Lines written a few miles above Walter’s Wiggles

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Zion Canyon. The West Rim is on the right; Angel’s Landing is lower right.

There’s no accounting for the passage of time. Clocks and calendars while seeming to measure the flow of moments or years or lifetimes, aren’t really up to the task. How can 600 pages torn from faded calendars explain why some fifty year-old memories seem as fresh to me as last week’s? How can a canyon take 250 million years to form? How can re-visiting a favorite old backcountry climb here in Utah cause such a burst of emotion, though it’s been many years since I’ve been here? The very passage of time seems less than real.

I’m on a hike with my wife, Andrea, to the west rim of Zion Canyon and while here, I seem to step into Wordsworth’s famous poem about his walking tour above Tintern Abbey. Even though he wrote of a time and place 216 years in the past and thousands of miles from here, the lines of the poem ring true for me.

The hills above the Abbey held special meaning for Wordsworth, but he had not climbed in that country for five years. He wrote that the place had not been unseen in all that time however; often when the crush of the city strife became too much for him, he would revisit these vistas in his mind and find that it calmed him.

He remembered that when five years younger he could bound over the mountainsides like a deer—not quite the case when he sat writing the most iconic poem of his era. But to be once again walking the steep climbs above Tintern Abbey, it all came back with a rush of melancholy and nostalgia. And hope.

Wordsworth, I suppose, risked being over-sentimental in his recollection of the past. And I also risk it here. And yet, as he said when recounting his memories, “That is past.”

Wordsworth’s younger sister had never seen the area above Tintern Abbey and he brought her along on this walking tour. He addressed some of the lines of the poem to her personally. He told her that he hoped that in the future, whatever grief found them, whatever hardship, that she would find solace in the healing balm of Nature in memory, just as he had. And he hoped that even after his physical death, and he had become—as he put it—a living soul, that she would still remember and find joy upon joy in the simple memory of the place high above these rugged cliffs. But that was 1798.

I first backpacked the west rim of Zion Canyon nearly 50 years ago. One of my high school buddies and I made the climb up Walter’s Wiggles and then higher onto the canyon rim. We took two days to make it to Lava Point, 13 miles above the canyon floor. We encountered no one on our walk, indeed, did not see another hiker until we were at the farthest campsite on the west rim trail. Three guys were camped there.

All these years later, I still remember them: one young man, walking alone, was a medical student on semester break. He was quiet, reserved, thin, and his complexion almost pale. Frankly he did not look fit enough to carry a heavy pack all the way up from the valley floor. But he assured us that he had done exactly that.

Then there were two ski bums. They were about 30, broad shouldered, well tanned, sun burnt faces, almost too easy with a smile or laugh. They had skied all winter at Alta, they told us; financed the whole year of travel and skiing selling bricks of hashish they’d smuggled in from Morocco. After our dinner, beef stew cooked over my slightly rusted, liquid-fueled primus stove, one of the guys pulled a foil-wrapped red-brown brick about as wide as my hand and half an inch thick from a front pocket of his blue jeans and shaved some of it into a pipe with a sharp pocket knife.

“You want some of this?” he asked.

I politely—or to be honest, not so politely, since I thought smoking the stuff was a stupid idea—declined.

So, he and his buddy shared the pipe. “We’re going to go back to Morocco this summer,” one of them told me. “Meeting a friend in Zion, catching a ride to Vegas then on to Marrakesh.”

Even though I was there with my friend, I often wandered off on my own. And it was on one of those wanderings that I found the most exquisite spot. Ponderosa pine and aspen grew there and I had a good view of the canyon walls below. I was suddenly overwhelmed. The words awe and awesome are thrown around with such casual indifference these days as to be rendered meaningless. It may seem an exaggeration to say this, but standing alone above the canyon rim I experienced a deeper meaning of Awe; nearly enough to bring me to tears.

That’s a memory that has stayed with me a long time.

The med student, standing before me in memory, is not much more than a boy though he must be in his 70s now and likely retired. The two happy smugglers? Did they live a rapturous life filled with luxury or end up in a North African prison? I often wonder what became of them.

Fifty years ago and still the memory is fresh. And these hills and dramatic cliffs have stirred my emotions through minor victories and outright disasters, romances, ruined and sad ones, a few straw-fires brilliant and brief, and my glad and lasting one, mistakes and unkindnesses, decades of aging.

With Andrea beside me on that high rim, emotion seemed about to burst through again. “This is my special place,” I said to her. “This is my Tintern Abbey.”

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The West Rim.
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High on the West Rim Trail, with Zion Canyon in the distance.

Andrea didn’t know the poem, and I certainly didn’t have it committed to memory. But I was able to tell her that for Wordsworth, the hills above Tintern Abbey were of such peace and beauty, so filled with the spirit of Creation itself that an image of it in his inner eye was able to console him through any difficulty he encountered during intervening years. And, I explained, he brought his sister along, hoping the beauty of the place would also inspire her, and stay with her in her future years, through everything, even his own passing.

Andrea looked about her, up at trees and clear sky and down at the canyon walls far below letting it all really sink in, and as I watched, her lips began to tremble and her eyes filled with tears that then ran freely down her cheeks in the high cold wind. And then, through sobs, she cried out, “It’s so beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!”

So she understood suddenly—how such a place can be our own Tintern Abbey.

I’m afraid that people don’t think that way anymore. People don’t read Wordsworth anymore—he was even sorely criticized in his own day by some. Much too melancholy and lacking in good cheer, they said. Certainly not many have time for him today. It’s a time of cynicism, distrust in our institutions, our politicians, our news reporters, and sometimes even in each other—and not without cause. People just want to escape with a good car chase—with lots of computer-aided special effects—at the movies.

And Wordsworth’s belief that upon death he would become a living Soul—indeed that this belief was strengthened by the beauty above Tintern Abbey? Many scoff at such belief today; atheism is on the rise and thought to be only logical.

But for me, I found all that Wordsworth had discovered—but here, many miles from his Welch hillside. Here, these miles above the crazy climb up Walter’s Wiggles and far above Angel’s Landing.

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Angel’s Landing.

I could urge you to do the same: I believe there’s something of great value to be found. Perhaps you don’t think there’s time. The office needs to be productive; there are bills to pay. Can a few photos and my own urging be enough to move you? Can I convince you that you can find Creation and the Creator in some private and special place, perhaps even stronger than in any man-made cathedral? Is such a thing even conceivable?

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Dr. Halligan, posing on the West Rim.

It’s just my opinion, but I believe your own personal Tintern Abbey exists somewhere. Some find solace in simply reading Tintern Abbey, but I suspect Wordsworth wanted to inspire those who read him to go—go out and find their own hill or woods where nature and beauty could stir them and stay with them even if years and miles separated them from the place.

Your own Tintern Abbey: It’s on a mountain or sea shore or wind-blown desert somewhere. Can you take the time to find it? When the beauty, the certain melding of time and space and the unending sky itself makes your knees weaken and you fight just a little to hold back tears, when the meaning of the word Awe becomes all of your reality, you’ll know you’ve reached it.

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William Halligan

William Halligan

William F. Halligan is a 1972 graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Dentistry. He practiced general dentistry during most of his career with an emphasis on restorative dentistry. He is a member of the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain and a founding member of the Academy of Clinical Sleep Disorders Dentistry. Dr. Halligan’s practice is located in San Diego and is focused on treating TMJ disorders.

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