By Michael Stubbs
Michael Stubbs is a lecturer in English at Idaho State University.
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: In the Mountains, No One Can Hear You Swear
Three weeks after I returned from a thirty-mile hike through Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains with some of my ward’s young men, I was asked to give a sacrament meeting talk about it. Specifically, I was directed to connect our trip with one of the official Purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood as listed on a poster in the bishop’s office. I had anticipated the talk before I even led the hike, but I was not ready.
I grew up with a stake president who spent all his free time playing in the wilderness. He hiked, he camped, he swam in rivers, he hunted elk with a bow and arrow, he watched birds, and he did it all in high Mormon tradition, invariably coming home with an uplifting talk full of impressive spiritual insights and analogies. He made gospel talks more interesting, more exciting, and more accessible through his discussion of his outdoor adventure stories. My memories of this man’s talks raised the stakes for my sacrament meeting assignment, and it was very unlikely that I would meet them. I do not go to the mountains to commune with God. I do not go to the mountains to obtain material for church talks. I go the mountains because in the mountains, no one can hear me swear.
Like the stake president of my youth, I spend a great deal of my free time playing in nature. Unlike that stake president, I don’t connect that time in nature to my understanding of the gospel. Although I make my best efforts to keep covenants and commandments and to participate in church activities, I am not a very spiritual person. I am not the guy who can help you understand the role of adversity in your life by comparing eagles flying bravely through a storm to swallows sheltering themselves on a blustery day. I don’t like to, and I usually don’t have to. When I was called as the ward “Venture Leader” nearly a year before this talk, I was told that it was not a spiritual calling, I was only expected to lead Scouting activities and cooperate with the Young Men’s presidency. This was fine with me, although I did laugh. Aren’t all church callings supposed to be spiritual? Even funnier to me was the charge they specifically gave me to prepare the boys for their missions. How would I do that without being spiritual?
I think that this calling was the best effort of a new bishopric to include the long-haired, bearded guy who had missed church all summer because he had been fighting wildfires. They were probably laboring under the assumption that since I like to go camping and hiking alone, I must also like to go camping and hiking with the children of the relative strangers of my ward. This is not true. Nevertheless, I accepted the calling and began to fulfill it by simply showing up to every Young Men’s meeting, Sunday or not, and volunteering as much as I could.
I helped take the boys rock climbing, camping, swimming, hiking. I drove the car while they collected canned goods or posted flags in people’s yards. I was comfortable leading them in these activities because I am comfortable playing outside. I look and feel less out of place there. Although many Mormons may question my beard in a church house, they do not question it in a forest, and neither did the boys. They called me “the mountain man,” and I let them do it despite my graduate degrees in literature and my apartment in suburbia.
Boys from church seem to accept my leadership in these activities because they know that I rock climb, camp, and hike without being asked by the Church to do so. So I teach them how to plan, prepare, and execute a trip. Then I offer advice on how to refine their technique: how to pitch a tent faster and more easily, how to tie a knot, how to stay hydrated. I tell them to put away their phones and video games. I ask them to stop talking about TV or singing the words to obnoxious songs, but I do these things only for my own benefit—not their spiritual welfare. Even when I camp as part of a church calling, I want to experience some of the solitude that I selfishly seek when I go alone. But there is more than that.
While sitting around a campfire, I get uncomfortable when someone interrupts the story, the laughter, or the quiet staring and says, “Well, I guess we better have someone share his testimony,” simply because the activity is a church-sponsored one, or worse, because the burning coals of the fire reminds him of the burning coals of each boy’s testimony. While experiencing nature, I won’t force a metaphor. I won’t turn our rock climbing into an analogy of overcoming life’s challenges. I won’t say that climbing a mountain brings one a little closer to God. I climb to climb. I camp for fun. They are part of my lifestyle, not a quest for new religious metaphors. Maybe I won’t make these comparisons because I feel that if I do, I am manufacturing a spiritual experience, I am forcing a connection between nature and God, between my experiences and God’s existence. This feels too much to me like making God in my own image. It’s inauthentic. It does not represent my experience of nature or my experience of God, and since I don’t have my own sense of God in nature, I am not comfortable making one up and forcing it on other people’s children.
