A Walk in the Clouds

Bandelier National Monument. Home of the cliff dwellers. Destination of a teenage writers’ group. Excursion that will soon be etched into memory. It turns out that of all the national parks in the US, this is the one most like “Chutes and Ladders.” I was expecting a certain amount of hiking and sweating and altitude sickness, but what I wasn’t counting on was the near-vertical ladders that extended so far they took me back to the 1980’s.

But let me pause to paint this picture more accurately.

It’s June. 90 degrees. 6000 feet. (Now might be a good time to mention that I’m a South Carolina native.) There are twenty-three teenagers in our group who are in various states of physical fitness and awareness. Some see the big picture. Some see only twelve inches in front of them. Some climb like mountain goats. Some more like tortoises. I’m somewhere in between, so I didn’t think this would be all that difficult. A sign said we were about to climb 140 feet of ladders, and ordinarily I might have had Indiana Jones-style visions that would make my heart pound––but on this day my heart was pounding for different reasons.

Probably due to 1) the fact that no amount of jogging 100 feet above sea level can prepare you for hiking at an altitude of 6000 feet, 2) my newly discovered allergy to something in New Mexico (Cottonwood? Juniper? Dirt?) that had quickly become a sinus infection, and 3) the realization that the only way back down this sheer rock face was the same way I was going up—but backwards.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of heights, but it was easy to envision myself slipping on a rung, falling on my head onto the rock below, and taking out a couple of other tourists along the way. In my mind, it was a little like “Donkey Kong” without the barrels. And no do-overs. I hugged the rungs and went up last, sweeping the rest of the group. It seemed like an hour had passed by the time I got to the top, where the rest of our girls were exploring the cave, bouncing around like they were made of rubber, unfazed by how far they were from the rest of the earth.

I’d hoped they would move slowly up the ladders—mainly so I could move slowly and not lose face. But no dice: they were all about the destination. Journey was too old school. “Isn’t that some band from the 80’s?” they said.

You know those people that tell you not to look down? They’re right about half the time. This was one of those times.

By the time I caught my breath, the group was ready to go back down. They looked down at the crumbling boulders and scrub brush below. Way below. And then they took their time, which meant my heart got to beat at normal speed. Some of the girls were hugging the ladder just as I had on the way up, suddenly aware that sometimes the trip home is the hardest. They chose their steps carefully, their knuckles white, and one of them kept telling stories to take their minds off the sheer drop to the earth below.

Being a leader of a group like this separates you in some respects—it allows you to be an observer of everyone—the dynamics that change daily and those that haven’t changed at all since you were their age. But it also reminds you that you’re not one of them—you’re separated by years and experience, but also by something like authority. You’re friendly, but you’re not friends. You sometimes have to be the bad guy and keep them in bounds, and no matter how close your orbit, you will always be an outsider. But you are constantly watching to make sure that no one else in the group is sharing your experience—not one of them should be feeling excluded the way you are.

So I was glad to hear the girls begin cheering each other on—coaxing each other down one rung at a time, with no more worry of who got to the finish line first. Maybe the thrill of getting to the top had worn off. Maybe they were tired. But part of me thinks it was something else.

Thus far, our typical pattern was this: they scurry ahead, led by short attention spans; I follow behind, more or less like a sheepdog to see that no one gets lost, breaks an ankle, or falls into a hole. I’m a fixture—one they wouldn’t notice was missing until it was time to drive home or eat a meal. But today, they stop at the base of the ladder, and I realize as I am backing down, that they are cheering for me, too. They are not scurrying to the next ladder, rushing towards the bottom. They are waiting for the herder. I smile to myself as they offer their words of encouragement, and it’s not as bad as I thought backing down. My heart pounds a little less, and I don’t picture myself crashing to the earth, leaving a Lauren-shaped crater like Wile E. Coyote. Their voices are close, and the earth is closer. And when they sing that Journey song that I have always hated, I laugh to myself, and feel a little less like an outsider—a feeling at 31 that I wish I’d felt when I was their age. I smile, proud that they have found this place, and that they didn’t need the herder to point them to it.

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