And I have no more pleasure in hearing a man attempting wit and failing, than in seeing a man trying to leap over a ditch and tumbling into it. — Samuel Johnson
As men are debauched from within, so too is the town of Las Vegas. At its core, no small number of licentious deeds dwell. Vegas, though rotten at the core, is surrounded on all sides by barren mountain ranges, which add a glory to the outer edges. These mountains look like large boulders placed by some giant. By day they are a bright brown, nearly reflecting the ever-present sun. Frenchman Mountain triumphs over the east side of town, a tree-less rock, rising four thousand feet above the raging Pacific and two thousand above the Valley. But to the west truer, taller mountain ranges tower over our town—the Rainbow Mountain Wilderness and the Le Madre Mountain Wilderness, home to the Spring Mountains and Nevada’s eighth tallest peak, Mt. Charleston, first scaled by explorer John C. Fremont.
Due to their barrenness, these mountains are prettiest at dawn and dusk. When that sun has just finished his day’s course, Frenchmen Mountain is set on fire and looks nearly like a fat match, its tip a reddish hue and its base still tan. When the sun fully sets, all the mountains turn on their nightlights, blazing blue and turquoise. One may just consider them to be great frozen tidal waves stopped by the hand of Our Lord, only to be loosed once His patience in our debauchery has flowed over into the cup of His wrath.
The air was crisp and cool at eight thousand feet, and though temperatures would rise into the triple digits in the Valley, my companion and I braced the fifty-degree weather as we began our hike to Mt. Charleston’s peak. To my knowledge, there are four ways to the top. One might take the shortest route by first ascending Griffith Peak, a five-mile trail that climbs roughly 2,500 feet, before connecting with the South Loop Trail, climbing another thousand feet to the summit. Naturally, we ventured to take this path, but due to forest fires from over two years prior, the trails were closed. The individuals who wish to reach Charleston’s peak today must choose to take Trail Canyon, a two-mile trail that ends at Cockscomb Ridge and conjoins with North Loop Trail. From that junction, one has over six miles and fifteen hundred feet in elevation, braving switchbacks, winding along canyon walls, before the intense final climb up Charleston’s peak. Most take this eight-mile route to the top. Only an idiot would decide to take the entirety of the ten-mile North Loop Trail, in which four total miles of switchbacks up and around Kyle Canyon are added to the hike. If a man is not conditioned to mountain climbing, he is a fool to take such a route, certainly the longest, if not that hardest, to the top.
At 8,400 feet we began our ascent at the start of the North Loop Trail. “I hiked Pike’s Peak,” I said. “The elevation there is far worse—thinner air,” I continued as if I had been born in a mountain cabin and not a Kansas City hospital. “Once we get out of the tree-line, you’ll see the top and, psychologically, it’s much easier.” “The way back is really a joy—all downhill. Takes half the time.” And so on and so forth I spoke as a blind guide to the blind.
Our spirits were truly quite optimistic. We had our provisions. We had our food. Two bottles of beer, two pipes and smoking-tobacco, carrots, chocolate chip muffins, lemon muffins, sandwiches, granola bars, fried kale, and, of course, four large bottles of water. Nothing could stop us.
The first two miles of this hike are an intense ascent, which is nothing but switchbacks. “This will be the hardest part, getting up, out of the trees,” I said as if I were John C. Fremont himself. At various points we came to clearings, where we could take a gander at the terrain. At this point, we saw two prominent peaks; surely one of those was it. Another hiker, who seemed to cover five yards with each stride, passed us, and asking him how long it was to the top, he gave us a perplexed look yet left us with the notion that the trail was ten miles total. Thus encouraged, we continued on until we covered the first two miles, and the trail began leveling off, wrapping itself around the two peaks earlier spotted.
Kyle Canyon is full of pine, aspen, and Mountain Mahogany. Across the canyon two other prominent peaks towered, one fully clothed in the green of the Bristlecone Pine, the other a bald peak, which looked much like an old man’s bumpy head. We stopped and ate a muffin while sitting on a log, overlooking the canyon. Our path began to descend rather steeply, again crossing back-and-forth through switchbacks and leading away from what we had believed was our peak. Two men crossed our path, one telling us we had eleven miles to go. We were, nevertheless, full of the youthful spirit of optimism that will, at times, lead a man to continue in ignorance. When on is descending, as we were, it is easy to be deceived; it is easy to believe the whole trail of life will be one downward motion.
