By Kathy Berken
Earlier this summer while camping with my family at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo, Wis., I decided to join the younger folks and hike to the top of the East Bluff. “It’s a short trail,” my son Aaron said, “less than half a mile.” Yes, but we’re climbing giant rocks, straight up!
After half an hour of regular hiking, we started up the rocky bluff in the hot sun. One rock by one rock, I climbed the narrow path, with no railing, just uneven, 6- to 12-inch high quartzite steps. Not a trip for the faint of heart, I was determined to keep going.
Aaron, his wife Sarah and their two oldest, 11-year-old Isaac and 9-year-old Anna, all started with me. But as I stopped periodically to let more able climbers pass, only Aaron stayed behind with me. Granted, I’m a cyclist, and we’ve been doing a lot of walking, but climbing steep rocks in the hot sun is slightly more daunting.
After a short rest and some food, I felt like the kid who keeps asking, “Are we there yet?” I couldn’t see the top. The higher I climbed, I felt emotionally unable to even look behind because I feared losing my footing and disastrously tumbling down the bluff. I told Aaron, and always the humorist, he said, “The rocks would stop you eventually.” Thanks.
What felt unnatural was the way you have to lean so far forward as you constantly judge where each of your feet needs to be planted on the next rock. Yes, losing your foothold could be fatal.
Then it happened. I took that next step with my right foot and as I lifted my left leg, the tip of my shoe caught on the rock. Immediately feeling off balance, I instinctively lunged forward and fell flat onto the rocky surface, my toe still caught on the rock. Well, that was awkward. Sprawled out, I realized I was blocking the path. Thank God, nothing was broken, but I felt random pains in my shoulder, hand, chest and foot. I looked up and a stranger asked if I wanted some water. Grateful, I declined: “Thanks, I’ve got some.” She was willing to give me her precious water. But I did reach out and pet her friendly-looking dog, which helped.
Although bruised and covered with pebbly black dirt, I assessed that I was still able to climb, so we kept going and finally met up with the rest of the family at the top. There was only one other way down, and about half as dangerous. Although I still judged each rock on the descent, I didn’t see the dirt on one step, so I slipped and fell again, sideways, using my forearm to stop me, which produced a lovely, painful contusion.
We got to the bottom but not without stopping to just gaze at the tops of the trees and the bright sun glinting off the rocks. This is so worth it! Even if it took four hours! Later at camp, I discovered a seriously bruised and swollen left toe, leaving me limping for the rest of the day, so I sat by the campfire while my family brought me required medical items such as an ice pack and another beer.
You know, I was in the presence of God the whole time. I was with my family. A stranger offered me some of her precious water. Aaron’s sense of humor, attentiveness and food helped me do the climb. Sarah took the necessary photos to prove that we actually did this. And, after I lamented how this old lady might not be doing any rock climbing for awhile, Isaac said, “You’re in better shape than any 68-year-old woman I know.” I reminded him he’s my favorite grandson, whereupon he deadpanned, “I’m your only grandson, Grandma.” “Yes, I know,” I said, “but you did hear that I used the word ‘favorite,’ right?” He smiled, “Yeah.”
What a holy day that was!
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)