Ensign Peak

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One Saturday several months ago, it rained endlessly, great buckets over the valley, grey skies draining out their excess on the dry land beneath. On Sunday, the skies cleared and the sun washed warmly over the wet expanses. I made my way to the hills and parked my car at Ensign Peak Nature Park, not far from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve lived here four years now, give or take a few months, but I’ve never been to this particular park.

Flags fly at the bottom, which is fitting as the word ensign means a flag or standard. Apparently back in 1847, when the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young marched a group of men up to the top of this hill overlooking the city. He concocted a story about being shown this valley by the ghost of Joseph Smith in a holy vision and declared this is where the Saints would settle and build their new land. They named the hilltop Ensign Peak, referencing an old scripture from Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As I hike the relatively easy half mile incline to the top of the hill, my heart rate increased with minor exertion and my thoughts strayed to the thousands of people who had hiked this trail before me, going back generations. I get like this sometimes, existential, somehow connected to humanity going back to the beginning and pushing forward into the generations to come, my spirit extending outward beyond myself, soul open, eyes wide.

Life stirs in the bushes and trees around me. This Earth that supports life in all its forms, from the smallest of aphids to the largest of whales, from a single blade of grass to a sycamore tree, from one quiet infant to an entire race of humans each warring for their own interests and screaming for validation. A squirrel scrambles to the side, a bird flits up to a tree top, a cricket jumps across the path.

It only takes me 20 minutes to reach the top, and I find a rock to sit against, rolling my jacket up behind the small of my back. There is a little tower of rocks, man-made, up at the Peak, commemorating the space. I don’t let myself look at the horizon, not yet. I just want to experience life here for a moment. It’s warm, there’s a breeze, the ground is hard.

Over the next 20 minutes, I shut my eyes and just listen to the errant conversations around me, snippets of dialogue, voices among loved ones, words that only exist for the amount of time it takes for them to be spoken.

“How long are you in town before you head back to Berlin? We have to take you to a Bees game while you are here!”

“Mom! I already have four likes and two friend requests, look!”

“Sorry about my dog, she just makes that noise when she’s excited, but she would never hurt anyone.”

“Honey, did you forget the snack packs? He’s gonna want his snack pack.”

“I love you, too.”

I notice the quiet within myself, my own internal voices are silent. Those persistent drives and discomforts about the empty bank account, the need for better nutrition, the lack of abs, the lack of a boyfriend… they are silent for now, and it feels amazing. My face, my hands, my neck, all exposed skin soaks up the sunlight and the breeze.

After a time I stand and I take in a slow view of the horizon. The sun hangs low over the Great Salt Lake in the west with the Oquirrh Mountains on the horizon, the city stretches on endlessly to the South with buildings and roads as far as I can see, the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains give color and life to the east. The beautiful State Capitol building lies just below the peak, the smaller Salt Lake City Temple (the Mormon holy building) just beyond that, the University of Utah to the west, enormous apartment buildings jutting all over the valley.

I think back to the how the horizon has changed over the years. Back in 1847, this was a wide open expanse, all brown rock and blue skies. By 1900, the Mormon temple must have been the biggest building, with only small roads and homes around it, now it is dwarfed by concrete and metal businesses and dwellings, beautiful but barely noticeable unless you are right next to it. Before that, this peak must have been used by the fur traders and trappers who moved into the region, seeking to pillage its resources for wealth. Still before that, Native Americans likely used the same view to scout out resources, water sources or animals for hunting, or perhaps as a vantage point to watch for enemies. And it will keep changing as humans die and new humans take their places, as buildings and roads crumble and new structures are built over the old. What will be the view from this peak in ten years, fifty, one hundred?

I keep my back to the others who come and go behind me, still catching bits of their conversations.

“Dude, if you can’t run up this hill, you definitely aren’t ready for a marathon.”

“Should I text her again? No, you’re right, I just gotta wait for a response.”

“This is my first climb since my knee surgery. I can’t wait for a real challenge.”

“Humans,” I think, and I realize I’m smiling. Humans indeed.

I’m there for another ninety minutes, thinking, peaceful, centered, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. These are the moments to live for, these spiritual moments in nature. I find them in nature, in the human story, in myself.

As the sun sets, I descend. There is a poetry to this place. An ensign raised for a new land, a peak from which you can see with clarity all around you, every potential, every pitfall. An ensign for myself, and one I plan to return to often.

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