Memorial Day weekend and the senior boys at my school climb Mt. Cardigan to watch the sun set.
It’s a tradition I love, as the lads marvel at the view, looking down at their school miles away, and remember. They hug and thank and laugh and cry, though they are apt to blame the last on wind in the eye.
It is a bittersweet time for all of us as we wait for the final gold to soften and run from the sky. To say good-bye.
I feel my own eyes fill with wind.
I read this morning that the Hebrew word for “wait” is almost identical to the word “mourn.” This makes sense, as our lads are stuck between readying to push off from the safe shore of our control, while, at the same time, lamenting all that they are about to lose.
I am stuck there myself.
This weekend will mark the sixth year since my son went home, and I feel a bit untethered. I disappear into the woods for a while, pick some ferns for his bench, think of his siblings.
Do they miss him as I do?
I dare not ask at times, lest they think I somehow love them less. In many ways, he was our glue, and we have had to find new ways of being ourselves.
To mourn is to wait.
Mary and Martha were siblings who lost their brother. They waited for Jesus to come, sending word, reminding him that his friend Lazarus lay sick.
But Jesus didn’t come, not until Lazarus was four days dead. And when Martha tells him that she believes there will be a one-day resurrection for her brother, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes,” Martha replies, because she knows who he is.
We all know what happens next. Jesus tells Lazarus’s friends to roll away the stone of his tomb, and out he shuffles, feet wrapped in tangled linen.
I often wonder how Lazarus lived the rest of his life. Did his gratitude free him to serve and share with reckless abandon?
Why wouldn’t he?
And why shouldn’t we – add our yes to Martha’s yes and rest in what Oswald Chambers calls the glorious now? To “begin to know him now and never finish.”
It’s okay, I think, to mourn while we wait.
But I also want to live like Lazarus, recklessly grateful that we have someone to wait for.
Easter Sunday and I wake up to snow on the ground and a song in my head.
It’s a joyful song for a joyful day, one that swells my heart to Easter Sundays long ago, hearing my father’s tone-deaf voice, full volume, belting out the notes:
Christ the Lord is risen to-day
He always said that God had given him that voice and he was just giving it back to him.
How I miss the man.
But – Jesus is alive! I am alive and will forever be alive! Why shouldn’t we sing?
After the resurrection, when the disciples had yet to understand, Jesus caught up to a few of them as they left Jerusalem. Cleopas and his companion didn’t know it at the time, but they were talking about Jesus to Jesus. Close to despair, they told Jesus, We had hoped that he was the One.
But your thinking was too small, Cleopas. You thought Jesus came to rescue Israel from Rome, like some Moses-Groundhog-Day moment when their brutal bonds of physical oppression would be loosed.
Think BIGGER, Cleopas.
Any governmental victory could only be temporary; the empty tomb is a permanent mend.
Jesus asks the two men gently, Why are you so thick-headed? Why do you find it so hard to believe every word the prophets have spoken?
We. Had. Hoped.
Slowly, Jesus opens their fragile, traumatized hearts to the truth. And when he tells them that he’s going to walk on, they plead with him.
Stay with us.
So he does. And so he has.
At dinner, he reveals himself at last, and in a flash, is gone again from their eyes. Gone but not-gone.
Once you see him you cannot un-see him.
Stunned, they ask themselves, Did not our hearts burn with flames of holy passion while we walked beside him on the road?
They are compelled to tell – run, not walk, back to Jerusalem, back the way they came, only it’s not the same dusty Jerusalem road.
Their feet are light, their hearts afire. Running back, running ahead.
And when they get to the Eleven, they find Jesus has also appeared to Peter – poor Peter, still stinging from his betrayal at the court.
I wonder where Jesus had gone first?
He must have been having so much fun.
Then, when finally I’m sure he couldn’t contain himself any longer, he manifests right in the midst of them all with the most perfect of words.
Be at peace.
I am the living God.
It’s all true.
Don’t you remember – I told you that everything written about me would be fulfilled – in ME.
I think of my dad and the son who are gone.
Gone but not-gone, while I continue to age as I walk the dusty Jerusalem road toward wheretheyare.
Though no amount of lotion or make-up can smooth the wrinkles of my long and curving life, it has almost ceased to bother me.
On Palm Sunday some 2,000 years ago, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as people lined the street and cheered.
