Monster

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.

Both.

Broken.

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.

I like to be up high.

So this is a promise I will tuck in my heart.

I don’t want to be a monster.

On Perspective

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.

Time for new shoes

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.

UGH.

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.

No.

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.

Would that our perspective be ever that simple.

It’s only a matter of trust.

Halfway

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.

But He knows.

And that’s enough for me.

When You Pass Through the Waters

Embrace the Unexpected

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?

Perhaps.

If I walk fast enough.

Swamps

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.

Community

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**?”

Warm fuzzies.

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.

Two Miles Short

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.  ~Thomas Paine

Have you ever been so thirsty that it is nearly impossible to drink?

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I didn’t actually think this possible, but this past week, back on the Florida Trail for another spring break, I found myself huddled behind a propane tank display in front of a Dollar General desperate for some relief from the sun and unable to choke down any fluid.

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One of the many challenges of the Florida Trail – besides the obvious, like swamps, snakes, and alligators – is the frequency of road walks.

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While Florida Trail chapter volunteers try to parcel together more and more sections off the roads and into the woods where a trail belongs, gaining permission from landowners and other entities to allow smelly people to walk across private land is oftentimes problematic.

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No matter what time of year one chooses to walk the trail, however – most start at the southern terminus sometime in January – there will be countless stretches along roads, paved and un, exposed to a ceaseless, punishing solar barrage. To say that thirst is one of the side effects of these portions is a wild understatement.

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While toiling away on one such section, I made some lists in my sunburnt head.

Benefits of Road Walks

  1. Interesting viewsE2C44FF1-76E5-4987-A7C5-91A98593BAA235AC7DA2-6FAA-4392-997B-4B4104569EF2
  2. No coyotes howling on the other side of your thin fabric’d tent, oftentimes from the same direction toward which you are about to walk70769515-91D9-4C82-8FBA-EB2CD8E0B098
  3. Strategically positioned convenience stores (like the aforementioned Dollar General I found myself at, two bottles of cold liquids in front of me, too tummy-tied and dehydrated to sip even the tiniest amount)3D72BE95-8E5A-4281-AEB3-DFB20DBBFC73
  4. Loot7469C7A3-FB61-492B-82B0-CBF4101F9B6B
  5. Hard (but not impossible) to get lost59BBCEED-FFEE-4765-B219-D017B0B25D95
  6. Flat3ECB4124-35B2-40DD-9759-B334878904CC
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for no apparent reason

Disadvantages of Road Walks

  1. Same view, mile after endless mile0B8D00F2-579A-4303-A6DC-3EA4B3335C7C
  2. No coyotes: it’s strangely thrilling to hear these magnificent animals yipping and howling OUT THERE while you are burrito’d in a sleeping bag IN HERE. Shivers.) Also, snarly dogs, chained and un, that charge as you cruise by, scaring you out of your very pantsD4DFECFE-1B09-449B-AEE4-07F7D71D8035
  3. Convenience stores, right on the very trail – where’s the challenge in that? – with the only options for a gluten-free-dairy-free eater being jumbo pickles and Slim Jims. No more Krispy Kremes for this girl. Frowny face. Also, creepy guys in the parking lot who ask where-you-going-honey-I-saw-you-walking-in-Ebro-yesterday?F6DE7C1B-794C-4338-B25D-99DF5FE6A86B
  4. Loot: not willing to walk by a SINGLE PENNY despite the head rush that follows one of these swipe-and-grab episodes
  5. Getting lost – at almost every intersection, in spite of carrying the Guthook app which basically makes it criminal to ever go off-trailBA01C7BA-908F-4B3B-83E0-E700988AB733
  6. Flat. And hot. And did I mention no shade? And pavement, which causes massive blisters on the bottom of one’s tender, un-trail-toughen’d feet
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for decidedly nefarious reasons

Lest you think, dear reader, that the Florida Trail is nothing but a paved paradise, let me assure you of its staggering beauty and never-ending surprises. Here’s one more list.

