I doubt you would be surprised if I told you the most powerful moment I experienced while backpacking in the Wind River mountains occurred near the top of Kagevah Pass. It is only—perhaps fundamentally—human to be moved by mountain majesties. Even someone who has never climbed a mountain can imagine the stupendous experience. I can’t deny that the summit my group and I reached was breathtakingly beautiful. But for me, pure wonder came a couple hundred feet lower, when I fell down the pass.
I was about halfway through my 21-day wilderness expedition with Wyoming Catholic College. Having spent over a week in the Wind River mountains getting lost, crossing rivers, and watching the stars, my group was comfortable enough to appreciate the simple pleasures of the backcountry and function well as a team. Our first peak attempt had culminated less than 1,000 feet from the summit due to an incoming storm.
We enjoyed a long break at the top of the pass, which was itself the height of a small mountain. Gorgeous views, chilly, refreshing wind, and exhilarating height made up for a lot of the pain it took to reach our summit, but the path down was steep, rocky, and unclear. As we wound slowly down the trail, I was blind to the clear blue sky above and the broad, shimmering lakes beneath. Rocks under my feet, rocks to my right and left, all the same, gray and monotonous, and I couldn’t look up without losing my balance. A few tiny pikas darted around; I idly envied their carefree agility. And then something shifted.
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It was the ground. Before I even realized that my tired feet had slipped, my vision tilted dramatically and all before me was dark speckled rock. Jagged points flashed before my eyes and then I was facing the lake below. And then the rocks again. I was rolling down Kagevah Pass.
My feet and hands searched desperately for something to hold on to, grasping and slipping in rapid succession. I cried out, realizing the danger of my situation and the futility of my resistance to gravity. I remember expecting my life would flash before my eyes—it didn’t. I remember humiliation for stumbling. I remember wild wonderings about my family’s reaction, hearing how I met my end.
But I didn’t meet my end. As quickly as the fall began, it was over. My backpack, the tiresome burden of the first part of the day, the last thing I ever thought I would be grateful for, stopped my descent. I lay on my belly catching my breath, four or five feet down from the trail. A breeze like a calm, satisfied sigh swept down from the peak. The sun shone down bright and tranquil through the blue dome of the sky, and I basked on the warm rocks for a moment; just a hapless, comical turtle—moving slowly, carrying all I needed on my back, and somehow saved from an untimely demise by my cumbersome shell.
From that moment on, little thrills would rush over me whenever I put a foot down. Surrounded by the beauty of nature, my stubborn soul could only be moved by a disaster. My world was no longer safe; in the raw power of basic physics and a rocky path, I found a formidable match for my strength and confidence.
Kagevah conquered me and I fell to a deep understanding of human nature: true wonder must include a wild streak of fear. Open-minded curiosity at starting off on a mountain journey or awe at the beauty of a sparkling stream along the way can only lay the foundation for wonder. The crucial element is fear—hearing a thunderstorm move closer; losing the way back from your tent in the dark; or realizing that your feet are no longer on steady ground. Kagevah conquered me and I fell to a deep understanding of human nature: true wonder must include a wild streak of fear. Tweet This
As rational animals, our two basic reactions are curiosity and fear, and the balance between the two is wonder. Try to imagine a child’s first experience with fire. Curiosity moves him to touch the dancing flames of a stove, and he gets burned. He recoils and avoids it for a few days, or a few minutes. But inevitably he comes back to it. Because after being drawn in by fire’s beauty, or power, or unfamiliarity, after experiencing the visceral fear of realizing that it has the power to injure him, he can wonder at it.
That experience continues, driven by that same curiosity and fear that causes a nine-year-old to light a match and gaze at the power he holds in his hands, nervously blowing it out as the fire consumes the twig and threatens his fingertips. And the wonder remains through the roller coaster of adulthood. You can see it in the way friends instinctively gather around a roaring bonfire, or the way a fireplace becomes the center of a family’s home. You see, the beauty of fires is that they essentially evoke curiosity, which morphs into fear, which settles into the equilibrium of wonder.
The Wyoming Catholic College class of 2027 will soon be returning to campus from their own iteration of the 21-day trip, seeking out that tantalizing, fleeting wonder that we are designed to crave. But how easy it is to slide off that crest of wonder into abysmal apathy! We seek it out by dabbling in the beautiful or the shocking in our daily lives—a painting of a sunset; a poignant novel; a horror movie; a stirring symphony. We want to be stupefied, moved, and changed. But nothing ever fully satisfies us—the fear fades away, the unfamiliar becomes routine, and we are reminded over and over that all good things must come to an end.
One day, even Kagevah Peak may be broken down by the passage of time. The world, with all its raging floods, glorious mountains, tiny fragile flowers, and clumsy turtles, is marred by the threat of its own end. Our deepest desire can never actually be satisfied. We are left turning over every stone to find something that, for all intents and purposes, does not exist: eternity.
We want so desperately to be free of time. Perhaps if we were given something to be curious about, to fear gazing upon, and infinity in which to do all that, could we be happy? If I found out, I would not be able to tell you. But for now, I am left with a brief experience of the power of nature, my vague memory of fear, and what may have been a glimpse of eternity.