When Kendell and I were in southern Utah this summer, we hiked for a little while with a young couple from Wisconsin. They were on a cross-country road trip, with Seattle as their ultimate destination, stopping at whatever national park, monument, or mountain that caught their eye.
(I am jealous of young couples who can have adventures like that. When we were young and childless, Kendell still had his bad hips so we didn’t have many spontaneous hiking adventures.)
We immediately told them that they should stop in Utah County on their way north, so they could hike Timpanogos. We gave them all the waypoints: Timpanogos Highway to the Alpine Loop to the Timpanokee trailhead. “Bring water and trail snacks and strong legs and your camera,” we told them. Go any day but Saturday, but go.
Later, I thought about my recommendation. Do I love Timp (as we affectionately call it) because I know it? Or because it really is beautiful and can compare to any other 11,000+ foot mountain on earth? Would it really be worth that couple’s stop? Especially compared with national parks and monuments?
Of course, I think so, but it’s hard for me to be objective.
I love Timp. Every morning, I look out my window at the mountain; it gives me a hint, sometimes, of the weather, but mostly it is my daily greeting, my peaceful moment, my deep, cleansing breath before I start my day. From my kitchen I can see the west face of the mountain, which is covered with ridges and smaller peaks, but mostly flat. I love that I know how the east side (the back) is creased, folded, textured, a wilderness like a secret when you only see the west side.
It is the mountain I have hiked the most. I still haven’t been on all of its trails, but most of them. I’ve hiked with friends, neighbors, my sister, my kids, and my husband. I have hiked along its back, its western face, its tallest ridge. I’ve been undone by its lingering snows and the roar of its temporary waterfalls. In spring, summer, and fall I’ve summited its highest peak and its smaller sub-mountains. Some parts of the trails are as well-known as the lines on my palm: the stone that is shaped like a scapula, the shady glen with a log shaped like a wolf, the tight, hidden curve that makes my heart beat harder every time I take it. And there are places—where I dropped my camera once, where I bandaged up Kendell’s blistered feet, where Becky and I sat for a snack, where the kids left their jackets on the way up (which they regretted at the windy, cold top). The place that is like Lothlorien to me, the place where, if I decide to be cremated, I would like my ashes scattered.
So maybe it is personal, my connection to Timp. But all of it is full of beauty: meadows of wildflowers, soaring, jagged cliffs, valleys and distant views and rivulets of water. Enormous pines, scarlet oaks, yellow quaking aspen; sudden curves that surprise you with moose or mountain goats or a single, solitary hawk floating the rising air currents.
Today, it is burning.
(Right now, as I write this, the Wheeler fire on Timp is only 5% contained.)
And I know—sometimes the woods need fire. It isn’t necessarily the enemy.
But while everyone is complaining about smoke, I feel—odd and overdramatic, but true—like I am mourning for a friend.
There has been so much fire in America this summer. So far, Utah had been lucky enough to escape it, but I know there are many people in the world like me, right now, who love a mountain, love it in very specific ways, who feel the same way. Helpless as the damage mounts.
All of the news reports talk about the fire threatening homes, or turning away from homes. This fills me with a sort of anger, because if the fire doesn’t go towards the homes, it is still burning the mountain. This idea—that people are the most important—is the root of what damages our world the most. Reportedly, the fire started by an ATV burning on private lands and then quickly spreading, and it is that arrogance (the private land on the mountain, the ATV) that I despise. Houses, gondolas, ski runs, fancy restaurants: none of these belong on the mountain anyway. There should only be cliffs and peaks and valleys and meadows. And trails.
To me, Timpanogos isn’t just a mountain. It is a presence. A place I have a relationship with. It is my solace, my sacred place. “There are no unsacred places,” a line from a newly-discovered Wendell Berry poem says, “there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I am powerless to stop the many ways that places are desecrated. All I can do is look, observe, love, hold up in my memory.
And pray the fire is put out soon.