For most of my scholarly life, I’ve been interested in Gender Studies. I did my MA Thesis on the novels of Margaret Atwood and the reversal of hierarchal gender roles in her male antagonists. I teach Gender Studies in my literature courses and am generally interested in how a fidelity to gender roles acts to suppress one’s identity and reinforce heteronormative oppressions in our very patriarchal society.
But, I’m kind of a guy. I like beer, I drink my bourbon neat, I watch all the football games every Sunday, and my day feels better when I’ve done a lot of pull-ups. These things are gender role-specific to men, which can be reductive if, say, a man doesn’t do them or if a woman does. We think, they’ve violated the male/female binary and are therefore different, Other. And in a world where even the gender question, at least quantitatively, is in constant question, I think it important to question and even violate the roles our genitalia mandate. I like to read poems. I think flowers are lovely. Et cetera and ad nauseam.
But, I’m kind of a guy.
And one thing that I’ve adopted for better or worse (I’m thinking worse) is a need to develop and sustain my courage. Perhaps against much of what I believe scholastically, I am really uncomfortable and shamed when something challenges my courage and, under that pressure, I buckle. So, most times, I don’t buckle. This puts me in situations where I may not make the best choices, only to save face and sustain my hyper-masculine courage level. And let’s note here: I have no need to sustain such for others; it’s me: I need to prove to myself that I’m brave.
Let’s not all run and call Freud at the same time.
So, when Amy and I traveled out west to hike some of America’s most incredible landscapes (this country, man) I immediately centered my focus on Angel’s landing in Zion National Park.
We left Philadelphia’s cold for Utah’s cold. I knew, it being January, that things wouldn’t be pleasant, weather-wise, but I sort of like the cold. I like jackets and hats and hiking around in what most would like to glare at from their living room windows. What I didn’t expect, getting to Zion, was that the entire place would be under snow and ice cover. Before one thinks this a burden, however, I have to let you in on a little secret: it was amazing, perhaps better than during the summer, and here’s why. First, there are less people. There’s a paradox here: I hate tourists but am one; when I travel, I try to stay away from other people traveling, even though I’m one of those people. But at Zion, in the winter, folks just aren’t there. So this place, this Holy and sublime specimen that could turn an agnostic priestly, is near empty of human violation. And Zion, folks, is differently fantastic. It’s one of those places for which words are inappropriate and pictures are reductive (notice my words and pictures, because I’m the king of contradiction here). So anyway, second reason Zion winter: snow and ice. I mean, the interplay of white-scaped mountains and the canyon floor, precarious icicles dropping from hundreds of feet when the sporadic sun brushes their root to stone, wildlife tracking where they’ve been. It’s just, in so many ways, perfect. And Zion, any time, is easily one of my favorite National Parks. It runs parallel to Glacier for me.
So, then, courage and Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is a is 1500 foot rock face accessible by an ascending trail of non-compromising switchbacks that arrive at a peak with vantages of the entire canyon…or so I understand (more on this in a second). After a couple miles, the hiker arrives at Scout’s Overlook, a popular turn-around point for folks not willing to risk the final .5 miles of treachery to surmount the mount. I, of course, oozing with machismo, was so keen on this last ascent that I could hardly sleep the night before. (Note that Amy was extraordinarily antagonistic to my hiking this. The Park Service didn’t help; they’d posted signs about how many people die attempting it).
The trail to the top is thin, to say the least. It is traversed using a chain rope that guides the hiker along precipices and drops that surely even the angels questioned when choosing a landing zone. (Google image search this, you’ll see). And the kicker: it was covered in ice.
And I didn’t do it.
It wasn’t Amy’s admonishment and consternation. It wasn’t a lack of ability: I’ve hiked the PA Appalachian Trail, am a distance runner, and do resistance training and yoga almost every day. It was fear, plain and simple. Just looking at the trail and its snow-laden terrain and I knew I was done. And it stabbed. That shame of cowardice that clings deep on the coattails of a man’s soul, reminding you like a nagging child that you failed, that all of your posturing and pontificating about travel and courage goes out the window with one failed ascent.
I didn’t beat myself up too much about it and, naturally, I promised I’d go back (in nicer weather) to surmount it no matter what, but even sitting here in Philadelphia, part of me shakes my head at myself. It’s important for me to understand that I didn’t fail in Zion, that really, I could have been killed (but what better way to go?), that I’m still a man. That fear is okay. So I tell myself these things. I take deep breaths and I purge by admitting it all on the internet.
But in Utah, there’s a place that calls me, that near mocks me; and that one day, I will return and–with a beard and bravado–I will climb that mother…