Take it or Leave it: Searching for Silence on the Summit…by Jim Stiles


I made my 28th trip to the top of a nearby mountain last month. But who’s counting? I hadn’t missed a year since 1985, and then my own procrastinations and an early snow storm stymied my efforts to make the summit in 2000. I was mortified.

This year I almost failed again. I wasted much of the summer, whining about the drought and the heat, convinced that it would never rain or snow again. Plenty of time, I figured, to make the hike. But the rains came in September and as a particularly gnarly storm moved into Utah, I figured it was time to go. Now or never.


Despite rain and sleet and 80 mph winds that almost swept me off the ridge, I made it to the summit and the perfect vantage point for all those spectacular unobstructed views of the canyon country. The ascent was nothing technical or dramatic; it was simply a long hike above timberline where the air is thin and clear (if also a tad turbulent), to a place I’ve come to regard as my own in a way. It’s difficult not to become territorial about something you love.
In another way, however, it is a meeting place for everyone who has climbed the peak. The summit provides a solitary opportunity to share thoughts and feelings during the moments spent in the brilliant isolation of 12,000 feet.


Wedged between a pile of ancient rocks is an old mailbox. Inside the box, hikers have been “signing in” on the summit register for years. In fact, until 1991, the old logs carried entries that went back almost three decades. In June of that year, however, my heart sank as I reached the summit and saw the front lid of the mailbox wide open and fluttering in the wind. I peered warily inside and saw my worst fears realized. Varmints had taken 30 years of history and chewed it into a fine mulch.

A year later, I made the same hike, and discovered that no one had replaced the register. But I came prepared with a blank spiral sketch book of my own. And so I made the first entry, noting my disappointment that the BLM had not been up there to replace it themselves. And as is my habit, my mantra, I waxed melancholy about the “sunny slopes of long ago.”


Since then, hikers have filled that register book and more. I’m not sure how many have made the climb, but I never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary variety of people who find their way up this isolated Utah mountain. The entries are poignant and idiotic, serious and whimsical, compassionate and bitter. Yet we’re all drawn to this high windy spot. For instance…

A young guy, I guess, had this exuberant observation to make on August 18, 1992:
“This is what it’s all about. To experience the adventure. Not to experience it vicariously through the pages of a magazine. Or through the screen of a cathode ray hypnotizer. I can’t stop & I won’t stop looking…I don’t know what I’ll find. But I know it’s waiting for me…Keep on searching.

I hope that enthusiasm never leaves him and I hope that someday he won’t end his entries with “RAVE ON!” But his heart is sure in the right place. I wasn’t so sure about this next kid, part of a high school outdoor course from Aspen.


On August 27, Marty left this bit of brilliance in the log.
* I’ll show you hormones.
* Hey, just look at the sunny side of the egg.
* Scratch the Lonesome Beaver
* Where is the east coast?

Marty…don’t come back up here. Stay home and watch TV. Don’t leave the house…we’ll bring you food and beer. On the other hand, I wish other well-meaning conservationists wouldn’t get so intense…

“American Wilderness…Love it or leave it! No compromise in defense of Mother Earth! Support Biodiversity! Love your Mother! Don’t become one! Return the predators (This does not mean the white man!).
“Have a nice day. Peace.”

Too many damn exclamation marks if you ask me! And why is the Earth always assumed to be a Mother? What kind of sexist crap is that anyway?
Next on my list is Mr. Mayer, from the Front Range of Colorado, who arrived on the summit just a few days before my return in 1993. He had a bone to pick with me…
“Mr. Stiles, Thanks for the register. However, as to your whining about the BLM not doing anything about replacing the old register, grow up and shut up. I don’t believe summit registers have ever been within that agency’s jurisdiction.”
I get yelled at, no matter where I go. Later, I found this entry which made me feel better…
BLM PATROL…July 3, 1994
“We see no register is necessary since Mr. Stiles provided one.”
(Signed) Bruce Babbitt

It was nice of Bruce to take time out from being pummeled by ranchers and environmentalists to climb a mountain.
But while “Bruce” came up here to get away from people and others come looking for solitude; some come to meet people. This man left his phone number…


“My name is Bob. I am from Easton, Mass.
I am 35 years old.
Call: (215) 262-**** (I deleted the number)
And tell me your Utah experiences. I like to jaw about it.”

Sounded a little like Dial-a-Date to me. I hope he found true love awaiting him at the end of a collect phone call.
By October, the reasons for being in the high country had changed for some. This fellow, a local, was looking for something to shoot at when he spotted the register box…

“I am up here deer hunting. Saw the mail box. Opened it to find this notebook. WOW! This is one crazy place for a mail box but what the hell. We are all crazy. Well got to get hunting.
“Life’s Great!”
Yes it is, Shawn. But right on his heels was this genius.
“Life is great. Utah sucks. California is the best!”


Another member of an “outdoor education” group, this one from California, but from the same state of mind as our friend Marty who left his “funny quotes” for us. Yes I agree with you completely. It does suck. I advise you and your friends to return to California immediately if not sooner. Send us a card from time to time.
The only disappointment I ever find on this mountain from year to year is the way these outdoor leadership schools insist on bringing Nintendo Nerds to the top of an otherwise lonely lovely spot. Start them out with a trip to Disneyland. Send them down a water slide. Winnow out the permanently de-sensitized. A place like this should be the ultimate reward, not some kind of punishment. Half the register is filled with complaints from high school kids who wish they were at the arcade. I wish they were at the arcade too.
If it were only possible, I also wish the previous writer could have been a witness to the next observation. Does the word “abduction” come to mind?

“I am a witness to a UFO sighting. My uncle Mark and Aunt Robin woke me up about 5:20 AM and saw a bright light on the mountain east of camp. Mark ran over to tent, woke me up, and I did see the light. It was flashing red and green lights. Now I’m a firm believer in the extraterrestrials….Jason, 22 yrs. old”

I believe this guy. He had to be a fairly intelligent person because he spelled “extraterrestrials” correctly without Spellcheck.
My favorite entry was this one, recorded on May 28, 1994…

“My first time up here and since I’m only 8, I will have many more chances. It’s beautiful! I brought my middle-aged parents.
Amanda, 8
Linda, 45
Alan, 58 (48)

Apparently Alan was not quite as old as Amanda thought. Despite his “middle age,” let’s hope he has the strength to make the climb a few more times as well.
And finally, on the last page, the familiar slogan, Abbey’s prophesy, fiery words for the American West…

Death to the Machines!
The Second Coming of the Monkey Wrench Gang

Followed by this addendum…
“Get a life. It was only a novel…sheesh. Ed Abbey put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. Drove cars too.”

I think Abbey would have enjoyed both comments, and agreed with the sentiments as well.
After a couple of hours on top, I cinched up my pack and headed back down the mountain. It’s a difficult place to get to and even harder to leave, but my ‘undisclosed location’ gives me comfort, even when I’m not there. May it always be the windswept solitary summit for those who seek and understand the true meaning of Solitude.


To read the PDF version of this article, click here.


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