Our parents hadn’t encouraged us to go. They said it was too early to be climbing in Echo Canyon, that we should “wait until spring was really here.” But the winter had been long and cold, we were 16, and we couldn’t wait any longer. Though it was just mid-March, the invitation from the brilliant sun light and the soaring temperatures could not be turned down.
Glenn, Marvin, John, and I settled into Glenn’s Chevy Bel Air. We didn’t relax much in the car for the ten minutes or so it took us to drive to Echo Canyon.
I climbed out of the back seat, stretched, and looked up at the rock formations surrounding us. The prehistoric waters of Lake Bonneville once covered this area, and the currents had eroded the cliffs and pinnacles into exotic shapes. Now the almost continual wind worked on the job of rock carving. Its blasts had slashed grotesque caves and chutes and chambers into the sandstone and shale walls. Echo Canyon was a place of eerie beauty.
In our years of going to Echo Canyon, we never climbed up any of the “real” cliffs. We didn’t have the equipment or experience for that. But several times each summer we tried our strength against the intermixed “almost” cliffs—they were close enough to being straight up and down to suit us fine.
We settled down to climb one of the major “almost” cliffs that glowered down on the main canyon and spent almost an hour getting to the top. Our ascents—though requiring more endurance than skill—were always marked by caution. Even though nature had already gouged hundreds of hand and foot holds out of the rock, it was a long way to the bottom for a foolhardy climber.
The view from the top, though familiar, was invigorating. From the valley floor, the blue sky seemed to arch overhead. Here on top, we were in the sky, a part of it. Climbing today was more than an adventure—it was a celebration of the radiance of the sun, a celebration of our youth and vitality—a celebration of life.
Going down the “cliff” took longer than climbing it did. Between us and the car, still almost a quarter of a mile below us, was a rock slide. Since we had run down similar slides on earlier trips, we knew that we could throw caution away and rashly blast down the hill without much danger of a twisted ankle or a small avalanche of cascading rock, as long as we ran without stopping.
We scattered out along the top side of the immense slide, littered with tons of shale and sand stone, threw our hands high in the air, whooped and screamed, and started running for the car. We were cheered by our own echoing voices as the sliding rocks and our churning legs started us down the hill.
One of the best parts of these lunatic runs was jumping over any sagebrush we could find. We purposely headed for any of the sparsely-spaced bushes that punctuated the shale for the incredible ecstasy of soaring over them. The momentum of our bodies would carry us over them with hardly any effort. I would feel like a lunar astronaut, bounding into the air against gravity, landing—still running—below the bushes I hurdled.
Halfway down the slide, I headed for a grand sagebrush. It was almost three feet higher than any other I had seen on the slope, and I knew I could jump it with dramatic speed. As I approached it, I calculated how I would maintain my balance—and speed—as I landed on the other side of it.
As I hit my final approach, my energy seemed electrified, yet I was in absolute control. Just before I jumped, a voice in my mind commanded, “Stop! Stop right now!”
There was no time to consider the source of the voice—I just felt impelled to stop. My legs stopped churning and dug into the shale like anchors. I leaned backwards and skidded to a stop in a shower of stones.
As the dust swirled around me, I felt foolish. My friends were still running, oblivious of me in their own descent. I lay there on the sharp rocks on the uphill side of the bush, catching my breath, wondering how long it would be until inevitable scrapes and bruises from the rock would start to sting my currently numbed body.
Some of the retinue of rocks I had loosened as I ran down the hill caught up with me and rocketed through the sagebrush and on down the slope. Then I heard the buzzing—fierce and steady. There was a rattlesnake somewhere close!
My breath stopped momentarily with fear. We all knew that a few rattlesnakes showed up here and there in our area, but not here in Echo Canyon! I wondered what I should do and warily looked around, being careful to not move anything but my eyes. I couldn’t see anything.
I listened intently to the buzzing and determined that it was coming from the downhill side of the bush. I slowly got to my feet and skirted the sage, keeping back from the sound, until I could see the downhill side clearly.
Until interrupted by me and my rocks, a big rattler had been sunning itself in the shale. Now it was coiled to strike—its defiant head was matched by its angry tail. I watched it for several minutes until it uncoiled and slid back into the security of the bush. It was a diamondback, at least three feet long. At its thickest part, its brown and gray body was as big around as a baseball.
I felt no anger for the snake. I had disturbed it; it hadn’t sought me out. The unusual warmth of the last few days had undoubtedly brought it prematurely out of hibernation. Its venom would be a thick concentrate, incredibly potent after not being used for killing prey during the winter months of hibernation. If I had jumped the bush, I would have landed inches away from its fangs. My heart was still beating like primitive drums from my downhill exertion and my astonishment. This rapid heartbeat would have scattered the poison throughout my body in a few seconds. My only chance for survival came in the voice: “Stop! Stop right now!”
I was overwhelmed as I realized, with a startling and clear perspective, that God was aware of me as an individual. He really was a Heavenly Father—and he knew Layne Dearden, one of his sons. He knew what I was doing on that March afternoon. And he knew that my careless exuberance would end my life unless he helped.
That day was more of a celebration of life than I ever imagined it could be, even when I had stood at the top of the cliff. I basked in the warmth of my Father’s love as I slowly walked down the remaining shale slope.