Too-nu-yah Excerpt

After eating a hearty breakfast, we packed some pemmican and jerky and headed across the Merced to the bottom of the Staircase Falls, as we had named them. Latta led the way through the brush at the left of the stream and found the barest trace of the trail he and I followed a year ago. I did not exaggerate--we climbed a series of rock steps that had us on hands and knees for almost three hours. Elena could watch where Latta had placed his hands and feet, and with me following to make sure her feet were placed securely, we made our way safely up to where the path led to the left and up a more gradual slope. Nearing the top we got our first close up look at the projecting rock called 'The Eagles Perch'. Elena just gazed at it spellbound. Finally we walked through a forest of Jeffrey pine, each step on a bed of springy, fragrant pine needles. Then we reached an open stretch of granite slab, and finally walked to the very edge of Patillema (later called Glacier Point). Projecting out over the most beautiful scene on the face of the earth was the Perch of the Eagles.

Although the very edge looked secure, and probably would not break off in a thousand years, there was a little gravel on the surface of the granite slab that could cause a foot to slide if one were not careful. Elena reached for my hand, but I grasped hers in an unusual fashion--hand grasping wrist. I knew how curious she was, and I knew she wanted to look over the edge and straight down, if possible. If she slipped over the precipice, she was not going without me! She was all too eager to inch her way to the very edge. Holding on to one another, we scooted out until she could actually dangle her legs over the abyss. After less than a minute, she turned to me and said, "Jeff, would you mind leaving me out here alone for just a few minutes? I will just sit still here, but I want to feel like a free spirit--like I could spread out my arms as if they were wings and soar on the wind like a bird."

I nodded my assent, but I had a lump in my throat as I backed away from her toward the flat granite of the mountain proper. It seemed foolish for me to worry so. After all, she was no child. But she must be nearly exhausted from the effort of the climb up here. If she should get faint and fall sideways, I thought, there was no way I could reach her in time. I was so anxious my heart was beating at almost twice its normal pace. Latta just smiled. Each time he comes up here, he informed me, he goes out to the very end of the rock. But as far as he knew, no woman had ever been up here, and he was surprised but pleased that Elena was determined to experience the thrill of sitting there on the rock that jutted out over empty space.

After a minute or two, she extended her arms and twisted her upper torso back and forth as if she were an eagle or hawk catching updrafts from the valley and slowly circling three quarters of a mile above the meadows on the valley floor. That was enough for me! I was already edging forward to lead her back to safety when she turned around and nodded that she was ready to climb back off the projecting rock that looked so much like an eagle's head. When we were back 'on solid ground', I held her close in a long embrace. Again Latta's face broke into a broad smile, and he shook his head in wonderment at the antics of this strange white couple.

"That was an intense spiritual experience for me, Jeff. I imagined that I sat on the head of a huge eagle, and we were soaring silently back and forth high above this magnificent valley. I was seeing the waterfalls, the sheer cliffs and the winding river as only the eagles had seen it before. I hope it isn't sacrilegious to say so, but I don't think I've ever felt that close to God in church. This experience will remain deeply imbedded in my memory for the rest of my life."

Latta then volunteered something that surprised and pleased me greatly, "In all of our tribes", he said, "a brave must occasionally take time to go off by himself to commune with the Great Spirit. He seeks a vision that comes easier if he has not eaten for a few days and his body is exhausted. At this place the Spirit comes easier to me than anywhere else I know. I thought that such visions were given only to men, but I can see that El-len'-nah has been permitted one."