Good Stuff on the Florida Trail

  1. Soft paths that go on forever2DB14723-A399-4084-8EAF-AE9C05A03E945794B52D-B3BB-43FD-B3E4-393FE194FA52
  2. Pines, everywhere, nascent and established8AD42E8A-872E-453C-B4E4-FD0508EC250AD43A0913-5D5D-471B-8938-D9AFD9E1E78B421276BB-45BE-4B25-9081-E0576DC30A9F07102280-D21E-4051-8FD0-A8B03AC1424984B1E23C-034E-4EA4-92FB-5331533494AC
  3. Boardwalks and bridges (especially when alligators are suspected)F27D08E9-4CCE-47B3-883B-738C60641F34F1EB41A7-8EDE-4FC6-9152-E5DFDA4308C7
  4.  Tannin-tinged, sandy-bottomed streams flowing high and cold10672DAD-3A42-4D25-B25E-7709D8AE3C40
  5. Fruit of the many selfless hours spent by trail volunteers clearing away damage from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. There would be no trail without these amazing humans.8C4E255F-7107-4C05-8CEE-4523FEB74323E7D48071-1104-4C34-86F3-F6454B2B8770
  6. Evidence of nature’s incredible resilience11AE16CB-5B81-4CCC-A70E-DE807768CF6556864FDD-0A3E-4500-9D8A-65937D7A3D9AA121DC2B-3A30-4C21-A74E-2DCB35A7A6F79E4E49F0-7C51-4B6F-AF0A-0A2DAD77CE08D35D5CCB-9177-48A3-BE56-9A68DD075F5D
  7. Cypress knees (Haha! Trees with knees – Florida is so weird)A01319A9-6541-44D4-AAF4-D6C7BDA49BB3
  8. Trail angels, especially Nancy and Wilton, who become instant friends6FAA3AB2-58A9-47A3-B05B-3316EDB61E629FB48A2F-E528-4F18-84C1-30B0ADD16752
  9. Other hikers. Shout out to Steps and Flattop, with whom I shared my last stretch of 2020, most of which was on the road. Of course.8F47737D-926C-425C-B98F-C2069F84930E
  10. Random beauty everywhereF279339C-87DB-495D-B710-E9A2B32A0FAC2193B177-0133-49F7-AFFD-0E0A1A01B2EBA72404DB-AFA5-48AB-83A5-B29071B4E193AA42B5EB-27FC-49BA-97C3-0E4105C58D7A60804C6B-760C-4BC9-8297-1B7ED42A3E99
  11. Other weird things, like tires in trees and gnomes in the forest330C57D0-1CAE-4858-A381-6CCDEFEB5B40762AD6E0-E493-40B5-AFB0-415DE1758CFB
  12. Sunrises and sunsets077E6453-4AD8-4129-8C49-61CF3E626F0ABB710AE7-2A5E-4FEE-B8E4-BAD6924A2F5F

I had planned on walking 100 miles this year on the Florida Trail. I only had five days, and I was eager to get back North to watch the youngest’s lacrosse games, hug the middle guy,  and spend some time with The Princess and the grandbabe. While I was in the woods, however, oblivious to what was happening out in the world, a tiny, germ-y threat was snaking its way across the sea and canceling everything everywhere.

They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, and I discovered why this time around.

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I suppose I never really noticed before, but it became obvious with the moon full throughout the week: there was always a stretch between moonset and sunrise when all went black.

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It was a spooky time, especially when you are trying to wend your way through jumbled swamps, skirting sink holes while looking for the orange blazes that mark the trail by the light of a single headlamp.

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Perhaps that is where we are right now.

As this virus rages across our lives, our families, we need to remember it is only the in-between. Like those fire-ravaged pines, we humans are resilient in the face of affliction. There will always be new growth.

We walk through valleys dark, knowing there is a Good Shepherd who has water waiting ahead, a place at the table. We don’t need to be afraid.

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When I finally add up the miles I have walked this time around, I find it to be only 98.

Two miles short.

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Another time, I might have beat myself up for coming so close.

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But there is no need, not now.

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There are plenty of miles ahead; this is the time for grace.

God’s Isotope

“Living things carry an imprint of their environment recorded in isotopes.” ~Jason Moon

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I love high places.

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I’ve been visiting a few favorites this past week, and also paying calls to some I have not seen in almost a decade.

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On the weekend, while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail my son and I did in 2010 and knocking off some peaks on The Grid, I binge-listened to a podcast a dear friend suggested.

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Bear Brook by Jason Moon chronicles the mystery of four murder victims discovered in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park beginning in 1985, their eventual identification, and the capture of the serial killer responsible for their deaths.

One of the ways they uncovered the identities of the victims, who were (sorry about this) cut to pieces and shoved into barrels was by examining the isotopes found in their bones.

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Environmental isotopes are naturally occurring atoms that carry the signature of the geographic region where they are found, and they make their way into rocks, plants, animals, and even us, revealing our history with a mark that is as distinct as a fingerprint.

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While I listened and walked, walked and listened, I marveled at the complexity of isotopes and the unique map God creates for all of lives.

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What is in our bones?

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God’s vastness is so incomprehensible, and his thoughts and ways so much higher than ours.

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We are so small.

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The prophet Isaiah once observed: He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)

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Jesus, too, was drawn to high places. He frequently slipped away to a mountaintop to pray and spend time with His daddy. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about: bumbling disciples, plotting pharisees, the hurting, the sick, and the dead.

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Jesus needed this time to strengthen Himself, gather courage for the way ahead, listen to His father’s voice.

Things always seem so much better up there.

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Perhaps they even discussed Jesus’s answer to an expert in the law who once tested Him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?

