Gracious Ruin

A.J. Romriell

I sat in the backseat of my parents’ car, travelling down the freeway at seventy. Far too quickly. I wanted to take my time, move slower.


It was as if with every mile we moved, I could feel myself cracking. My sister grasped my hand, but I couldn’t look at her. She squeezed my fingers, and I closed my eyes.

We were on our way to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah—my parents, sister, and I. There was an expectation within the religious culture for me to serve a mission—a two-year separation from home and family to teach my beliefs in a foreign land. It was a rite of passage for every nineteen-year-old Mormon boy and one I had planned on partaking of my whole life. In earlier years, I had wanted to go in order to help other people, to bring them into a religion I loved so much. That day, however, barreling down the freeway through the brisk winds of mid-September, I wondered if that were still true.

Maybe I believed in redemption, hoping, deep down, that this could set me straight. If I gave everything over to God, maybe he could change me—shape me into the person I was supposed to be. He could fix me.

Maybe I was just too afraid to believe anything else.

“You’re going to be okay, you know,” my sister told me, squeezing my hand again.

I tried to hold the tears threatening to roll down my cheeks. “I know.”

After pulling off the freeway, we parked on an empty road a few blocks from the Missionary Training Center. The MTC used to allow family to say farewells inside, but there were too many missionaries going now. It had become too cramped, too chaotic. Now, the missionary walked into a whole new world with nothing more than a simple goodbye.

My parents and sister took pictures with me, tears already starting to fall from our cheeks. I tried not to tremble under the weight of their arms, though I felt like collapsing—letting myself fall to the cement and pleading not to go. I smiled instead. I let them know I would be okay. I had to be okay. This was my choice.

We left our small side of the road and pulled onto the MTC driveway. There were seasoned missionaries waiting for us. One helped me with my suitcase as I gave a last hug to my parents and sister.

When I separated from my mom, she told me, “Let us know whatever you need. We’ll write you as soon as we can.”

I had forgotten until that moment that I wouldn’t be allowed to call them except on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I wouldn’t hear their voices for months. I didn’t want to let go, but the older missionary told me it was time. The sound of goodbyes from other missionaries around me became enormous. As I walked through the crowd, I choked on my tongue and turned back to my family. I couldn’t hear what my dad called from beside the car as he waved. Maybe it was a simple goodbye. I would later forget to ask.


I’m still breathless when the ranger tells us that it’s time to start the tour. The hike up to Timpanogos Cave in American Fork Canyon was only 1½ miles, but in that time, we rose 5,638 feet. It reminds me how low my cardiovascular endurance is. I make another goal to exercise more that I doubt will actually come to fruition. I suppose the trying counts.

Our small group gathers around the ranger, whose name also happens to be Andrew. Our group is small—only five others besides my husband, Jed, and me. Other Andrew says this is good.

“I’ll be able to show you all the stuff I don’t get to show the big groups.”

It makes me feel special in a way.

A large wooden door, laden with locks and chains, guards the entrance to the cave. Airtight and sealed, the door protects the cave from external heat. Other Andrew tells us that four years ago, the cave dried out because of an air leak. “Humidity is important,” he says.

Apparently, air can kill.

He tells us we will pass through three caves: Hansen Cave, Middle Cave, and Timpanogos to finish. They were originally separate, but the National Park Service blasted tunnels through them in order to assist the tour. I suppose they did it to make the tour easier, but a piece of me grieves the damage.

Other Andrew unlocks the door for us and guides us into the first chamber, Hansen Cave. My first impression is that it’s a huge cavern, a giant natural hole in the mountain. Only after we settle in and close the door, Other Andrew tells us the place was once more beautiful than it is now.

“Early settlers ransacked the cave when they found it.” He speaks as if the tragedy was worse than anything he could imagine.

He points out a tiny stalactite forming on the ceiling, dripping water to a stalagmite on the ground. Other Andrew tells us that with enough time, and if it’s protected, the two will come together and create a pillar, something that will hold up the cave. That maybe one day there won’t be evidence that humans ever touched the place. I look toward the metal bridge we will cross to a metal door and wonder how that could ever be.

“It makes me feel sad,” I whisper to Jed.

“Yeah, me too.”

The metal door leads us through a blasted tunnel and into Middle Cave. We find a small body of water here, which Other Andrew says is actually a lake that stretches below the rock. Beside it is a pillar, a stalactite and stalagmite that have come together to craft a column from floor to ceiling. I think it’s as solid as the cave walls, but Other Andrew shines his light behind it. A soft pink glow illuminates the center of the pillar—not rock, but crystal. Minerals built together by dripping water over thousands of years. I wonder if this is what had been in Hansen Cave before the desecration. I wonder how much effort it would take to break the pillar.

I wonder how easy it would be to destroy. To cause irreversible damage.