An Exceedingly High Mountain
By Marvin Payne
This morning over our peanut butter and graham crackers (ran out of “Golden Puffs”) we read in the Book of Mormon about Nephi being caught away in the Spirit into “an exceedingly high mountain.” (Lest you think we are so far behind the rest of the Church in our reading, let me remind you that there were many Nephis besides First Nephi – we were reading this morning about the experiences of the oft-overlooked Eighth Nephi. Some suggest that this particular Nephi was apocryphal, but of course there are no apocrypha to the Book of Mormon, except perhaps the writings of Solomon. ((“Spaulding,” I mean, who so out-apocryphalled everybody else as to have none of his Nephis taken seriously at all, had there been any. Which there weren’t. (((Although some, um, “scholars” seem to have the idea that not only did the said Solomon have all the requisite number of Nephis in his book, but also the First Vision, the Articles of Faith, and the General Church Handbook of Instructions.))) )) )
Now there’s something very attractive about the idea of being caught away in the Spirit into an exceedingly high mountain. Most people will say, “Well, sure – because of the miraculous nature of it all, and because of the revelations which invariably follow.” And I will say, “Yes. Of course.” But mainly I will say, “It’s such a slick way of getting there.” This I will say because a few days ago I got to the top of an exceedingly high mountain in the more usual way and there wasn’t much “caught away” in the enterprise at all. I can imagine that after having been “caught away,” the subject of the catching away might feel a bit breathless, perhaps a certain fatigue that frequently accompanies cognitive overload. After the More Usual Way, the subject is more likely to feel like the skin on his feet has been removed, that his bones have been replaced with Q-tips, and that his cranial cavity has been rented out to the Rolling Stones, Puff Daddy (“Diddy?” “Doggy?”), and the American Fork High School Marching Band all playing their greatest hits simultaneously. And the ghost of Myron Floren.
Many of the saints think of “Mt. Timpanogos” as a temple, which is a kinder, gentler, merely three stories way of thinking of it. But, having climbed it a couple days ago, I can testify that it remains an exceedingly high mountain as well. When I was a kid in California, I thought that “Mt. Timpanogos” was merely a quaint aspect of the special, nostalgic, and ephemeral jumble of associations that impress themselves upon students at the BYU.
Nuh-uh. It’s way more than that. As early as 1842, when Nauvoo was near its zenith (and nearer and nearer to its Carthage and Warsaw, which was problematical), and the Martyrdom was two years hence, and the Exodus two years hencer, Joseph Smith assembled the Council of Fifty leaders of the Church and discussed with them the removal of the saints to the Rocky Mountains. One very specific destination was considered: “The Valley of the Tampanogos.” (This was before spelling had become the exact and elegant science that it now is ((along with punctuation (((although even in those grammatically dark days, they had “Tampanogos” punctuated correctly.))) )) ).
I think of Mt. Timpanogos as this large thing that I climb almost every year with no real memory of intense pain for the first twenty times or so. (Except the first time, when I was in Provo a few days early for my first year at the BYU. All my new roommates said, “Let’s climb Timp!” Sure, what the heck, but I hadn’t any hiking shoes – so I went to the store and found some shoes for six dollars that looked kind of hikey. By three-quarters of the way up, the blisters had started to bleed, and I slogged all the way down from the summit in my socks. My first Sunday as a cougar I went to church in the Fieldhouse with my nice new college suit and a pair of sandals, and everybody thought I was a beatnik. (This was after beatniks, really, but before an awareness of hippies had reached the Wasatch Front.)
It’s eighteen miles round trip from the north trailhead. Twelve years ago I got to the summit in three hours. (This is not to brag – I have a daughter-in-law who, training for marathons, has frequently jogged up and back in a morning.) Somehow that time of three hours perversely stuck in my head as “how long it takes.” This has resulted in lots of problems since then – the most usual problem being having to hike down in the dark. (The worst was when there was no moon and the only thing that saved us was that I was wearing white shoes, so my wife and I had at least some notion of where my feet were, if nothing else – nothing else being rocks, chasms, waterfalls, and moose.)
This time the problem was that (with it only taking three hours and all) I thought I could catch up with my Scripture Scouts partners who had started three hours before I did. I started at noon, because I had a meeting (which, as I hiked, I began not to remember so well, except it probably had to do with trying to get somebody to write me a check for a hundred thousand dollars). I was pretty confident about overtaking them, because I’m a lot more experienced (in everything, actually, except maybe spirituality, on account of being older) and better equipped. That is, I had the right kind of boots, the right kind of hat (“bucket” hat – you’ve seen them in smarty-pants outdoor magazines), the right kind of stick (a Father’s Day gift from my kids – a “rib” from the core of a saguaro cactus, dried by the sun and saturated with fiberglass resin), and Hostess Ding Dongs. Well, I met them all right. They passed me on their way down. So I soloed on. This Scripture Scouts encounter took place just below what everybody calls “The Meadow.” Actually, there are several authentic meadows on the way up, but when you come to one that’s overshadowed by nothing but the gargantuan triangular summit and large enough to accommodate about fifteen Mt. Timpanogos Temples, you call it The Meadow.
