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TIMP CAVE TRAIL PUTS HIKER OVER THE EDGE

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ON THE TRAIL TO TIMPANOGOS CAVE, AMERICAN FORK CANYON, UTAH - From here I can see for miles, thanks. There's the distant rustle of water below me. I can gaze across at other mountains - croppings of gray, then brown, then gray again; evergreens; other trees turning flame-red with the season.

I'm in the mountains - Utah's Wasatch Range. I'm even on a mountain - but just barely. I'm catching my breath and waiting for my courage. The breath will come back; the courage is long gone.I'm not at the top of the mountain. I'm nowhere near the top of the mountain. Where I am is on a bench, five minutes up the mountain from the ranger's shack, next to a big brown sign that says: STOP!

"STOP!" it says. "If you have heart or breathing difficulties or are under a doctor's care, the trail ahead may be too strenuous. The distance to the cave is approximately 2.4 km (1.5 mi.) with a vertical rise of 325 meters (1,065 feet)."

I'm not under a doctor's care. Heart or breathing difficulties, then? Just these: If I so much as glance off the trail, my heart starts racing and my breathing get shallow, and I have to wipe my palms dry against my jeans to keep this pen and the little notebook I brought along from slipping out of my hands and tumbling over the edge.

Over the edge - that's where the problem is.

Height doesn't bother me, you understand, not by itself. Falling bothers me. I've stood at the top of some of the world's tallest buildings, looked out the windows and felt just fine. Mountains are different.

A mother and son come by, heading uphill. "Pike's Peak," mom says, describing last year's car trip up a mountainside. "I wouldn't do that again." "Pike's Peak," son says. "You get a headache looking down." Ah, so I'm not the only one - I just hit my limits at a lower altitude. But this much lower?

More people come by - old people, young people, toddlers. Kids with canteens slung casually over one shoulder. (But they're off-balance! What if they -) Kids running down the trail, into the switchbacks, skirting the edges. (But what if -) They're fine. I sit.

I wasn't always this way. I was never fearless, but I was better than this. Twice I hiked into the Grand Canyon, just pushed off from the South Rim and headed down. There's even a picture of me perched at the very edge of the South Rim, half the world spread out just behind me, and far, far below.

(I hear an engine approaching. A ranger with a yellow helmet - "Beware of falling rocks," they warn you - and a serious expression rides past on a motorcycle. Somebody's hurt up there. Or petrified.)

Grand Canyon: Out of camera range, of course, I had an arm planted right behind me - protection against a sudden loss of balance, a breeze, a bobcat attack, a suicidal grizzly. Better safe than sorry - but could I even do that much now?

Put me on a trail with brush on all sides and I can manage. But then I come around a turn and the brush falls away and there's nothing but air - lots of air - between me and the ground. Suddenly, I'm hugging the mountain.

The Timpanogos trail is paved. It's nearly as wide as an average sidewalk. Have I ever fallen off a sidewalk, average or otherwise? Never. So why the worry? It's just like walking, except there's all that spectacular scenery.

Freeze. But this is crazy - I can't just sit here! I'm going to try for the next trail marker, up around the bend somewhere.

I'm back. I didn't make the next marker. I didn't get more than 100 feet from this bench. Spectacular scenery? I wouldn't know. Wet palms, dry mouth, eyes staring only at my feet. Better quit before my knees turn completely to jam (or is it concrete?), before the ranger has to load me onto his bike.

It's beautiful here. I'm sure it's even better farther up. Now, if only I could see it with my eyes closed. . . .