A few years ago I hiked the legendary Half Dome in Yosemite National Park for the first time. Adventurists have been making that 17-mile trek for more than one hundred and thirty-five years. The first person on record to make the ascent was George C. Anderson, who accomplished the feat in 1875. Ever since, Half Dome has become what backpackers call “a must do” hike. On any given summer weekend, it’s estimated that about 1,000 people a day climb their way from the valley floor to the top of Half Dome – a trek that will take the average hiker about ten to twelve hours to complete.
At some point early on in the hike, as I placed my hand on a large boulder to pull myself over a set of steep granite steps, it occurred to me that my hand was not the first hand to touch that boulder. Its surface had been slightly stained by countless handprints, its once-rough edge noticeably worn and smoothed over by the thousands and thousands of hands that had reached for it over the last century. All along the trail, the rocks beneath my feet, once sharp and jagged, had been dulled and polished by so many determined boot steps; the thousands of granite steps scattered along the way had, over the years, seen their edges rounded, as if they had been carefully sculpted and sanded. Even the steel cables that lead up the final four hundred foot face of Half Dome had been visibly worn and polished smooth by several generations of climbers who had clung to them as they ascended or descended the summit.
Along the way, the obvious had occurred to me: I was not one of the first to walk this path, nor would I be the last, to be sure. More than that, it became clear that, while this particular path is demanding and, at points, even punishing, it must have been even more so for those early generations of hikers whose feet first blazed that trail. In 1870, Half Dome was officially declared “completely inaccessible” and yet, more than a century later, thousands of people climb it each year.
You add it all up and you realize that, for the most part, we here in the Twenty-First Century are rarely the first to do anything in this world. It is true that there’s a first time for everything, but the greater truth is that, while it may be a first for us, it’s likely already been done many times before.
So much of the time, we are apt to think we are all alone on this journey, that no one really understands what we’re going through when the mountains in our way rise up steep before us, when the path before us seems completely inaccessible. Whether we are passing through the deepest valley or standing on top of the highest summit in life, it is good for us to remember that we are not the first to have walked that path. We are not alone on the journey. Others have gone before us, and their collective handprints show us where to place our hands, their footprints reveal a way we would not otherwise have known or chosen.
‘Look around you,’ says the Apostle Paul, ‘and you will see yourself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people of great faith from the past who blazed the trail of faith for you: Moses and the Israelites who, by faith, passed through the Red Sea; Rahab, Gideon, Barak and Sampson and David and Samuel and all the prophets. Each of them made their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world’ (Hebrews 11).
One of the best ways to keep moving forward, one of the best cures for fear and hopelessness, is to look back and remember that you are not the first to walk this path, nor will you be the last. To lean on the collective faith and wisdom of those who dared to believe in spite of the evidence, yet who, by faith, watched that evidence change before their very eyes.
It is an inheritance that is ours – this memory of boldness and faith, passed down through the ages. It is a gift, but it is also a summons. The chorus of those who have gone before us asks us, over and over again, “What will your contribution be?”
Photo Credit: carfull…China Trippin”s