Whenever I have driven to Pyramid Lake, I have taken I-80 through Fernley and Wadsworth. This afternoon, for the first time, I took Pyramid Lake Rd. out of Sparks. Unlike I-80, it does not pass alongside the mountains but goes through them – rolling hills, with sharp vertical mountains jutting up among them, the road rising, falling, and winding its way deeper into the high desert.
It was an interesting enough drive, but I did know the road having driven it the opposite direction toward Sparks. I knew the road going one way, but had never driven it into the Rez. As I came around one of the mountains, the Lake was suddenly there. I found myself headed directly toward it. The water was huge. It doesn’t look that big from any other vantage point. A vast expanse of water the most striking emerald color I have ever seen.
I was awestruck and afraid. Why afraid? It felt like when you stand at the edge of the roof top of a tall building or on a high bridge like the one at Royal Gorge and you are afraid of falling but also have a terrifying urge to jump. Rudolf Otto said that experience lies at the root of religion. He called it the “mysterium tremendum; mysterium fascinans” – an encounter with something that at once frightens and fascinates – the kind of terrifying beauty from which you cannot look away. That’s what the Bible means by “fear of the Lord” – not dread of punishment but a trembling in the presence of something immeasurably strange and wonderful.
There are more spectacular places in the way the Rockies are spectacular. But no place on earth touches me in this Rudolf Otto way half so much as Pyramid Lake does. On a completely different dark and windblown day three years ago, I visited the lake and described that encounter this way:
swoops over bare snow mountains
down, down onto Pyramid lake,
blue water skidding
away from shore, not to.
mist twin, not spray,
races across, above
toward island peaks – how far?
at the edge,
dip my fingers
into mysterium tremendum
and cross myself with fascinans.
in wet sand,
face wind-grit stung,
I can find
It turned out to be one of my very few published poems.
In a completely different way today, I drove around the mountain and found myself suddenly, abruptly (like that word “immediately” that begins so many sentence about Jesus in the book of Mark) and unexpectedly face to face with holiness. It felt as if I might drive off the hillside and sail right into that green water the way I hope someday to fly into God.
After the meeting of Paths Crossing, I drove home along Sutcliff Rd. The sun had set but the sky was still light in places though mostly covered with clouds. A light rain was falling. Clouds covered the mountain tops and swirled slowly in the wind. It was mysterious rain cloudiness with the lake beside me. It wasn’t startling now. But I was intensely aware of is deep presence even when I could not see it. God is rarely glimpsed but impossible to forget.