Rachel Kuhr and Dr. Ranjan Adiga received an IMR faculty/student summer research grant for 2017. Here is Rachel’s final essay.
The Peak that Beckons Me
By Rachel Kuhr
The Utah Mountains dominate the landscape that is my home. They are the pulse of this place. They are the heartbeats, translated by peaks that rise and fall. An EKG that wraps around eternally, recording blips of the individual in a collective memory.
They stand witness to our living and dying. In their balance of consistency and change, they teach us how to grieve. They mirror our own rising and falling. They keep us anchored and in motion.
They are my peace.
In the face of Mount Timpanogos, I see chest hair and watermelon.
June 17, 2016, my boyfriend’s father, Greg, died suddenly. He went into cardiac arrest after a heart attack earlier in the day went unnoticed. He was a bear. Part teddy, part grizzly. My relationship with Greg was one of tenderness and respect, and I loved the love between father and son. The ultimate storyteller, Greg’s absence created a void where tales that sent everyone into stitches used to be. When he pulled out stories that would have been too embarrassing for anyone else to repeat, stories detailing bodily functions gone wrong, I was always on the verge of an accident myself. I once ignored my aching bladder, threatening to burst with each laugh, for over an hour because I didn’t want to miss anything.
At the hospital, in the moments just before and after Greg’s passing, family members and friends gathered. It was just after 2:00 am. Cade, his mother, and his sister were saying their final goodbyes as Greg’s life was released from life support. Every chair in the waiting room was occupied by tears and silence. It was Kurt, Greg’s youngest brother, who disrupted the quiet. “How many of you have lost a game of Monopoly to Greg Iverson?” One by one, we raised our hands and allowed ourselves to smile.
Like air rushing from the opening of a balloon, this began a chain of pressure-releasing “Greg stories.” Many of the anecdotes were Greg originals, but most were simply about him — moments we would always remember. Someone mentioned that he would frequently hike Mount Timp as a form of high school sports training. I immediately envisioned the photograph of a flexing teenage Greg, not nearly as hairy then as I knew him to be, that Cade’s mom posts and re-posts to Facebook. He would carry a watermelon to enjoy at the top.
In American Fork Canyon, Mount Timpanogos stretches to the sky like the stalagmites inside its caves. Even in June, snow fills the cracks and crevices, producing a runoff discouraging to hikers.
The canyon road weaves its way upward, providing a clear view of the peak that now beckons me. I can see Timp out my car windows, in the side mirrors — each way I turn, there is looming familiarity. And somewhere, in the recesses of time and stone, Greg is hiking, and hiking, and hiking.
Timpanogos, mighty Timpanogos
Timpanogos, mountain that I love
Mountain with its lofty peaks, mountain with its lofty peaks
Lofty peaks, lofty peaks
Timpanogos, mighty Timpanogos
South mountain is a landmark for where Salt Lake County and Utah County meet. Roughly. It’s where the city of Draper gets to sit a little higher to fulfill its stereotypical role of looking down on everyone else. It’s the land mass I have to drive around to get to Cade’s house, and it’s where traffic almost always tries to stop me. It’s been under construction (whatever that means with regards to a mountain) for as long as I can remember. The wind uses it as a launch pad, so dust and hang gliders are always flying. There is a Cheveron perched on the foothills with the perfect view of Utah sunsets and [twenty] fourth of July firework shows.
On the other side, Lehi leads a long parade of mostly Mormon towns: Highland, Alpine, American Fork, Pleasant Grove, Orem, and Provo. Anyone who grew up in those first three also grew up in the shadow of Mount Timpanogos. This is a point of pride as the above song and the “Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple” suggest.
Cade and I meet his grandma and Uncle Mark at JCWs for lunch at the point of the mountain. The first Lehi exit off I-15 grants access to the outlet mall, Thanksgiving Point, and many fast food restaurants. An American Fork native by many generations, Grandma West grew up appreciating Mount Timpanogos — her landmark for home.
