Backstage at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. I’m not telling any stories, I’m helping people know where to park—well, really where not to park. I’ve been given a cool fluorescent orange vest to wear, but I think I have to give it back. This backstage service has the noble appearance of volunteerism, but really I’m doing it because volunteers get free passes to the festival for their families and we love the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, whether we’re in it (which I have been a number of times, twice being a number) or not. Also I’m doing this parking lot work because it gives me an unassailable reason to wear my new birthday cowboy hat. My old one was trashed by Audra MacDonald, whom I incautiously invited to use it as a prop in “110 In the Shade” while I played my guitar and tried to hide my pain.
Well, it’s high time (is there ever “low time” for something?) for this column to return to its raison d’etre. (Yes, I have a raison d’etre. You have a raison d’etre. All God’s chillun got raisons d’etre.) The Backstage Graffiti Rd’E being to encourage the keeping of personal journals, through
1. Copious examples from y’all’s truly,
2. Helpful hints, and
3. Plumbing the potential of guilt as a motivational force.
5. Microsoft Word will not let me exit this “automatic list maker” feature. ((Yet another suspicious hint that Microsoft, though captained by a true philanthropist, may be a silent partner of the GAA (((Great And Abominable, etc., etc.))) )).
6. So I might have to discipline myself to organize the balance of this column in terms of a “list.”
7. But the typical pattern is more in terms of an “onion.”
8. So what’ll I do?
9. I’m beginning to feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
10. I’m running out of things to list.
11. I don’t know what to say…
Hey! I’m out! Who would have thought that an absence of thought would deliver me! I should try this in my daily life! ((Actually, absences of thought have their value. A couple of weeks ago I was climbing Mt. Timpanogos, in the shadow of which the Storytelling Festival occurs, alone and my self-chatter was deafening. More on that later.)
Okay, so it’s later. Not much, but still. I’m going to reverse cart and horse, here. Often in this column I find myself typing in excerpts from journal entries. But with the mountain-climbing jammed right up against a big recording project, which was jammed right up against organizing a journey of Lehi’s family (complete with camels) through a vale on the flanks of Timpanogos for my stake young men and women, which was jammed right up against my semi-annual financial-crisis-flirtation-with-homelessness-guitarlessness-and-federal-prison, which was jammed right up against my Backstage Graffiti deadline, I’m going to journalize the experience here and then copy it into my journal (except that in my journal it will sound more serious and spiritual, because I expect my journal to be read by generations of my posterity who may not know as clearly as you do what a serious and spiritual guy I am. Was. Whatever).
We, being… (Hold on, Bill Gates and I know how to make lists!)
1. my wife, Laurie,
2. my 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, Caitlin and John, respectively,
3. my 39-year-old son and his 9-year-old son, Sam and Seth, respectively,
(I’m out! Take that, Word! As the German butcher’s apprentice challenged his master, do your wurst! ((Was Brother Gates reading the Gospel of John around the time he named his program? Ooooh, hmmm—isn’t this precisely the kind of thing that would be done by someone trying to *counterfeit true religion?)) left the trailhead at Timpooneke (pronounced by the aboriginal Timpanogozi Indians as “Timpooneekee,” and pronounced by citizens of the greater American Fork area as “Timpanookee”) at 8:30 in the blue-sky sunny morning.
*This spelling follows the rule of “ ‘i’ before ‘e,’ except way after ‘c.’
It was entirely mellow and cool for the first third of the way, because we were in a canyon that kept out the full sun. It was pleasant and easy. In fact, we were fully a hundred yards up the trail before my grandson first asked if we were there yet. Up past waterfalls and particular pines that have become friends, past the little meadow where last time we skirted a pair of moose. (You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen a moose in a skirt) Passing the halfway point, the little kids passed us and plumb disappeared up the trail above us.
This was encouraging, because Caitlin and Seth had firmly asserted that they wouldn’t be going any farther than Scout Falls, which is this feature that, apart from having nothing to do with scouts and very little to do with falls, is considered something of a landmark.
In fact, the most beautiful thing about the whole adventure was that young Seth and his aunt Cait thrived their way to the Meadow, which is this huge plateau that lies in the shadow of the mammoth perpendicular pyramid of the summit, with cliffs stretching out from either side of its base like wings. Sam wasn’t far behind them. Being grandparents, Laurie and I joined them there at half-past noon. I told the kids that from this moment on they could consider their lives in two parts—the part before they’d been in that place and the part after. It’s that cool of a place. We ate lunch there until 1:10, and then everyone turned back but me.
I picked my way back and forth through the meadow, climbing gradually. I took two detours from the trail, a short one to the edge of the meadow that falls down into the canyon we’d ascended in the morning. I went out there to shout and wave at my family far below. The second detour was much longer, north along the mountain away from the trail to attend to a personal need, feeling keenly the visual implications of being above timberline.
I got back on the trail and switch-backed my way up to the feather-end of the northern cliff wing. At this point, you crest the spine of Timpanogos and can see all of Utah Lake and some of the Great Salt one. This is called the Saddle, and I got there at 2:30.