(If you’ve never been up Timp, you need only to have been to Utah in order to see This Meadow. It’s plastered on about three myriad billboards along Interstate-15, courtesy of Verizon Wireless.
My letter to Verizon will read as follows,
The designer of your Utah billboards was probably breathless with local relevance when he presented his idea, and he should probably be encouraged in his future career. But I feel compelled to point out two problems:
1. He has taken perhaps the best-known and most-beloved mountain in Utah and printed it on the billboard backwards.
2. From where your little “Can you hear me?” character is standing in relation to said mountain, you can’t get Verizon.
A Loyal Verizon Customer”)
I’d climbed Timpanogos alone a number of times before (“three” is a number), but never so late in the year, never so late in the day. It had snowed a few days earlier, so a lot of the trail was like sidewalks in winter that haven’t been shoveled – except that sidewalks generally don’t have streams across them and precipices adjacent to them.
I will write about fear now. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Which is kind of true about Timpanogos. If you stay on the trail and watch where you put your feet down (except across snowfields, where it doesn’t make much difference) there’s really no danger. You never come closer to thousand-foot cliffs than a yard or two. Lots of places where you think you might die, you’ll really just slide for awhile and slam up against a rock long before you get to the perfectly vertical part. If someone above you accidentally dislodges a rock, you’ll have a goodly number (“two” is a number) of seconds to look up and step out of its path after the dislodger yells, if the dislodger yells.
But there are things that make you feel afraid. You’re on the last ascent, between eleven and twelve thousand feet up, and nothing’s going to happen. I promise. But the air is thin enough that you don’t think real clearly, you’re surrounded by an enormity that makes your heart beat even faster than the aerobic optimum you’ve been maintaining for the last five hours straight, everywhere you look there are steep slopes and sheer cliffs, nearly all of them going “down” (finally all of them going “down”), your legs are sort of like rubber by now, the cold is fairly intense, and the wind is blowing so hard that you can’t put your stick down in front of you. Makes you glad to get to the top, where you can sit down, pull your bucket hat hard over your ears, and eat your Ding Dongs.
(You can, with a heart perfectly free of guilt, eat Ding Dongs you have carried to the top of Mt. Timpanogos. Cheeto’s, even. ((Although I polished off my Cheeto’s before I got to The Meadow. Polishing off my fingers took me nearly to the top.)) )
And take some pictures. And write in your journal. And pray. And call your family, if you have the breath (yes, Verizon works on top of Timpanogos. Wireless phone calls from Jupiter work on top of Timp).
And watch the moon rise. What?! Oh well, brought a flashlight this time.
There will be, on the way down in the dark, all the groundless fears that afflict you on top, added to the fears of what you can’t see – snakes (oh, never mind, it’s too cold), cougars (oh, never mind, we’re in a “rebuilding” year), and Piutes. (My eight-year-old daughter worried at home about me encountering nocturnal animals. Hey! No sweat! It was totally dark! Nocturnal animals can only see when there are nature-film crews with lights.)
Music will help. Elder Packer would encourage this. I found myself singing, “Ev’ry little breeze seems to whisper ‘Louise,’ de de de de, de-de de de de deee …” Words and music that had never before come out of my mouth. (I was reminded as I stumbled along in the dark of a story in the Ensign about a mother who eavesdropped on her three-year-old son playing upstairs with all his little toy soldiers. He was the captain. She heard him bark, “All right men! We’re gonna march up this mountain! And when we march, I wanna hear you sing!” Then she heard this thin little soprano voice: “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed …”) Still, Louise got me down.
(The only tricky part was when the trail would disappear from beneath my feet and I’d suddenly realize, “Oh! That’s because it snowed like crazy last winter and the trail is actually about twelve feet below me! Hm, where do I remember that trail leading to from about here?)
Got home safe. The hardest part of the whole adventure was walking from the car to the front door.
There were, as always, lots of doctrinal implications and spiritual lessons. (Didn’t you feel them? Do I have to spell out everything?) But one biggie.
Joseph Smith dreamed about “The Valley of the Tampanogos.” He envisioned a valley hospitable to peace, purity, and love, a valley inhospitable to vice, vanity, and avarice. He envisioned Zion. From the top of Timp (or “Tamp”) you can’t see any of the painful problems that loom large from the valley floor. You can’t see the valley in a nearly hopeless struggle against becoming ordinary. The whole valley looks like a model town. You can’t even see the Verizon billboards. Or any of the zillion other billboards that cry out in desperate longing for The Valley of the Tampanogos to be more like the valleys of California (where Brother Brigham wished the apostates to go “by the northern route!”). Or the valleys of Manhattan. Or the valleys of Babylon. (All such valleys being deserts that the saints may cause to blossom as the rose, but the saints have their work cut out for them.)
On the mountain, it feels like you’re, well, above it all. There is the very occasional Ding Dong wrapper (I think I saw in all those miles maybe three such intrusions into the purity of the environment – easy to snatch up and stuff into a pocket), but it’s kind of ziony up there. Sure, there’s graffiti at the very top. “Kari was here!” Stuff like that. But hey, you sort of just want to say, “Way to go, Kari!”