A Fictional Account
Written By Erick James Conard
Ruidoso, New Mexico
I'm not sure why I agreed to attend my father's family reunion. My parents' giddy excitement, always infectious, made a trip to the mountains near Ruidoso, New Mexico, seem like a great idea. Away from my parents, sanity returned. My dad's family was a diverse lot ranging from white trash through affluent politician - all equally opinionated with quick tempers. Shivers of apprehension shot up my spine as I thought about spending the week with that bunch. As a child I'd learned safety came only by dissembling, so telling my parents I was struggling with a major life decision and desperately wanted time by myself never occurred to me. I'd promised them I'd go, so I went.
The week passed slowly. At breakfast on our last full day at Ruidoso, I smiled and laughed, hoping my forced optimism could keep me out of the family's explosive public bickering. Old wounds were creating new fights. After breakfast, emotional armor engaged, I walked with my parents to the assigned departure location for our last family day trip - a day at Goose Lake.
Uncle Bob, who'd only made it through the eighth grade, pointed to his old pick-up filled with younger teenage cousins. "Hop in the back, Rick," he ordered with a smile.
As I climbed in the back Uncle Bob said to my brother, "Not there, Frank. You join me and your dad in the cab." Shaking my head in sad acceptance, I thought, "No surprise there!" I was twenty eight and my brother was twenty nine but no matter how old I became Uncle Bob always favored my brother. I knew that would never change.
Road to Goose Lake
Road to Goose Lake
View at Goose Lake
Cliff face at Goose Lake
Jimmy Joe did most of the talking. I listened, outwardly polite and interested. He became animated as he talked about his high school football career, his job as a wild game hunting guide, and skills he used deep in the back country. "Why does he care what I think?" I wondered. "He didn't care at all when we were kids. What's different now?" He seemed small… dependent… insecure.
Goose Lake looking toward base of the cliff face
Near the cliff's base, some distance from the group, I began talking, forcefully interjecting my own unimportant stories, shutting his stories down. I wanted to escape the intense emotions I felt surging upward with each word he spoke. I mentioned I loved to climb cliffs, something I did occasionally, and the subtle changes rippling across his masculine face clearly said he didn't.
"I'm fine right here," he replied, as we turned to look at the afternoon sun sparkling across the smooth surface of the lake. "Isn't this place great?" With complete clarity I realized Jimmy Joe was afraid of heights. A sadistic revenge fantasy raced through my mind and sent intense electrical explosions shooting across my body.
"I'm going up there," I said, pointing to a ledge 15 feet above. "With your experience as a wild game guide, I'm sure you could easily climb that." My manipulation was so obvious! Surely he wouldn't take the bait!
"You're doing great!" I said, sitting on the ledge, feeling somewhat ashamed. Watching him clumsily climb toward me up the easy cliff face, I felt both sympathy and scorn. "You'll like the view much better from here!"
Legs trembling, Jimmy Joe awkwardly reached the ledge, his face pale, his lips outlined with sweat. Cautiously, he moved back against the cliff face, warming stone. A confusing mixture of compassion and disdain danced around my thoughts. For several minutes the intensity of our separate feelings silenced us both.
"Let's go up higher!" I suggested at last, still able to sadistically enjoy his discomfort, remembering how cruelly he had humiliated me when we were children.
"This is high enough," he responded, his voice quavering slightly. "My knees aren't what they used to be. It's those old football injuries. Let's not go any higher, OK?" His voice clearly was saying, "Please!" His weakness irritated and embarrassed me.
"You're not afraid, are you?" I asked, skirting the bounds of civility, barely hiding my scorn.
I began climbing again. Jimmy Joe followed sheepishly. He stopped after only a few feet and said, "No, I'm going down."
"Suit yourself," I responded. Shakily, he moved down a step. Turning awkwardly, he called up to me, saying, "Be careful," then slowly started down again. His concern confused me.
Feeling ashamed, I silently continued moving up the cliff. On a lonely ledge about fifty feet above the ground I watched Jimmy Joe walk back toward the rest of the family, growing smaller and seeming less real as he moved away. For a moment, I felt oddly comforted by being as alone physically as I felt emotionally.