From the Saddle, the trail winds up to the summit on the Utah Valley side of Timp. From that point on, the wind blew my stick from where I aimed it as I trudged along. I had to hold my hat on my head (the Audra-despoiled hat). I huddled against the rocks to rest every few steps, and reached the summit at 3:30.
At the summit of Mt. Timpanogos you are allowed to eat Oreos entirely without guilt. Sitting on the geological marker, with the actual summit by my elbow, I ate them. I reflected that this vast system of mountain rose in all its tons and cubic miles and canyons and forests and meadows and ski lifts and resorts and theatres and cabin neighborhoods and pastures and national parks and gaily-attired moose and bear and cougars and flocks of mountain goats and lakes and glaciers—all rose together to this one point at my elbow. The actual summit of everything might be scientifically discerned as a microscopic plane, infinitesimally smaller than one of my Oreos.
It was cold and lonely enough that I didn’t stay long. I didn’t have long, if I wanted to beat the light back to the trailhead. As I looked down on the rocky thread of trail below, I had this nonsensical brainstorm that it would be fun to descend by “the glacier,” a permanent snowfield that could be accessed from a half-mile further along the ridge. It drips into icy Emerald Lake, on a plateau above the south end of The Big Meadow. At this elevation, in this wind, with this fatigue, at this age, one’s thinking can get really fuzzy.
I struck out southward down the summit along the spine of the mountain, toward a dark and thundering sky. Finding the trail is a little iffy among the rocks, and I veered upward at a certain point where I should have veered downward. After a goodly length, this trail ended in sky, and I could see the right trail about ten yards below me. Seeing that I’d have to cliff-wrestle my way down there, and having seen the glacier slope at a better visual angle by now and having thereby been reminded of how nearly vertical the descent would be, I reckoned I’d chosen badly and turned around.
The only way back was to return to the summit. The thunder followed me and the full storm climaxed as I hit the summit again, with hail pelting down on me not unlike bullets, whitening the mountain below me.
At this point the weather became motivational, not to mention the race for light. I was, not for the first time in my life, the last one on the mountain. I left the summit for the second time at 4:20.
These conditions were not hospitable to humans. But even just below the summit, if there was rock-dust soil enough for a half-inch root, a wildflower grew. Down from the Saddle and into the meadow again, Indian paintbrush flamed red-orange, but also pale pink, fire-engine red, various light purples. There were myriad snow-white brushes, and sprays of what I took for baby’s breath, occasional flash of yellow flame. It was as though the wildflowers, grateful for the rain, were saying, “How ‘bout if we just glow for you? How would that be?”
Near the Saddle, I passed two fields of columbine, whereas further down the columbines would hide and peek out at you. Clusters of tiny blue bells (I’ll call them “bluebells”). Bright buttercups no broader than the end of your thumb (I don’t know what buttercups are, either, but these looked like cups made of butter, except it would be the cheap kind that has lots of added “yellow #7”). There were stands of torches of red-purple, then torches of blue, as bright as torches in the movies (although the torches in the movies are really torch-shaped sticks dipped in rubber cement, and it’s the rubber cement we see burning, rather than any part of the “torch.” That’s why when you try to make a torch like those in the movies, they never look anything like torches in the movies. I have no doubt whatsoever that you’ve all tried to make torches like those in the movies.)
Nearer to half-way down, I actually slogged through what can only be described as “jungle,” with berries, nettles, weed aspen, and other stuff so lush and thick and gorgeous that it smells bad.
I crossed the course of a waterfall that rolls over shelves of bright moss, then the trail switched back and I crossed it again, and again.
The trail passes over the roots of pines that form stairs and ribs in the dirt. Over the past couple of decades, probably a million hikers have stumbled over or stepped on them—the trees thrive. (Near the summit there are places where, in the overcast and rain, you look down and ask yourself, “does this part to the left or this other part to the right look more like millions of hikers have stepped here?” Sometimes you’re wrong. Mountains are tougher than some would think.)
Occasionally I would find the perfect wild raspberry. “Occasionally” would be exactly four times, but they were memorable. When there are so few among all the brown fossils of berries, they’re precious, sort of like earlier during the falling of the hail, when I had a cup of water in my bottle to get me through the next nine miles and I grabbed the occasional stone, however small, popped it into my mouth, and savored it. It’s the only circumstance I can think of when “catching hail” is a good thing.
I alluded earlier to “self-chatter.” All alone with plenty to talk about, you can pretty easily appear psychotic to any occasional onlooking skirted moose. Struck with this (also remembering that up there I’d uttered prayers and not listened for answers), I just shut the heck up. I heard a hundred different timbres of raindrops against a hundred different textures of earth, leaf, blossom, and bird (well, maybe I didn’t actually hear the drops that fell on birds, but I saw them—there were lots of little birds in and around the trail looking, I imagine, for tiny critters flushed to the surface by the rain). I heard eloquence in the varied thunder, from right close by to growling over ranges miles to the north, ranges that overshadow my Alpine home. I heard the living wind ebb and howl and sigh. What I heard was beautiful. Another value of shutting up was that I was listening to something outside myself. That’s where revelation comes from.
I was down in three hours (it took me seven to get up). I went up more slowly than I’d like, and came down more quickly. It was 7:20 at the trailhead.
At the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, I didn’t tell a story. I waited until now.