This week I visited Big Bend National Park in Texas, connecting with pastors and enjoying the beauty of the mountains and desert of southwest Texas. Call it a perk of my day job, I was covering and participating in a post-Easter retreat for ministers in Marathon, Texas, called “Call of the Wilderness.”
While the natural beauty of both locales was undeniable, this week’s destination refreshed me in unexpected ways.
Mountainous desert with an assortment of scrub trees, cacti and clumps of yellow grass isn’t my first thought of a beautiful terrain. But the stark landscape combined with the thought-provoking presentations by retreat leader Belden Lane prompted me to contemplate all of the physical and metaphorical wildernesses I’ve experienced in my life.
Physically, the visual beauty of the mountains and desert of Big Bend reminded me of a 1994 trip to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Metaphorically, the stark barrenness felt similar to a period of isolation and loneliness I experienced in the mid-1990s.
I didn’t get home until late last night, so I am still processing the week and what it means. This post is part of my attempt to extract meaning from the experience.
On Tuesday I hiked the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Basin, climbing about 1,100 feet in elevation over two-and-a-half miles up the mountain. It wasn’t a difficult climb. We kept a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to catch our breath, snap photos and sip from our water bottles. As the sun warmed us, the breeze cooled us. During the lapses in our conversation, I was able to notice lizards, buzzards and a colorful scrub jay.
I’m not an overly mystical person, but I kept hoping throughout the hike to hear a word from God. I was seeking answers to life’s big questions that occupied my mind. The only consistent voice was that of the crunch of the stones underfoot. I guess the rocks can really cry out their praise to their creator.
On Wednesday, I made my way down to Boquillas Canyon on the Mexican border. The cave-pocked cliffs pierced by the gently flowing Rio Grande River presented an altogether different beauty than the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures were warmer. Breezes were rarer.
I stood on a large, beige rock overlooking the Rio Grande and caught sight of a couple of vaqueros on the other side in the shade, their horses drinking from the gray water. The small village of Boquillas, Mexico, was off to their right, a couple of dozen houses filling the gaps between the trees in the green valley.
At my feet were an array of hand-made trinkets and hand-painted crafts with an ink-on-cardboard sign indicating the prices tucked under a plastic jug. A few feet beyond this low-rent retail space was a sign in official U.S. brown stating that purchases from Mexican nationals was a crime.
As I scrambled down the rock and toward the river, I could hear the familiar strains of the chorus “Aye, aye, aye-aye.” Another jug with a handwritten sign was nearby. Victor, the Mexican crooner, made his living taking requests a few feet onto U.S. soil, a short swim/wade from his homeland.
From there we progressed to the hot springs and the ruins of an old resort. Bubbling from the corner of a cement tank just a few feet from the Rio Grande, the spring was more warm than hot. The algae floating on the surface made me question its restorative powers. A couple of tourists soaked their feet, and I repressed a shiver at the thought of taking a sip.
Still, I heard no voice, discerned no wisdom. The desert was indifferent to my presence and made no attempt to reveal any secrets. I was not tempted by Satan or fed by ravens, though Biblical analogies came to mind quickly. I conjured no visions, received no epiphanies.
Maybe the time in this fierce landscape wasn’t about answers. Maybe it was just about seeking and listening.
After back-to-back weeks of silence, night skies filled with stars and breathable air, I am reticent to return to the normal. Another trip into the wilderness is already being planned. Maybe I’ll get a little bit closer to the answers next time.
Does the wilderness inspire you? Where do you like to go in nature when you are in need of answers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.
This week Harris and I embarked on a 4.8 mile journey that has come to represent more than just a hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest.
This rite of passage for my boys began five years ago when Barron was six. We made a similar journey from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Len Foote Hike Inn, and it was Harris’ turn. A middle son not heard often enough and in need of his daddy’s undivided, unplugged attention, Harris had been anticipating the trip since Christmas when I first brought it up with him.
After a quick picnic lunch, we descended 425 steps from the top of the falls to get a better view of one of Georgia’s most impressive sites. That’s when the math lessons started as Harris began calculating how many steps we would take going down and back up.
Half way back up the falls, my mobile phone rang. It was my dad.
“Lance, they’ve taken Lee to the hospital in Winter Haven. He’s having chest pains and numbness in his left arm. You need to pray for your brother.”
About to embark on an important journey with my middle son, I went numb as I said a prayer for my middle brother. Overwhelmed with confusion and worry, I couldn’t help but enumerate the connections between Lee and Harris: middle sons, lefthanders, witty and clever humorists.
Already winded from the steps and questioning my fitness, we quickly found sturdy walking sticks among the fallen limbs and headed into the woods, pausing long enough to snap a few photos.
As we started, I pointed out the bright green rectangles of paint on the tree trunks, marking our trail. I covered the basic rule of hiking: “Don’t step on anything you can step around or over.” The last thing I needed to do was carry a backpack and a 50-pound boy up and down a rocky and root-covered trail.
It wasn’t long before Harris needed a break.
“Daddy, how long is it to the Hike Inn?” he asked, taking a long sip from our water bottle.
I looked at my watch. The hiking equivalent of the car trip refrain “Are we there yet?” came three minutes in. It felt like déjà vu. I couldn’t help but remember taking the trip with Barron and how impatient I had been with Barron’s slowness and fatigue and griping and all the things 6-year-olds find to complain about on their first hike. But this time, it was different.
“Oh, we’ve got about three-and-a-half hours,” I answered calmly.
There are some benefits to being the second born. Harris was the beneficiary of my patience and deep understanding that this journey would be over all too soon. Instead of rushing it, I was savoring it.
Conditions were perfect, and while the sun warmed, the breezes cooled. Up and down the trail we went, discussing such truths as “all that glitters is not gold” as we came across pyrite. Harris wisely added only a small piece of Fool’s Gold to his rock collection.