Jesus didn’t hesitate: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

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So where do we go to find the map of own lives?

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At times, the way seems so obvious, so well-defined.

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Other times, we come to a crossroad and freeze, hardly knowing which way to turn.

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It’s murky. Unclear.

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We stumble and curse, wishing there were some way to control the swirling chaos and the deep ache inside of us like an imprint in our bones.

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Isaiah reminds us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Spending time like Jesus did, up high, with our heavenly Daddy gives us a sense of proportion. While there, we also percolate in the immutable character of God, absorbing His most perfect isotope: love.

When we are confident of the Father’s relentless, passionate love for us, things down here seem less awful. We find ways to cope, to fight, to overcome.

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It allows us to weigh Paul’s words against our own experience and see the wisdom in his testimony: for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Whether or not we can see the way, we can be confident that God sees. He is the ultimate map-maker.

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And that is more than enough for me.

 

 

On Paying Attention

I got a speeding ticket this week.

It ruined a decades-long streak of clean driving and made me a little crabby, not appreciating the heft of the fine.

The truth is, though, I wasn’t paying attention, and this is something against which we must guard with all fury.

I had spent the previous weeks feeling marginalized at work, wishing the landscape of my life would change, and wondering if I was ever again going to be anything but alone.

Probably the best place to be when self-pity rears its wretched head is at a boarding school, where pace and duty leave no room for despair, where the presence of middle school boys presents endless opportunities for surprise and joy.

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Oswald Chambers writes that “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity because it removes God from the throne of our lives.

Ouch. Thanks, O.C.

Determined instead to de-throne myself, I tuck the ticket in the back seat, wish the officer a nice day, and drive on, albeit much slower.

It was Saturday, it wasn’t raining, I was done with school for the day, and I was headed to a mountain.

Rejoice, already.

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Thankfully, Tecumseh didn’t scold as I moved up her flank, her bottom half determined to be spring while her top half remained stubbornly mired in snow.

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Ill-prepared hikers skidded and fell in their sneakers and shorts.

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Were they simply not paying attention?

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The other day in chapel, I spoke about nostalgia and the need to be fully present. To not look to the next-next thing, lest we miss something along the way.

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The lyrics of a Talking Heads song came to mind, the song “Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne croons same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was over and over and over.

There is a not-so-subtle warning there; we must be careful to fight against the complacency of routine so as not to wind up, years hence, asking ourselves in bewilderment, “Well, how did I get here?”

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On this, Tecumseh-climb #9, it would have been easy to roll up and down, to not notice.

The unfurling.

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Red growth on a rock.

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My friend Chippy, who still doesn’t trust enough to come near.

 

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Life, pushing through.

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Signs, everywhere, if we pay attention.

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Each day a gift.

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A marvel of complexity.

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But we must be sure to look.

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On the way home, I plant bulbs at the base of the tree where my son died. Leave some pennies, a new bracelet to replace the one dissolved by weather and the years.

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Nothing really is same as it ever was.

So we find joy in hope, soldier on through tribulation, devote ourselves to prayer. (Romand 12:12)

Pay attention, lest we miss what matters most.

Spring Break

My family, the one-once-intact, used to drive to Florida every year.

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For many Mays, this meant getting on Interstate 75 at the last Michigan exit before Canada and following the signs until the last exit in Florida, a thousand miles and a climate change later.

It was always an adventure: 6 bodies in a minivan, the oldest throwing up in New Jersey, the youngest throwing a tantrum in Georgia, books on tape and gas station snacks and music marathons until, at last, we’d arrive, sometimes still talking.

My then-husband and I would drop the kids at my folk’s place and spend a week dining out, conversing with other adults at his work convention, and sipping frozen drinks on hot-white sand.

As a young homeschooling mom, I relished these days, looked forward to them all year, mourned when they came to an end.

I loved my kids, of course – even managed to spend one “special day” with each of them during our time down there – but the break –  O that break! –  from the routine of math and meals and domestic mania.

Naples and the swanky hotel where we’d stay was how I remembered Florida: $8.00 drinks, valet parking, new cars and old money.

But this spring, I took a break from my now 200 school-sons and drove instead to the Panhandle to hike a section of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile corridor that snakes from Fort Pickens National Seashore in Pensacola down to the Everglades, south of my beloved Naples.

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I discovered that the Panhandle is not only a different time zone from Naples, but it also felt, in so many ways, like a whole different planet.

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The first person I met on the Panhandle drove an hour out of his way to deliver me to the northern terminus of the trail. Matt, one of the Florida Trail’s many “trail angels,” almost talked me out of being afraid of alligators as we crossed the many bridges from Pensacola to Fort Pickens and snapped this picture on the cold Tuesday morning I began my hike.

