Thirty miles, scarce water, four 6,000 foot peaks, one of the most difficult trails in North Carolina. Two nights. Or, a perfect through-hike for a group of first timers.
My wife and I, along with two best buddies from Durham, hiked the Art Loeb Trail a few years back. The trail follows the Davidson River, ascends Pilot Mountain, cuts over to the peaks in Black Balsam, shoots down through the Shining Rock Wilderness, and then descends Cold Mountain into the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. One review of the trail notes, “If you are a glutton for punishment you will enjoy every steep step.”
Turns out we weren’t.
On the first night we were so tired that we set up camp in the middle of the trail, which is generally frowned upon in the outdoors world. We’ll talk about the bear bags another time. The thirty pounds on my back were heavier than I imagined and the thirty miles ascending and descending peaks were more grueling than I envisioned. Not to mention that the rain that never stopped falling; we traversed drenched trails, in water-logged socks, sleeping in moist bags. But I hear the views are beautiful. I mean, don’t ask me, because I wouldn’t know. The dense clouds and fog stole that from us.
We discovered the reason Shining Rock is called a wilderness. Only a few miles away from our vehicles and mere hours away from beer and pizza, we got lost. The white blazes had eroded or were concealed by brush. Maybe there weren’t any altogether. We stared at the map for hours, took a few steps, and stared a little more. The worst part of being lost wasn’t the flash of fear that we’d end up on the evening news or that we’d run out of water and get seriously hurt. But it was the frustration that we were living out of control. The time-table we devised and the vision we shared for this great adventure had to be discarded. We had to improvise—and each step brought with it the nagging anxiety that we weren’t going the right direction.
When I was a kid I trampled through the neighborhood woods with no destination or purpose. I’d get lost until I’d find something worth discovering. At this point in life I’d rather stay on the trail than get a spider web plastered against my face. I go into the woods with a purpose. I hike to a particular destination, with enough water and fuel for the journey. I turn around and go home. Never step off the well-worn path. And there’s a really good reason to stay on the trail: it keeps you from trampling over precious natural resources while preserving the area for future use. Even moving a rock can cause irreparable damage to time varnished pieces of granite.
It’s also safer. Life is difficult enough without choosing more ambiguity. We can wake up lost having never even left the house. Lose your job. Divorce. A spouse or child. Lose your mind. Fill in the blank. There’s so much wandering in our world. There is a record number of refugees in the world, some 65 million, who are forced into wilderness wandering. Why would we voluntarily choose more wilderness? There’s no GPS system and advanced technology for that kind of lost.
Maybe Jesus is attractive for this reason—he promises our lives a clear destination and boundaries with neat delineations. An end to all of the aimlessness. Christianity, we think, is about the straight and narrow. A lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. A house built on the rock and the foundness to all of our lostness. A good Christian follows the rules, never veers off into a life of danger or risk. Fine thing, this Christianity, a calm and predictable life within the four walls of the church. The kind of religion that will produce good Americans with good jobs, two kids, and a hefty retirement.
Christians, well, we can’t say much about Christians except they’re the kinds of people who stay on the trail.
It’s supposed to be the opposite, isn’t it?
I grew up in a Methodist church, went to youth group, four years in college, then three years in seminary, and now I’ve entered with work force with a wife and two kids. That sounds remarkably simple. But I didn’t end up where I am because I followed a map. I didn’t create a time-table, put together a packing list, and head out. I was pushed into the forest, one step after another, until I was in so deep that I had no choice but to keep walking. The only compass I could find pointed me to the church. And even then, I was sure the compass was broken.
God said, “Go that way.” And I said, “Where’s the trail? I don’t see the markers, the brush has grown over them.”
This is the story of many—from Moses to Noah to Jonah to the Twelve Disciples. God tells Abram, ‘Put everything in your rucksack and start walking. Go, until I say stop.’ God rarely works predictably. Nor, does God usually take the fastest route from here to there. God takes longer, oftentimes more difficult paths to get something done. Until, finally, God gets of His trail to walk on ours—becoming a poor, migrant Jew who walked the long agonizing path to the cross. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Isn’t there another, easier trail?” Nope. But even the most horrific trail ended with healing—salvation and resurrection.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that getting lost is a deliberate practice we should pursue. It reminds us that we aren’t fully in control, nor should we strive to be. God doesn’t promise a life without a little wandering. You will get lost, fall and sprain an ankle. Sometimes you'll get by with manna, just enough to survive. But if God has called, then that means that there’s something out beyond the next mountain peak. There might even be a land flowing with milk and honey, We cut through the forest to find out.
I should mention that we made it out of Art’s hell house. God, who is always faithful, sent us two kids smoking cigarettes and carrying machetes. This was better than nothing, because they would either point us in the right direction or kill us. And either way it would be salvation. We asked for directions and they lifted up their machetes and pointed us back toward the trail. Sometimes angels do smoke tobacco and carry swords.
We descended down Cold Mountain and reached our cars.
The journey was hard, nothing like we planned or would have chosen, but that’s life, isn’t it?