We listened for bird calls and strained to see any signs of wildlife. We discussed Harry Potter, and Harris enlightened me on arcane theories of super hero superiority. We made little progress the first hour, stopping five or six times for brief breaks, but we picked up our pace when Harris felt a different call of nature but was unwilling to answer that call in nature.
The first half of our journey ended all too quickly. We arrived at the Hike Inn without incident, seeing a bee-infested tree, a black salamander and a sprinkling of white-blossomed wild dogwoods in among the budding and the hardwoods with their newly emerged bright green leaves.
Harris headed straight to the restrooms to see the amazing non-flushing, waterless, composting toilets Barron had described.
Standing beside a sign that said “No cell phones, please,” I checked mine. The battery was nearly dead, and service barely registered a faint signal. It was enough to see that Lee was being kept overnight in the hospital, a battery of tests scheduled for the next day. I looked out over the rolling green hills and low fog and offered another silent prayer for my brother.
The inn was exactly as I had remembered it, inviting and comfortable without being fancy. We stowed the gear in our bunkroom, toured the facility and gravitated to the Sunrise Room where a number of games and puzzles beckoned. Harris settled on one he had never played – Stratego.
He picked it up quickly, and soon he was giving me a run for my money. I explained how I had grown up playing thousands of games of Stratego with Uncle Lee, becoming an expert in the process. I couldn’t help but make yet another connection between my middle son and my middle brother.
Harris became obsessed with the game. We played three times before supper. He enlisted the help of several of the other kids who were staying at the Hike Inn with their families during their spring break. Anna and Will, a sister-and-brother combo from Cincinnati, Ohio, served as his war advisers, but my supremacy over a 6-year-old held.
The dinner bell rang, and we were summoned to a family-style meal. The rule at the conservation-minded Hike Inn is you must eat what you put on your plate. The goal at every meal is to generate less than 4 ounces of table waste, a policy Barron had briefed Harris on before the trip. We ate family style getting to know the folks at our table, replenishing our energy stores after the hike.
As we passed the green beans and pork roast, I could almost hear Lee ask, “Anybody want any more rolls?” This innocent-sounding question has been our family’s “last call” for the food in question since Lee learned to talk.
Soon, we were back in the Sunrise Room where Harris chose to skip the evening’s program on hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Southern terminus of the “AT” was just a few miles from the Hike Inn at Springer Mountain, and the Hike Inn’s manager had completed a thru-hike in 2008.
I explained that a thru-hike was a nonstop hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, and that it usually took six months. Harris couldn’t wrap his mind around a six month hike.
After a few more games of Stratego, we showered and settled into our bunks. We read a book and with my battery waning and no electrical outlets in the bunk rooms, I checked my phone one more time. A Facebook message from Mom confirmed that Lee was stable. Harris and I prayed for Uncle Lee one more time and drifted off to sleep.
Awakened by the soft beat of a drum, we were dressed and ready for the day by 7:30. Well-rested and sipping my coffee, I gave in to Harris’ plea for another game of Stratego before breakfast. We ate another hearty meal, and we were soon packing to leave.
Harris bought a Hike Inn T-shirt, adorned with a trail map on the back, at check-out, and by 9:30 we and our new friends from Cincinnati were headed back to Amicalola Falls. As Kevin and Shelly and I conversed easily about all the things parents talk about, our kids bonded along the trail, buoyed by each other’s presence. Then, when we least expected it, Harris fell.
Tripped by a root that looped out of the ground, his left foot caught and his right knee came down hard on another root. His left elbow and right hand were a little scraped up, but from the wailing, nearby hikers may have thought someone had a fatal injury.
Shelly tended to his superficial wounds with a mother’s tenderness, distracting him from his injuries by asking him to read the instructions on an ice pack from her first aid kit. I was grateful she was there. Again I was reminded of my trip with Barron. He, too, had fallen on the way out, scraping up his knee and tearing a hole in his pants.
Sometimes, our children fail to heed our warnings and the examples of their siblings. Some falls just have to be repeated.
Anna took my pack as I carried Harris on my back for a couple hundred yards, crossing a creek and seeing a water snake. The encounter helped distract Harris from his injury, and soon he was moving under his own power again, and I was able to relieve Anna of my pack.
Still seeking that moment of profound parent-child interaction, I trudged on, trying to relish the experience while being concerned for my brother. About that time, Harris came back from his new friends and joined me at the rear of our little traveling party.
“Daddy, I just want to walk with you for a little bit, OK?”
“Sure, Harris. I’m glad you want to walk with me.”
“Thanks for taking me to the Hike Inn. It was the best, especially that game – what’s it called? Stras-ty-go? Can I get that game for my birthday?”
Almost 24 hours to the minute from when we had set off, we emerged from the woods into the upper parking lot at the falls. We said goodbye to our new friends, snapped a few, last photos and headed for home.
When my cell signal returned, I paused at an intersection and checked Facebook. Lee was posting, his sense of humor returned. He complained about hospital food and having EKG sensors pull his abundant red chest hair out. Mr. Lee, “the Wolf,” was going to be OK.
The stress of being on a local church staff had evidently caused the episode, and there was no evidence of a heart attack or any damage to his heart.
Relieved, I said a prayer of thanksgiving and told Harris that his Uncle Lee would be OK.
We spent the hour-and-a-half drive home sharing our “favorites” from the trip. Harris decided he wanted to go back to the Hike Inn with the rest of the family.
Whether we can convince Carla to make the trip remains to be seen, but I’d gladly go back into the woods with Harris any time.
Next time, though, Lee better stay out of the hospital. Middle kids always have to do something extraordinary to get some attention.