Crossing the empty parking lot, I zipped my fleece jacket to my chin and drew my fingers into my sleeves. It was August and already the mountain morning air held heavy hints of the coming autumn–known in Yellowstone as “early winter.” Side by side, my dad and I climbed the sloping path to Tower Fall.
During my growing up years, Tower had always been a regular stop when my family visited Yellowstone. That first year, its 132-foot plunge impressed me but it was the large boulder perched at the brink that held my attention. I was sure it, like us, had just landed there and we’d somehow arrived just in time to see something momentous. I was certain it wouldn’t be long before it succumbed to the constant flow of the substantial Tower Creek. I expected it to drop over the edge and plummet into the pool below while we stood there.
Two years later, it was still there, situated in seemingly the same place. It was there the next time and the time after that. And I was surprised. Every time. How long could that boulder withstand the unrelenting pressure of the water?
If you’ve waded across a substantial stream or river, you know the pressure of rushing water. You know the effect on your center of gravity. You know the effort it takes to keep your feet—to stay stable and upright and on course.
It turns out, a boulder can withstand the pressure of rushing water for a very long time. Photographs place that particular boulder in that same spot on the brink of the falls as far back as 1871. And souls more wilderness-wise than I were equally expectant of the boulder’s imminent fall. Members of the Hayden expedition are said to have wagered among themselves over which hour the boulder would drop.
So that chilly August morning, when I stepped onto the platform that offered a full view of the fall, I ignored the lovely pool at the bottom. I skipped the plunging free-fall over the rock face. I left for later the towering pinnacles at the top. I looked only for the boulder perched at the brink. It was gone.
Sometime during the spring of 1986, the boulder’s hour had finally come and it fell over the edge. No one saw it drop. One day, someone simply noticed it was missing.
That Tower’s boulder would withstand the unrelenting pressure of Tower Creek for more than a century doesn’t seem possible. (At least, it doesn’t seem possible from my perspective—and I think the wilderness-wise members of the Hayden Expedition would agree.) But here’s the truth: there was more than one force at work on that boulder. Not only was there the hydraulic pressure of the water. There was also the force of gravity. One pushed on it. The other held it fast to the earth.
With so much to see and do in the park and so little time to see and do them, we’d gotten out of the habit of stopping at Tower. At least, that’s what I’d thought. But as I examined the boulderless brink, I wondered if the waterfall, majestic and worth stopping for, had been what drew me. I’d seen it with the boulder. I’d contemplated how long it could possibly hang on. I’d experienced the tension, tension that enhanced Tower’s beauty and brought me back for more. It wasn’t the same without it.
While the idea that tension enhances beauty is lovely for waterfalls and boulders, I object to it in my life. Tension, by its nature, is uncomfortable and I, by mine, resist discomfort. I suspect, or maybe just hope, I am not completely alone in this. Regardless of our preferences, we don’t often get to choose.
Right now we’re negotiating the swirling waters of uncertainty, navigating terrain that’s messing with our center of gravity. We’re fighting to keep our feet—to stay stable and upright and on course. We’re living in tension.
With the chaos of cancellations and questions and the looming unknowns of the coming seasons, we are well aware of the wearying, unrelenting, unsteadying pressure as we try to take the next step. What we don’t always as easily notice is the ever-present strength that holds us fast. We are held. For as long as it takes, God anchors and shelters us in the midst of all the things that push and swirl as we navigate our upside-down world.
Even in the most normal of seasons, there is always something pressing in, always some pressure working to push us toward the precipice. But God has promised His presence. His strength holds us fast. He works for good what we have a hard time seeing as anything but bad. Tension is and will be a constant companion. Uncomfortable though it may be, I’m learning to see the beauty in that, just as I saw it at Tower Fall.