Over burgers, fries, and the single coke Cade and I always order to share, she tells me stories about her father herding sheep down the canyon and her mother climbing the mountain before there was a trail. She talks about walking to school with the sun coming up over its peak. In a wave of nostalgia she says, “Timpanogos was the center of our lives. Those mountains were our existence.” And then, as if she were that schoolgirl once again, she starts singing to me.
Cade and I take his motorcycle up American Fork Canyon in order to hike the Pine Hollow Trail. It is a Friday afternoon, and we are not the only ones in line at the mouth. Most cars are headed to the new Tibble Fork Reservoir, so everything past the turnoff is clear. About halfway up the canyon, Cade pulls off the road and into a paved parking lot with a two-stall bathroom. We take off our sweaty layers of protection and place everything in the nearby bushes. Not having to carry twenty extra pounds of clothing is worth the risk that someone might decide to adopt our explicitly uncamouflaged helmets.
The trailhead is on the opposite side of the road, and as we climb higher, our view of Mount Timpanogos and the south side of the canyon is unobstructed and beautiful. Describing a sunset just days before, Cade coined the term ‘Bobrossian’. Remembering this, I gaze at the pine trees bathed in early evening light and decide that our beloved, afro-ed artist must have visited Utah. How else could he have so accurately painted our “happy little trees?”
For the first half of our hike, Cade and I are alone. We don’t talk much, each of us trying to regulate our breathing through heat and inexperience. I am ahead of Cade by twenty feet or so when a man comes into view from further up the trail. His hair is thinning, whispy in the light breeze. He wears trousers and an old dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his wrists. After briefly describing to us where he is trying to go, Cade and I determine that he missed the turnoff that will deliver him back to his car. We take a break, allowing the man to get a head start on the ascent and retracing his steps.
On our way back down, when both of us are able to breathe and talk at the same time, I tell Cade that the man we ran into looked so much like his dad. Whenever Greg came home from work, if he decided to begin making dinner right away, he’d untuck his dress shirt and roll up the sleeves. Cade saw it too.
Hiking, and hiking, and hiking.
Riding down the canyon in the day’s last remaining light, I brace myself at the thought of a previous ride that took us around these familiar bends. A deer on the shoulder of the road had locked eyes with Cade. He thought Don’t do it. The deer thought I’m going to do it. And I, remembering my uncle’s road rash, thought Cade, don’t swerve. Don’t swerve. The deer began running alongside the bike before deciding to cut us off. We made contact with its back hoof, but Cade had slowed down without swerving, and all three of us remained upright.
This time, when we lean into a curve and straighten out for the stretch, we see two deer in the middle of the road up ahead. They bound into the trees.
We stop by Grandma West’s house after grabbing dinner. She has already pulled out her Masters thesis for me to take and read. Bound in navy blue leather with gold print, it details her family’s history in American Fork, Utah, deep enough to justify her loathful attitude towards her current Lehi address. She told her husband many years ago that if she were ever on her deathbed in Lehi, he’d better drive her across the city lines to American Fork.
A few days later, in one sitting, I read her entire thesis. “The Deer Creek Land & Live Stock Company: The First Thirty Years.” The preface begins the same way she claimed it did while we were finishing up our meal at JCWs. Without any reference to her work from 24 years before, Grandma West had quoted herself perfectly:
“I knew that the lark sitting on the fence was singing, ‘American Fork is a pretty little place’. From that spot in my father’s field, I could see the blue of Utah Lake, and — by turning my head to the east — see majestic Mt. Timpanogos protecting this town that was my home.”
Grandma West is Irene Chipman West. The Chipmans were pioneers to Utah and founders of American Fork. She writes about the community that they formed, and the men who joined their land and livestock together in order to be successful herders. They let their cattle, and eventually sheep, graze in Provo and American Fork Canyons. The land now belongs to Robert Redford and Blake Roney, though only on paper.