At the risk of heresy, I was wondering this morning if he enjoyed the adulation. After all, as man, he experienced all the emotions we as people feel, and, as God, well, didn’t he deserve it?
I was in Luke 19 reading about the crowd tossing their coats on the road as Jesus rode by. Curious about what he was doing before that moment, I turned back a few chapters to Luke 13 to discover: He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem.
Always, always, always was Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen there, yet he wasn’t deterred. And in his wake, the blind saw, children were blessed, lepers cleansed, and the greedy converted.
Are we not also traveling toward Jerusalem? Toward Zion, that city which will one day descend from the sky and be our eternal home?
John tells us in Revelation 21 that he saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth – our earth, the death-riddled, disease-burdened, war-bloodied lonelybrokenmournful earth – had passed away. He hears a loud voice from heaven saying,
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.
No more sorrow, tears, pain, death.
Jesus left behind restoration, transformation, and confirmation on his donkey ride of death-to-life.
What are we leaving in our wake as we journey toward Jerusalem?
I think back on my last week – aid not extended, harsh words unbridled, succor withheld – and am ashamed.
Best instead to throw my cloak on the road, raise up a palm, and shout Hosanna!
As man, he understands.
And as God, he deserves it all.
This Palm Sunday, may you find peace as you journey toward Jerusalem.
March break was a little longer this year due to – what else – Covid, and I was looking forward to walking another section of the Florida Trail.
Starting back in 2019, I had been chipping away at the 1,000-mile plus national scenic trail 100 or so miles at a time, and this year I had hoped to do a beautiful stretch along the Suwannee River.
The logistics of planning my walk every year is tricky.
I need somewhere safe to leave my car, someone safe to drive me 100 miles away, and sometime safe to arrive when the waters along the trail are at suitable levels so I won’t drown.
I had been checking the Snoflo app every day in the weeks leading up to my hike to determine the height of the Suwannee.
Because the trail runs along its banks for miles, the Suwannee must be respected; when its height reaches 60 feet or more, water will cover the trail, making it not only hard to follow but also crazy-dangerous. You don’t want to mess with the Suwannee, especially when you hike alone, as I do, and are already feeling vulnerable to the vagaries of the Florida backcountry.
I’m happy in the days leading up to my departure, as the Suwannee hovers below 60, at one point bottoming out at 53. I had arranged to leave my car at a canoe outfitters in White Springs and had scheduled a shuttle with its owner, who agrees to drive me to my stopping point the year before.
I’m relaxed driving down knowing that the hardest part – those difficult logistics – have been taken care of, and all I will need to do when I arrive is walk.
I’m incredulous when my phone rings somewhere in the Carolinas and it’s Trish from American Canoe. After three days of punishing rain, the Suwannee has risen seven feet overnight, making it all but impassable.
Do you still need a ride she asks, and I realize that all those well-researched plans will have to go out the window.
I pull over at a rest stop and check my maps. If I could get dropped 100 miles south instead of north as I had hoped, there is only a small stretch at the end along the Suwannee I’d have to traverse. Perhaps the river will cooperate and recede as I walk back toward White Springs; if not, it looks like there’s a high water bypass I could take to avoid the surge.
I call Trish back and confirm the new plan.
I’d like to report that skipping the Suwannee section meant that my feet stayed dry. Optimistic on day one when the trail wound through gently rolling hills in Gold Head State Park and Camp Blanding Army Base, I hummed along, covering 23 miles and passing not one, but two Sunoco (official fuel of NASCAR!) convenience stores along the way, where I sipped cold drinks and ate salty snacks.
At the second one, in a deflated little town called Hampton, a small shirtless boy approaches me, trailed by two younger companions. None of them has on any shoes.
Want to buy some eggs? he asks hopefully, holding up a wicker basket. Clearly he is the leader of this entrepreneurial enterprise.
I answer him seriously I don’t have any way of cooking them.
He seems to puzzle this a moment, then responds O, so you’re one of those walkers!
I wonder how many hikers this Sunoco has seen this season.
I am I tell him. He thinks some more.
Do they pay you to walk? he asks.
Now it’s my turn to think. Who are “they”? And would “they” pay me…?
I come up with the best answer I can: No, we do it for fun.
