The last time I hiked to Timpanogos cave, I was probably eight—or maybe nine—years old. I still remember it. Back then, the trail wasn’t paved like it is now; the switchbacks were dusty and unkempt and gave the hike a more precarious feel.
In any case, today when the kids and I went to the cave, it became the second time in my life that I’ve visited. It’s also probably the last. Maybe there will be one more.
There’s no reason to talk about or frame a visit to the cave in this way; it’s an interesting natural feature and it’s cool to go, but it’s not life-altering, it’s not a triumph of any particular sort, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll still be buzzing about in a couple of days or that you’ll someday put in your memoirs. It’s not climbing everest. It’s not even at the level of getting an “A” in English class.
© M. Hsiao / 2017
And yet it hangs in the air for me tonight that I still remember the first trip so well when there’s not all that much else that I remember from being eight or nine years old. It’s not nothing that I’ve though about it over the years each time I hear someone say “Timpanogos.” More importantly, it’s a clear, distinct, and apparently memorable event that will only happen a couple of times in my life. This may have been the last, not for any particular reason other than the fact that it isn’t necessarily worth going again.
But what a strange feeling—to think to myself “that’s probably the last time in my life I’ll ever be here, sit on these rocks, walk back down this trail…”
When you’re young, you don’t think in those sorts of terms. You presume that life is infinitely long, that “everything” is still coming (and in secret, you imagine that quite literally). Life seems so very long, and the wait for mere adulthood so interminable, that obviously anything that happens today or tomorrow is likely to happen again and again an uncountable number of times before you finally manage to learn to drive, go to college, get a job, and so on. Because that is the way—it feels at that age—that reality works. Things repeat interminably and you have to wait for them; life is so very long that “no doubt” almost anything you can name isn’t really that special, just the day-in, day-out of the grind that is time.
Taking my kids today, who are not so much younger than I was the last time I went, I can’t help but suddenly feel the opposite thing—that life is somehow very short, and that there isn’t space for all that much in it before you die. Any thing that you do, any place that you go—the counter is incrementing. There are only so many more times you’ll do that—or go there.
I’ve been thinking about that as fall comes and the school year starts again, and the kids start to talk about Halloween and Christmas once again. How many more of those do I have? If I live to an above-average old age—say, 80—then I have fewer than 40 holiday seasons left in my life.
Forty is not a very big number. Not at all. What the young do not realize, when they are eight or nine years old is that 70 or 80 is also not a very big number. This is lost on youth, in all their impatience.
And if I should happen to die just a tad early, not as a true outlier, but just at the shallower end of the bell curve—say, heart attack at 65 or something like that—then I have just over twenty opportunities left to hang a star on a tree, do last-minute shopping, and so on.
But death isn’t the only way that things end; growth has the same effect. How many Halloweens left before the kids are too old for trick-or-treating, and the entire concept and practice fades from my life forever? Four? Five?
When you’re a kid, trick-or-treating is part of the universe; it is an enduring universal, a component of time, an intrinsic part of the thing that we call “a year.” There is no question about its disappearance.
But I probably have just a handful of trick-or-treat evenings left before it disappears from my life permanently; becomes nothing more than a memory.
And it’s likely that I don’t have any trips to Timpanogos cave left—it is probably already, at this point, banished to the realm of memory forever.
I wonder if the kids will remember their trip in anything like the way that I remember and relate to mine. I suppose they’ll have their own “when you think about it, time is quite limited” moments someday.
For my part, everything around me has recently taken on this sheen of the temporary and the finite. How many more games of chess will I play in my life? A few dozen at most? How many more times will I have my dad’s favorite ice cream flavor, Pralines and Caramel at Baskin Robbins, given that it isn’t my favorite and that I don’t eat ice cream all that much? Maybe one more time? Maybe twice more? How many more times will I paint the interior of a house? One? Two at most? How many more cars will I buy before I’m too old to safely drive? If I live to be eighty years old, maybe three?
Time and life are profound sorts of things. We gloss over that every day because you have to in order to be willing waste your time and your life on wage labor. But when you do take a moment to think about them, you basically lose a day to thought and reflection and contemplation.