Our bodies are shot with mortality. Our legs are fear, and our arms are time. These chill humors seep through our capillaries, weighting each cell with an icy dab of nonbeing, and that dab grows and swells and sucks the cells dry. That is why physical courage is so important–it fills, as it were, the holes–and why it is so invigorating. The least brave act, chance taken, and passage won, makes you feel loud as a child.Annie Dillard
Anyone who has a lifetime of hiking experience behind them as I do will have crossed a few streams: rivers mighty and rolling, small streams easy to step across, bogs, gentle rivers, raging rivers. I have crossed on bridges high and low, leapt across, stepped across, boulder hopped, forded as deep as my waist in a strong current. I have scaled logs, straddled logs, and crawled. Almost always I seem to end up on the opposite bank unscathed with only a few minor exceptions, the most serious being the time I plunged under the waters of the Popo Agie River in the Wind River Mountains (see Taking the Plunge, March 28th of last year).
There is always a feeling of satisfaction upon standing on solid ground after boulder hopping on slick, moss covered rocks. The ground is solid, not flowing, and I am standing upright with all my limbs intact, which seems like no small accomplishment.
One such crossing lingers in my memory as I think about the many rivers that have crossed my path. I had learned of Avalanche Valley a few years earlier on my first hike in the Mt. Adams Wilderness Area. I had met three women on the PCT who had just made their way back from the valley and were rapturous in their description of it. I knew I had to go there. I did.
This hike took place many years ago, and even then the trail was unmaintained and hard to follow, making its way around the north side of the mountain across glacial moraines well above timberline. I had left camp early that morning. My crossing of the river that flowed from Lava Glacier was a simple boulder hop, as the sun had not yet risen high enough to hasten melting. I arrived in the valley by early afternoon with time enough to savor this glorious place, where rivulets flow down in a series of paternoster pools, each one a gem, like a string of rosary beads, the source of the word “paternoster.” I pitched my tent by one of the pools, went for a chilly dip in the glacial water, and explored the valley. It was one of those magical days in the mountains with precious solitude and a volcanic peak rising above me. To this day I remember that valley as one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
That night I crawled into my sleeping bag, listening to the sound of the many waterfalls as I drifted off to a sound sleep. I awoke in the morning from one of my fantastical dreams. I was riding on an elephant, only it was not just any elephant. And by the way, if you are one of those people who believe we do not dream in color, you have not been inside my dream world at night. Brilliant colors regularly occur: flashing turquoise, chartreuse, magenta. In this case the elephant was pink. Yes, I was riding on a pink elephant. It does not get much better than that.
In the morning I lingered in camp for awhile and frequently smiled when I remembered the pink elephant. I was none too eager to leave this beautiful place, but I was nearing the end of my trip and had to meet my family at the trailhead in a couple of days. By the time I made my way around to the river I had crossed with ease the previous day, it was swollen with the frothy, white, raging current of glacial melt. I stood for a long while, convinced I could not possibly cross it. I then scrambled in both directions, seeking a narrower spot with perhaps a softer landing on the opposite bank. It was not to be found. This was a glacial torrent that had no interest in accommodating a soft landing for this solitary hiker.
I held my gaze on a rock on the opposite side that looked like it might be a suitable landing spot for a leap across the river. All it had going for it was that it was not quite as jagged as the others but was slick from the splashing water. I knew that if I were going to land safely I had to prepare myself mentally, so I simply stood and breathed slowly, banishing from my mind the image of a broken leg. The water was not so deep that I would drown, but I could certainly be tossed about by the current if I failed to land safely.
It seemed like an eternity as I stood there, utterly focused on the task at hand. I began to recall my many afternoons in the ballet studio, standing at the barre, pointing my toes, leaping across the room with my legs outstretched. Making this leap with a heavy pack on did not quite fit the picture, but dancing had given me strong legs and a grace and comfort with my own body that never left me. For awhile I had even considered a career in dance, but eventually cheerleading and boys became a distraction from the studio after school. Now I was there. It seemed like I was on the stage, and I had one task. . .to leap across it.
I unbuckled my hip belt so that if I landed in the water I could rapidly extricate myself from the weight of the pack. Then I was in the air. I was not leaping; I was flying, it seemed, flying on the back of a pink elephant. In that time warp that sometimes occurs when one is totally focused it seemed as though I hung there in the air for a lifetime. . .above the river. . .above the world. There was only this moment in the air and nothing else. And then it was not. I had landed on the jagged rock, my foot perfectly placed, and then stepped away.
I felt the trembling in my legs, and then I collapsed, finally giving in to the fear that I had placed on hold while I made the leap, while I flew on the back of an elephant, while I landed safely on the rock.
Perhaps a very few times in a single lifetime we are granted such moments of grace when what has come before is coalesced into the richness of the present: childhood dancing lessons, a fanciful dream, a lifetime of hiking, a safe landing. Hikers sometimes call it trail magic. One could also call it good luck. Believers might say I had been lifted up by the hand of God. Yes to all of the above but with one caveat: In this case God was a pink elephant.