Inches from a 100 story drop, my foot slipped on the loose orange rock, sending it flying over the edge and into oblivion. I gripped the rusty chain hanging to my right, throwing both hands onto the burning metal. My heart rate soared for a moment, beating out of my chest until my deep breaths brought me back to a state of calm. I was fine.
I stared back down the path I had traveled, a steep incline of stone marked only by the chain links hammered into the ground. Although the area above me was crowded with people, the space below was completely empty. That is until my mom rounded the corner.
Carefully placing each foot on flat surfaces in front of her, grasping the silver chains beside her for dear life, she ascended, unfazed by the long line of people behind her. She hadn’t seen me slip, and I was glad of it. She was already worried about her own safety up the cliffside. I didn’t want her to stress about my own.
As she slowly made her way upward, I began to notice the sweat dripping from her forehead, soaking her new headband. I climbed a few more steps to the next curve in the trail and made room for my mom to rest beside me and for the eager hikers behind her to pass. Once she trudged her way to my impromptu stopping point, I could feel her heavy breath on my neck. Even though the sun had risen high above us by now and the temperature in the canyon had risen rapidly, I could still feel the heat radiating off of her as she pulled out a water bottle for a few refreshing sips.
Squeezing past, the young hikers rushed through the hole we had made. They sped by, carrying their lightweight backpacks, barely using the chains lining the edge. I stared off the side of the cliff as my mother caught her breath. The view was breathtaking. Towering rocks in every direction. Nearly vertical mountains lining the valley as far as the eye could see. I could sit there looking out for days, and I barely noticed the large groups racing by us up the hillside, even the ones descending from the summit.
Pulling me from my trance, my mom’s voice floated into my ear. “I’m sorry, Taylor. I’m just not as fast as these other hikers.” At first, I thought I had heard her wrong, too distracted by the rising sun painting the rocks golden.
Then I smiled and gazed back at her. “You have nothing to apologize for. I’m having the time of my life.”
It was the third day of our girls trip through Utah. Starting at Bryce Canyon, we had explored the best hikes in the park, pushing through the long distances. I knew these trails would be more difficult for my mom than me. While I was still in the middle of my 21st year, my mom was due to turn 50 soon.
Nonetheless, she insisted we take on each challenging hike, unwilling to leave any adventure behind. So we pushed on, trying a harder trail each day, testing our limits as we explored some of the most spectacular places in the United States.
By the time we arrived at Zion National Park, I was starting to feel the result of multiple days of constant hiking, and if I was feeling sore, I couldn’t imagine how my poor mom was handling it. But we knew that our next hike to Angels Landing was as much about courage as it was about strength.
I promised my mom that the height of this infamous trail didn’t scare me, but as the day of our climb neared, my confidence began to falter. But we would never let a little nervousness get in our way. So on the morning of our big hike, we got to the shuttle stop an hour early. In fact, we made it on the first bus through the canyon.
A mixture of excitement and unease boiled in my stomach. No matter how much research you do about a new trail, you never really know what it will be like until your hiking boots are scraping the soil and the trail is rolled out before you.
We exited the shuttle with the majority of the morning’s park goers. But unlike them, we didn’t rush towards the trail at record speeds. Instead, we took our time, using the bathroom, applying sunscreen and doing some last minute fueling.
We took some deep breaths as we stared up the steep path. I had to arch my head back to see our final destination, seemingly hidden behind a sheet of clouds, preceded by endless rows of switchbacks. “Let’s take our time, okay?” my mom said as she sipped on her water bottle. “I’m going to have to take this one slow.”
At first, I felt disappointment rumbling in my chest. I knew how busy this trail could get. It was one of the most popular trails in one of the busiest national parks in America. Arriving early grouped us with the smaller crowds, but if we didn’t hike fast enough, we would be caught by later shuttles and lose our advantage.
But I immediately wiped these feelings from my mind. Look where you are. Look what you’re about to do. Before you is one of your greatest adventures yet. All I can do is be thankful. I nodded towards my mom with an understanding grin, and we headed off.
To get to Angels Landing, you start up the West Rim Trail, a partially paved path that ascends into the cliffside at steep angles. Before long, I felt my knees and quads start to burn and knew my mom’s pain was exponential to my own. We took many breaks along the way, giving each other time to rest.