Not that I haven’t tried to have spiritual experiences in nature. Like many other Latter-day Saints, I have prayed alone in a forest. Many times in my youth, I had done so in expectation of God stepping out of the void and revealing himself to me as he did to Joseph Smith. Other times I have done so in expectation of nothing in particular. I have always received nothing in particular in return, not even a “burning in my bosom.” I have taken this to mean that God does not exist in the action or forms that I have expected. Each time I go to experience God in nature, I learn something of what God is not. Maybe this will aid me in one day understanding what God is. I am not sure. The only thing that I am sure of is that if I narrate one of my mountain climbing stories in religious terms, or weave God into a nature where I found myself alone, I won’t be telling the truth. To me, this is a greater sin than not having a spiritual encounter with God in nature in the first place.
In the mountains, more so than in a church, my inability to experience God is a personal struggle. Each time I don’t hear God’s voice in the wilderness, that experience is my own. When I fail to summit a mountain, when I get tired and quit, when I don’t know what path to take, pray, and still don’t know—these are mine, and alone I am allowed to curse my path freely. Inside a church building however, my fellow saints expect something more from my outdoor experiences.
The hike I was supposed to report on for that sacrament meeting talk was an ascension of The Devil’s Staircase. The trail that leads to this pass winds through a pleasant, forested high mountain valley dotted with lakes. The “staircase” climbs a few hundred feet up loose yellow granite rocks and boulders at an angle steeper than a staircase and just less steep than a vertical ladder. It requires hikers to go on hands and feet and carefully test each hold for stability. Even the largest rocks will teeter back and forth under the lightest person’s weight. In areas where the footing is less precarious, each step forward through the loose gravel can result in a backward slide, making the climb exhausting when it is not downright dangerous. My group reached this pass around lunchtime on the second day of our trip. We had already hiked from 8,000 to over 10,000 feet that day and back to eight again, but we had stopped to fish and swim a little, too. The Devil’s Staircase would take us from about 9,500 feet to up around 10,000 again. Part of its danger would be a result of our fatigue, the rest—a result of the naturally rugged geography and our natural stupidity.
I was in great physical condition at the time and quite comfortable climbing rocks and mountains. I decided to lead the climb from the bottom of the slope where I could keep an eye on the boys and their fathers, where I could watch each falling rock and body. Our fastest scouts reached the summit in about forty minutes. I arrived with the slowest about ten minutes later. Overall, it was a short trip with no injuries. My own experience was positive. The cold wind up top chilled my sweaty back; that, combined with the exertion and thin atmosphere, took my breath away. The view of Castle Peak on the other side of the pass did the same. I remember feeling good and laughing as I looked at the steep snow slide that covered our path down the other side. I looked forward to glissading to the lake below and making a snow cone with the powdered lemonade mix I had brought with me. But I was nearly alone in my experience. The boys and men around me had experienced a different forty-five minutes.
At the summit, one of the boys proclaimed that the climb was the hardest thing he had ever done. Another agreed. Some quietly cried. Some bragged. The summit pictures show an amazing background of yellow rock mountain tops banded with white mineral deposits against a clear blue sky. In the foreground, young men are bent over in exhaustion, some even laying on the thin rocky ledge. No one spoke of God.
I’ve concluded that this climb was not a spiritual experience, at least not in the traditional Mormon sense of bringing on a sudden revelation or feeling of the Spirit. Not even in the sense of causing some serious reflection on the participants’ life or actions. But I didn’t worry about that then, and I don’t worry about that now. My purpose was to take the group on a hike, and I did. Mission accomplished.
Three days after our hike at a fast and testimony meeting, one of the adults from our group called the ascent of The Devil’s Staircase “man birth” and declared himself exempt from hearing a woman complain about childbirth because of it. Others in the group still look at pictures of the pass and throw out fake curses, renaming it the Devil’s this or that swear word or body part in the same spirit in which it was named, but mistaking the “Devil” part of its name for ownership rather than the original curse the name-giving hikers laid on it. It is funny to remember our shortcomings this way, but what we continually fail to recognize is that the “devil” part of the staircase describes what people bring to it, what they take away from it, not what it is in itself. This mountain pass is just a mountain pass, and without hikers toiling up the trail, there is no devil there.
But I was asked to speak. And not only was I asked to speak, I was asked connect the hike with the Purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. So I got ready for my talk, making sure to cobble together an opening joke. It went like this: “I was told that I am supposed to be preparing these boys for their missions, and I kept this in mind as I planned our wilderness adventure. I decided that to do it right, I would take them into the middle of nowhere, make them feel completely alone, and give them diarrhea.” Nobody laughed. Perhaps it was because I cut the word “diarrhea” and exchanged it for “a stomach ache” at the last second. The stake president was in attendance, and I didn’t want to give him a reason to remember who I was. Or perhaps no one laughed because they knew I wasn’t joking. Truthfully, it was an acutely accurate description of my own mission. Overall, my life in church has taught me that sometimes purportedly serene and beautiful spiritual experiences just turn out to be hard work. I don’t mean that hard work isn’t spiritual. I do mean that very often there is no burning in the bosom, no warm fuzzy, no sense of encouragement. Only exhaustion. This was a truth I wanted to share.
Beyond my lame joke, I quoted 1 Kings 19:11–12 in which Elijah experiences God through his own lack of a God-in-nature moment.
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
I told the congregation that we had a great experience climbing, hiking, fishing, and swimming but that the mountains where we did these things would only be spiritual places if we took God there with us in the first place, having lived normal lives of trying to keep the commandments and saying simple and earnest prayers. I told them that nature would not force God upon us if we didn’t choose to think about God in the first place. This has been my own experience, but it is small consolation for a person who has repeatedly sought something more profound in nature but consistently found himself alone. It was certainly a small consolation for a congregation more accustomed to dazzling nature metaphors. When it was over, only one person commented on my talk—and not even to me. A ward member told my wife that “it just seemed right that he was talking about the mountains up there at the pulpit with his beard and hair and all.” At least to this woman, there was a narrative coherence between my personal image and my subject.
I said that I go to the mountains because there, no one can hear me swear. Maybe this means that in nature I am free to find a natural expression for my emotions. If nature is not a place where I find God, it can at least be a place where I can be myself. This seems true unless I take kids from church with me, in which case, nature becomes one more place where I have to be a good example.
I might then claim that I go out into nature to escape myself, but it would be more accurate to say that I am attempting to escape certain aspects of being me. I am escaping the guy who loves nature but not the boy scouts. I am escaping the guy who sometimes sits in front of the TV for four hours straight. I am getting away from the guy who yells at his kids for making a mess in the family room. I am getting away from the guy who gets in trouble with his wife for swearing at the kids for making a mess in the family room. I am getting away from the guy who gets mad at his wife for getting mad at him for swearing at the kids. I am getting away from the guy, boring and bored, who spends his free time sitting around an apartment he is tempted to fill with useless junk that he will trip over and swear at, thereby giving him an excuse to escape to the mountains. In the mountains, I trip over and swear at only myself.
Otherwise, I am indulging in physical activities that I love and that make me who I am. I experience a rush of adrenaline, a sense of wonder, a sense of adventure. These are all things that define me, and when I scale a mountain, climb a boulder, or ski through a backcountry meadow, I embrace a central part of what I want to be. I love the guy who can climb a thirty-foot rock face, run ten miles around a mountain, or ski uphill. But these things aren’t easy. I trip. I fall. I get tired. I tangle my poles and my skis. In these moments, I curse freely but am still trying to improve my mind and my physical form. My lack of physical ability and grace frustrate me, but they are part of my attempt to become a more graceful and natural partaker of nature. And I like that about me.
However, in all of this I am most often frustrated by my inability to rid my head of the often meaningless thoughts that fill it. When I hike, if I am not swearing I am incessantly thinking about TV and pop music. If I hike alone, I have to listen to myself sing The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” or mentally listen to my three-year-old daughter’s voice chanting the words to “Nuttin’ for Christmas.” How deep a thinker can I possibly be if during the moments when I am wrapped in nature and embraced in holy solitude, I either swear or regurgitate the lyrics to pop songs? It is no wonder God doesn’t reveal himself to me. Maybe this is why I swear so much. Nevertheless, I keep trying.
One night, this happened to me: I was lying in bed feeling my muscles cramp and relax after an afternoon of backcountry skiing alone in the hills behind Pocatello. The trip had been an ordinary one. I had a great workout. I fell down a lot. I hit myself in the head with my ski poles, and I skied to the rhythm of a song that remained stuck in my head for three hours. But lying on my bed after it was all done was different. I had little strength left to move or think. I fell in and out of sleep involuntarily. When my eyes closed, I could see the white of the snow, the black of my boots shuffling in and out of sight, the tips of my skis tearing holes into the shadows below. And in my ears I heard only the hiss of plastic on ice—no cussing, no song lyrics, no adolescent conversations—just a static-y scratch that pulsed with the movement of my legs up the mountain. A noise that created its own silence. At this moment I thought: There it is. I’ve found it.