Atop This Rock

Brendan O'Brien

© Copyright 2016 by Brendan O'Brien

Runner-Up--2016 Biographical Nonfiction
Photo by Riley McNeal on Unsplash
Photo by Riley McNeal on Unsplash

Here I stand atop this rock, crouched at the cliff’s edge, listening. I hear the cars, far below, tread hesitantly around each switchback, a reminder that to ascend—to climb, to overcome—anything requires great faith and focus. No smooth path is worth following. A pebble falls and its collisions echo back to me until absorbed by a sudden gust of wind.

Above these panoramic views, a blue sky reigns. As if in an effort to keep that overarching sky from growing aloof from the Earth’s battles, the same wind is at work, smearing these clouds across their still-blue canvas.

We file back to our seats, the van fires up, and we roll on for our journey has only commenced. Thoughts of where we have already been trickle across my mind. We had departed from Kirksville, Missouri and traversed the fields of Iowa, bypassing the state’s capital and speeding past cars and RVs traveling the opposite direction, perhaps off to see the same lands and people we had temporarily left behind. We passed water towers bearing names of towns that begged to be noticed amidst endless landscape.

We drove on roads alongside rivers with rapids and waterfalls that scoffed at the speed limits guiding our progress. Only humans need signs to remind them of the desired rate of travel.

At Mount Rushmore, we found a man-made wonder chiseled from a natural miracle. We walked between flags representing every state and I swelled with self-importance as I stumbled across my own.

Hearing the accomplishments and dreams of figures like Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln intertwined with those unknown builders who had enshrined their likenesses, it was impossible not to feel a twinge of pride in our nation.

As I reflect on this celebration of origins, I am reminded of the sun we saw from the roadside, illuminating the sky from behind an array of clouds. Amidst the Constitutional Convention at which our nation’s fate hung in the balance, Ben Franklin once sat attempting to decipher whether a picture displayed a setting or rising sun. I realize now, we are still deciding.

What emerged from that struggle in Philadelphia remains one of our brightest moments, perhaps only rivaled by what was long ago dubbed “America’s best idea”: National Parks. As we enter Yellowstone, we are greeted by massive bison and indefatigable pronghorn. Inspecting animal bones at water’s edge, I realize that we, as a people, once nearly made this the destiny of the same species that now flourish in this Park.

Thinking of these creatures, pondering the formation of rock walls, clamoring across loose gravel, and being continually dwarfed by each skyward tree on our hike the following day only served to reinforce the notion that we were guests in this land.

Looking down to the river running through the canyon’s base and trotting the miles to its banks, we felt lucky to share a miniscule portion of time’s passing with such ancient features. After a long, arduous re-tracing of our steps, we travel to a nearby lookout and temporarily lose our breath.

For hours, we could stare across to the rock facing us or especially the cascade of freshwater flowing over a peak to offer life to the entire ecosystem living below. It was not enough to see it, however, and we were lured to the edge of that life-giving wonder. Upon watching water shoot from the mouth of that river to the one below, we instinctively stood at arm’s length from the railing that cushioned us from a fall to our death.

Returning to camp, we passed within feet of bison and paused to view a landscape which made all else fade. It was views like that one and wildlife like wolves that had allured people from all walks of life to the National Parks as a employees.

As we listened to a former school teacher named Ranger Bill, we found ourselves enthralled as the stories and struggles of reintroducing the wolves to Yellowstone came alive. Two aspects of this talk made a lasting impression on me: the individual character of the wolves and the obvious enthusiasm of the ranger. Later, as we hiked toward Cache Lake, this was again evident in two rangers’ greeting us on horseback. These individuals, with constant connection to the outdoors, seemed to know something for which we all reached.

We walked on, taking note of wildflowers and incredible views, playing games and telling stories as we went.

Ending the hike prematurely, we arrived back at the trailhead. We held our aching feet but could not help feeling satisfied with ourselves, even with the skies threatening to open up. As we returned toward camp, we spotted, and initiated traffic jams for, a bear and elk. An absurdly white sun crept through darkened clouds and the joy etched into the rangers’ faces was no longer so difficult to understand.

The next day, we watched steam rise from the ground, often from large springs whose colors Crayola would be hard-pressed to match. A nearby corpse of a bison reminded us of the danger inherent in these natural spas.

I found using guardrails worked well as a frame through which to capture the image. Perhaps it would be wise to watch nature unfold from behind a camera lens. And yet, even on a burned hillside overlooking Grand Prismatic Spring, we saw life that poked through the soil and life that seemed to dance.

