Because of Noah
When newborn Noah Hunter was diagnosed with a sick heart, many wonderful things happened.
Thanks to a chronic lung bug that kept me housebound through the whole of June, the man who hit the Grouse Canyon trailhead on the southwest side of Mt. Princeton as dawn broke on the 7th of July, 2007, was grayish of mien and fattish of butt. The climb hurt. Hurt bad. After five hours, with 1,200 vertical feet remaining and a puce-colored thunderhead looming, my body forced me to turn around. I barely made it back to the car. Over the final mile I was forced to manually lift each leg with both arms, one and then the other, over fallen trees obstructing the trail. There was hail. There was harsh language. There was no church.
I returned to Colorado at the end of August—skipping my wife's family reunion. This time she responded without ambiguity.
"Because a hill made you feel like a wimp back in July, and now you want to show it who's boss?"
"That's not it."
"What is it, then?"
"You know, Close Encounters..."
I could not explain it. Not until the 20th of August, that is. This time I had my lungs, and summited in two and a half hours. Having taken the rarely used back way up the mountain, I was alone—at the very spot, at nearly 13,000 feet, where I'd given up six weeks before. I sat on a rock to water up. Even at rest, my body was noisy. I could hear the thump and rush of blood in my neck. The sound of that. Acoustics are strange at that altitude. All the more so when the air is still. What was that in my left ear, that insistent high-pitched squawking? Only in the left ear. I had the distinct impression that it was originating within the ear. On it went, a bit like the hysterical squiggly sound a cassette tape makes when PLAY and REWIND are depressed together. A minute passed. Two. Was this a stroke?
Then I saw it, 150 yards away, its fat little body reared up on a rock, its head coyly tilted to one side. A marmot. Eyeing me. Giving me a piece of its mind.
There it was—and here. At this moment of maximal physical exertion, as the blood was singing in my neck and I was as gloriously in body as a soul can be, I all at once found myself out of body; found myself there. The sound that had seemingly originated in my ear had risen instead from a talkative little creature more than a hundred yards away; the barrier separating all that was internal about my person from all that was external had been obliterated. There was here, here was there; this is what I'd meant by church. Because if church and religion, Christian or other, aren't about reconciling the self to the inevitable moment when all that is internal, literally and figuratively, joins all that is external—dust to dust—then church and religion are just noisy gongs.
Is it perverse of me to say that I could have died at that moment without regret? Or that some part of me hopes I die on a mountain? Or that a codicil to my will stipulates that, come the day, my sons are to spread a portion of my ashes over that spot, as best they can find it, where I rediscovered the most important part of myself?
Perhaps it's best to say that I did not know the human organism had that much capacity to feel. That's the way it is in Colorado's sublime spaces, isn't it? You feel humbled and even humiliated by your own smallness at the same time that you feel larger and greater than you ever have. And it's not just that these feelings coexist. It's that they are the very same thing.
So what do I mean by "church"? That those high, thin Colorado places that nobody can own are where I am free at last from all of my voices, where every part of me is on speaking terms with every other part of me, and where I therefore do not, can not, feel like a visitor. That moment on the back of Mt. Princeton may have been the first of my adult life in which I knew without doubt and in real time that I wasn't, somehow, some way, trying to put one over on somebody. That's grace, right there—a state in which you can't fool anyone, and don't even have it in you to try.
I've climbed six more fourteeners since Mt. Princeton. I can never decide if the feeling they impart is a presence, a fullness of heart, or an absence—the elimination of some membrane. I hope I never figure it out. I hope the hunger for humility they both satisfy and amplify never departs me.
Because it is this hunger for humility that brought me to Chris Hunter. And it was Chris Hunter who in turn taught me that what I'd been calling "church" wasn't church at all.