Several groups of hikers, close to my own age, trekked past us at double the speed of our own. They looked like they were born on the trail, sporting perfectly braided hair, professional hiking bags, and expensive trail runners. They looked like the stereotypical “outdoorsy” type: tall, toned and perfectly fearless. Looking back at our sad little duo, I suddenly felt like we were out of place.
As we continued up the rows of switchbacks, eventually passing through the dreaded Walter’s Wiggles, we finally arrived at Scout’s Landing. It was our first time seeing the almost 360⁰ view of the surrounding valley. The rising sun gave the distant cliffs a blue hue, and the sky was still streaked with lines of pinks and purples. Rows of massive cliffs encircled us, and once again that week, I felt overwhelmed by natural beauty.
Now, all that lay before us was the legendary Angels Landing, an incredibly steep uphill climb up a narrow cliffside, lined with rows of chains for safety and stability. I had never done anything like this before, and felt a small bubble of fear growing inside of me as I stared up at its colossal form. My mom and I looked at each other, knowing that turning back was never an option. She gave me a knowing smile which I gladly returned as we stepped forward and grabbed the first chain.
The climb was nothing like the trail we had just hiked. Rocks of all shapes and sizes littered the trail at odd angles. There was no way to mark the trail apart from the fence of chains. If you chose to stray from these, finding a different path for yourself, you ran the risk of coming across a sudden drop off and and a fatal fall.
As we started scaling the rock, my confidence grew. I learned to trust my footing and the support of the chains. I gradually increased my speed, anxious to reach the summit and see what all the fuss was about. However, there were lines of people above and below us, and unlike a normal trail, there was no way to pass the person in front of you without putting yourself in danger.
On and on we trekked. I took longer breaks as I waited for my mom, who refused to take even one hand off of the chains. As she made her way upward, her message became clear: I may not be fast and I may not take risks, but I will make it to the top.
After several hours of hiking, we finally took our last steps up the rocky slope and made it to the summit of Angels Landing. And wow, I was blown away. As my mom can attest, there are simply no words to describe the majesty of that valley stretching before you longer than the human eye can view. You’re on top of the world, standing in the middle of God’s most remarkable masterpiece.
With tears in our eyes, we looked out, so tired from the journey but so proud of what we had accomplished. Then, I peered about the Landing itself. All around us were the young hikers who had passed us long ago, outfitted in sports bras and Ray-Bans, posing their tanned bodies for pictures in front of the canyon. And there was my mom, simply glowing in front of that same spectacular view.
I took out my camera to capture her unequaled beauty, letting the morning light brighten her as she somehow made those cliffs even more beautiful. She was right there with the rest of those hikers. She may not have been the same age or be as active as those twenty-something-year-olds, but she had made it just the same.
My mom, whether she meant to or not, taught me something very important that day. You don’t have to be under 25 to be a hiker. You don’t have to be fearless to be “outdoorsy.” You don’t have to fit the perfect mold to reach your dreams. My mom didn’t fit that mold, but she was as much of a hiker as anyone on that cliff.
Watching her determination up that cliffside and the pride on her face when she reached the top changed the way I viewed my own goals. There were so many things I wanted to do in my life that I hadn’t done simply because I wasn’t sure if I was “fit” for it. My dream of long-distance backpacking had been pushed to the side because I hadn’t trusted my own abilities to wild camp or hike for dozens of miles.
But when I watched my mom conquer Angels Landing, I knew that I didn’t have to be a certain type of person or have some powerful experience to take on my next challenge. It was time to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something I’d never done before. Because the truth is everyone is winging it until they get the hang of it. No one is an expert before they practice. I didn’t have to be raised in hiking boots to be worthy of longer trails. I was already worthy.
Now, I’m anxiously awaiting my first backpacking trip, and even though my preparation is extensive, I still don’t feel ready. But I know I don’t have to be. The real adventurers just go for it. They are afraid sometimes. There are unforeseen obstacles that get in their way. But the only true skill they need is the courage to take on new challenges. And lucky for me, that skill has been in my genes all along.