Looking to the past may help us conquer our fears in the present
A long time ago, in a world much different than ours, three friends set out to explore Butler Wash and Comb Ridge even though snow blanketed the desert.
They drove south on the Butler Wash road until they spotted a likely side canyon, turned off, and bounced over a rough trail, finally bringing their pickup to a halt.
They slogged across the snowy sagebrush flat where cowboys ran cattle, down into a deep gully with springs, and up onto the slippery sandstone of Comb Ridge.
Two of the friends decided to explore the lower part of the canyon, but one wanted more exercise and started climbing to the crest, panting as the ascent grew steeper.
When he finally topped out, he sighted Lime Ridge to the west, its color and design resembling a Navajo weaving.
Looking down into Comb Wash, he could make out a snow-filled lane and a broader swath, almost indiscernible through the sagebrush and junipers, that might have served as an ancient Anasazi road.
After the young man had taken in the view, he began the descent along a different route. He huffed less, slid more, and moved faster until he came to an abrupt halt at the edge of a cliff – a two-story drop-off straight down into a frozen pool.
He started back the way he had come, but his boots couldn’t find purchase on the icy rocks. He tried another route with the same result and another.
Back at the cliff, he weighed his options. None promised a positive outcome, but since he didn’t want to stay on the ledge all night, he decided to risk it.
Because the fear of falling is nearly universal, his stomach tightened, but he stilled his breath, slid as far as he could, pushed off, and jumped.
When he hit, the ice felt like cement, so he tucked and rolled. After lying on the frozen pond for a few minutes, he wiggled his toes, moved his hands, lifted his head, and decided he must be alive, so he pushed himself up and started walking down canyon toward the truck.
In the meantime, his friends had seen him standing on the cliff’s edge, watched as he took the plunge, and heard his body hit the ground.
Upon hearing the thud, they ran in his direction, sure he had died in the fall. When they saw him striding toward them, they stopped, amazed and a little afraid, hoping it wasn’t his ghost.
Butler Wash, the north-south running valley where the boys gained access to Comb Ridge, is named for John Butler, a member of the San Juan Exploring Expedition.
The expedition set out from Cedar City on April 14, 1879 and, at the mouth of Montezuma Creek, split into a number of smaller scouting parties.
Shortly thereafter, John Butler and his men “discovered” the valley although it had been inhabited for hundreds of years by Native peoples, including the Navajo and Ancient Puebloans.
Thirteen years later, another group of explorers, sponsored by the Illustrated American magazine, searched for “a lost race” in the same area.
Steve Allen, in his book Utah Canyon Country Place Names, quotes Warren K. Moorehead, the 26-year-old leader of the Illustrated American Exploring Expedition (IAEE): “As we entered the valley...we were struck with its weird and desolate appearance, stretching, as it does, as far as the eye can see, naked of all vegetation except stunted sagebrush and grease wood, hemmed in on the east by high precipitous cliffs of red sandstone, with curious knobs and needles jutting upwards and weathered into fantastic shapes and designs.”
The eastern explorers, challenged by the alien landscape, endured many hardships. And who knows what fear they faced as they accessed Eagle’s Nest, a ruin nestled high in one of Comb’s caves, by tying ropes to bushes and dangling over the canyon.
Ted, Oggie, and I have explored some of Comb’s canyons, including the one where the young man gathered his courage and leaped, a story I have heard from the friends and the young man himself.
We found the IAEE initials inscribed in the now famous Cold Springs and Monarch Cave ruins and viewed Eagle’s Nest through binoculars, which was as close as I would ever come to the dwelling.
Last Saturday we hiked to Fishmouth, a huge cavern, to see where the explorers had charcoaled, “Giant’s Cave, 1892, and IAEE,” on the back wall.
Ted warned me the climb to the cave was steep, so I knew I would soon face my own fear of heights and thought about the intense anxiety many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fear, of course, can help us survive, but it can also be counterproductive as it floods our system with stress hormones.
I often freeze in the grip of fear, yet the ancient words from Psalm 46:10 had been coming to mind for weeks: “Be still and know that I am God.”
We stayed on the north side of the canyon where the trail to Fishmouth was barely discernible over loose rocks and around boulders.
Ted and Oggie surged ahead, but I paused, my senses alert for God’s oceanic silence. The canyon seemed filled with fragrant light.
Claret cup cacti bloomed, their ruby flowers opening to reveal creamy centers and green stamen like living mandalas, and a canyon wren trilled a song of renewal.
I took a deep breath, faced my fears, and began climbing.