When I was sixteen, that summer my brother Andy and I hiked the Sierra Nevada in the back country near Lake Tahoe. Our parents had left us with two water bottles and instructions to stick to the trail. “Don’t get lost,” my mother shouted as the car pulled away. I nodded, not quite paying attention, because I had never been in high mountains before. I was eager for the experience. The green and white peaks spread out above us like the fabled homes of the gods.
We struggled up the switchback path, not used to strenuous activity in the July heat. We seemed closer to the sun, unprotected in the alpine meadows. White boulders scattered over the steep slopes, blistering to the touch. Andy and I emptied the bottles quickly into our raspy throats, unfamiliar with moderation and conservation. Soon, there were scant swallows sloshing at the bottom of the containers. Stunted mountain trees laughed at our youthful lack of preparation.
The hot, precipitous trail continued upward for a few dozen switchbacks, but finally disappeared through a cleft in the mountains. We stumbled over the pass and were stunned to find a lake of pure and pristine beauty. Hidden from below, the secret place looked like a water-filled volcanic crater, or else a tarn created by the convergence of three peaks. Surrounding the lake, thick stands of pine trees swayed in a slight breeze, cooling hot, dark soil. The oasis was deserted, except for one older girl who had hiked with her school books and lay studying in the shade. My brother and I trudged around the lakeside. Our drinking supply was almost gone. The heat of the day had demoralized us. We sat on the edge of the wide mere, took off our shoes and bathed our tired feet.
The rippling liquid looked heavenly, darker than the sky, pure as life itself. We eyed it with anticipation and began to question. “Should we jump in? Are we allowed? Should we get our clothes wet? Is it too cold?” Will some great monster rise up and devour us?” We waffled. We excused. And then, we shuffled back through the cloudless summer gap, down into the valley. Why? Why didn’t we jump in that lake? It was clear and clean and wet. No one would have stopped us. We could have been cool and comfortable all the way home. But no.
A few years later I would have jumped. I had learned. At some point in our lives, we must learn this lesson: to dive into the lake, to be free, to follow our heart's desires. When we are old and sitting by the peaceful lake in patient stillness, we can then abstain from jumping in. We can linger in the perfect happiness of our lake memories, with nothing left undone.