Thursday, November 8, 2012
The Sound of First Steps
"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." --Marcel Proust
On September 23, 2001, the crunch of my hiking boots on the gravel-strewn parking lot sharply broke the dark morning silence. Our goal that day was to hike the nine miles from the Jenny Lake trail head to Lake Solitude, perched atop the northern trail of Cascade Canyon. Normally one of Grand Teton National Park's most popular hiking trails, only our conversation and footsteps echoed through the trees this day. Fall was dawning in the Wyoming mountains, long from the busy season, late enough that the specter of snow keeps most casual tourists away. Our packs stuffed full of enough gear and food to get us to the top and back, we set off along the trail toward our first significant turn in the path.
My wife and I were seven days into a somewhat spontaneous 4,100 miles excursion through nine states, five national parks, and countless natural and man-made roadside attractions. For us, it was a conscious escape from the incessant gloom and fear that blared from our television, infiltrated our news, and dominated our waking -- and often sleeping -- hours. We had talked about a fall vacation, but had no plans set on September 11 -- the morning a perfectly blue sky became a silent, unmarred reflection of the shock we all felt. A few days later, September 16, we packed our camping gear in the back of our new Ford Ranger and started driving. Our plan was simple. Drive. And so we did. For the first six days, we bounced from Iowa to South Dakota to Wyoming -- from the Badlands to Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone. And then to the Tetons, one of the youngest mountain formations in the United States, formed 2-3 million years ago when the peaks rose up above the valley floor of what is now Jackson Hole.
As we walked along the west side of Jenny Lake toward Inspiration Point, the early morning sun gleaming from the snowy top of Teewinot Mountain filtered through the trees, creating shadows along our path. After reaching the canyon trail head and a short diversion to enjoy Hidden Falls, we embarked on our trip up Cascade Canyon. For the first mile or so, tree cover hid most of the surrounding peaks from view, teasing with the occasional glimpse of Teewinot and Mount Owen. It was early on the trail that my wife's whispered but urgent calls brought my focus to movement in the low scrub. A moose had raised its head to survey the two interlopers disturbing his morning snack in the underbrush. The buck's curiosity evolved to indifference; soon we were back trooping along the trail, careful to avoid turning an ankle on the scree underfoot.
As we left Jenny Lake behind us, the underbrush cleared as Cascade Canyon rose nearly 3,000 feet seemingly straight up on either side of us. Never before and not since have I felt the true insignificance of self that I felt surrounded by those imposing walls. I stood there imagining the giant moving sheet of ice that had carved the canyon, dragging the massive boulders responsible for the striations in the canyon walls. Pockets of ice still dotted the pinnacles of the canyon, small reminders of the massive glaciers that smoothed our path millions of years earlier. Many a human has been overwhelmed by the natural beauty and power of our planet, and I walked in communion with them through Cascade Canyon.
The trail twisted, turned and switched back endlessly, each time teasing us with the prospect that Lake Solitude was right around the next bend. The anticipation was palpable for what seemed like hours. The high noon sun shone warmly, bringing every detail of the canyon alive in sharp contrast with its surroundings. Becoming repetitive, but far from mundane, the switchbacks provided a time for both focus and reflection. As my feet plodded forward and upward, my mind and emotions remained back with the first steps past the low scrub into the canyon clearing. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of universal irrelevance, a tiny speck of fledgling life on this ancient rock we call home. Each footfall brought me closer a new clarity of thought, and further from the foundations on which I was raised.
Early that afternoon, the trail led us around one final set of boulders and to rocky shoreline and crystal waters of Lake Solitude. The sky, a purer blue than I had ever witnessed before, reflected a brilliant, rich aquamarine in the perfectly quiet surface of the lake. The water possessed a clarity and stillness that enveloped me, exposing its furthest depths to investigation.
We shared a lunch of apples, cheese and bread; the painful reality of the previous weeks was completely washed from my mind. In its place was a serene contentment interwoven with a desire for more. The personal insignificance of the valley floor had been replaced by a motivation -- to find meaning and clarity in my life, to build a new foundation from which I could grow and learn. In the years since our trek up Cascade Canyon, this quest has remained as a central metaphor in my life as I seek the clear, revealing depths of my own Lake Solitude.