The best view isn't always from the top

My palms began to sweat as I studied the steep incline of the path. The smooth sandstone spine of Australia's Ayers Rock was fitted with metal posts, and thick chains were provided along the narrowest passages. Still, I was nervous about climbing.

Aborigines do not climb this rock, known to them as Uluru, because they believe it to be part of the sacred path their ancestors traveled when the Earth was formed. They do not climb out of respect for those who went before them, and they ask that tourists also refrain.

Because of the stories handed down to them, Aborigines see Uluru as a sacred monument to their ancestors and the Earth. But to me – and to the hordes of tourists fresh off a clustered fleet of air-conditioned buses – the officially open-to-the-public mount was a challenge. I was 15 years old and hungry for new experiences.

At points during my ascent, I clung to the chains affixed to the stone's spine. At other sections, where the stone path widened, I almost skipped along.

I finally reached the top, where the view I felt I'd earned spread out as an endless red sea of sand. I had an urge to take pictures of myself with this view, magnificent because of what it was lacking rather than for what it held. The photo would be proof that I conquered this strange, mountain-size desert stone.

Once I'd crested Uluru, it seemed I had been successful on the outback leg of my Australian journey. Only on the steep trek down did I begin to contemplate the offense of what had, at first, seemed such a harmless amusement.

I began to feel ashamed that I had hesitated to climb out of fear rather than out of respect for local lore.

It has been more than 10 years since I climbed Uluru, but my breach of travel etiquette haunts me still. When I think back to that day and the dry heat of the Australian outback, it is a conversation with an Aborigine artist – not the view from a conquered stone – I remember most vividly.

The artist, a woman with wild, graying hair, had been dour-faced when I approached her outdoor art booth after my climb. As I ran my hand across canvas surfaces covered in scattered dots that rose like Braille, she called out the prices to let me know she was watching me.

The one I finally chose to purchase was a small piece of prestretched canvas bearing half-moon shapes surrounded by a blizzard of paint. It was composed of earth tones – hues of mud and saffron.

"What are these shapes?" I asked her, pointing to the crescents, and the woman's face softened at the sincerity of my interest.

"Those represent people sitting around a campfire," she told me. "Stars are the campfires of our ancestors."

The night before, I'd lain under a Milky Way so thick that I had finally understood how it had gotten its name. Stars seemed to flow through the sky like a liquid vein of white diamonds through an onyx stone. Holding the painting, I considered how comforting it must be to see all those brilliant lights as the warm hearths of loved ones.

"You have a lot of stars here," I told her.

"A lot of campfires," she corrected me.

I can't remember the last time I looked at the picture of myself standing on Uluru, smiling against a backdrop of sapphire-blue sky. But I look at that painting every day, and when I look up on star-encrusted nights, I am reminded of the story its artist shared with me.

If I were to visit Uluru today, I am certain I would not climb. I've come to realize that the best views found while traveling often appear later – in the mind at the prompt of a local's story. They are the views that slowly reveal themselves like campfire-stars at dusk, the stories that give meaning to the patch of land on which I stand.

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