“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.
I needed a break. I stopped at a convenience store for a drink. There were two guys inside, both Hispanic, one behind the counter, leaning on it, and one in front. We talked about the day’s heat and how they had been seeing cyclists since the racers came through.
“Yeah man, where is the rest of your group?”
“Oh it’s just me. I’m riding solo.” The two raised their eyebrows and glanced at each other. The guy behind the counter stood up. My brow furrowed in response to their movement. “What?”
“Well, it’s just that this isn’t the best road for bicycles. Not a lot of people around here care enough to share the road, you know? And on top of that you’re alone. This isn’t the best road for a white boy to be alone. You know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I hear you. Thanks for the heads up.”
“Yeah, when you get back on your bike I wouldn’t stop until you get to Cuba. That’s another 40 miles down the road.”
“What’s the road like? Flat at all?”
The clerk’s friend spoke up while he shook his head. “No, it’s all up and down. It’s not even the best road to drive because of all the hills. It’s probably worse on a bike.”
I was riding a prejudice, non-cyclist friendly road. Great detour. I finished my snack and grabbed another sports drink.
“Good luck out their, man.”
“Hey, thanks guys. I appreciate it.”
“Are you broke down,” the driver asked. He wore a blue plaid shirt under a set of red Carhartt suspenders, white hair blended into gray sideburns that faded back to snow white on his chin.
“Oh no, I’m just lubing the chain.” I arched my back into a stretch.
“You must be doing that bike race.”
“Well, I’m not racing, but I am riding the route.”
A woman spoke from the passenger seat of the car. We all talked a bit about the route and the documentary that had a scene filmed at the church we stood outside of.
“Do you two know this road pretty well?”
“Good. I’m trying to avoid the rain and mud and am thinking of following this road to get to Silver City. Is there anything on this road? Any place I’ll be able to stop?”
Without a look to his passenger, the driver said, “Yeah. Mile marker 23.”
Mile marker 23? Now here’s a man that knew how to give directions. I laughed with his specificity. “What’s at mile marker 23?”
With a quick glance at his wife this time, “Well, we are.”
I glanced around for a mile marker. “You mean we’re at 23 right here?”
“No. I mean us,” he said pointing to himself and his wife. “Our home is at mile marker 23. Why don’t you stop by. We’ll feed you and let you used the spare bed, get a good night of sleep. How does that sound?”
Too good to be true. “Well, how far is it from here?”
“I’d say about 25 miles.”
“Well, that sounds wonderful then,” I said, not sure what to make of the situation. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves, but I had accepted an invitation to dinner. Strange? Maybe a little. But I wouldn’t have to stay if I felt at all uncomfortable.
“All right. What would you like for dinner?”
Like? I must have looked ridiculous, slack-jawed and sweat-stained. I was still so surprised at having been invited to dinner that I couldn’t comprehend deciding what dinner would be. “I’m not a picky eater, especially these days.”
“All right. Can we take your bags for you and lighten your load?”
“Oh no, I’ll hold on to those.” I didn’t have any suspicion of foul play. To give up the bags was another step toward an easy ride that I didn’t want to take. An easier route to avoid weather was one thing; pawning my gear off onto somebody else was quite different. “Mile maker 23, right? I think it will be a couple of hours before I get there.”
“We’ll be there. Just ride on in.”
“Ok. I’ll see you soon.”
Mike took the lead again. “So what made you want to do this anyway?”
“Well, I had recently finished school and just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do… I thought it would be a pretty cool item for the life resume, a good challenge. I thought I’d come out here and try to find myself.”
At that last statement, Mike chuckled and said, “Yeah, get that out of your system.”
I thought I saw Maggie turn her head just slightly to Mike and give a look of incredulity at what he had just said. Then again, maybe I was the incredulous one and had just imagined Maggie was on my side.
“Well that’s great, Nathan,” Maggie said, “has it been a good experience so far?”
I thought about it before I answered. “Yeah, it has.”
We talked a few more minutes before I let them go. Decided on my course, I started on the 6 miles of pavement up toward La Manga Pass.
Mike had said, “Get that out of your system.” I couldn’t get that out of my head. I didn’t take offense to what he said. I wasn’t insulted. In a weird way, I was inspired. But why?
Out of my system!
What Mike said had clicked. Being inspired by his statement didn’t seem strange any more, rather it made perfect sense. I had said the trip was, in part, an attempt to “find myself.” Well, where did I go? Did I lose myself? Was my body just mindlessly wandering around without me? No! So what the hell was I looking for!
In my study of philosophy I had read about switching our energy from action to contemplation. This made no sense to me when I read it. Wasn’t that counterproductive? But Plato, he defined contemplation as “knowing and being.” We should switch our energy from “seeking and becoming” to “knowing and being.” Switch your energy from seeking to knowing. What was it I sought?
I had been suffering from the illusion of an internal separateness. I had thought there were two versions of me: the person I was and the person I wanted to be. I was searching for that other person, as if there were a secret that other person had, as if he knew what I wanted and needed, what was best for me, what I should do. What a bunch of bullshit. Mike was right, I needed to get that kind of thinking out of my system.
Another rough and steep section of road brought me down to the valley floor and onto a smoother road. I sighed and looked over my shoulder back at the hill, glad to leave behind that awful road. I pedaled half a mile on the new road before I reached back to tap my sleeping bag. Huh? I reached back again. Nothing. I locked up my brakes.
“Where the hell is my sleeping bag?!”
It was rhetoric, frustration, dramatization. I knew where it was: laying on the side of the road where it fell as I crossed a rough patch. I cursed myself for having been so stupid. Everyday the straps had loosened. Everyday I had reached back to check the straps. Everyday I had stopped to wrench the straps tight. Why would I do all of that if I didn’t suspect I might lose my bag? Now it had happened. Now I had to climb back up an incredibly rough road to search for it. I didn’t have the energy or the patience to do it. What choice did I have though? Answer: a simple one.
I turned my bike around and followed my own tracks backwards, through the mud. My head was heavy and wanted to hang, but I held it up as best as I could, keeping an eye out for the white and black stuff sack that held my sleeping bag. Maybe I would get lucky. Maybe it had fallen off recently and I wouldn’t have to back track far. Maybe? Yeah right.
Wait. What was that sound?
ATVs. Three. They came from the direction I should have been heading. I stopped the leader and explained my situation.
“Your sleeping bag?”
“Yeah, I lost it on a rough section of the road but didn’t realize it until a few minutes ago. Can you just keep an eye out for it? If you see it, just set it on the road or if you’re heading back just bring it?”
“Well, I suppose. Which road did you say you came down?”
“There’s a turn just a couple hundred yards from here. I came down the road on the right.”
“Oh, well we are going to the left. Sorry.”
The older guy, mid fifties, pulled away without so much as a goodbye. The next two ATVs followed his lead and their occupants didn’t say anything as they passed and then disappeared over the next hill.
They went on, not wanting to help, not even caring. This was the first time I had asked for help and had not received it. It wasn’t that I had expected them to go out of their way to help me, but a little compassion and empathy would have gone much further than they did. They had had no idea the effort it would take me to backtrack to find something they could retrieve in a few minutes. I hated those ridiculous side-by-side, bench seat ATVs. They didn’t look all-terrain with their small wheels and low ground clearance. Probably modified for a ranch. A tourist ranch. That would explain the kids in the trio. I had probably ran into a family on vacation, out to see the countryside so the parents could instill good values and such in their children, like avoiding weird cyclists in the middle of nowhere.