A few weeks after I finish reading her thesis, Grandma West is taken to the hospital when a bladder infection goes septic.
For as long as I’ve known her, she’s said that she’ll be happy as long as she makes it to 80 years old, outliving all of her siblings. Earlier this year, we celebrated the birthday I’m sure she was wishing for on all the others. She embraced a very “okay, I can die now” attitude, even though she can still drive a car, cross-stitch, and tell stories that include the first and last names of every person she’s ever known. As a rebuttal, I took on an “eighty might be good enough for you, but it’s not good enough for me” attitude. It makes her smile when I remind her of our mostly-one-way agreement.
When I find out that we almost lost her, I become obsessed with making sure she knows I read her thesis cover-to-cover. She told me that her mother passed it around to many people in American Fork whose ancestors and family histories were naturally imbedded in its pages. Grandma West’s children and grandchildren marked generations far enough removed from the town’s founding that any interest in reading about the West’s existence below and around Mount Timpanogos was nearly lost.
Beyond her thesis, Grandma West had also sent me home with two other pieces she wrote while pursuing a Masters in genealogy, including “Follow the Sun: The Life of William Henry Chipman 1833–1891.” Still on my stack of must-reads, all I’ve done so far is thumb through the pages. The dedication caught my eye:
To Aunt Mary Ann Chipman Hansen, who died believing that the next generation wasn’t interested.
I needed Grandma West to know that while she was the next generation for Aunt Mary Ann, I am the next generation for her. Both interested.
When I walk into her bedroom to find her lying under a quilt, the view out her window and into “the hollow,” full of trees and birds and deer, silently explains why Grandma West can love the house while hating its address. I tell her I finished her thesis. And, well, she sings to me.
Mountain where the pretty girls live, mountain where the pretty girls live
Pretty girls, pretty girls
Timpanogos, mighty Timpanogos
One year after losing Greg, Cade’s immediate family and I gather to celebrate his life. The five of us stand in a half circle, facing the kitchen’s bay window. Between us and our view of Box Elder Peak, the dining room table holds a bouquet of flowers and photo of Greg. He is crouching on the edge of a cliff, wearing a cowboy hat and looking away from the photographer. We used the same picture for the program at his funeral. Josh Groban sings in the background.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
And we cry.
Aspens stand together in rows, holding hundreds of love letters. Some are freshly cut — a lime green with razor sharp edges. Time then takes these carvings and turns them black and rough. This blackness spreads, a skin graft for the tree. Eventually the message envelops itself, and only the ones who left it there know what it says. The aspen knows, but it is trying to forget.
These groves of initials and hearts, numbers and equal signs are connected to one another. Like heart strings, the aspens’ root system holds each one together. It is a single organism. Because the trees are connected, their tattoos must be also.
We see these webs of love and infinities along both sides of the winding canyon road as we pass by. To continue our celebration of Greg’s life, we drive through American Fork Canyon. The highest peaks are still packed with snow, melting all the time, and the runoff prevents us from driving to the point where we had planned to spread Greg’s ashes. We save them, rather than settling for anywhere other than the cliff where he is crouching.
In our borrowed-from-a-friend suburban, Cade and I are in the very back row. The AC brushes past everyone else before sputtering its last energies in our direction. In the distance, mountain peaks remain still, but everything nearer to us blurs past as we speed up and then down the canyon. My carsickness is the combination of this motion in my periphery with the warm atmosphere and frequent turns. We pull over for fresh air. I walk to the aspens, regaining equilibrium, and try to read their notes.
I wonder if S still loves M and if the tree understands that its scars are only records of this love.
The Utah Mountains allow the past and the present to merge, creating a meeting place for generations. For the Chipmans to herd cattle, for Greg to hike Mighty Mount Timpanogos, and for me to search for them still. The Utah Mountains mark the passing of time, and the passing of people. They provide both refuge and escape.
They are my peace.