“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” — Aristotle.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein.
As myriad writers, philosophers, and people have noted, there is something inherently spectacular about nature in the ways that it evokes and invites a sense of wonder, reflection, healing, and even discovery. There’s something inexplicable about nature that results in a deeper understanding of the self and even the world. On our road trip honeymoon this summer, Roger and I shared a simple intention— that is, to head West, hike a little, and see everything we possibly could see. The notion of deliberately going into nature in order to transform wasn’t on the list. It’s not that we were opposed to, or did not believe in, the transformative power of nature. No, in our just married state of bliss, we just wanted to see and do and enjoy each other’s company. We weren’t intentionally turning to nature for anything specific.
One of the first places that we stopped was the Black Hills in South Dakota. We arrived later in the day, around 4:00 PM, so we did not have the time or equipment for a lengthier hike. But, according the pre-trip research Roger had conducted, there was this one trail, Cathedral Spires, that we had on our list that we had to see because of the manageability and the amazing views. After we parked, stretched, and located the trailhead, we ventured down the gravel path. The chatter from the other lingering tourists faded away, quickly replaced with our semi-labored breathing and soft footfalls on the damp trail. The smell of sweet grass and wet Earth wafted up my nose, heady and welcoming. As we crossed over a dying, muddy brook, I caught my first glimpse of the towering spires in the distance.
“The trail is supposed to lead us up close,” Roger reported, handing me the water bottle. As soon as I took the bottle from him, his gaze swiveled back toward the beckoning spires.
“Awesome,” I replied.
Energized by the sight of the spires, we pressed on for a few more minutes down the winding path, which dipped and climbed until we were abruptly stopped by a wall of boulders. Confused, we scanned the area, convinced we’d taken a wrong turn or somehow erred because the path just couldn’t end like this. As I swigged some more water, and Roger took a look around, a sudden and aching disappointment swelled in my chest, and I thought, this can’t be it? Can it?
The top left is the trailhead sign, the top right is the trail, the bottom left is the dying brook, and the bottom right is the distant view of the spires.
Without ceremony, I thrust the water bottle back into Roger’s hands, and whirled around to face the wall of boulders. “I have an idea,” I announced, softly. The wall of boulders that seemed to signify the end of the trail weren’t as menacing as they originally seemed. As I traced a path up the boulders with my eyes, a sense of excitement skittered through me, and I realized the rock was actually climbable. Looking at my new husband over my shoulder, I briefly explained, “I have a suspicion and to test it out, I need to climb up there.”
“Be careful, sweetheart.”
“I’ll let you know,” I said as I made my way up.
When I reached the top, much to my relief and excitement, there it was… a blue marker. The trail hadn’t ended, not even close. When I was sure I was on safe footing, I turned around and called to Roger, and we enthusiastically kept ascending—up and up and up and up, more and more and more boulders. And, then, before we realized it, we were climbing amongst the spires. “This is so cool,” I kept saying.
The top left is where the trail abruptly ended, the top right is climbing amongst the spires, the bottom left is where it all flattened out, and the bottom right is a picture of us in the flattened out area.
Eventually, we reached the very top where everything leveled out, the path became sandy, and the sky had darkened a bit with marble clouds. As I looked around in wonder, an ethereal calm fluttered over me, causing my skin to ripple with goosebumps. I felt as though I were standing in nature’s church. As I tried to comprehend the gigantic spires, I’d thought of the seminar paper I’d written in my masters program on the sublime— that is, a sight that imbues one with awe and terror— realizing that I was witnessing and experiencing it for the first time.
This is unbelievable, I mused, reveling in the unmistakably and nearly indescribably spiritual moment I was having. Without warning, the sudden sound of a small rock tumbling down one of the sides of the hill yanked me from my thoughts. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the realization that we were not alone registered and eclipsed my awe.
And, then, I saw it: a mountain goat was making its way down the side of the hill.
We watched with bated breath as he surfed down one side of the hill and hiked up the other, taking his time to sniff and listen as he did until he disappeared from our view.
The mountain goat.
Shortly after that, Roger and I began our descent, my skin buzzing and my heart thudding. When we reached the car, we exchanged a look, and immediately broke into excited conversation about what we’d just witnessed and experienced together. “That was once in a life time,” I’d said to Roger, and he agreed.
When I’d called my family that night to check in, Dad confirmed our suspicions about the rarity of our experience. “Wow!” Dad said, “I’ve never seen a mountain goat like that in the wild before.”
Not only what we’d witnessed was a privilege, but I’d even venture to say was what we needed, or even, what we were meant to see. As John Muir claims, “in every walk with nature one receives far more than he [or she] seeks.” Even though we did not embark on that Cathedral Spires hike to be intentionally transformed by nature, or even to get anything out of it whatsoever, we did. If we’d have turned back, rather than taken a chance and climbed those boulders, I wouldn’t have anything to write about.
At the end of the day, you have no idea what wonders await you on the other side if you don’t try.