Unconvinced, he nods and disappears with his cadre in search of more willing customers. Wait, I want to call out, I’ll buy the whole lot. But they’re gone.
That night, I camp right on the trail as every spot suggested on the FarOut trail app is flooded.
It was the last time my feet would be dry.
The next day ends in a long road walk out of the town of Lake Butler; after gorging on Mexican food and a Shamrock Shake, I hug the shoulder of busy Route 100 when it starts to rain.
18-wheelers whiz by at 60 mph, baptizing me in wash and grit. It’s a miserable seven miles, and when I reach the next turn, I am soaked to the core.
What’s that over there?
Standing nobly in a grassy, flooded field outside the Union County Fire Station is a huge roofed pavilion with a cement pad underneath. They won’t mind if I just duck under there for a moment until the worst of this passes.
I take out my phone and check the weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. Then, thunderstorms. All night and into the next day. Yikes.
I call the station – it appears to be a volunteer operation, as there is no one around – and leave a message asking permission to spend the night. I don’t want to officially unpack until I hear back from someone, but I’m starting to shiver. I put on dry clothes, eat a soggy leftover taco, and gradually make myself more at home. Eventually, kind Fireman Mark calls me back and it’s a go! I burrito myself in my down quilt and tent footprint as the wind whips rainy pellets under the pavilion for hours.
I awake to calm, fog. Guess the weather app was wrong – no water falling from the sky, but there are miles of squishy dirt tracks ahead to traverse.
I hustle off in the dark, thankful that I didn’t have to pack up a wet tent.
Critters have been there before me, and I make good time until hitting a section of trail that crosses the Olustee River and two smaller branches. There’s a sketchy old railroad bridge over the Olustee, which has flooded the Jeep track. It’s been there so long that things are growing out of it – I gingerly tiptoe across holding my breath.
I ford the next branch in shin deep water, but the second one is horrifying. For about 10 yards, the creek has spilled over its banks and is rushing across the trail. There is no way of telling how deep the dark water is, so I stand there whimpering for a scooch, staring into the froth and trying to garner courage.
Finally, I secure my phone in my shoulder pouch, undo my hip belt, and set out with poles in front, trying to find the shallowest channel. Midway, the water is up to my chest and I try not to panic while praying it doesn’t get any deeper. It’s one of the few times I wonder if being out here alone is the smartest choice.
The rest of the day is no drier. It’s tiring to slosh through standing water, and I’m pretty excited to reach the turn off to Ocean Pond Campground late in the day, though the sign and I are standing in hip-deep swamp.
When I make the turn, I spot a snake just off to the right. Come on. Really?
Not wanting to touch it, I agitate the water in hopes it will slither into the underbrush. Instead, it streaks ahead – right into the water I’m about to walk through. Idiot.
What’s done is done so, near tears, I crash my poles into the slop and try to sprint though the gauntlet. I’m never more relieved to reach the dry pavement of the campground.
Osceola National Forest is much of the same the next day, though thankfully the water never gets more than thigh deep. I take the high water bypass around the Suwannee section, as the river is still too high, and plan on staying at a shelter on private land.
Finding this Shangri-la is the last challenge of the trip, as it involves ducking under barbed wire, crossing a muddy slough, and hacking through a stand of saw palmettos to circumnavigate a sketchy lagoon.
The bloody legs are totally worth it. The place has a table and chair, screens, a privy!
All I have left in my food bag that is dinner-ish is some tuna, hot sauce, and a packet of mayo, so I make soup and sleep tentless on a dry floor listening to the comforting burble of Robinson Branch.
Walking into White Springs that final morning, I cross over the Suwannee on a bridge along the road bypass. Looking down at shoreline trees engulfed in its waters, I am relieved to have made it back safely.
There have been so many times in my life when the plans I have made have not turned out as I had hoped. For a while it seemed that everything I held dear – spouse, child, health – had turned to dust, and years passed overhung by a patina of grief.
Without his steady presence, walking alongside in threat of flood or snake, I would have certainly drowned.
He was with me all those long years, and he was with me these last long miles when adapting was the only way forward.
You might remember Job, described in the Old Testament as a man in the land of Uz who was blameless and upright, one who feared God and shunned evil. Job 1:1
And while I certainly don’t consider myself blameless nor in any way upright, tryasImight, what happens to Job – the complete collapse of everything he holds dear – feels a little too personal.
