A Handstand at Delicate Arch

Hikes are usually inspiring for all the expected reasons: the stretch of muscle, the expansion of breath, the delight at the end when the pinnacle is reached and all the hard work is rewarded with nature’s beauty. But sometimes the prize is unbridled and well-earned fear. And a little perspective of the world upside down. Let me explain.

Sunset at famous Delicate Arch, Utah, USA

For my birthday in 2016, I traveled from Salt Lake City where I had attended a conference and then drove three-plus hours to Moab. It took forty minutes to hike the Delicate Arch trail and reach the peak where I was treated to this breathtaking beauty. Its arch sturdy as it curved into the air, and yet still precarious as if a strong wind could push it over the edge and back to dust particles. The veins in the red rock swirled around a basin at its feet, tilted from the sun with dizzying effects. Its very existence and unusual shape formed by time and wind and water and storm.

When I arrived, I took a seat on the sloping slab of earth nearby to cling to the ground, to recover my breath, to chastise myself for my out-of-shape body, and to take in all the breathless nature surrounding me. That’s when I noticed her. A teenage girl in the middle of the arch holding a handstand! A handstand! Upside-down to the world. Showing off her physicality, her courage, her brazenness. I imagined all the scenarios of how she could stumble, her wrist snapping, her body tumbling down the slab and over the edge to the abyss only a few inches away. (And yes, I fancy myself an optimist!)

While I continued to sit, and cling, I pondered that girl and toured a range of emotions. Dismay, fear, amazement. I wanted to warn her, or her parents (where were her parents???) and tell her to just quit it. I wanted to recite Frost’s  poem “Nothing gold can stay” or maybe something funny from Dave Barry like: “Your modern teenager is not about to listen to advice from an old person, defined as a person who remembers when there was no Velcro.” Would the hand-standing girl know of either writer?

Mostly, I wanted to be her, to have the physical strength to hold my body in the air, upside down (there was a time!). Even more than the physical jealousy, I longed for her confidence. No fear, no inner voice warning of all that lay ahead should she fail, no comprehension of the pain she would suffer should she fail to land back on her feet. I wanted to put my wrinkled palms to the earth and see the world upside down, too—as if seeing it right-side-up weren’t satisfying enough. Instead, I clung to my slab of earth, my curved rear-end tucked into a dip in the red stone beneath me.

Then I realized what I possessed that she didn’t. I had accumulated years of experience that would caution against such bravado. I had an inner voice (pessimistic as it might be in this moment!) which understood the consequences of this risk. If I wasn’t going to imperil all to see the world upside down on that mountaintop, what might I do instead? What could I do that this daring teenager couldn’t do? What might I do that would be informed by my trips around the sun and my attempt to understand the nature of being human?

Write. And so I did.


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