You reach the almost-summit of Angel's Landing by going up 21 switchbacks, this part of the trail called Walter's Wiggles. I thank Walter and whoever helped him carve that wiggle into the mountain; I do not want to think about climbing straight up there, scrambling over rocks. I do not want to think about that, just as I do not want to think about coming down from Angel's Landing; I'm starting to sound anti-thinking and anti-fear.

My dad took to calling the switchbacks Wally's Wiggles, and when he'd stop to catch his breath every few switchbacks, he'd still have enough breath to say, “Wally, what are you doing to me?”

We made it to the top during a break in the rain. There wasn't a corresponding break in the clouds, but as inspiring as mountains are, seeing them draped in mist makes them more mysterious. Now you see it; now you don't.

Mighty mountains that they are, a little water has the ability to change them—and I'm sure, buried not too deep in that mountain/water image is a lesson about perseverance, or perhaps one about how a gentle spirit has a more lasting effect.

There's probably also something symbolic in this: the mountaintop experience isn't what I want to tell you about. All you need to know about that is that we were high up, but the real point of the hike was on the way down.


And you can read about the real point here, in Part 2 of the story {not that reading this was a waste of time}.

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