There was a moment of decision at the beginning of the day which shaped everything that came after. It was a simple wooden sign pointing down two different possible paths through the Devil’s Garden in Arches National park. We hadn’t done much research on the trail, so confronted with this sign we made a decision almost whimfully. “This way.” Link said with a swing of his arm. The rest of us shrugged and followed.
It was a long low trail with a sandy path. If not for the sand shifting under our feet, the walk would have been easy. It was still pleasant though tiring for legs and feet. I noticed how the earlier rain had not soaked in past the top layer of sand. Each footprint broke through this wet layer into the dry sand underneath.
We kept walking, exclaiming at discovered pools of water in hollows of rock, or admiring the huge fins of rock that drew closer and then surrounded us. The landscape was desert, but beautiful.
Then we met a couple coming the other way. They told us that up ahead was a steep scrabble across a slickrock boulder. Even the name slickrock sounded a bit ominous. The woman hadn’t felt confident about it, so they’d turned back. Something in their words implied that this one steep spot was the hard part of the trip and if only they’d gotten past it, they could have had the rest of a pleasant hike. We rounded a curve of rock to see this steep place. A group was ahead of us and we watched an older woman with two walking sticks make the traverse with the help of her family members. If she can do it, so can we. It was the unspoken thought in all our heads. If we could only get past this one hard part, we could complete our lovely hike. Besides, we’d already been walking for an hour. It seemed better, easier even, to climb over the hard place and continue.
The spot was more than just steep. It was narrow and there was a slope down to a crevasse. It was simultaneously a simple place to cross and a dangerous one. Confident steps carried one across and up in less than thirty seconds. Howard helped three of the kids to the top and told them to wait. Link does not walk confidently, not over slickrock. Howard and I climbed with Link, one in front, one behind. It was a frightening walk with Link who does not like heights, who out weighs me, who sometimes freezes up when faced with a challenge. It was scary coaxing him up, but we succeeded.
We continued on our way, feeling glad that the hardest part was behind us. It wasn’t. We were one hour into a hike that would take another hour and a half to complete. That remaining ninety minutes was made out of scrambling up slopes, down slopes, looking for stacks of rocks to tell us we were still on the trail, and several ridge crossings where we had to walk along the top of the ridge with drops on both sides. Both Link and Howard suffer from vertigo. Our Gleek loved it all, so did Kiki, I would have loved it too, except I knew that Link was frequently scared and/or miserable. The fatigue grew until all the kids were asking to just go back to the car. Faced with each new challenge, we kept urging them forward because no matter what unknown lay ahead, it was still surely the fastest way to be done with the hike. Every challenge complete became one more argument for continuing onward. We didn’t want to face those things again. Particularly not that narrow passage of slickrock.
Oh, and periodically a squall would pass over us making everything cold and wet. Sometimes the wind would blow just as we had to cross a high ridge.
We kept going, even though we sometimes wanted to cry, even though our legs began to feel like jello, even though we doubted we could make it. There really wasn’t any other option. The only way out was through.
As the day wore on, Link learned to keep going despite the rough terrain. He stopped freezing up and began to find his own paths, the safest ones he could identify. We were a very tired set of hikers when we scrambled down that last ridge to the flat trail with the wooden sign post. I looked at the post and realized that had we gone the other way, we would have been just ten minutes into the hike when confronted with the first ridge walk. With only ten minutes to lose, we would have turned and gone back. The day would have been very different.
That hike through Devil’s Garden was hard. I would never have chosen to subject my kids to that level of difficulty. I spent most of the drive back to our condo picturing the many ways that various traverses could have ended in disaster. But they didn’t. Instead we have a shared memory of struggling and overcoming. We got to see places, like Private Arch, which simply can not be seen any other way. I still remember rounding the corner to Private Arch and having it appear right in front of us. We were the only ones there and peace filled us.
It felt like a sanctified place to us, the farthest point on the long hike. It was a place we could never see without struggling first. We sat there for a long time. When we finally left, Gleek said “I need to come back here again sometime.” I agreed.
I think about the Devil’s Garden hike when I meet someone at the beginning of a journey that I know will be hard. It may be a person embarking on graduate school, or a residency, or a dream to become a published writer. Even if they are aware that there is struggle ahead, it is impossible for them to know how difficult. If it is a path I have walked, I want to warn them, tell them that maybe they want a different path. Part of my heart wants to save others from pain and struggle. I have to remember that if I do, I also take away the potential for triumph. The only way to get to Private Arch is by climbing through some scary places.
We met others on the path as we walked, they were headed where we’d already been. Sometimes they asked us about the trail. We were honest about the difficulty, gave ideas about how to handle it if they chose to proceed, and told them how beautiful it all was. We told them to follow the trail markers and keep going. We added to those trail markers as we hiked.
Some day I’ll hike that Devil’s Garden trail again. It will be hard again, but just because something is hard doesn’t mean I should avoid it.