When feelings became unbearable, I stuffed them deep inside and made them disappear. I sat on the ledge stuffing feelings; in no time I felt absolutely nothing at all. Emotionally detached, I watched my family standing together on the other side of Goose Lake. Without reason or thought, I looked up and began climbing again.
Reality returned as the cliff face became smoother, offering fewer and fewer hand and foot holds. I'd climbed too high to go down; I felt scared at the thought. It felt too much like my life. My body was weakening. The holds were too small and unreliable to attempt the more difficult backward climb. Besides, I'd have to face Jimmy Joe, and I couldn't bear losing to him yet again. I continued upward.
Fatigue became a real problem. My muscles stiffened, making movement awkward and unsafe. My legs tightened; my arms and hands weakened. Looking up, hoping for the end, I saw only more cliff face, fewer holds. There was nowhere to stop, to rest. "What am I doing here?" I thought, approaching total exhaustion. "How could I have been so stupid?" Chilly gusts of wind struck me, lightly leaving icy messages of disaster in my cold and stiffening body.
I climbed mechanically, shaking slightly with exhaustion, looking neither up nor down, praying for the climb to end soon before I could climb no more. The stone handholds became increasingly fragile, slowly aged to weakness by invasive ice and penetrating wind on the high face of the cliff. Some of my holds unexpectedly broke from the cliff face, freeing my hand, releasing my foot. Quickly shifting from hold to hold, I realized how vulnerable I was, how fragile my life.
Things worsened. Each small protuberance I grasped or set a foot on held only a few seconds before shearing off, falling, tumbling and bouncing down the hard cliff face, making sharp sounds as they fell. The wind buffeted my weakened aching body. I worked fervently to keep three body points on the cliff face. The brittle rocks broke away so quickly I was lucky to keep two. My holds lasted only moments; I moved without a plan. Rocks fell around and below me like thick rain.
"I'm not going to make it," I thought, arms and legs shaking with exhaustion. "Please, God. Please let the top be near."
Nearing total exhaustion, I looked up. Shock and fear hit my body in waves. Above me, the cliff face curved gracefully out far over my head; even with good rock I couldn't hold on at that angle. Even so, I continued upward, rocks leaping away from the cliff wall, falling forever.
Sometime, time stands still. This moment was my time. Realizing these were probably the last few seconds of my life and the choice was completely in God's hands, total calmness enveloped me. I felt relieved that the choice wasn't mine. I saw it never had been. With crystal clarity I knew I couldn't escape the life God had chosen for me, including its end. I felt incredibly free with this realization.
"Your will, not mine, God." I declared in total acceptance, prepared without reservation to accept His will even if that choice was my immediate death. As the rocks crumbled under my hands and feet and the mountain leaned out above me, I gave everything to God, everything, without reservation, without protest, and, most importantly, without asking that my will be done, without asking to live. I was completely unafraid, without concern, without worry. Prepared to fall from the face of that mountain without a single sound of protest, I saw myself losing all my holds on the cliff's face, falling backwards, out, and down, falling gracefully, without a struggle. Feeling triumphant, joyful, and filled with love, I saw myself falling through the mist into the waiting hands of God.
Time moved again. As if directed, I looked to the right. I saw my path to the top, clearly marked by a golden glow emanating from otherwise ordinary-looking rocks protruding from the cliff face. In that one glance, I knew every move required to reach the top. I knew where to place my hands and where to place my feet, following each glowing rock in its proper order, secure as each golden hold held firmly to the cliff wall. In thirty feet, I reached the top. Looking back and down, I was surprised to see only ordinary rocks along the cliff face.
Legs shaking and moving awkwardly, I walked to a stone ledge and sat, warming stone at the top of the cliff as I looked across Goose Lake, my face pale, my lips outlined with sweat. Two hikers approached, saying "Isn't this trail great! Wonderful views!" They moved along the broad trail meandering across the top of the cliff, my easy path down. In amazement I gratefully remembered the glowing golden pathway to the top of the mountain. With new clarity, I realized my life's path is unmarked but just as certain, waiting for me to discover one hidden step at a time, trusting that my path will be made clear whenever truly necessary.
Goose Lake from the top of the cliffs
(Note how tiny the cars are in the parking lot.)
Trail down from cliff at Goose Lake