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Big Zig Zag Canyon


Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed hiking. Where I grew up, in Northeastern Ohio, woods, fields, streams and hills provided the typical backdrop. I still cannot deny that every new vista, every turn of the path provides a coursing-through-your-body pleasure…unless of course, the path becomes actually dangerous rather than simply breathtaking. People differ a lot on where that boundary lies between thrilling and insanely stupid. Personally, I find that I get plenty of “adrenaline rushes” simply from being a driver or pedestrian or cyclist. Walking across a fallen log 50 feet above a ravine has never been my idea of a good time. I would, of course, try it if necessary but I wouldn’t enjoy it. On the other hand, speaking in public has always seemed pleasurable although it is definitely nerve-wracking. In any case, it has always seemed to me that there are millions of interesting, beautiful, unique paths, in just America’s own 50 states, that have very little intrinsic danger. All of them are worth pursuing.

I never saw “real” mountains till I visited the West Coast. I hiked a few times on Mt. Ranier with my brothers-in-law. When some of them attended college at Reed in Portland, we decided to take a hike on Mt. Hood in order to take advantage of the clear day. The odd thing about climbing a mounting, at least in the Pacific NW is that often your view of the mountain becomes more and more obscured as you come closer to the parking lot where you begin your journey. By the time you park, you actually possess zero sensory evidence that you are anywhere near a mountain and have to believe it must be there somewhere because of your general orientation in space and because of your belief in social cooperation in providing actual rather than false trails, accurate maps, compasses that more or less work, etc.

Imagine instead that we lived in a society where it was more common to make false trails than real ones; a society where it was more common to publish false maps than real ones; a society where compasses were all digital — and regularly hacked. Would you still bother to try to climb a mountain for pleasure? At the very least, you would build a completely different strategy.

For our actual hike, however, we lived in a society wherein we could generally trust people. We had a map and headed out for what we estimated to be a hike to get us back to the car right before dark. We were not attempting the summit, but it certainly appeared to be a serious hike. We were basically doing a kind of helical partial circumference trek. The scenery began as spruce and pine gradually giving way to more scrub and less forest. Occasionally, we were rewarded with glimpses of the summit. A fair amount of the hike soon consisted of taking zig zag paths up and down small canyons. As we continued these became larger. And larger. And larger. Now our elevation map indeed warned us of “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and “Big Zig Zag Canyon” but we weren’t precisely sure where we were.

As we encountered ever larger canyons, we kept revising our idea about where we were. As we finished one canyon, we would always say, “Well, that must have been Big Zig Zag Canyon, so we must be *here* on the map.” At one point, after just deciding that we had conquered Big Zig Zag Canyon, we emerged from a grove of hemlock to a gaping maw of the mountain. It completely dwarfed anything we had seen before. Obviously, the much lesser giant we had already conquered was only “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and we were only now facing “Big Zig Zag Canyon.” It probably took at least an hour to descend and re-ascend. As those of you who have ever climbed on a mountain know, changing elevation is much like traveling in time. As we descended, the cold frozen ground of winter gave way to the first signs of spring. As we continued our descent, weeds and flowers abound and trees bud and leaf.  At the bottom of the ravine, it felt like a summer day. And, again, on the way up, there was the feeling of time travel compression. We were climbing through weeks of season change in minutes.  At last we reached the top of the trail and looked back at this canyon which would have been much better named “Gargantuan Zig Zag Canyon”! One last look and we turned back to the path into another forests. At the entrance to the forest, I noticed there was a small wooden sign oriented toward people leaving the forest and entering the canyon. Curious, I ventured forth and looked back to read: “Little Zig Zag Canyon.” What!!?? That enormous chasm in the earth was little Zig Zag Canyon?

Up to this point, our hike had been vigorous but not dangerous. However, now a small and subtle danger did present itself. We might be lucky to make it back to the car by dark. We had not bought provisions for an over-night stay. Hiking in the dark is dangerous. And, it gets really cold at night. So, now the question was, could we still cross the next canyon and still get back by dark? We decided we could. We did make it back before dark, but barely. Clearly, “Big” Zig Zag Canyon was a name chosen in a paroxysm of understatement while “Little” Zig Zag Canyon was just a bald-faced lie.

Like it or not, we journey now on spaceship earth. We are traveling together with everyone else on the planet. Neither a single person on the planet nor all of us collectively have a guaranteed comprehensive well thought out plan for how to avoid any one of a number of ecological disasters. Throughout the planet, there are numerous religions and cultures. Getting along with each other is critical, even if many countries did not have nuclear weapons, which we do. To enhance the adrenaline rush, these various countries and cultures and religions are associated with many different languages and stories about how we got to where we are today. Everyone, in other words, has a different map. There are no posted signs. And no-one owns a compass.

I could say, “Fasten Your Seat Belts Folks. We are in for turbulence.” I could say that to bend the spaceship metaphor. But if we think of ourselves as passengers on a plane that someone else, perhaps even someone competent, is piloting, I believe that stance pretty much guarantees that humanity’s day’s are numbered. No, I think a vigorous and potentially dangerous hike is more in order. Sometimes, it will feel as though you are going backwards in time and sometimes forward at lightning speed. Everywhere along the path, you will have to watch your step, even as you take the time to appreciate the beauty still surrounding you. And just when you think you have conquered the biggest challenge we have ever faced, a still larger challenge will appear.

I am hopeful.


panorama of Big Zig Zag Canyon

(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).

Tales from an American Childhood

Author Page on Amazon

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