(warning: extremely long post)
A few weeks ago, Kendell and I took the kids on a short Sunday-evening hike. We curved around the south side of Mount Timpanogos into a cool, shady meadow, dotted with a few wildflowers and unexpectedly lush after June's late rains. Timp runs mostly north-south. Its west side---sere, jagged, fierce---is fairly straightforward, a rugged jut of mountain rising from the valley floor. But its east side is something else entirely. Carved from long-melted glaciers, the eastern mass is a series of deep cirques, jumbled next to and upon each other, making their way to the 11,000+-foot summit. That Sunday, though, we were down at the base of the mountain. As we walked along the trail that curves around one of the basins, I spotted a deer. We all admired it, getting closer and closer, walking gingerly along the trail so as not to scare it away. It was nervous, as if it knew something strange was in its vicinity even if it hadn't quite caught our scent yet. Once it did, when we were only fifty or so feet away, it bounded away from us, disappearing up the mountain in great, springing bounds.
Magical as that moment was---the bounding deer in the yellow early-evening glow, the thick green plants and violet wildflowers, the scent of dry dust and damp earth and cool canyon wind---what made it truly memorable was how it seemed to unite the six of us. The current of gentle energy inspired by fresh air and wildlife ran through all of us at once, connecting everyone as surely as if we'd been physically touching. Jake felt it so thoroughly that, after we'd started back down the trail, he turned to me and said "Mom, tell me about some of the hikes your parents took you on when you were a kid." I explained to him that my parents weren't really hikers. In fact, we never went on even one hike.
"Why do you like hiking so much now, if you didn't like it when you were young?" he asked, his face a little bit bewildered at the idea of his tree-hugging mama living in a non-hiking family. I explained that while we didn't hike, my parents still taught me to love nature by taking me out to it. We went on drives in the canyons quite often, and every summer found us at Lake Powell (still one of my favorite places on earth; I think I would chose a vacation there over almost anywhere else, even the beach). But his question kept coming to my mind last Tuesday (the 18th), when Jake, Kendell and I hiked Timp. Just why is it that I love hiking so much?
I think the Timp hike is the perfect hike. It is just long enough. Fifteen miles round trip are just enough to make you feel like you've really hiked that day, but not so long that you have to sleep on the mountain. Plus, the landscape you travel through is absolutely breathtaking. The trail takes you through four distinctly different areas, and each area is itself varied. Piney woods to quakies, marshland to talus, alpine arboretum to high desert garden: it is always changing. The first section, called the Grand Staircase, is a long, narrow valley with a curve at its cliffed top; the trail weaves along the right-hand side of the valley. It's full of trees: pine, aspen, oak. And, everywhere in August, wildflowers. To get on top of that back cliff, you hike a series of switchbacks that has you crossing the same two waterfalls four times each. There aren't bridges over the falls (although there are a couple over long, marshy spots); you just gingerly pick your way across whatever stones are in the shallowest water. The flow is swift and cold, so no moss grows, the stone strangely abrasive, hardly slippery at all.
I've never climbed Timp with Kendell before, because his old hips never would have made it. My previous two ascents were done first with Becky and then with a family friend. Kendell is not a lingering sort of hiker. He doesn't really want to stop and take in the scenery, at least not for more than sixty seconds or so. I really did want to linger once we got to the back cliff, where you can look both down at the valley you've already hiked and then turn to see the next cirque you're approaching. Sixty seconds was hardly long enough. But after some breathing and a little rest, we pushed on.
The next section is officially named Middle Basin. I think whoever named it has got to be the least-imaginative person alive (or probably he's already dead?) because this cirque is incredible; the drab "Middle Basin" hardly does it justice. It's vaguely serpentine, in a wide sort of way, rimmed in pine-topped cliffs. It starts with meadows, lush this time of year. Birds hop out of the brush and scuttle up the trail, which curves away from the cliff, always ascending but at a forgiving sort of angle. Jacob and I had hoped to see moose in the meadows, like we did when we hiked it three years ago, but they weren't there. Just green, shaded quiet. That is the magic of Middle Basin: how peaceful it is, a circle made of forest, pine, emerald, dusty, brilliant, grass, moss, sea, beryl greens. The cliffs are contrast, and the impossible blue sky; the wide northern talus slope a swathe of burnt umber. The trail winds around rises of stone, seems to almost be going away from the talus, but eventually leads you right across it. The sound of stone on stone on stone on stone on sharp-edged stone: not a grinding or a crushing sound, but a finely-honed clatter that works its way through seeming miles of stone to quiver somewhere deep in your spine. Only the trees and flowers know how deep the stone goes and where soil begins. But it must be somewhere, because even in the scree, there are wildflowers.
