I stopped in my tracks. The trail ahead was terrifying, with a steep drop of over 2000 feet directly to my left, and only my shaky feet and unsteady hand on the chains to keep me from passing out and falling to an extraordinary death. "Unlucky Number Seven," the headlines would say.
I was at the top of a hike in Zion National Park called Angel's Landing. It's a five-mile round trip to the top of a rocky peninsula overlooking spectacular Zion Canyon. It's a popular hike, though somewhat dangerous. A sign near the top says that six people have died there since 2004. But we had already hiked for two hours, up steep and steady switchbacks in the early morning sun. The six of us (Karen, Jon, Alli, my nephew Will and his wife Emily, and I) had set out to conquer an adventure we'd been talking about (and mildly dreading) for weeks. We were almost there.
I had hiked Angel's Landing before, 12 years ago with a bunch of students from church. I remembered a little about the experience--the fear, the long drops, the many switchbacks, and the feeling of exhausted accomplishment afterwards. In anticipation, Jon had been asking about the chains. "So, what are they like? How close are they to the edge?" They were the kind of questions that suggest you want to know, but you don't really want to know. Those chains, of which I remembered only two, are anchored deep into the rocks, providing a means of support and security as you clamber over the final half mile of narrow, harrowing ridge to get to the end of the trail.
Or more like the end of it all, the way I was feeling. I was hanging on to my sixth chain (I forgot there were so many), and was still only a quarter of the way there. I was at the point I remembered most, with a massive drop directly to my left; the same point at which I had nearly turned around twelve years ago until a high school girl went flying past me and brought about a silent inner shame that dimmed my manhood and forced me onward.
Here I was again. I wanted to turn around. I was the last one in my party. If I didn't show up at the overlook, they'd just assume I'd fallen to my death and enjoy the view. It would be easier this way, I thought to myself. Karen will have to return the rental car.
It was one of those moments that can define you. It was one of those moments, brief but significant, where you have two clear choices. One represents the past, the other the future. In the middle is fear, a paralyzing, primordial emotion that God built into us for our own safety and advancement. Without it, we would either do utterly stupid things, or we'd never do anything courageous at all. It's the fear you feel when you realize you cannot stay where you are, but you are afraid to move forward. It's letting the phone ring when you call that girl in 6th grade. It's dropping the resume in the mail. It's signing the mortgage, or packing up to the move across the country, or saying goodbye to your father or mother for the last time.
I put my head down. I took a deep breath. I pressed forward. I held on for dear life. I made it to the top and reaped the rewards of an amazing view of where we started.
Also at the top were a bunch of little squirrels, running around the rocks begging for food, oblivious to the fact I had risked my life to be there . I wanted to punt one of them over the edge.
After enjoying ourselves and relaxing for a half-hour or so, we hiked back down. The trail didn't seem so intimidating the second time through. We had beaten our fears and beaten the heat. I was grateful I had forged ahead instead of turning back. I never would have forgiven myself, and I would have missed the view.
Tomorrow, Karen and are taking Thomas to college. He's our youngest, and he's going to school in Nashville, ten hours away. His departure represents a change in our family so massive it requires chains to hold onto. We've been through this before with our other two sons, and it was hard. But now it's our baby, the last one to go. The enormity of the moment is overwhelming. Yes, we know they come home again; that's already happened. But this is a different reality. The past is over and the future is here. I know great things await Thomas. He's chasing his dreams. I don't want him to stay, and I can't stand to see him leave. Karen and I, well, we've been together more than 28 years. We have come this far and we can't turn back now, because by facing our fears -- of the future, of mortality, of change, of missing our sons -- we will reap the rewards of this incredible journey together. Tomorrow it includes a ten-hour drive, our son and his belongings crammed into the back seat, while Karen and I grip each other's hands like they are the chains we need to get us over this terrifying ridge.
When we drive away from campus Friday evening, I'll put my head down. I'll take a deep breath. I'll press forward. I'll hold on for dear life. I'll make it to the end and reap the rewards of an amazing view of where we started.
What choice do I have? My Angel's Landing.