Don’t Follow Me

Lake Ediza

Dear Will:

When you’re camping in the backcountry, something tugs at you, and you pretty much HAVE to throw some water and a protein bar into a daypack and head off to find out what’s on the other side of that ridge. Thus on a recent trip to the High Sierras I found myself wobbling across a log bridge and climbing a massive chunk of rock to see what I could see. My climb took me into the midst of a tangle of streams where I beheld a lovely view of Lake Ediza below. But THEN, I looked back toward our campsite and beyond, through an opening in the distant trees, and I saw this:

Double Waterfall

Makes you want to grab your daypack and go, doesn’t it? I immediately declared to anyone who would listen and several who wouldn’t that tomorrow we were all going to head off in search of the double waterfall. Which we did. Now as it turned out, that cascade tumbled down the mountain just 10 minutes from our campsite, leaving us plenty of time to respond again to that familiar tug: “Where does all of this water come from? Let’s find out.”

So we kept climbing, following the stream up and up until we came to a glacier scooped into the base of some magnificent, jagged peaks. From underneath the ice, you could see the meltwater forming drip by drip, a beard-stroking reminder of where double waterfalls ultimately come from. Wow.

Meltwater

The trip back to our campsite seemed simple enough: retrace our steps along the intermittent path that meandered more or less along the stream. We talked as we clambered over rocks and ducked under branches, distracted by the wonder of wilderness. Imagine my surprise, then, when the path I had chosen spilled out onto the shore of the lake, well below the spot where we had set up camp. What?

Somehow we had lost our way. No, lost is too strong a word, for we knew where we were. We just weren’t where we intended to be. So rather than enjoy a whistling-and-skipping descent beside a mountain stream, we had to trudge and wheeze—up and up—to return from whence we started. (You know how Grandpa talks about walking “uphill both ways” to get to and from school? Well, that day we were Grandpa.) I look back on that pointless detour and I’m dumbfounded. Where did I make the wrong turn? How did I manage to make that hike so much harder than it needed to be? I just don’t get it.

And yet, I do. Figuratively speaking, you might say I have climbed this hill before. How many times have I made a muddle of things in life when a straighter, truer course had already been laid out before me? How often do I still find myself ascending a hill for a second or third time, or worse: straining up an incline I should never have had to climb in the first place? How often do I become distracted from my purpose or think I know a better way, only to find myself suffering some self-imposed adversity? So dumb. So unnecessary. And way too typical.

I know: It need not be this way. On Sunday mornings we sometimes sing that Jesus “marked the path and led the way.” All we have to do is follow. So I declare to anyone who will listen (and several who won’t): Let’s find out what’s on the other side of that ridge. But don’t follow me. Follow HIM.

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PW

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Watch, Now, How I Start the Day

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Dear Will:

For Christmas, my daughter Bryn gave me a homemade coupon for a hike and a burger. Now I love a good hike and a burger (especially with one of my kids), so I couldn’t imagine a better present. But there was a catch. The hike was to the top of Mount Timpanogos. In Utah.

If only that had been the ONLY catch. In order to collect my free meal, I first had to fly myself to Salt Lake City, then BEGIN our hike at 1 a.m. “so that we can be at the summit at sunrise.” Then, of course, I had to cover 7.5 miles to the 11,749-foot summit, with an elevation gain of 4,580 feet. Which is fine if you live at altitude, but not-so-much if you live, like I do, at 190 feet. Not good. Oh, and I’m an old guy with the fitness of a console television. So there’s that also.

Well, the day unfolded about as you would expect. The higher we climbed, the harder it was to breathe. I wobbled and wheezed, stumbled and stammered, shuffled and puffed all along the trail. Although I threatened several times to fall off of the mountain, I didn’t, and somehow I crumpled onto the summit around 5:30 a.m., a good half-hour ahead of schedule. Bryn was delighted.

On the summit itself, the vista was spectacular. Facing west, we looked out across Utah Lake and the vast Salt Lake valley; to the east, the view stretched past Sundance and Deer Creek, out and over the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. As the sun appeared in the far distance, the eastern sky became awash with the reds and oranges of early morning.

On any other Friday, daybreak would have arrived and I’d have missed it altogether. But on this Friday morning, exhausted though I was, I got the full benefit of the rising sun. The moment brought to mind the words of Thoreau: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” But there on the summit, Bryn (and poet Mary Oliver) said it even better—a fitting invocation to start this or any day:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

PW

Based on a True Story. Perhaps.

