Look What Happens When You Wander Around Outside

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Dear Will:

Bryn and I were on the third day of a five-day backpacking adventure in the Western Sierras, deep within Sequoia National Park. We had spent the day hiking through Big Arroyo, up and over Kaweah Gap, past Precipice Lake (made famous by Ansel Adams) to the shores of Upper Hamilton, where we joined a handful of other tired and stinky backpackers who were settling in for the night. It was such a tranquil setting that a group of deer thought nothing of wandering through the scattering of tents as they nibbled on the surrounding foliage. Further down the valley you could see the sun glancing off of Valhalla, an iconic slab of granite that fills the dreams of rock climbers and photographers and, I suppose, rock-climbing photographers as well.

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Fresh mountain water gurgled past our campsite, spilling from Precipice to the Hamiltons and beyond. You could certainly find worse places to spend a summer night.

Once we had set up our tent, I sat lakeside—resting my throbbing legs and shoulders, taking in the magnificence of the place—when another backpacker ambled by with fishing pole in one hand and a wiggling rainbow trout in the other. (Perhaps. I know for sure that it was colorful and it was a fish. Beyond that, I’m guessing.) As he passed, I couldn’t resist a friendly tease. “If you’re going to feed all of us,” I told him, “you’re going to have to catch a lot more fish than that.” He chuckled and said that he was taking orders. Alas, our dinner that night would be much less exotic than his: dehydrated beef stew (about as delicious as it sounds). But when you’re tired and hungry, you’ll take your calories however you can get them, so under the circumstances the stew was good enough. We were full, at any rate. Plus, for dessert Bryn and I split a Snickers bar. Not bad at all.

Turns out that stew was merely antipasto. Soon after we had finished licking our sporks, the fisherman approached, and with a grin he presented us a fresh fish of our own, already cleaned and ready to cook. (He actually had taken my order!) We were flabbergasted. And delighted. He seemed as pleased to give the fish as we were to receive it. Although Bryn and I each got maybe three bites out of that tiny trout, the gesture made it the second-most-wonderful thing* we ate on the entire adventure. I’m smiling even as I recall the moment our new friend unveiled his surprise gift.

That brief moment of unexpected kindness is typical of what I experience just about anytime I find myself out among other nature-lovers. I can’t say exactly why it is, but on my morning hikes in the nearby hills those with whom I share the trail are unfailingly cheerful and polite. The mountain bikers will thank me for stepping out of their way and cheerfully advise me of how many others are following in the group. “Have a great hike” someone will say to me, maybe a dozen times in a three-hour hike. That generosity of spirit seems universal. And maybe a little surprising, given that a hiker like me is probably a nuisance to mountain bikers. But still there is a sense of community that you cannot miss, an apparent understanding that in the outdoors we share and preserve and try to “leave no trace.” We help each other. We do our best to get along. And in the backcountry, fresh air and clear water seem to intensify that equanimity.

And so it was a fitting close to our adventure when on the final morning, as I braced for one last serving of somewhat under-cooked instant oatmeal (bleckh!), Bryn presented me with the ultimate trailside treat: a clutch of freshly gathered thimbleberries (her favorite!).

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She had spied the somewhat mythical berries the previous day as we made our way up through Bearpaw Meadow, down past a grove of redwoods (super cool) and finally up a steep incline to our campsite beside Cliff Creek. Apparently she had found yet another patch of thimbleberries near our campsite that morning. Those precious red treats, “superior to a raspberry in every way” according to my companion, filled my bowl with just the right tang and crunch to make that gray mush (dare I say?) delicious. It was so kind and generous and wonderful that I can state unequivocally: Best. Oatmeal. Ever.*

Like the fish (which I think we can agree was definitely a trout), those thimbleberries—or perhaps I should say the gift of those berries—was a simple reminder of who we are, or should be, or simply could be if we chose more often to wander around outside and share whatever we find along the way. Might not be a bad idea to start today. Who’s with me?

PW

Now What Do I Do?

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Dear Will:

Well, this is weird. It’s Sunday morning and I have nothing to do.

Well, not exactly nothing. But for the past five years I have served as bishop of the Santiago Creek Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My Sundays have been filled for me with a combination of council meetings, planning meetings, worship and instructional services, one-on-one counseling sessions, and in-home visits with various members of the congregation. I was sometimes the first one in the building and often the last one out. And it was not unusual to find myself back in the chapel for an evening fireside.

But last Sunday I became no-longer-the-bishop of the Santiago Creek Ward. That title and its corresponding responsibilities have been passed to Jared Treanor, one of our neighbors who you will find just-about-impossible-not-to-love. No question: Our ward has hit the jackpot with this one.

That’s how it goes in our church. With a lay clergy, we pass around these responsibilities as part of our commitment to collective worship. And so I find myself on a Sunday morning sitting on my couch and wondering: “What do I do now?” Which is why I’m writing to you.