If lupines and ground squirrels could find joy in this simple living, we too could be happy in this scorched environment, even scampering from one fallen tree to the next, treating dirt as a layer of lava covering the ground.

At Old Faithful, we both resented and became part of the crowd that seemed to increase in proportion to the seismic activity of that geyser. How could we blame them? Less than a hundred yards beneath our feet, molten magma was flowing freely and we got to witness its effects.

We watched children’s eyes open with wonder as they searched for a chipmunk and saw the rings of colors from microscopic bacteria lining the springs. Even here, atop the world’s largest caldera, life had found a way to exist.

A lifetime would not be enough time to truly explore the Yellowstone landscape and ecosystem, but we have another world to see. We pack up our campsite, and we are off to another world despite its proximity to this one: the Grand Tetons.

Arriving to camp late and already feeling the effects of our unforgiving schedule, we set a plan to wake before dawn the next morning and did not regret it. Our open mouths quickly changed from yawning to fawning over the scenes our eyes were taking in.

We found ourselves gazing through silhouetted trees and across mist-covered lakes and between awestruck photographers at mountains and wildlife and the burning sphere which allowed them all to rise above the still-sleeping earth.

Sometimes, our attention was so arrested by what was right before us that the horizon failed to exist for the moment. Whether a whole herd of elk crossing the road or a lone grouse, mule deer, or black bear, we could not hide our enthusiasm.

Seeing that bear tear apart a log and wander through the trees uninterested in our presence was humbling. We need that bear more than it needs us. Between the ground squirrels which scavenge at our feet for food and the wildlife painting in which we see ourselves represented and the wildflower open to the world, it finally dawns on me that we need these National Parks far more than they need us.

Human beings have an innate attraction to the wilderness. We can put up fences or barbed wires as perimeters to mark off our land, but there is a reason we place windows in our homes: we long to be in the outside world. The same is true of early settlers moving west. They realized—and we must, too—we cannot survive by simply meeting our physical needs.

Deep within the core of our being, immeasurable by any test or tool, there exists a need to have our sense of wonder reinvigorated- to be awed by beauty and have our faith in our footing challenged.

We hiked between the peaks of Cascade Canyon to see if we could; far better to come up short than to never venture into that uncertain terrain. The mountain had taunted us and we had left the serenity of Jenny Lake to respond to its unspoken dare.

Following the lake to its source led us past moose and marmot alike, past still and raging waters. We trekked through layers of snow and over boulders, urged on by the fast-flowing stream beneath the four feet of snow and ice on which we traveled.

Despite our hunger and fatigue, we broke into a run as we approached Solitude Lake. We sat upon a rock at water’s edge and felt the crystal-clear liquid we had been following. Here the water flirted with freezing and remained still, as if holding together for warmth.

Turning our heads to a faint sound behind us, we were amused to discover a pika scurrying across the rocks. We had traveled there from across the country with the weather at its warmest and struggled to this sanctuary, and there was more than a little irony that one of the land’s smallest creatures occupied one of its most inhospitable climates.

We lay at peace on that rock. I had come to accept that we had not conquered the mountain; she had merely permitted us to pass when our will power had demanded it.

Oddly enough, the way we frame things changes their reality to us: a flower nearly overshadows the sun and individuals’ size fluctuates with the surrounding landscape. In close proximity to the power of mountains and waterfalls and sprawling fields, we realize our place in the world.

It is not hard to see ourselves as one of the six billion people on this planet or a grain of sand in the desert or a foothill of a mountain, but it is no small feat to remember that no mountain peak can stand alone. Just as no building rests on a single beam and no tree rises from a single root, we must accept our reliance on each other if we are to ascend mountains.

Only when we can accept being a mere silhouette for the rays of a setting sun can we become part of that mysterious natural cycle. It is, therefore, our growing attachment to the soil beneath our feet and the skies overhead and the friends at our side that give our lives meaning.

And so, although each of us is a mere figure, a sole traveler on a forlorn path and easily obscured by the mountain’s shadow, John Muir’s words ring true: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Instead of an outline against the rock or a visitor within these lands, we have become part of the scene and bound tightly in these lands. In this binding, we break through chains and tear down walls which have constrained us for too long. In this binding, we find ourselves free. All this, I hear from my place upon this rock.

Contact Brendan

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Brendan story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher