“Ok guys. Let’s stop for a quick break and catch our breath.” I leaned against the stone outcrop, uncomfortable protrusions pushing through my shirt and into my back, but I didn't care—the stone was cool to the touch. It was some much-needed relief from the heat of our hike.
My 7-year-old daughter Claire had been leading our precession up the hill. The park we were visiting was situated high on a ridge and the primitive trail we were following made switchbacks up and down the hill, weaving in and out of tall pine groves while dodging large stone outcrops.
Claire halted and promptly turned around to address me. "How come we're stopping, dad? We aren't to the top yet."
We had hiked 20 minutes before the trail first broke free from the tree canopy, revealing the first large stone we would see. There were people there, donning harnesses and tying ropes to themselves. Just beyond that group we actually saw some of these people ascending. We watched for a few minutes before continuing up the hill. It was another 20 minutes before I had lost my breath and developed a stitch in my side.
"Well sweetheart,” I panted, “us older folks don't have the same energy as you. We need to take a little break."
"Okay, but can we go soon?"
She kicked at the dirt and let her shoulders droop. Kids just have something adults don't, I guess. "Well sweetheart, why don't you keep yourself busy and see if you can climb this," I said, patting the cool stone I was leaning against.
My wife opened her mouth to protest while my daughter's eyes lit up. "Now you can't climb too high ok? That way I can make sure you don't fall."
My compromise appeased my wife, but apparently Claire was more skeptical. She didn’t answer right away, but just looked at me in silence instead. She was like that, so thoughtful.
Slowly she said, "Ok." Bargain struck. "But you can only touch me if I start to fall. No helping."
"That sounds fair to me," I said, hands raised to shoulder level, palms facing Claire.
She immediately hopped up on the rock. Feet flailing. Hands overworking. "No sweetheart. You can't just run up a rock wall. Here, put your right hand on this piece of rock. See how it sticks out so you can grab it?"
She grabbed the jutting stone. Then moved her feet next. Next she moved her other hand to another good hold. What started as a broken and uncoordinated movement was progressing to fluid, smooth, almost … knowledgeable.
“Nice job sweetheart. Try grabbing this one over here.” Instead of climbing straight up the wall, she was slightly traversing, allowing me to follow along on the trail at the base of the rock.
After a minute or two of traversing, we had left my wife and second daughter back at the switchback. The subtle crunch of dirt underfoot began to grow louder. Downhill, none of the family was moving. But up the hill, a young man appeared around the corner of the outcrop.
He had an earthy appearance. Khaki shorts, long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves pushed above his elbows, and a wide brim hat. His gaze pierced me.
"Hi,” I said. “How are you today?"
"Oh I'm wonderful. How are you two doi …” he broke his thought and took a large lunge toward me. I didn't have time to react.
Then I heard the beginning of a shriek—Claire. At the end of his lunge, he caught her. I hadn’t noticed her falling, but he had … and he had caught her. Without missing he a beat he set her right back onto her feet and left her perfectly balanced on the ground.
"Watch out little one! That was close, huh?"
She turned around, looking bashful. "Yeah it was. Thank you for catching me."
“Yes. Thank you so much for that,” I offered both apologetically and embarrassed.
"Oh it was my pleasure,” he said to me before turning back to Claire. “But do you know what you did wrong?"
"No … not really.” She chanced a glance over her shoulder at the rock before clasping her hands together, her chin slightly lowered, showing the top of her head to her rescuer. “I just started to swing."
"I saw. Rock climbers call that a barn door.” He lowered himself onto his haunches, and Claire found his eyes were on the same plane as hers. “Can you think of why?"
She held his gaze for a moment and then gave a simple, "No."
"Barn doors tend to be really big and heavy, so once they start to swing open,” he raised his left hand and rotated his arm at the shoulder, mimicking the motion of a door with his forearm, “it's really hard to stop them.” He grabbed at his swinging arm with his free hand, pretending he couldn’t control the swing. He looked back at Claire, who was staring in wonder.
The pause in his movement jarred Claire. The curiosity on her face was replaced with a pink flush, one not caused by the hike. “Just like you a few seconds ago on that rock. Once you started swinging it was really hard to stop, right?"
Claire’s arms dropped to her side and the tone of her voice rose. "Oh yeah, I get it."
"Do you want to try again?” He looked past Claire and at the rock. “I can give you some pointers if you like."
"Yeah!" The word barely escaped her mouth before she was back at the rock, searching for a place to grab. The stranger, still on his haunches, turned his head to me with raised eyebrows and a cocked head. Then he tilted his head slightly toward my daughter. I nodded my head in acknowledgement.
I didn’t see the harm. This guy seemed like he knew what he was talking about. It would probably be better that someone with knowledge of rock climbing be the one teaching Claire—and that certainly wasn’t me.
“See this rock right here?” he patted a piece of outcrop just a few inches off Claire’s left shoulder. “See how it almost feels like a handle? That's called a jug. Those are the pieces of rock you want to use—they are the easiest to hold onto."
"Like this one here?" Claire’s arm extended, stretching for a rock much further from her than his example.
"Yeah! Exactly like that one."
This stranger continued to coach my daughter all the way up to the corner of the outcrop—where it abruptly turned up the hill leaving the trail behind—me ambling along also listening to what he said. At the corner, Claire climbed back down to the trail. She had made it the whole way without falling or needing any kind of physical assistance.
"Nice job!" He said, giving her a high-five.
"Thanks! You sure do know a lot about climbing. How do you know so much?"
"Well, I know everything."
My heart skipped.
An instant ago, I had an appreciation for this guy, a trust almost. He was teaching, coaching my daughter … giving her knowledge that I couldn't. What was in it for him: nothing, which was why I respected him. Well, I had thought there was nothing in it for him. Apparently, this guy enjoys lying to little girls.
Before I could step in, my daughter retorted. "Do you really?" Her arms fell to her sides, head tilted, eyebrows raised—one was slightly higher.
He didn’t answer, but just looked at my daughter. Maybe he was realizing he had misspoken. Maybe he meant he knew everything about rock climbing, or about “bouldering” as he had called it. He slowly leaned forward until his hands came to rest on his knees. A single corner of his mouth rose, and I strained to hear him say, "Try me."
Claire’s face scrunched up as if to say, “Challenge accepted.” I held me tongue. I could tell this guy off right now, but a lesson taught by a 7-year-old would stick a lot better than one taught by a nearly-40-year-old. Claire is bright—she could outsmart anyone claiming to know everything.
"Well,” she looked around for inspiration, “how did this rock get here?"
"Oh, that's easy. Millions of years ago this really hot, liquid rock—called magma—forced it's way into these layers of a dark rock called basalt and formed these big rocks of granite as it cooled down. Then a few hundred thousands years ago, huge floods eroded away all that dark rock and left granite rocks behind."
So the guy knew some geology. Big deal. It was only one answered question. Claire would stump him.
Pursuing this line of questioning, Claire said, "What's the rock made of?"
"There's a few different minerals in there. Mostly mica, feldspar, and quartz. The quartz is my favorite. See it here?" He stepped toward the rock he had just coached my daughter across, arm extended, pointing. "See the small white bits, the shiny ones?” Claire turned and examined the rock with him. “Those are tiny quartz crystals. If they grow bigger, they are really pretty."
My daughter ran her hand across the rock with a deep fascination.
He let her eyes scan the rock for several seconds before he spoke again. "Any other questions?"
My daughter’s hand fell from the rock as she turned back to him, her eyes slightly squinted with the strain she was putting her brain under. She understood this was a game. She usually plays to win.
After a moment, her face scrunched, trying to hide the upward movement at the corners of her mouth and the slight squint of her eyes. She had a question for him. "Who made this rock?"
"Who?” He hesitated, eyebrows raised and slightly nodding his head. “Well that's a very good question. It’s usually a lot longer before people ask, 'Who?' But I'll tell you."
Claire had made a mistake—and she didn't know it yet. She asked a question with a cop-out answer—yes, an answer impossible to prove … but also impossible to disprove.
The stranger’s lips curled into a smile. Just above a whisper he said, "I did." He abruptly stood to his full height, turned to look down the hill with arms extended, and excitedly proclaimed, "I made all of this."
This was not the answer I was expecting. Why not say "God" and leave it at that?
Claire, speaking to the stranger’s back as he took in his creation quickly asked, "How old are you?"
The stranger turned back around, letting his arms fall, like the expression on his face. He and I both had furrowed brows. How had this line of questioning digressed? But he answered, wanting to see where she could take this. "I'm 27."
"You said this rock is millions of years old. How did you make something millions of years ago if you’re only 27?"
My chest swelled with her retort. My Claire had him on the ropes.
"You caught me. I am only 27 … but I'm ‘only 27’ for right now. I've been much older in the past, and I'll be much younger in the future. But that doesn’t matter, because I'm actually older than time itself."
She didn’t know what to make of his answer … neither did I.
She came back to something solid. "Well then why did you make the rock?" She needed to keep the conversation where she could reason. He smiled, sensing his last answer was beyond her.
"You like it, don't you Claire?” She glanced at the rock again, trying to pick out the tiny quartz crystals. He could see her eyes caressing the rock’s surface, oh so gently. “That's why I made it. I knew one day I would have a chance to tell you everything and what better place than in the shade of this rock you like so much."
Barely above a whisper, her body slight leaning toward him, Claire said, “How did you make it?"
"Well we've already covered that, remember? As a liquid, I pushed myself into this dark rock and waited a few millions years for that rock to erode away and set me—this rock here—free. Understand?"
"Yeah, I do."
What? His answer was a bit different this time around. He was the rock?
"Good. So do you have any other questions?"
Her pupils fell to the corners of her eyes. She was coming up with questions, questions that she then answered herself, never having to speak aloud. She couldn't find another question for the stranger she didn’t already know.
"Claire, I know you think I've answered all of the questions you could ask, but there's one more question you could ask me, the next logical question. Most people don't think to ask it. Most people don't even know it. But I bet you do, Claire. So what do you think? Ask me that one last question?"
What was the next logical question? I couldn't come up with one … apart from, "Are you crazy?"
Claire's lips tightened, then the corner of her mouth curled upwards just slightly.
The stranger smiled, "You've got it, don't you? The next question."
She stared into the stranger's eyes, and with an unabashed bluntness said, "Well, who made you?"
Who made him, this man claiming to be the architect, the creator of all? This man claiming to be God? No wonder no one ever thought to ask that question. Wasn’t the next logical question if he had his medication on him and if he might have forgotten to take it today? I should've asked, but I was still paralyzed, transfixed by his words … or maybe transfixed by my daughter who seemed to understand his logic.
"I'm proud of you, Claire. That is the next question—the last question to be asked in an infinite stream of questions. You are so smart to have seen it."
She smiled at his response. Her back straightened, making her a little taller, her chin a little higher.
"Now, Claire, before I answer, I want you to make a promise. Promise me you'll never forget this answer, ok? Because for the rest of your life, people are going to be telling you that this answer is wrong, that it was a lie. They will try to make you forget the answer and they will try to make you forget the question. That's why no one asks it. They've all forgotten the question. So do you promise you'll remember? Do you promise you'll always keep the answer as an absolute truth?"
I couldn't stop this conversation. I wanted to hear the answer. I had to know the answer. I looked at my daughter, willing her to promise, but … she hesitated. She broke her gaze with the man and glanced up the hill, toward another giant piece of granite perched there, eons old. She wasn't answering, because she was really considering the promise.
She found his eyes again, those unwavering eyes. "Ok. I promise."
"Good, Claire, very good. Now go ahead and ask me again."
"If you made everything, than who made you?"
"Well Claire … you did." He stood, resuming his full height while still holding his gaze with my daughter. "Thank you for that."
I saw something dawn over my daughter, an understanding in her eyes. He must have seen it too, because as it crossed her face, he gave her a gentle touch on the shoulder as he turned. Then he walked away, continuing down the path and out of sight.
For an instant, I knew what this stranger had said was true. And though that understanding had almost instantly vanished, I still had the memory of understanding—I still had the feeling of knowing he was right. Coming back from astonishment, I looked to Claire.
She was back on the rock, traversing just a few inches off the ground.
“Claire, are you ok?”
Her movement stalled. She turned her head to me, and all she did was smile.
The wonderment in her eyes was stunning—all I could do was smile back.