We stopped for another sixty-second breath in the middle of the talus slope. The sun had finally, barely risen over the far edges of mountain, and the light sparkled with that blue-white clarity that comes in the morning. I'd been leading so far, wanting to go a little bit faster than Jake was comfortable with. After we'd caught our breath, Jake and Kendell went on ahead, because I wanted to take some pictures. I couldn't resist the light. I couldn't resist the flowers. The flowers! That is one of the answers for Jake: I love hiking because it can take me to a place where flowers simply grow, without help from a greenhouse, without sprinklers or fertilizer or pesticide. The trees, too. Everything growing all on its own, without people's help (despite people, really). It brings me a sense of peace to see the world in its natural state; it makes me feel that humanity might not destroy everything beautiful and wild.
The last part of Middle Basin is my favorite part of the hike. The trail arcs along the eastern side of the cirque and is, to me, a fairy-tale landscape, straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson forest. It is just the way I imagined forests to be when I was a fairy-tale reader:
Long grass and towering trees alike catching the sunlight, the trail a zen curve, and the inescapable flowers. Part of me---the part who believed in fairy tales---thinks there might be fairies living in blossoms, elves under toadstools, talking mice sitting at rock tables, a trail of bread crumbs. I think it is those bits of color, scattered among all the green, that turns the place from simply beautiful to ethereal. I'd like to drop down in the spackled shade and relax in the grass, but every few feet another photo presents itself. I took photo after photo, and then pushed on until something else demanded to be caught on film. Until I stopped taking photos because just being there, in seeming solitude, is enough. Meadows rise above me and fall below me, all full of flowers, and I think that maybe my first metaphor is wrong. Maybe it isn't about fairies and their tales. Maybe it is all God's garden. He is the wisest of all gardners, mixing colors with abandon, bringing light pink to shadowy spaces and ultramarine blue to the green parts of the earth. It feels like solace.
It feels sacred.
Alone on the mountain in the flowery fields, I come upon another answer for Jake: because hiking makes me remember what it felt like to believe in fairies and to be that young and trusting and hopeful. That memory brings me along a path to a more grown-up faith. Mountains to me will always be sacred.
I was almost to the south side of Middle Basin before I caught up to Kendell and Jake. Here there are three long switchbacks, and the basin is steep, and it is all a mass of color. Kendell walked behind Jake, and Jake walked behind me; we talked about what we'd seen so far. I gave him some encouragement, because let's face it: we'd already gone more than four miles, and we still had three to go, and that's a long way for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old. I made sure to encourage him to drink, and to get a granola bar from his pack if he needed it, and gave him a shot block. I told him I was proud of him. Just before we left it, I turned around to look at Middle Basin in the morning light and I realized: maybe the guy who named it that didn't lack imagination. Maybe he knew there isn't a word for how it is.
After Middle Basin is Timpanogos Basin. This high cirque is mostly dry meadow, with a few clumps of trees. My previous Timp hikes had been too late in the season for much color to be left, so that there were flowers here, too, took me completely by surprise. But before I could admire much, I had to take care of business:
Hiking with two boys doesn't allow for much compassion for the plight of a woman hiker, but someone had the wisdom (and grueling task) of building a latrine at 8,000-ish feet. It's a fairly disgusting potty; board walls surround three sides, giving you quite the view while you're doing your thing, but even the view couldn't distract from the fact that no one in her right mind would actually sit upon that toilet. Quite the thigh workout while you're praying no one else comes along needing the facilities. Still, though: more gorgeous solitude. I took a moment to take a few more photos and then to just stand, admiring the view (several hundred yards away from the potty, of course, and definitely downwind), before I started up again.
By now Jake and Kendell were ahead of me again, blessing me with another solitary bit of hiking. I only came across two or three other people in the basin; several squirrels, a few birds, too many butterflies to count. Away from the company of trees, the wildflowers in Timpanogos Basin spread out, as if the entire cirque were a field. (In the above photo, you can see the back of the saddle.) The crags of the saddle and summit come into view; the blue sky opens up. Behind you is another vista: Deer Creek reservoir, the little towns of Heber and Midvale, the grey-green Uintas. The lack of trees in the basin helps you see the structure of the mountain, and the basin's lip seems impossibly steep. As I approached the steep ascent, I again step stopping, to photograph the flowers or just to stand and look at things. I could see Kendell and Jake ahead, begininning the ascent, and then I started to rush to catch up with them. I wanted to come up the saddle together. I even ran for a bit, until I met the base of the rise, and then I just pushed as hard as I could. Kendell managed to make the saddle before I did, but only by two minutes.
About eighty percent of the Timp hike is done on the east side. When you crawl out of Timpanogos Basin---legs quivering, lungs shocked out of their comfort zone---you come over the saddle onto the west face. The view there is amazing; both south and north, you can see for miles and miles. We all sat and rested for a good ten minutes or so, taking in the view and eating a bit, because the last section of the trail---saddle to summit---is brutal. You hike along the face of the mountain; the top on your left and a steep fall on your right, and any sense of a gentle rise is gone. (Here, Kendell (in silhouette) and Jake (the tiny white dot) approach the steepest part of the ascent.) In half of a mile you gain 2500 feet in elevation. And, while there were a few flowers on the face, it is mostly a stony path. Just as you've got your breathing rhythm back, you reach a jutting heel of stone that must be navigated. Almost, along this section, you wish there were ropes. The switchbacks are jagged, short, and steep, set like stairs along what is truly the side of a mountain. At the top of that section, you come through a stone doorway, the valley opens up in your view, but the distance that's still left makes it impossible to enjoy.
