You Can’t Fall Off a Mountain

You Can't Fall Off a Mountain - Matterhorn Peak, CA

“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz…”

There is a fantastic scene in one of my favorite Kerouac novels where Ray, and his beat-poet buddies Japhy and Morley, are climbing on Matterhorn Peak, a mountain in the Sierra Nevadas in California. As he and Japhy climb higher up the mountain, the foggy distance between them grows. Japhy appears strong, fearless, reckless, even, at times. Ray, on the other hand, showcases his fear and doubt with every vertical step, muttering audibly to himself all that he regrets. Convinced he’s going to “fall off the mountain,” he stops climbing and squeezes himself into a crag to block the chilly wind, just a few hundred feet from the summit. “I’m staying right here. It’s too high!” he says to himself as he envies Morley who had called it quits hours before. Japhy climbs on.

With an echoing yodel, Japhy suddenly came leaping down the face of the mountain, rushing past Ray and his little crag and something inside of Ray changed. In that instant his courage waxed and he realized “you can’t fall off a mountain you fool!” He sprang to his feet and followed Japhy, running and vaulting down the mountain, bellowing and shouting all the way. And Kerouac, in his Zen-poet manner says “Then suddenly everything was just like jazz…”

Maybe physics doesn’t quite support Ray’s moment of clarity, but I get what he’s saying and I like it. I see in this little scene so much of the truth about people, and about myself. That when we think we can’t do something, then maybe we snuggle up to the easy way out, discharging little poisoned darts at the people who do the things we think we can’t. Until, in that moment that we see what success looks like from the outside, we wonder what we were afraid of in the first place. And we realize it could have been ours, too.

As I think of this in context of my faith and experience, I hope I can be Japhy, even though I know I’m more like Ray. I hope that I learn to feel the solid ground beneath my feet, to climb mountain who is God, and know that, though I may slip and struggle, I can’t fall off the Mountain. I hope it pushes me to the summit and that, when the time comes to descend the mountain to start again, I hope I run.


Photo of Matterhorn Peak courtesy of Jeff Pang: