|Angel's Landing, March 2017. Those little dots in the upper-right corner are a couple of brave souls posing on its precipice.|
In the summer of 1990*, Troop 649 out of Bountiful, Utah spent its annual Scout Camp in Zion National Park. I was thirteen years old, midway between 8th and 9th grade, and still hoping to play football for the Raiders someday.
The centerpiece of the camp was a 17-mile trek through the Zion Narrows, a gorgeous red rock slot canyon and one of my first lessons in the principle that you can have too much of a good thing. The hike was split over two days, with a sleepless overnight camp in a miserable rock alcove jammed in-between.
My most substantial memory of the camp came a couple of days after we finished the Narrows, when the whole troop decided to scale Angel's Landing, a breathtaking precipice that many consider the highlight of any trip to Zion. I'd never heard of the place before--that camp was, as I recall, my first official trip to Southern Utah--so I spent three-quarters of the hike in blissful if winded ignorance before turning a corner and stopping in my tracks before a narrow, winding ridge with 1,000+ foot drops on either side sitting in front of me.
Now, I'm not a fan of heights. I can't really remember any specific pre-Angel's Landing experiences that drove this point home, but I'm fairly certain that by age 13, I ranked extreme heights somewhere around contemporary country music and tuna fish sandwiches on my list of things I'd just assume never have to deal with for the rest of my natural life. And staring at that crazy zig-zagging ridge ahead of me, with its helpful chains driven into the rocks for optimal clinging, I realized that I was about to face the one thing on that list that could actually threaten my natural life.
Luckily, I had Brad.
Brad was my scoutmaster's teenage son, a year or two older than the rest of us, safely on the opposite side of the tumultuous sea of puberty. Brad tagged along on our camp, and quickly became something of a mentor for me, mainly because he'd brought along a cassette copy of Van Halen's "5150" album for the drive down. We'd spent much of the hike up until that point shooting the bull and getting to know one another, and without realizing it, I began to take on some of his determined enthusiasm.
That's why I only had about a split second of sober hesitation before I followed Brad headlong up that horrifying little ridge. His confidence was infectious, and the difference maker between me completing the hike and staying back at the landing with several of the other scouts. I was terrified as I scrambled over that last red rock incline, clutching those chains, but I never let up, and Brad and I finished the ascent well ahead of the rest of the group.
Naturally, the view was beautiful, and I'm pretty sure we took some discount 1990's-era photographs that have become buried in storage somewhere in my parents' basement. I even got a commemorative award at our next Court of Honor for "First Place up Angel's Landing," so someone must have been aware of how petrified I was on that stupid hike.
But while my ascent of Angel's Landing initially felt like a personal accomplishment, in the time since I have begun to see it in a different light. Over time, it has become one of my most vivid, if imperfect, metaphors for the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was drawn to Brad because he represented the big brother I never had. As a kid, I remember watching "Stand By Me," a Rob Reiner adaptation of a Stephen King novella about four boys who go on a journey to find a dead body. The protagonist, Gordie, is haunted by memories of his big brother, played by John Cusack in flashback, who had died in a car accident. For decades afterward seeing that movie I have had this odd perspective on the Chicago actor as a consequence. Without any older siblings of my own, Cusack projected the big brother I wish I had, and Brad projected the big brother I didn't realize I had.
I'm not sure we can ever comprehend the Atonement of Jesus Christ, but I think that in little ways, at least in part, we can understand it. I think it's safe to say that without Brad inspiring my effort, I likely would have second-guessed myself into staying at that last landing, one frightening ridge away from one of the most memorable accomplishments of my adolescence. I don't necessarily think Brad would have saved me from falling if I'd slipped, but his leadership, encouragement, and support felt like everything I've heard described about the Savior and the role He's supposed to play in our lives. With Him leading the way, we can do things we could never do left to our own devices. At the same time, He won't do the task for us. We have to exercise enough faith to follow His lead.
I've been to Zion several times in the years since that summer camp, but I've never been back up Angel's Landing. I've thought about it, wondered if another ascent would confirm my adolescent conquest, but never followed through. As of right now, my favorite view of Angel's Landing is the one I posted at the top of this article, the one I photographed with my feet firmly planted on the ground.
It's more likely that, rather than worry about facing the exact same fear I already faced almost thirty years ago, I should apply the lesson I was given that day to my more immediate fears, and see what new heights I can achieve with a little help from my big brother.
*Or maybe it was 1989?