On Climbing Cardigan – July, Chapter the Last

This past Tuesday, I found myself sleeping on a picnic table in the parking area of Cardigan Mountain State Park. How this happened is a bit of a tale.

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It started a year ago, when I thought it might be a curious experiment to climb a favorite little peak nestled neatly in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley every month for an entire year (On Climbing Cardigan: August). What might be gleaned from 12 visits to the same peak?

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What might one learn?

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I wanted to make the last in this series unique, epic even – or as epic as 3,155 feet can be. I wanted to take the long way up, sleep on top, travel miles around and over, walk a series of backroads to return to my car.

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A full day’s “work” splashing around our school’s own sweet lake with boys and canoes in our wilderness program precluded an early departure, so I arrived at what was described to me as the way to the trailhead sometime after 7 PM.

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This back side of Cardigan can be reached by an asphalt-flaking, gloomy thoroughfare called New Colony Road, which turns into a deep mudfest about a mile and half in. I thought it wise to park while the parking was good.

There had been talk about a gate and an overgrown thicket disguised as the trailhead, so I ran up the dirt road, sinking in the mire, but nothing up there looked like a way to climb my mountain. Puzzled, I returned to my car to find, in absurdly perfect timing, another summer school teacher also looking for the same elusive trailhead.

We decided on a united search.

Almost two miles passed before a cairn was discovered in the weeds with what might generously be deemed an opening to a path beyond. A few yards in, an understated sign nailed to a tree announced that we were in business.

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Most of said “trail” – called Mowgli’s Trail – was swamped due to recent rains, so I surrendered my dry feet to the journey and just squashed on through.

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It was delightful.

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Why had I never taken this way before?!

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My new friend and I chatted about NESCAC schools, long distance trails, and a supposed Civil War deserter’s cave hidden somewhere nearby as the scenery became more and more glorious.

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It was getting dark when we reached a small, dirty shelter slouching in the woods (not staying here, I thought); he needed to get back to his car, so we parted ways and I continued on up Firescrew Mountain, Cardigan’s baby brother.

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Mists whipped across a sky above granite bare and steep.

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I followed the blazes up and over Firescrew to the familiar flank of Cardigan.

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Somehow, God never exhausts the ways He is able to display his grandeur. It was as if He had saved the proverbial best for last; moonrise, ripple, vapor, expanse.

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Psalm 8 welled up from the depth of my very bones:

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? 

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I felt so small.

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Was that it?

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All those trips, step upon step upon step upon step?

Glory.

Wonder.

The absolute vastness of an uncontainable God.

And yet, in all that bigness, that unfathomable huge, He still cares for us.

For me.

Intimately.

Carefully.

Perfectly.

Creatively.

Jesus told it this way: …the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

And aren’t we all lost?

Broken, hurting, misdirected, wandering, searching, desperate lost?

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And that’s where He meets us.

In all of our mess, in all of our failings and stumblings and stubbornness and pain.

He fills us up with what He is full of: compassion and goodness, mercy and power.

O, Lord, what am I that You are mindful of me?

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Thank You.

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So the story ends, for now.

It was too wet and windy to sleep comfortably on top of Cardigan, under the firetower, as I had hoped.

Another detour.

Instead, by headlamp, I wove my way down to the parking area, slipped on a rock and impaled myself on a trekking pole, possibly breaking a rib.

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Oh well.

The picnic table was as good a surface as any, so, sore but dry, I passed the night contemplating the next.

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In an irony totally reserved for God, I found myself the next day hiking the same exact route with our wilderness kids.

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Dangerous weather on the high ridgeline we had planned to hike caused us to change plans at last minute, but isn’t that also how He sometimes likes to surprise us?

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It was okay, though.

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He had already shown me the way.

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On Leaving No Trace

I just got back from a four day foray in the woods.

I was with a group of brilliant educators all participating in an inaugural program aimed at expanding place-based education, sustainability, and experiential learning in our classrooms and schools.

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It was almost a crime to call this professional development.

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There was something magical about this slurry of teachers, solitude, and vision; blend in some sweat, peak-y views, and a few bald eagles, and you have the perfect recipe to energize a tired soul to keep fighting the good fight.

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The tide that often seems so strong against us as teachers – societal ills, indifference, lack of resource – might just be able to be turned were more of us able to just get together and dream.

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One of the principles we discussed at length was the idea of leaving no trace.

Leave No Trace is the wilderness ethic of minimizing the impact of one’s passage through an environment; this includes guidelines such as planning and preparing, properly disposing of waste, and leaving what one might find in the wild – leaf, antler, stone – in the wild.

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As a leader in my schools’s own wilderness program, this is often a challenge with young people.

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Kids are naturally curious and want to touch, pick, throw, and eat whatever surrounds them, so it is a constant battle trying to help them to understand how what they do today will cause a profound echo into what future generations will experience in the tomorrow.

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Is tossing this apple core into the forest okay? What about building a small cairn? Tasting wild blueberry?

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Their sound footprint alone could drive a ranger bonkers.

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I have been thinking of the story of Mary of Bethany a lot lately; she has popped up numerous times over the past few weeks, and I am curious as to why.

God does that sometimes, I think. Percolates an idea, an image, a word over and over until the grounds settle, leaving behind a rich, aromatic brew. Like coffee, this distillate can provide focus if we attend to its message.

Mary’s story goes like this: Six days before the Passover began, Jesus went back to Bethany, the town where he raised Lazarus from the dead. They had prepared a supper for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus and Mary were among those at the table. Mary picked up an alabaster jar filled with nearly a liter of extremely rare and costly perfume—the purest extract of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet. Then she wiped them dry with her long hair. And the fragrance of the costly oil filled the house (John 12:1-3).

This act of Mary’s would have been seen as scandalous in Jesus’s day – uncovered hair! a room full of men! perfume costing a year’s wages! – but Jesus wouldn’t allow anyone to criticize her, even saying her act would be remembered throughout time.

As I thought more about leaving no trace and about Mary, however, I began to wonder how they connect to the kind of mark we leave behind.

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Did the Roman soldiers (as the footnote in my Bible suggests), determinedly driving iron barbs into Jesus’s feet, perhaps detect a faint whiff of that aromatic extravagance and ponder what it possibly could mean?

Surely some of the spikenard Mary poured on Jesus spilled out onto the floor of the house where they were gathered. Would others walk by, daysmonthsyears later, and sense the sweet impression of Mary’s outrageous love?

Did the scent linger long in her hair?

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Because the thing is, Jesus was right. Here we are, some 2,000 years later, still remembering Mary’s sacrificial act of devotion.

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She left an indelible trace.

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Like Mary, we have the profound charge of either being to those around us the fragrance of life or the stench of death (2 Corinthians 2:16).

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Although in the wilderness we should tread as if we had never been, in life, we can – we must! – choose the kind of scent-trail we leave behind.

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Mercy, not judgement.

Hope, not despair.

Faith, not fear.

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May the costly oil of our lives be poured out and fill to the full the lives of those around us – a true trace that reverberates across time.

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