Not much was said as we hiked up the trail. Words would have tarnished the moment. The Colorado mountains were doing their thing — offering the fresh taste of reality in a saccharine-laced world. The climb provided ample time to survey the landscape. I was overcome with the beauty, so thick I couldn’t swallow it all in one gulp. I had to take in little sips. The crunch of the pebbles under my feet. The white dusty trails woven like ribbon through miles of majestic pines. The bright wide sky, painted thick with liquid blue hope. The world looked like a postcard — glossy and perfect, too true to be real.
Yet a stain marked the idyllic scene that clear summer day. The teenager walking beside me looped her arm tightly under mine. Her steps weren’t quite sure, her gait a bit hesitant. We climbed the same mountain but our experience was a world apart. I was gorging on a visual feast of earth and sky and expanse; she was banned from such a table at birth. The child of an alcoholic, the young girl had been born blind.
Our relationship was one of purpose. Months prior, a friend had asked me to consider becoming a companion to one of his Young Life kids because their upcoming summer camp didn’t have special accommodations for the visually impaired. The first blind high school student to attend, the girl needed someone to be her “eyes” for a week. I was in my early twenties and poised for adventure. I took my first ever week of paid vacation, packed my bags, and headed to Georgia to meet my charge.
The pilgrimage had carried us from South Carolina to Georgia to Colorado to the foot of a towering mountain. As we plodded up the steep side, the breathtaking landscape awakened in me a deep appreciation for life. The bold soaring hawks and strange scrambling lizards sharpened my sight. The world is full of tiny miracles, and the bright Colorado day was a microscope — amplifying the mundane to magnificence. But while taking account of the good gifts I’d been granted, a sharp pang of reality redirected my thoughts: the girl by my side couldn’t see. I desperately wanted to buy back some of what she’d been cheated by translating my sight into words, but the attempt was a feeble one. I couldn’t share what I had been given. Gratitude and guilt make strange bedfellows.
My meandering thoughts came to an abrupt halt. We had reached the top of the mountain. It was for this moment that we had labored our breath and taxed our muscles. The guide produced a tangled mass of rope, harnesses, and clips, then launched into a much-rehearsed discourse. Instructions, warnings, and foreign terminology tumbled out. He commandeered my full attention at “rapid descent.” The top hand is the guide; the bottom, the break. If I followed the rules, I was in control of the speed. So far, so good. Control is a comfort word, particularly when applied to the act of rappelling 120 feet down the side of a cliff. As he repeated the instructions with the ease of a seasoned flight attendant, his reassuring words fueled my confidence. Then my steady resolve was toppled by the final instruction: “If you only remember one thing, remember to lean back, look up, and relax. Don’t fight it.”
It was time. Approaching the edge, I tried not to look down before swiveling away from the ledge. Heels jutted out into open air. In the arch of my foot, I could feel the sharp edge of rock where the firm ground of certainty ended and the wide expanse of the untamable began. Control gave way to helplessness. Self-sufficiency to dependence. Even life to death. I’m not a fearful person, but teetering on the verge of that precipice conjured wild and extreme visions. The rope could snap and it would all be over.
Our guide’s voice broke the spell of my stupor. At his command, I leaned back into nothingness, and the law of gravity engaged. In an instant, the theoretical became practical. “Lean back, look up, and relax. Don’t fight it.” I needed to lean back into the open, relinquish control, and trust that the one who held the rope was competent and dependable. Yet my eyes shifted focus from the open sky above to the rugged rock face only an arm’s length away. I desperately wanted to take charge, swing to an upright position, and lean forward to cling to the face of the mountain. In that one heavy moment, a lifetime of seemingly random choices were condensed and distilled into a single potent truth: I’d rather be in control than rest.
By sheer will, I managed to remain horizontal, feet obediently planted firmly on the wall of rock. While gaining a small victory over the battle waging within, I remembered the young girl who was dangling on a rope beside me. Surely, she must be terrified. To be helpless, at the mercy of another, and to be unable to see seemed unimaginable. She was completely vulnerable.
Yet she was smiling. And laughing.
The girl’s joyful, carefree demeanor contrasted against my intense struggle for control was comical. It didn’t make sense. I, the competent and capable and resourceful one, was full of fear. She was savoring the sensation of the ride.
Friends cheered and congratulated our landing on firm ground, we meandered back down the path to camp, and the following days were uneventful. At the end of the week, I returned home and reentered the daily rhythms of life. From time to time, I thought of my young, brave friend, but our paths never crossed again.
Yet as the years roll by, there are times when I hear the clear, bright echo of her courageous joy. In the mother who lost her only son to leukemia — who yet sings through a smile that it is well with her soul.In the woman who lost her spouse, her standing in the community, and her children’s father to adultery — who yet pours into the lives of others, offering comfort and hope.
In the friend who survived unspeakable childhood abuse — yet chooses to push back the darkness by bringing beauty into the world.
I spent seven days with a girl who had never viewed a sunset, a wave crashing ashore, a fuzzy caterpillar. She won’t ever see the brilliance of autumn, the glory of spring, or the delight in her infant’s curious eyes. Yet dangling from a rope on the side of a mountain, she taught me that control is an illusion — one that cripples our ability to rest. It’s in relinquishing independence that we gain freedom. In looking up — rather than forward — that we find peace.
And the eyes of the blind were opened.