It started, I think, back in September when I broke my thumb and foot on a slow jog back to the car after a hike.
Recovery brought me to the end of myself; I managed to score a knee scooter from our athletic trainer to buzz around campus, but I was steeped in the grief of all-the-things-I-could-not-do.
Everything took longer. I had to drive to campus every morning, less than a quarter mile away, and I missed the bright walk up the hill to school when I would invite God into my day and complement Him on all the beautiful things around me that He had made.
Confused, I even questioned what He thought He was doing; did He not want to spend time with me? Was He too busy talking to His other children? I became petulant, self-pitying.
But, like Job – who lost his possessions, his servants, his health, and his children, whose wife tells him to “Curse God and die,” (Job 2:9) whose three “friends” try to “help” him figure out what he has done wrong to deserve his fate – like him, things continued to implode on me.
Half the electricity in my non-campus house went off after a storm, and it cost me dearly to get it fixed.
My car stopped working intermittently, which is the worst kind of not-working. I was supposed to chaperone some of our boys at the airport before break, and the car refused to start at 5 AM when I was to leave for Logan. Luckily, my trusted Administrator on Duty found some cables and gave me the needed jump, but the stress of that morning ruined what was usually a joyful experience of getting our students safely on their way home for Thanksgiving.
On the way out, the parking meter refused to print me the receipt I needed to submit for reimbursement.
I started hiking again after the injuries, but a trekking pole broke. Next, I awoke one morning in unbelievable pain. My back had apparently rebelled at the months of being off balance with crutches and boot; my newly salvaged freedom was once again curtailed, forcing me to count the hours before I could take the meds that would bring relief. Compelled to stand all day because it hurt too much to sit, I was exhausted by day’s end; unable to lie down comfortably, I lost precious sleep and became grumpy, unkind to others.
What had Idone wrong, God?
In the meantime, one son faced multiple health adversities and the other one setbacks in his new job. My computer crashed. Weight I had lost during the scooter days crept back on as solace was sought in unhealthy choices.
What had Idone wrong, God?
Turning to The Book for insight, I light on Psalm 102: “A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.”
I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears. Psalm 102: 6
Okay. Progress. To lament is to truth-tell. To remind God of where you’re at.
Why not invite Him in?
Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. Psalm 102:2
Who IS He, exactly, that I should?
You, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Psalm 102: 12, 25
I’ve been up high. Seen those heavens, looked down on those foundations. If my petty problems and pains seem small to me, up there, imagine how they appear to HIM.
Like Job, I needed to be reminded of God’s power, majesty, and compassion, His utter trustworthy nature and divine ability to know and direct and allow. I needed to remember all the ways He had led me in the past, in dark days devoid of light, through the valley and out the other side.
Could you give me another chance, God? I cautiously prayed. Something low stakes, perhaps, where I can try again to look at YOU and not the complaint?
It was not a prayer I wanted answered.
And yet – to be teachable is to believe that there was a lesson in it all. One I should want to learn.
Like Job, I don’t understand, but I’ve tried to shut my mouth and open my ears, to listen to what He might have to say.
Someday, the ruins will be restored. There will be an exchange:
Beauty for ashes.
Joy for mourning.
Praise, not despair. Isaiah 61:3
So we wait for the second adventus, when He will come as promised, just as He did, as promised before.
I feel as dark and dry as the desert tents of the wandering nomads. ~Song of Songs 1:5
This past week, I finally climbed the slide of North Tripyramid.
The North Slide is not exactly a trail per se, but a jagged, rocky scar slashed into the forested flank of North Tri. It’s one mile of living hell that has earned a spot on the “Terrifying 25,” a list of the 25 most challenging hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (I’ve done 11 of these so far, most unwittingly.)
I had attempted this “trail” a few years back but was forced to retreat when the slanted slabs became too, well, terrifying. I didn’t feel capable of that route, that day, and choose to backtrack and climb the mountain by a longer, safer route.
It had taken me years and hundreds of peaks to gain the courage to attempt the North Slide again.
Buzzing up the wooded approach trail, I felt happy. Confident. Only a little scared.
Knowing there were going to be some tricky spots, I would take my time and get to the top in one piece.
The weather could not have been more New-England-perfect; sun beat down and cool breeze blew as I grasped branches, found foot cracks and finger holds, puzzling out the route inch by slow glorious inch.
Half way up, my son called. With all four of my appendages gripping granite at the time, the phone rang and rang and rang, the only time on the slide I felt a little rattled. I was in a position where I couldn’t even pull out my phone.
Later, I did manage a few photos; the wide open nature of the slide provides some of the sweetest views in Waterville Valley.
The last one I snapped on the slide, looking down the great gully, can only be described as prophetic.
My left foot is out of the picture, otherwise occupied in keeping me from tumbling down a scree field.
Pretty soon it would out of the picture for a long while.
I knew from previous ascents that the summit of North Tri is but a muddy clearing, nothing much to see, so I lingered the last hundred yards of terror, enjoying the pure joy of being-fully-alive, until the slide disappeared into the security of the pines.
I hustled over to Middle Tri and back, then headed down the longsafe way as light began to wane.
And isn’t this when disaster always overtakes us? Least expecting, we are almost comically surprised when the badthing happens.
Jogging along the long dirt access road back to my car, my left ankle just decided to bow, pitching my entire weight onto lone left thumb.
In an instant, still two miles from the parking lot, I was stuck.
All that hard fought joy leached out of me as I struggled back up and took tentative step.
Could I take one more? And another and another? As I told the ER doc later when he asked, what choice did I have? Yes, I had just passed a group also coming down, but I couldn’t possibly wait for them, ask them for help, could I? Hadtheyseenme? How embarrassing. I whimpered my way back to the car.
It would be the first of many helps, either offered or inferred, that I would reject in the coming days. Turns out, I’m not very good at asking for help.
I don’t want people to make my life easier for me; I just want to endure the hard thing quietly and get on with it. To deny independence is to admit weakness, and let’s face it: there are some hurts that can’t be quelled.
Later that week in Chapel, I read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together…But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.
I look down and hardly recognize my own limb. The fattened, blackened foot at the end of my leg is a monster, a monster that has taken over all the other parts, demanding deference and complete submission.
Hip? Too bad that you don’t like the skewed angle by which you are forced to hang. Thumb? Sorry that you’re broken too, but try to keep up. Those crutches aren’t going to move themselves.
Smug, self-important appendage tyrant.
Our body, Paul says, is a model for understanding how our lives function as a church (or community): every part is dependent on every other part. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
Okay, God, is that what you need me to learn?
To be willing to allow others to bless the broken parts of me, to open door or carry plate? To invite them into the hurt, rather than push them away?
Who but a monster would reject help rather than embrace it?
Like putting on pants with my leg in a boot, this is hard work. But if my weakness empowers others, allows them to function as Hand or Foot, does this not strengthen the whole body?
And haven’t you promised you’re always alongside? The perfect helper?
Psalm 59 says,
My strength is found when I wait upon you. Watch over me, God, for you are my mountain fortress (O, mountains! How I miss you already!); you set me on high.
A few weeks ago, I had planned to “Grid out” July – to finish climbing all 48 peaks in New Hampshire over 4,000 feet in that month.
So far, the only two other months I have finished in my attempt to hike all 48, every month, were June and August; I was looking forward to having three full months in a row checked off.
The last hike on my list included a 20-mile out-back hitting five peaks (Zealand, Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff); three of these humps I would have to hike twice (out; then back), one of which was not even an “official” Appalachian Mountain Club 4,000 footer. Mount Guyot’s sin? Choosing to stand less than 200 feet from its official neighbor. Cheeky peak.
July had been an unusually stormy month up in God’s country, limiting my opportunities.
Also, working a summer school left me little time to execute a longer hike, so as July waned, I had my eye on either the 30th (lightning and rain predicted) or the 31st (high winds). Since much of the trek is above treeline, I opted for getting blown over as opposed to electrocuted.
The way up to Zealand from Zealand Road is one of my favorite stretches of trail in the Whites. Elevation gain is so subtle you barely feel that you’re climbing, and water abounds: rivers, streams, marshes, ponds.
With such a gentle invitation, you’re not offended when slammed by the profile up to and beyond Zealand Falls Hut.
Once up high, the ridge walk is delicious: shady and cool, bog-bridgy comfort with tons of views.
Soon, you meet the short side trail to Zealand.
Someone had been there before me, so I didn’t linger.
Next, it was up and over Guyot and on to the Bonds.
The winds felt windier than predicted, but luckily the views were viewier up there. Hikers struggled to stay upright, often crouching or sitting down during stronger blasts. My hat was blown off my head and an inner debate ensued: stay off the fragile alpine plants or Leave No Trace? LNT won out, and I found myself wading through blueberries as I nibbled my way over to where my hat was stuck.
I took a break on the way back at an overlook where, years before, my youngest son and I had celebrated his 11th birthday with a similar hike and overnight.
All in all, it was a brilliant day. I couldn’t wait to get home to add the dates to my Grid doc.
Let it be said that this is a busy doc, particularly center-page, with the mountains in rows across and the months in columns above. It’s a, well, Grid – and making sure one has the correct peak, written in the correct month, in the correct format (2-digit day, comma, apostrophe, 2-digit month) is important. In June, I had made a mistake and written some peaks in the July column, but I didn’t have white-out at the time, and corrected the mistake later.
Weeks went by, I hiked Zealand and the Bonds on the last July day of 2021, and was ready to see those three fat months all checked off.
As I was adding the days’ peaks, I noticed with horror that I had written down the Twins twice on the same day and year. WHAT-???
Quickly checking my workout calendar, I confirmed what I already knew: I hadn’t hiked the Twins in July, this year or ANY year. They had been part of that mistake last month, but I had neglected to white them out. Distraught, I quickly crossed them out in pen, not caring how it messied up the document.
July was over.
I’d have to wait a whole another year to Grid it out – possibly two, since I’ve been planning a Camino de Santiago hike that Covid keeps interrupting, and I was hoping to be in Spain next summer.
Adding insult to injury, for a few extra miles, I could have added the Twins to my hike that day. They could have been satisfyingly my 399th and 400th peaks.
I suppose I could have remained there in my disappointment and frustration, keen on my inability to fix an unfixable situation.
But lately, and with great surprise to myself, I’ve been trying to invite God into those vexations, big and small, that litter the road of our days.
How else can I see this, God?
Instead of obsessing over two lost peaks or two lost years, I felt a nudge back toward the simple reason why I started The Grid in the first place: I like to hike.
And having more peaks to hike – 178 to be precise – isn’t that a good thing? And doesn’t that also take the pressure off forcing myself to finish the hikes I still have left in the winter months?
I could be more selective. Safer.
I could even do peaks I’ve already checked off, like Moosilauke in the rain with actual company.
Or Mt. Cardigan – it’s not even on the list!
Like blueberries on the way to retrieving my hat, I’m learning how to find beauty in the hard.
I think it pleases Him when we can trust that His perspective is best; there have certainly been some big trusts He’s asked of me, when I couldn’t see what He could see.
This past weekend, we finally put my son’s ashes in the ground. They’ve been moving around with us, tucked away in an urn, for the past five years.
It was time to give him a permanent place, pretty and calm, surrounded by flowers and trees and grass.
But here’s the thing.
His short happy life did not end in that hole in the earth.
As we stood quietly saying good-bye, I was reminded of something the great preacher and evangelist D.L. Moody wrote in his autobiography, and it is as true for Moody as it is for my son:
Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.
Sometime back in May, I passed the halfway mark of The Grid.
So much has been happening over the past month that this milestone came and went without my noticing.
Other milestones distracted me, good ones and rough.
A college graduation of sorts, to start. Despite a miscalculation in credits, a canceled hockey season, and classes over Zoom, the oldest earth-boy finished his educational journey and is off to the Big Apple to chase dreams.
In lieu of a march across the stage – there wasn’t one – frowny face – he and I walk the campus visiting old haunts and marveling at the time in-between. Four years ago, his convocation was also a bust when we had to rush him out of the line to the hospital, deep in abdominal distress. The absence of pomp on either end seems meet somehow.
Later, I’m weepy driving his stuff to New York.
I’m not sure I can handle another departure.
Back at the ranch, his brother, more gifted, shall we say, in the organizational arts, redecorates their room. I suppose a new area rug can say I miss you as much as a hug.
Then there’s the other boy.
Five years is a long time, but we are blessed by the full funding of his scholarship. The radical generosity of friends somehow makes this milestone more bearable.
The final push is actually a party where I eat too little and drink too much (Jesus. Take. The. Wheel.), but the joy of seeing his myriad friends and hearing how they are living their beautiful lives enthralls. Maskless and giddy, I toast and tear with those who knew him well.
Then there’s the littlest one.
So like her mother in sass and smarts, her milestones race by between visits and I can’t keep up.
And somehow, in the midst of it all, the season changed.
576 is a lot of peaks.
Month by month and year by year, I’ve been chipping away at them, faithfully filling in the form, until, somehow, unacknowledged, the midway comes and goes.
In many ways, The Grid has saved me.
It’s the place I go where I can always depend on God showing up.
He’s everywhere, of course, but sometimes just more everywhere than most.
Sometimes He’s veiled and sometimes on full display, but He’s never, ever not there. It’s easy to lose oneself in all His showy splendor.
Halfway in The Grid is 288 4,000 footers.
It’s meant hiking in negative degrees, rain, wind, fog, bugs, and heat.
It means planning routes, nutrition, hydration, footwear, and gear.
It means checking trip reports, weather updates, forest road closures, parking lot conditions, and water levels.
It means leaving my itinerary with the kids because I mostly hike alone. Texts from trailhead, summit, trailhead, and home are what have kept me safe; or, if not safe, at least findable, should that become necessary.
I don’t take stupid chances because there are some milestones you just don’t need to rush. Mistakes are part of the process, but I mitigate as best I can.
I want to make it to 576.
The thing is, we may not know when we are halfway to something.
It’s easy to forget when you’re in the thick of something craggy that you could be halfway through it – or even a wisp away from the terminus.
I often marvel at how events that seem so heavy at the time are sometimes just a gentle tool in the hand of God.
This was a rough week at the end of a trying academic year. Staying open was so good for our boys, and I’m truly thankful, but it’s come at a cost. There’s a collective exhaustion, a heightened reactivity, a general frustration at the very protocols that have gifted us safety. Living together on a closed campus as we do, it’s not easy to hide our vulnerabilities.
Things take on added weight.
Immersed as I was in the hard, I wasn’t thinking about my son’s next birthday, his would-be-27th.
He’s everywhere, of course; I can’t walk down the hall without seeing him.
Little him and big him, smiling him and still him.
It was estimated that there were 600 people at my son’s memorial service.
Maybe you were one of them.
I’ve taken to praying for the 600 every morning. They are precious to me, like the pearl of great price:
Later that day, Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeshore to teach the people. He taught them many things by using stories, parables to illustrate spiritual truths, saying:
Heaven’s kingdom realm is like a jewel merchant in search of rare pearls. When he discovered one very precious and exquisite pearl, he immediately gave up all he had in exchange for it.Matthew 13
I cannot say for sure, but perhaps that’s the exchange.
I didn’t expect to find myself once again this March huddled in a tent on the Florida Trail, listening to big-somethings crashing through the night on the other side, but, once again, Covid interrupts in ways none of us foresee.
When the virus hits our school, opening a brief window of opportunity, I do some counting. Are there days enough to drive 1,400 miles, hike a 160-mile section, then drive 1,400 miles back? Enough to quarantine for 2 weeks before I must return to work?
If I walk fast enough.
Walking fast was not a problem on the previous two sections I had hiked in 2019 and 2020. The trail between the northern terminus at Fort Pickens National Seashore and Blountstown was sandy, dry, and gloriously, ludicrously flat. One only slowed to marvel at a cypress knee or the surprise greening of a freshly sooted controlled burn.
I had heard of the soggy sections south of Blountstown – the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, Apalachicola, the Aucilla Sinks – but had no frame of reference to comprehend the magnitude of what was ahead.
It wasn’t until the end of my first half day of dirt-road-walking, where even the swamp dwellers seemed happy and dry, that I realized my miscalculation.
To be fair, Florida had been experiencing a heavy load of rain over the weeks previous, so perhaps the swamps might have been, in other years, merely ankle deep.
Or perhaps the trail sections now ankle-deep in mud might have been, in other years, just a thin patina.
No matter. The trail is what the trail is on the day you choose to hike it, so hike it as it is you must.
I suppose I should be grateful for that first half day of dry; it marked the end of dry-anything for the rest of the week.
When I came to end of that first half day, it had gotten dark and I was navigating by headlamp and Guthook. The app told me that I was .1 from the tent sight I had been shooting for, but the trail ahead disappeared into a vast expanse of murky water. I shone my beam as far as I could, but there was no way to tell how far the water stretched, nor how deep it was. One thing was certain: I was not going to try to find out that night.
Unpacking my stuff and setting up my tent right on the trail, I wondered if any other hikers might happen by. Though unlikely, I thought they could walk around. Nothing to see here – just a deep dark swamp with suspicious splashing. As you were.
Turns out this was just the first in an endless cascade of varying types of water features through which the trail slopped.
There were the sinks – eroded craters set in limestone where the Aucilla River flowed, disappearing underneath your very feet only to reappear a half mile up ahead in a different hole.
There were deep gullies v’ed with water, steeply banked on either side; in one attempt to leap across, I miscalculate and am shredded by a nasty saw palmetto.
There were levees, spillways, streams, flooded jeep tracks, the ever present swamps, rain, and even the St. Mary’s River, where hikers have to call a marina on the other side to be shuttled across.
It was no use trying to stay dry.
If the miles were to be hiked, there was only through. At times, my battered feet even enjoyed the soothing wet, though every morning was a struggle to wedge them back into cold, sandy shoes.
Later, when I get home, it takes multiple soaks before I trust my socks to the washer.
They’ll never be the same.
This year, I am fortunate to run into a few thru-hikers and even hike some miles with them.
The Florida Trail is not one of the more popular of America’s long distance trails (see previous section), but it seems to be gaining in stature, particularly during Covid, when other types of travel are restricted.
It is impossible to stay on pace with them – they’ve hiked over 750 miles and I’m just out for the week – though I spend one morning chatting companionably with two young guns who, when they hear what I do for a living, ask, “Do they know their teacher is a bada**?”
Of course, I could not have completed this section without the help of some amazingly generous friends and trail angels. Wilton, who supports hikers through the Altha Hillcrest Baptist Church, drives me the 160 miles to my starting point and keeps an eye on my car for the week. Talking theology with him is always a treat.
I meet Mr. Tom at Porter Lake Campsite after I mistakenly bushwack a two mile section that apparently had been closed due to a property owner dispute.
I’m in an grumpy mood, scratched and bloody from the fight, but he offers me an orange. I put it in my pack, where, like a pearl, it shimmers all day, the thought of it enticing me forward. I eat it as a reward, later, for dinner.
Steps, a thru hiker I meet last year, offers to walk the longest swamp with me, but I elect instead to do the high water bypass. When you have to pull yourself across the first water crossing in a boat on a rope, perhaps it’s just not the year to attempt Bradwell Bay. Walking Fire Road 329 instead, I see a truck bumping up the track and out he hops with a cold Gatorade and a Subway sandwich. We catch up in the shade, talking trail and hikers we know.
No trip to Florida would be complete without visiting with my friend Nancy, who helps hikers on the Panhandle. I’m down to dregs in both food and water, ready to be back in civilization.
After 10 miles of marshy Apalachicola and another 7 of road walk, I’m so blessed to have her take my pack so I can finish the last 8 miles into Blountstown, thus connecting the dots from where I left off last year.
Frisky as a calf, I run the first 4.
Riding together back to my car, I am happy to share my last miles with Nancy. As with the trail, gap and distance make reunion all the sweeter.
When You Pass Through the Waters
Hiking the Florida Trail this year was a surprise treat; despite the challenges, I am grateful that the timing worked out.
I got to see my first alligator.
It’s close enough yet far enough away, if you know what I mean.
And perhaps because it was cool and rainy much of the week, the only snake I see is on a paved path.
A tentative poke to the tip of his tail confirms what I suspected: this fellow wasn’t going to bite anyone ever again.
Safe at home again, I realize that the prayer my besty gave me for this section has worked. I had whispered it under my breath, pleaded it through clenched teeth, sang it when my feet were finally firm beneath me:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. Isaiah 43:1-2
I was in the woods last March when Covid hit. The year ahead was a dark swamp, and we, unable to peer through to what lay on the other side, had to stop, hunker down, wait.
There were no maps we could rely on – only the One who sees the end from the beginning and is with us in the waters.
So we walk on, confident that we will see the other side.