As you might imagine, the list of people who have touched my heart and influenced my life during the past five years of service is certainly too long to fit onto a single page. I have watched as friends overwhelmed by life have turned in desperation and faith to the Only One who could lift them out of their impossible circumstances. I have seen the repentant reclaim blessings promised in covenants long ago abandoned. I have thrilled at the enthusiastic service of so many missionaries who have come to our little congregation from all over the world to lend a hand in the work. And I have been humbled by the countless hours of selfless service rendered by my fellow Christians as they have embraced the teachings of Jesus and tried to implement them in their imperfect ways. Words cannot begin to capture the sense of love and admiration that I have for all of them. Because of them, I am a changed man.

I think what has humbled me most during my service were the many times I found myself in the middle of someone else’s spiritual experience. Because of my calling, I was (through no personal merit) a convenient conduit for the Spirit of God, sometimes a courier but most often simply a witness that Heavenly Father had once again heard the prayers of one of His children and extended His loving hand.

So yes: I have been richly blessed. When I was first asked to serve as bishop, I told the members of our ward that I was hoping for two things: 1) I wanted the Santiago Creek Ward to be a sanctuary—a safe place for sinners, a holy place where we could gather, warts and all, to try to become more like Jesus; and 2) I wanted us in both attitude and action to answer Paul’s invitation to become “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens” in Christ (Ephesians 2:19)—not divided but united by our differences. I have been delighted (but not surprised) by the sincere efforts of our ward family to live up to those lofty ideals.

But you know what? That’s what the Santiago Creek Ward is like, and I don’t expect it to change. With Bishop Treanor at the lead, I anticipate that the love within the Santiago Creek Ward will only continue to grow. The ward will be different but better, still a sanctuary for come-as-you-are Christians to gather and help each other through life.

You should come and see for yourself. We meet at noon each Sunday in the chapel at 9801 South Newport, just around the corner from Peters Canyon Regional Park. In fact, let’s sit together. You can help me figure out what to do next.

PW

This Stuff Sticks with You

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Dear Will:

About a week ago we returned from a two-week trip to South America. My wife, Dana, and I spent several days exploring Buenos Aires before flying to Posadas, in northern Argentina, where our son Seth was concluding his two-year missionary assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was, as you might imagine, an emotional reunion.

Over the next 10 days, we covered a lot of ground. We spent a couple of days at Iguazú Falls which . . . I can’t even . . . it’s just . . . I don’t know . . . there aren’t words. Google it and assume that you still have no idea how magnificent and stupefyingly spectacular it all is. My jaw dropped so hard and so often that I was afraid it would become unhinged and I would be forced to spend the rest of the trip storing my chin in my shirt pocket. It was like that.

From there we went to Peru for a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. So cool. The two-week adventure concluded in Lima with dinner at Central, one of the top ten restaurants on the planet (for good reason). I don’t expect to EVER have another meal like it, in part because I’ll still be paying this one off well into my 90s. But inasmuch as travel is about making forever-memories, Central was all that and then some.

So yeah, it was all pretty great. But for all of the exotic wonder of our various stops along the way, it was all shrug-worthy anti-climax compared to the first evening we spent together with Seth. Once we had loaded his few remaining possessions into the back of our rented Fiat (he had already given the good stuff away), he took us to a tiny neighborhood they call Kilómetro 18, about a 25-minute bus-ride outside of Eldorado where Seth concluded his missionary service.

The roads of 18 are all red clay, the homes simple and functional but not much more. Seth had already told us about how he loved the place, and it was easy to understand why. Everywhere we walked we heard people calling for “Elder Wockeen”; they chased him down in the streets, implored him to visit their homes. THEY LOVED HIM. And it was obvious that he loved them back. When we gathered that evening in the home of the Familia Baez for a simple asado, there must have been 20 or so members of their little community of faith there. Given their limited circumstances, the spread was impressively bounteous (I recommend the fried mandioca), a generous gift which humbled us to be sure.

That evening will stay with me a long time. In fact, I would trade the night at Central, with all of its culinary flair, for another seat at the table of the Familia Baez—no question. The experience at Central I paid for, but as I celebrated that asado with Juan Carlos and Natalia, with Rafa and Daiana and Charly and the others, I felt awash in the pure love of Christ. That sort of feast cannot be bought.

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Seth’s shoes (or what’s left of them, anyway) are still stained red by the clay on the streets of 18, and I think that’s fitting. When Jesus sent His disciples out to share The Word with the world, He told them that if, for some reason, a town rejected them, they should shake off the dust from their feet as a testimony against those people (Matthew 10:14). What I saw in Seth, in contrast, was the opposite effect: that when kind and loving people embrace a servant of God and his message, you CAN’T shake them off. What happens there sticks to you, perhaps forever, the discoloration on your worn-out shoes a lovely reminder of where you’ve been, who you’ve met, and how it all changed you. Those shoes are a token of selfless service, a priceless treasure made holy by days spent walking on sacred ground.

PW