July 21, 2017. Ed and I were hiking the Garden Wall section of the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park in Montana.
And I was terrified.
I had not known until that moment just how afraid of heights I was. This was Rockies high, an altitude of 6,647 feet at the trailhead at Logan Pass.
It didn't help that that we had come to the hiking trail via an early-morning drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a narrow, twisting two-lane road that winds over passes and curves between jagged cliffs as it crosses the Continental Divide. The shoulder of the road falls away precipitously on either side. I took little sips of the scenery as we drove, trying to appreciate it, but the heights, the drop-offs, and tight turns frightened me.
It didn't help that I felt shaky, jacked up on caffeine, having slept badly the night before, kept awake by campground noises and anxiety about this day's hike.
It didn't help that when we arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and opened the car doors, we were buffeted by a strong, cold wind. I hunched my shoulders and huddled in the leeward side of the door.
Ed did not understand my hesitation. Being "steady Ed," calm and unflappable in any outdoor setting, he has spent many hikes waiting for me to step gingerly down a steep slope or shuffle toward the edge of a cliff. I remembered a time at Colorado National Monument some years before when we were hiking on bare rock that sloped down to a boulder-studded canyon far below us. Fear had prickled up and down my spine. Ed said encouragingly, "You can do this. Your boots will hold you up."
I glared at him.
At least it had been warm and sunny when we'd hiked in Colorado. This was neither. I zipped my heavy fleece up to my chin and tightened the drawstring on the hood of my rain jacket. Heaving a sigh, I stepped away from the car.
We set out on the trail. When we got to the Garden Wall, I almost stopped. One writer describes this section of the trail as "the famous ledge with the reputation for terrifying those with a fear of heights." The ledge, which hangs like a shelf in the Garden Wall, is only four to six feet wide. Beyond the ledge is a sheer, one-hundred-foot drop-off to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. "This segment lasts for only 3/10 of a mile," the writer adds helpfully, "but may seem forever if you have a fear of heights. Fortunately, the National Park Service has installed a hand cable along this stretch of the trail. Don't let this [challenge] deter you, as this is one of the most scenic trails in America."
I did not use the hand cable. I had that much pride. And we'd brought our hiking poles. Keeping close as I could to the wall, I recited my own mantra: "Four points touching the ground: two poles and two strong boots." Whenever fear rose, I listened to the click of the poles and felt the earth beneath my soles.
When other hikers blew past us, young and fit and confident, I said to them in my mind, "Pffft." And some other curses. But I kept on hiking.
I also tried the technique of thought replacement. When fears about heights or bears (that, too) arose in my mind, I thought of our oldest daughter, seven months pregnant, and I prayed for her baby, whom I had nicknamed Blueberry. This will be the most prayed-for baby in the world, I thought, at least during our two weeks of hiking at Glacier.
Another hiker passed us. "Pffft," I said. Out loud.
We finally made it to our destination, Haystack Pass, 3.6 miles from the Visitor Center, and an elevation gain of 377 feet. The hike from Logan Pass to Haystack had been more than "scenic"—it was spectacular.
We stood eye-level with enormous jutting peaks draped with fields of snow. Waterfalls cascaded down steep green slopes or over rock slabs in tiered ledges or across jumbled stones. And the wildflowers! Blue, pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew out of every crevasse and spread across the gravelly slopes. Fireweed, mountain lily, mountain gentian, rosy paintbrush, red columbine, angelica aster. Every turn of the trail showed us a different peak or different view of the same peaks—Mt. Cannon, Mt. Oberlin, Heaven's Peak. It was a garden planted by God.
I actually enjoyed the descent back to Logan Pass, taking in the views and stepping with some confidence. Columbian ground squirrels scampered away from the path and hoary marmots whistled at us from recesses in the rock. We saw fresh bear scat on the trail, but no bear, which was fine with me. My anger at Ed and the other hikers dissipated with my sense of accomplishment. I did it! I did it!
The sun came out and the air warmed as we drove back toward the campground. We swung into the parking lot at the Red Rock Overlook alongside Upper Macdonald Creek where swirling whitewater plunges into a deep turquoise pool. Shedding our heavy fleece, we climbed out on the rocks beside the creek, took off our boots, and put our aching feet into the cold water. I breathed deeply of the fir-scented air.
As we sat, we watched a ten-year-old boy jump over and over again from the rocks into the pool. After each jump, he would surface, whooping, and fling his blond hair back and forth, sending droplets of water in a wide, sunlit arc around his body. Behind him were the mountains and the bright blue sky.
"I want to do that," I said to Ed.
"It will be cold," he warned.
"Yeah," I said, "maybe I've had enough adventure for one day."
I did not jump into the pool that particular day. But today, some five years later, I'm collecting rejection slips for my latest book, which feels much like hitting cold water, over and over again. With three unpublished books already stacked in my closet, I worry that this one won't get published either.
Author Julia Cameron says that all artists have to deal with fear: "The fear of not being good enough. The fear of not finishing. The fear of failure and of success."
Cameron says that "there is only one cure for fear. That cure is love." Love for yourself and love for what you are doing. You may not know the outcome, but all you can do is take the next step.
What Cameron says is true for any human endeavor—starting a business, building a program, agreeing to leadership, creating a work of art, taking the risk of love. Cameron goes on to quote the American naturalist John Burroughs: "Leap, and the net will appear." *
Whatever leap you are trying to make, I hope you can find some of the courage and joy of that ten-year-old boy.
"Perfect love casts out fear." – 1 John 4:18 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver, Rocky Mountain High, 1972.
*Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, 1992.