Last summer I spent a week driving alone in the American Rockies and Prairies, all on roads I had never driven before (except for Yellowstone Park which I had visited 50 years ago).
Each evening I chose my route and destination for the next day, looking for interesting sights and routes, and in the process discovered that the abbreviation “ALT.” often indicated a route that might be more scenic.
So in my plans for crossing Wyoming towards South Dakota, I chose ALT. US 14, a somewhat more northerly route than US 14. On the map the distances of the two routes seemed almost identical, so time would not be an issue.
But once on the route, I realized that the map, because it had no topographical indicators, did not warn me about the crucial difference. Altitude!
The road runs directly through the Bighorn Mountains, a range that seems to rise like an immense barricade straight out of the surrounding prairie.
That seemed fine – I enjoy mountain driving and had already crossed the continental divide six times in the two preceding days.
But as I neared the mountains I began to notice another difference. Not just altitude, but solitude! On this first-class highway there were almost no vehicles.
The ascent began with the longest stretch of steep uphill driving I have ever faced. I seemed to be driving vertically at a crawl, in the lowest gear, and forever.
Part way up I came to a lookout. I stopped to admire a spectacular view west and south, and discovered to my astonishment that I was afraid. The steepness of the ascent meant that standing at the lookout felt like being on an insecure balcony in a high wind. And no cars ever passed, let alone stopped. I seriously considered going back and trying the ordinary US 14.
But I pressed on. The odometer was moving very slowly, and this steep, lonely ascent began to seem never-ending. And my anxiety rose with every kilometre of road and every metre of altitude. After what seemed an hour, I reached the pass, the highest point on the road. The altitude was just under 3,000 metres. It was the highest I had ever been except in the Andes, and almost 1,200 metres higher than the passes through the Rockies.
But at this summit, all had changed. The steep mountain walls of the ascent became a wide, gently rising stretch of meadowland where sheep were grazing. The scenery changed instantly from breathtaking and anxiety-producing to placid, pastoral and silent.
Both altitude and solitude had not only lost their terrors but were now part of an almost palpable tranquillity. In scriptural imagery the mountaintop is the place for meeting God, for dramatic, unforgettable life-changing experiences, and that image had been terrifyingly present for me on ALT. US 14. So I was not prepared for the calm at the top – no wind, no sense of insecurity, fragility or danger.
And for me, on my arduous road towards God, the terrors are in the journey, not in the goal.
Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.