Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park. I’ve hiked along cliffs, huffed up the twenty-one switchbacks of Walter’s Wiggles, and crawled on my hands and knees up smooth-shouldered sandstone the shape of prone elephants, just to get to the saddle. An airy isthmus stretches out before me, connecting the mainland to a camel’s hump called Angel’s Landing, a sky island isolated by the Virgin River far below. It’s a miniature mountain, a citadel for which the vaunted defenders of Masada would be jealous. From the tree-crusted rooftop of Angel’s Landing, fifty men could hold off a legion. But to get there’s the problem. The ridge to Angel’s Landing is a crinkled paper’s edge, at some places no more than two feet wide, plummeting off 1,400 feet sheer on either side to the flat valley floor. And the path across is uneven, and rocky. To my city-wise eyes, it seems slippery even in the best weather. Why are there no bath mats lining the trail to aid shaky feet? In places, there’s a chain to hold onto in case you lose your balance. In places. It tortures the equilibrium of the inner ear like this for half a mile. I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, I have to try it.
I take a few steps out onto the natural bridge. On either side of the uneven rocky trail the width of a sidewalk, the world teeters into an abyss of Navajo Sandstone. My hands stab out for something to give me balance. My guts pulse full into my throat. I step back. My guts retreat like tube worms. Safe within my intellect, I survey my route. An older man in cheap canvas tennis shoes passes me by and walks the ridge like he’s at Disneyworld. I tread out onto the ridge a few steps. Something inside yanks me back. I want to go. But this thing inside me (common sense? sanity?) overrules. I decide it’d be easier if I just left my daypack here. Less weight. Less chance of a load shift. I find safety in the planning stage. A father and two kids whoosh right on by and dance along the ridge. If they can do it, so can I. I’ve used this self-talk before, stuck on a mountain in the British Isles. I wade out into the sky again. But that same gastrointestinal fear pushes up through my throat and ears, commanding me to turn back. I’m not in control of my body, my fear is. I obey the fear. A couple of other people, middle aged, with no gear and no hiking shoes, flit by and negotiate the beast. I do what I always do—I stand there and think. I’ll think my way into courage. I’ll wait for the fear to pass. Then I’ll do it. I’ll eject the fear with my thinking, letting reason defeat emotion.
By the time I turned my back on Angel’s Landing for good, the first hiker who had passed me at the saddle was on the camel’s back itself, hanging onto the chains as he climbed the last rocky steps to the summit of the formation. He would enjoy, the guidebook told me, one of the most spectacular, panoramic views Zion offers. Bless him.
Curse me. Which is what I did all the way back to the lodge. You’re a wimp. You’re a coward. How can a man voyage through the larger adventures his passions spur him towards if he refuses the call of smaller events? How will you ever face the less hospitable regions of solitude if you can’t mount this lesser challenge? Those hot women in black leather jackets will never want you now. These were the accusations that tore through me the more I let what happened sink in. Most likely, they had the same source as the fear itself, the fear so overpowering it reversed the decision of my conscious mind. I felt tiny.
What at first registered as a mere human foible, a fear of heights, now became the club with whichI beat my whole being. You can’t cut it. There were others who turned back out of fear, people who reversed course on this trail even before I did. Yet the grotto canyon to my west as I hiked back didn’t contain enough depth to hold my shame. (overstatement)
I found a quiet stretch, set my hand on the great rock of Zion, and reflected on how small choices serve as stand-ins for the larger patterns of my life. I’m not the person I want to be. I am the person I am. A voice reminded me not to be too hard on myself, but not to be too hard on the universe when it doesn’t grant me my wishes either.
I thought back to Prisbett, a developmentally disabled girl who was deathly afraid of the water. I’d worked with her for a year when I taught special ed in high school. Swimming classes were a supreme ordeal for Prisbett. I’d tried to teach her there was nothing to fear, and part of me didn’t get what she was so damned scared of. Now I know what she must have felt like when I asked her to wade into the deeper waters.
In many stories, the hero is called to leave his ordinary world, his comfort zone. He is called to some adventure, but often refuses the call, usually out of fear. But whatever the inner reason, the story never gets off the ground until the hero struggles to shed her old, comfortable skin and sets out on the journey. Living life alive is living at risk. That often makes for discomfort, but the reward is unreasonable happiness. Comfort is overrated, yet exhilaration has no peer. That night, I promised myself that before I died, I’d return to this place, and walk Angel’s Landing.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just