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Dear Will:

Imagine you have been shipwrecked, cast adrift, alone on the rolling sea. There is nothing you can see on any horizon—it’s just you, your flimsy “flotation device,” and miles and miles of open water. You bob along like this for hours, days. As time passes, your situation grows more desperate. Death seems inevitable, the only question being how.

Visions of relief and rescue tantalize and torment you. Anticipation leads to disappointment which gives way to despair. As your life preserver (and your spirits) lose buoyancy, you struggle to keep your head above water. Hope fades, then disappears altogether. You drift in and out of consciousness.

Vaguely you become aware of far-off voices. Can it be? A raft splashes in the distance, propelled by excited people paddling awkwardly to reach you. Eventually, two young voyagers dive in and swim to your aid, arriving just as you begin to sink below the surface. Shortly you find yourself in the boat, surrounded by concerned strangers who make room for you in the crowded vessel. You feel a cup pressed to your lips as cool, clean water passes over your cracked lips and into your parched mouth and throat. It hits you with a rush, incomprehensibly refreshing and divine. In like manner, your rescuers offer bits of bread for your empty, aching belly. Others tend to your wounds as you melt, exhausted, into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Once you have regained some strength, Alejandro, one of your new boatmates, helps you understand your good fortune. There are nine others on board, he tells you, thrown together by similar desperate circumstances. None of them is particularly savvy about life at sea, but they’re making do. They seem to have plenty of provisions, but since no one can be sure how long they will be adrift, they have agreed on some basic rules to govern their time together. Each person has a job, and those jobs rotate on a somewhat fixed schedule. You’ll be starting off on the raft maintenance crew. “For now I’m the captain,” explains Alejandro, “but eventually it will be someone else’s turn. Which is just as well because I don’t know much about sailing or navigation.”

He anticipates your question before you ask it. “We voted you an equal share of the rations. Didn’t even have to discuss it.” Of course you are grateful, but considering that each of them has given up a tenth of their provisions without knowing the first thing about you, you start to protest. Alejandro smiles and interrupts. “Pretty sure you’d have done the same thing for any of us,” he says. And that’s that.

As time passes you come to know the others in the boat. There’s Samantha, who has an opinion about everything; Taj, who keeps everybody laughing; Kendra, the worrier; Mathis, who pretty much keeps to himself; Annie, the fitness nut; Sven, the intellectual know-it-all; and Amira, who connected with you from the very moment you were pulled aboard. You’re pretty sure that you and Amira could have been friends before all of this and very likely will stay friends once it’s all over. The two guys who were the first to reach you? You have trouble remembering which is Jason and which is Jordan, but they’re an interesting contrast: one seems to be some sort of religious zealot and the other as irreverent as they come. But whatever. They helped save your life.

Days pass, and the tight quarters and forced intimacy begin to take their toll. The idiosyncrasies that seemed endearing when you first came aboard start to grate, and at times you wish you could just be done with the lot of them (except, of course, Amira). From time to time someone gets on your nerves, or maybe says something unkind in a moment of frustration. You stop talking to that guy, maybe talk too much about that other one. You grow tired of Jordan’s preachiness (or is it Jason?), of Taj’s jokes, of “captain” Alejandro’s glaring incompetence. It’s all a bit much.

At last you feel that you can take no more. You may not even be able to pinpoint what finally puts you over the edge. Maybe you thought you overheard a couple of the them talking about you, or maybe Alejandro made a decision that you disagreed with. Perhaps it was the feeling that Sven wasn’t doing his fair share of the work or that Kendra was eating more than her share of the rations. Does it really matter? One thing for certain: You feel a growing need to get off of this boat.

You lie there, contemplating your options. You could jump out and make a swim for it, hoping to come upon another boat (or better yet: land!). Maybe you could even get Amira to come with you. And if your plunge into the unknown proves fatal? Let’s face it: You’re probably all going to die out here anyway. Might as well get it over with. Anything seems better than spending day after endless day in this patched and leaky raft, living among those with whom you have almost NOTHING in common. Why continue to pretend?

You drift to sleep, and as you sleep you dream (again) of that fateful day when strong arms lifted you out of the water and offered you soul-restoring sustenance. You awake to find Samantha gently applying ointment to your open sore (the one that just won’t seem to heal) and Mathis tearing the hem off of his tattered shirt to make a bandage. You look up to find Amira looking over you (as always). She smiles, offers a bit of her cracker, and your resolution to leave the boat begins to ebb. Feeling grateful, but still annoyed, you shake your head and whisper: “Why do they have to be so nice?”

“That’s just the point,” says Amira. “They don’t.”

PW