If you have been to the summit of Mount Evans, words are not needed. If you have not been, words won’t help.
Ever since I was a child, Mt. Evans has exercised an irresistible pull. Especially since I learned to drive, I have motored up the highest paved mountain road in North America at least once a summer.
Looking down from the Summit Lake overlook last Monday, the higher of the two Chicago Lakes below was a deep blue. The lower of the two lakes was shining white, reflecting the clouds above. The “Black Wall” was as steep, rocky, dangerous, alluring and overwhelming as always. All around, the difference from my childhood was the number of languages heard. Word has gotten out. Mt. Evans now exercises an irresistible pull on people from all over the world. They stare in amazement, scampering high above on the hiking trails to give eternity to the experience.
I have always felt that rain or snow added a visceral touch to the omnipresent mercy of G-d — He is touching us, so to speak, when it rains or snows. The touch last Monday was in a form I have never seen or felt before: small, very soft, caressing pebbles of hail. Neither cold nor heavy, they were neither rain nor snow. They fell equally upon humans and the mountain goats and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, roaming wild. Add to this the sun shining through the hail, the tiny yellow, red and green wildflowers, the fullness of Summit Lake, having absorbed all the melted snow from the summit of Mt. Evans all summer long — oh yes, and this too: the utterly pure, transparent waters in the lake — and you might understand why I have always considered a visit to Mt. Evans a religious experience.
I give that a modern twist by trying to call friends or family from this spot of beauty and holiness. Sometimes my cell phone gets through from this elevated, isolated spot that feels like the top of the world; sometimes it does not. Last Monday it did, but all I reached were message machines. The only message I could leave was one word: breathtaking.
Religious philosophers speak of living on the “edge.” If this is part and parcel of the religious experience, then certainly a visit to Mt. Evans qualifies. The edge of the road up the mountain requires caution, courage and faith. One drives along the edge of 3,000-foot, perpendicular, unadorned rocky cliffs beneath the narrow road, absent side rails.
Instinctively, I want to hug the side of the road near the mountain, as far as possible from these dangerous edges, but the road’s winding, blind corners hide the possibility of cars coming from the opposite direction. They themselves hug the mountain, forcing me to stick to my lane, close to the edge.
On the way up to the summit of Mt. Evans, one first passes Echo Lake. Then, a thousand or more feet higher, closer to the summit, one looks down upon Echo Lake, as if from an airplane. First seeing the wide lake laid out before you, in its shimmering horizontal expanse, then a few moments later seeing it entire as a small circle below, gives you a sense of power over nature. That is the reciprocity of the religious experience: One is overwhelmed, dwarfed, humbled by the mountain and its beauty. At the same time, one is enlarged and energized amidst this confluence of height, water, rock, flower and animal; of grandeur in all its forms, alive and inanimate.
Long ago, before daylight savings time was instituted, I camped overnight with Kenny Lichtenstein alongside the lower of the two Chicago Lakes. From that vantage point, we saw the waters from the higher of the two Chicago Lakes falling into the lower lake below.
Looking high, past that waterfall, we saw the summit of Mt. Evans in the distance. From afar, it exercises the same pull, conveying the same beauty from an entirely different vantage point. Mt. Evans and its surroundings are like a diamond bodying forth its infinite shafts of light depending on how you turn it. In those times before daylight savings time, the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. I still remember the instant power and glory and multi-colored refraction of that first shaft of sunlight coming between the clefts.
I remember how we hiked up from the lower of the Chicago Lakes in a different direction, not visible from the summit of Mt. Evans, and discovered still another lake, small, pristine, transparent, unvisited, alone. We called it Quiet Lake.
One does not forget these things.
Still, I have violated my stricture by offering words for the inexpressible.
Test me. If you have never gone to Mt. Evans, try it. Live on the edge.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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