We, at least, made it to Cockscomb Ridge and the junction with Trail Canyon. Seeing that he had already made it four miles, we continued on, seeing a sign that declared we had six to go. What is six miles more to two young, spritely men?
After this junction, the North Loop Trail takes a nasty turn. The mere scent of switchbacks sent shivers through our weary skeletons. We were deceived at just how much energy was exerted on the way down the canyon, and after what was probably a mile of upward switchbacks, I began to question my initial judgment of this might mountain range.
We stopped and supped on another log, eating sandwiches and carrots, foolishly drinking too much water. If one does make it up this series of switchbacks, he is rewarded with a relatively level two-mile journey along the edge of rocky canyon cliffs. Though there is little ascent overall, the terrain is nearly more difficult because one is walking on loose rocks, and the whole path is characterized by little dips, dives, and dells, which do wonders to the hipbone. Firmly convinced our initial peaks were falsely identified, we met a man, who had measured the distance with his phone and confirmed that we couldn’t see the peak, but we had four miles to go. Here a certain dismay began to overtake us. Perhaps due to my general distrust in the accuracy of phones and the goddess Surrey, or perhaps due to my insane pride, we yet sauntered on, slacking in our pace with each dip, dive, and dell.
That man, when he sees the end of his desires, is the more encouraged to press on to that end, is a truth that cannot be applied to hiking a mountain. We saw it. Mt. Charleston’s peak. We had seen it, for he was the bald-headed peak we had seen before—the peak that, if we had known it at the time, would have sent us to our knees in worship. There he was: Three mountain-miles away. With my binoculars I could clearly see the path that wound around his limestone and dolomite rock. And though we had our end in clear view, we saw that our path angled to the right and again ascended switchbacks for a quarter of a mile. Dismayed at such a prospect, we further recognized that we were nearly out of water, and with heavy hearts, we turned our backs to that mighty, bumpy, bald-headed peak and made our way back to Kyle Canyon.
The way back took longer. By the time we began our descent back down the canyon, we had been out of water for nearly a mile. We munched on carrots for sustenance, and I feigned optimism. As we made our way down to Cockscomb Ridge, our spirits once again picked up; we nearly sang with joy at the mere prospect of heading downhill again. Much like Shadow, that noble dog from Homeward Bound, I proclaimed that we just “had to make it over that little ridge we had descended earlier,” and then we would have it all downhill from there. Little did we know that our memories of the initial entry into Kyle Canyon were blurred at best, for a two-mile upward hike awaited us.
We made it nearly a mile, but the lack of water was beginning to take its toll. As if leading a horse, I fed my companion carrots and attempted to remain positive, fearful of any fatal fainting. Beginning to grow dismayed, I soon wondered if we would ever make it to the top of the canyon. I then, with what energy that was left in me, grabbed both packs and ventured forth—“I will come back with water,” I said and bounded away like a wounded wood-elf.
Whether the sinking sun illumined their faces, or whether it was the glory of Our Lord who shone through them, I met two angelic beings, who, after much bewilderment, graciously emptied their camelbacks, and gave us two plums. As we conversed and blessed these two heavenly beings, two other weary travelers approached from behind. They too had tried the North Loop. They too had failed. But they failed with enough water for three, and I gladly took an offered bottle.
My compatriot and I thus continued up the canyon with a brighter outlook on life. When we finally began our two-mile descent, our spirits were nearly so high we could sing. I will, nevertheless, not forget how much longer those two miles were going down than they were going up that morning. And thus is the way of life. In the sheer novelty of a task, we begin with a vigor and energy that overcomes its difficulty, but familiarity breeds toil. May we scale our daily mountains with the novelty of seeing each sunrise as the first to beget the world and each sunset as the first last call to drink of that Living Water which sees us through the dark valley of Night.
Written and Transcribed at The Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada,
Saturday, August 29, 2015
Painting: “A Mountainous Landscape”
By John Glover,
Oil on canvas, n.d.