Every time I've climbed from the saddle to the summit, I have found myself thinking about Sam and Frodo in The Return of The King, fighting the last bit of path up to Mount Doom. I had that scene in my mind, and Jake turned to me and said, "Mom! This reminds me of Sam and Frodo!" and I could almost manage a little, gasping chuckle. Kendell and Jake both kept starting and stopping, which was killing me---I do better if I can just keep going at a steady pace. Finally I told Jake, who was really doing fine, that I couldn't keep stopping. "Stay as close as you can to me," I told him, "and do not get too close to the edge." And then I went. Up and up and up.
My string of solitude had ended, though, at the top. A handful of obnoxious scouts, a few my-age-ish people, one guy writing in his journal (I can relate, but I didn't bring it on this trip). From trailhead to top, I made it in 3 hours 45 minutes. No solitude, but the view:
The thing I love most is how you can see the very root of the mountains, exactly where they start to rise from the valley floor. There's another answer for Jake: I love hiking because it is the only way you can experience some vistas. Experiencing it with that exhausted-with-good-hard-effort feeling makes it even better.
We ate our lunch---nutella and almond butter sandwiches, grapes, and trail mix---at the summit. We talked about the view, and finalized our decision not to go down the snowfield on our way back (everyone we'd talked to, even the park rangers, had said it was icy, and Kendell didn't want to chance a hip accident). We talked and laughed, and then we were silent, just looking and recuperating and being there.
I was nervous about the descent. The other times I’ve hiked, I’ve gone down the snowfield rather than back down that steep edge. (In the next photo, we're going to go DOWN that trail you see along the ridgeline; the X in the middle-ish section is where the trails converge just before you come up the saddle.) But it turned out to be easier than I expected. Of course, I’m also much slower going down a mountain than I am going up. Kendell and Jake kept stopping to wait for me. When we’d made it off the face off the mountain and were just coming to the end of the first switchback, I looked up at the pile of (new! In August!) snow in the hollow, and there were goats just walking down the mountain. There’s a herd of mountain goats on Timp, and I’m certain it was the entire herd we saw. When I noticed them, they were fairly far away from the trail, but they just kept coming down, until they were literally right on the trail. One guy, coming up, had to sort of stamp his feet at them to get them to give him enough room to continue on up. There were baby goats, with anxious mothers, and two male goats that kept ramming each other’s horns. We stayed on the side of the mountain for at least thirty minutes, just watching the goats. I was a little bit nervous about them trying to charge one of us, but it turned out just fine:
(Forgive the shaky filming...my heart was still pumping hard! And I sound like a complete idiot.)
I didn’t even have to point out to Jake that mountain goats are something I love about hiking. Not mountain goats themselves, of course, but the chance of coming upon wildlife. When Jake and I hiked last time, we saw five big moose, nearly right on the trail, and that time we stopped to just watch them, too. It’s not anything like seeing an animal in the zoo. Watching them forage, and run, and interact in the place where they just live is incredible. "Seeing those goats," Jake told me once we started going again, "makes up for how tired I am." That’s always how it is: you pay with exhaustion, but you receive something you couldn’t get any other way.
We had one other notable experience as we went down. Jake, who’d been strong for most of the entire hike, and brimming with endurance on that long saddle-to-summit section, hit the wall with about two miles to go. He was not happy. He didn’t want to keep going. Finally, after trying to encourage him, we stopped to sit on the root of a tree, and I talked to him about how even when things are hard, he has to keep going. Hiking is just like life in that way, and the similarity helps make life’s difficulties themselves a little bit easier to bear. It’s a sort of practice run. Keep hiking even though you’re tired, or keep running despite the blisters, or walking even though your knees ache, or whatever: it helps you build a physical stamina that translates into a spiritual one. I don’t know if he understood what I was saying, but maybe one day, when he’s struggling with something in his life, he’ll remember that moment in the tree roots, and it will help him keep going.
What I have learned from hiking this mountain before is that the hike changes something in you. It's hard to describe; the mountain becomes something other than the landscape of the place you live. Hike it, and you begin to have a sort of relationship with it. Even when you're down in the valley, the connection remains; no matter the weather, I look at Timp from my window, at the route we take to the top, and I wish I were up there. That Tuesday, at the top, I wasn't wishing. I'd brought myself there, a couple of people I love with me. I could almost say it was the best hike I've had, except for I think about the other times I've hiked it and I know it's not about better, but different. It was every single reason I love to hike, spread around the seven-ish hours of hiking.