Earlier this year, when the summer heat from Texas had us all hiding in our air-conditioned refuges, I made the trip with my wife up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to visit my parents. The temperatures were blissfully cool, so we decided to do some hiking.
Jackson Hole is a short drive from Grand Teton National Park, and like a lot of national parks, it’s filled with hikes for hikers of all skill levels. I’ve never been much for rock climbing, but I love a good hike. My wife was more in the “enjoy your vacation by relaxing at the house” mode one day, so my father and I decided to go on a short hike somewhere close to the house.
We chose Blacktail Butte.
Though we’d driven past the Butte dozens of times over the years (my parents have lived in Jackson for a while now), we’d never done much but look at it. I was excited for something new, but I quickly realized we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew.
Well, not quite…
Blacktail Butte is where local rock climbers go to practice their craft. We actually saw a few on the way up to the top. We puzzled for a bit over the signage and decided to take what appeared to be a direct route up the Butte.
It was direct alright.
Turns out we chose the wrong trail — there was a 7-mile hike that would have eventually taken us to the top — but we didn’t realize that until we made it back down.
The hike became difficult almost immediately.
Now this wouldn’t have been a problem, except for two things:
We did it anyway.
Now don’t get me wrong — this wasn’t a terrible hike.
But there were more than a few times where some slipping and sliding took place — exclusively on my end, because my father had the wisdom to dress more appropriately and I wasn’t in a listening mood that morning — and there were more than a few times where I had a real fear about my father falling because I was slipping so much.
The angle of the “trail” was steep, and it was clear that this was more of a game trail than a trail for humans. We often had to pull ourselves along by grasping at trees or bushes for leverage. The hike down was worse, the angle so steep that I basically went down on my butt half the way.
My father was OK — he had the foresight to bring a hiking stick and hiking boots, and they served him well.
We made it to the top, and something strange happened.
I realized that we’d probably never make that hike again.
I felt, in that moment, the importance of experiencing everything that was happening, because something in me knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When we made it to the top of that Butte, the thrill of success was a bit overwhelming for just a moment — there had been a few moments when we considered turning back but were able to locate a possible way up and forge ahead.
I don’t know that I’ve had a hike like that ever, to be honest. I usually choose the well-trodden paths that I know will be safe yet still provide the exercise and views I love. I don’t like taking big risks much with my body these days — it’s too precious to me now to really put at risk in a serious way.
At the top, my father was winded, and I wasn’t. That’s to be expected — he’s a little over twice my age. Neither of us expected the hike to be as arduous as it was. I don’t get a chance to get up to Wyoming very often — it might be years before I visit again.
These factors combined, in the thrill of victory over nature, to force a hard truth into my head — we wouldn’t be going back up there. Ever.
This is because of a variety of factors. One is that we simply wouldn’t choose to do that hike again knowing what we know about it now. Two is that both my father and I are getting older, getting to a point where it just doesn’t make sense to purposefully choose difficult hikes like that when an easier hike will do.
That hike wasn’t happening again.
And I knew it.
So I took in as much of that moment as I could, because something important and meaningful was happening up there.
My father and I, on our own, were confronted with an unexpected obstacle, and we surmounted it.
We didn't stop. We didn’t turn back. We knew that it wasn’t the best choice in the world, but we did it anyway, for the thrill of the thing.
And most importantly, it turned out OK. Nobody got hurt, we both got excellent exercise, we learned our lesson about that butte, we learned something about ourselves and each other, and we decided, probably separately and almost unconsciously, not to do that again.
Mortality is something you always sort of know in the back of your head — it’s a bizarre feeling when it gets close, when it shows itself.
I’m in recovery, which means that I have a lot of friends who are like me, a lot of friends who disappear randomly, a lot of friends who die. Not a week ago, an acquaintance took her own life rather than live with the disease of addiction.
I am painfully familiar with mortality.
But seeing it in myself, seeing it in a loved one, well, that’s a very different feeling.
It’s one thing to know that people die. It’s another to see that you are, in fact, a person, and so are the ones you love, to see that you might die too.
On that hike, we never, ever got even close to dying, but the specter of mortality arose. My father and I, on that hike, felt and understood, silently and without urging from each other, the importance of being very careful, of taking our time up the butte, of watching out for each other, because we were out in nature, and nature makes cold, hard calculations-of-life that have very little compassion for the fact that human beings are smart or emotionally complex or members of a family or somebody’s friend.
Nature does not care — in many ways, it’s similar to my disease. It does what it does regardless of what I think about it or how it will affect me or those I love.
They are both as immovable as mountains — it’s up to me to navigate around them, to stay safe, to do the things that I need to do to stay alive.
It was a wonderful feeling, making it up that mountain, but I won’t do it again. Mortality showed itself, that day, and we eyed it warily, paid it respect, and carefully walked around it. I am grateful every day that I can have experiences like this, even when those who suffer from the same disease I do are denied them.
I cannot save them, but I can do my best to be an intelligent, thoughtful, careful steward of the life I have, the life I almost lost many years ago, the life that’s been returned to me.
But that does not mean I have to back down from an unexpected challenge. I grew from that hike up that butte, and I’m sure my father did too. Part of being a steward is understanding when it’s necessary to take a risk in return for a greater reward, to approach the line, put a toe or two across, and then slip back unharmed with treasure in hand.
Life requires risk. Life is a risk. I should be wary and careful, but neither should I hide in my house to stay safe.
That’s not life.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that my hike up the butte taught me to live life consciously, to take calculated risks, to respect nature and the world, to allow experiences to be what they are, and to savor them, because life is precious and short and horribly cheap, and you rarely know when an experience will be your last.
Living life consciously is my upventur — what’s yours?