Photograph by John Caldwell

The Vertical Cathedral

Words by John Caldwell 

I watch houses, vehicles, paved roads, and other man-made objects fade away as we roll deeper into the Pioneer Mountains. We are headed to a familiar area, but there is something new in the air. Not a single car was sitting at the trailhead upon our arrival. The sound of rushing water overtakes my ears immediately after setting out as we reach a creek crossing. Then it’s the rhythmic crunch of boot soles on dry dirt and gravel. Then it’s the warning shrieks of a marmot of whose territory I was entering. Then it’s the wind kicking up as it blows through the Aspen grove corridor of neon yellow and orange that the trail weaves through. Then it’s more rhythm with boots bumping like tom-tom drums on damp and smooth packed soil. The cares, concerns, and problems of the human world are suspended when I allow myself to embrace this trance of the forest. This kind of mindfulness can be deeply spiritual. It re-charges the batteries of my soul at the very least. Sometimes is comes easily, sometimes it is a struggle. But I have never come back from an experience in the mountain wilderness in which it fails to come at all.

We come out of the aspen groves and lower forests and begin a steep push upward. When hiking a steep pitch you sometimes feel like you are moving slowly and not gaining much ground. But if you stop to turn around you often realize that you’ve come a lot farther than you perceived. And this is an approach in perspective that you can take with you back to the everyday world of human society. The mountains humble us to be thankful of where we are, what we have, and how far we’ve come. So I stop several times while going up this steep hillside to simply take in the views, marvel at the changes, and pull myself as deep into this moment as I can. I am not in a hurry.

Continuing to gain elevation in more ways than one, we cross several sage-covered meadows and walk along the edges of a few rather large rain ponds. The weather had been bright and clear but now the dark greys and blues of storm clouds are painting the sky in kinetic abstract shapes. I always love witnessing the coming of a storm in the mountains. There’s something in the buildup of it that makes me realize how small and insignificant I am in relation to the entire universe. And being highly aware of this is somehow strangely comforting. The temperature is dropping rapidly, the wind begins to bluster, and large drops of pure water straight from the clouds smack the earth with increasing regularity. Thunder rumbles slowly in the distance. I am fully alive.

And then we are on the last push before entering The Vertical Cathedral.  Officially, this area has another name. I like to call this particular basin The Vertical Cathedral because it is a sprawling open area of earth with several plateaus that stair-step up to a saddle with one of the most amazing views one can ever experience. The saddle is the altar and the trail is the nave. Then you have the massive mountain peaks that surround the basin. These peaks are the radiating chapels, arches, buttresses, transepts, and general walls of the cathedral. I am very familiar with Roman, Gothic, and Romanesque cathedrals from my days as an art history major. While having a great appreciation for this kind of architecture, I am not a devout follower of any organized religion. The mountain wilderness will always be the place where I feel most spiritual. The mountain wilderness is my church.

With reverent footsteps we arrive in the first meadow of the basin. The storm that had been building rapidly is now fading out just as quickly. Rays of sunlight and morphing shadows do a dance before my eyes. We continue moving up at an unhurried and methodic pace. The Cathedral is empty and we are reveling in the moment.

But as I come to the top of another rock-strewn rise I am confronted by a massive mountain goat no more than ten yards in front of me. For a few seconds, we are both startled to see each other. I marvel at his coat of the most vivid and brilliant white I think I’ve ever seen. After appraising me for those few seconds, the goat suddenly turns and runs up a steep wall of scree to my right. At fifty or sixty feet up the wall he stops abruptly and turns around to look down on me. The goat now waits for my move. Now that I look back on this moment it seems so clear. The goat was a sentry, a guard, or a clergy member of this church of the wild. And he has personally allowed us entry into this world.

My companions arrive as I continue to stand in the same spot and stare at this majestic animal.  As we continue higher up the stair-stepping meadows of wildflowers and past high-alpine ponds the goat begins to shadow our movement from the safety of his position on the steep, loose hillside. It’s as if he is the keeper of this sacred space and we are his new disciples. I swear he is beckoning and encouraging us to continue on up to the saddle. It is a uniquely surreal moment.

The white goat mirrors our movements all the way up to the ridgeline of the saddle. We take in the view of the surrounding peaks and sprawling drainage on the other side below. The chiaroscuro effect of the parting storm clouds on this wondrous landscape leaves incredible bright and dark sections of mountains and forests that I have never witnessed before. Once again, a familiar place has given me a completely new and profound experience. This is one of the things about the wilderness that I love the most. Striking examples of change and regularity exist everywhere in the world of the mountains. Unnecessary distractions simply don’t exist. I wonder if I’ll ever be more present and in the moment than I was during that day in The Vertical Cathedral. I was fully alive. I had reached the altar.