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The cold lingered for the next few days as I walked 12 miles of sugar sand (hard) and even more miles of road (harder).

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Unlike many of the trails up north or out west, the Florida Trail must parcel together brief bursts of nature linked together by longer stretches of pavement or dirt roads.

Had I done my homework better, I could have carried a much lighter load, as I passed convenience stores and even restaurants every few hours my first days on the trail.

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Road walks are a cruel necessity, but the time hiking in and out of communities allows one access into that community’s heart.

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I remembered the opulent vehicles that were the norm in Naples, but folks on the Panhandle drive pickups you can work out of, splattered with the red clay of back roads and farm towns and carrying lumber and table saws and hound dogs.

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I watched as a lady trooper, unfazed, donned rubber gloves and dragged a dead deer out of the road. A man pulled over one day and told me he had “seen me walking all day and wondered if I need a lift.” Haha. Thanks but no need, kind man.

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I found 9 pennies one day on a 21-mile road walk. A friend calls these “God-winks,” and I always seemed to find one when suffering a low point of the day.

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I found that folks on the Panhandle still say yes ma’am and no ma’am, hold the door, linger over coffee.

I loved everyone I met, particularly one ridiculously generous trail angel who let me stay at her house, slack-packed me for two days, and, along one sketchy piece of road, drove her car between me and a driveway full of 10 snarling Mastiffs guarding what looked like a trailer cooking meth. When I was finished, Nancy drove me the 100-plus miles I had walked back to my car. Unreal.

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But I went to Florida to walk in the woods, and despite the many road-walks, I found myself in some beautiful but alien terrain.

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I was surprised by the sandy-bottomed streams, clear and cold, that criss-crossed the trail and some haunting spider domes that appeared one foggy morning in the trees.

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Some prettier sections of the trail wended through Eglin Air Force Base, and it was a bit of a logistical nightmare to time walking these bits when my permit allowed so as not to be taken hostage by training rangers or bombed into oblivion. To be allowed on the base, you actually have to pass a quiz on what to do should you encounter unexploded ordnance along the trail. It was a little tense, but some strange scenery kept my mind off being blown up.

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I thought I would see more wildlife, but in the week I was on the trail, all I saw were a few black vultures feasting on some dead thing along the road, a dead squirrel behind the payloader I tucked in back of to pee, the aforementioned dead deer, a huge tick that crawled across my foot, and two snakes.

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I managed to snap a photo of the cute little green guy, but I was too busy screaming and running away from the other monster to consider pulling out my phone. Yikes.

Oh yeah: and on the beach, I saw a dead jellyfish and some shore birds, so there’s that.

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Are there gators on the Florida Trail? Apparently, yes, but I didn’t see any, and I’m not at all sad about that. Some northbound thru-hikers told me that when walking through the swampier areas, alligators “sense your vibrations and swim away.” Alrighty, then.

I had planned on hiking longer, but a nasty blister under my foot and a seriously sore quad forced me off sooner than I would have liked, but isn’t it always better to leave wanting more?

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I’m finding that it’s okay to do things alone, to be alone with my own itinerary, my own thoughts, my own path.

On the Panhandle, I never felt truly alone, and having a new tradition in Florida – spring break on the Florida Trail – seems like an exchange I can live with.

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It may take me years to hike the whole Florida Trail, but I learned a ton this time around and I’ll be more ready when next spring break rolls around.

On Day One

2019: The Year, if it is anything like 2019: Day One, has the potential to blow expectations out of the water.

The night before, celebrating New Year’s Eve with colleagues I am also blessed to call friends, the hosts dropped a cascade of balloons onto a bevy of squealing, twirling children at midnight-is-really-8 o’clock, so I was home in bed by 9:30. Perfect for an introvert like me, easily fatigued by conversation and social situations.

Waking up to snow always makes me happy, like memories of school closings scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen, hours of expectant potential right outside the front door. I was already imagining the sugar-dusted boughs overhead on the hike that was only a short drive away.

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A rainbow!

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No way this day could be sealed with anything more prophetic. Capturing it while driving on the backroads of New Hampshire was a bonus.

It seemed fit to tackle timid 4,003′ Tecumseh as my first hike of the year, my first winter 4,000 footer, and the maiden voyage of the snowshoes I gave myself for Christmas.

Tecumseh, although least-by-height in the clan of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers, is steep enough to call a work-out and a worthy proving ground for figuring out how to walk with clown shoes attached to my legs.

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The Princess and her hubby were gracious as I tripped and apologized up the trickier parts and even agreed to a summit selfie.

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The predicted 50-70 mph winds picked up as we headed down, but most of Tecumseh is protected by a wooded barrier of hearty pines, so aside from a brief moment at the top, none of us minded the cold.

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I didn’t even mind, back at the car, discovering the shredded hems of my rain pants, evidence of an embryonic spacial awareness between where shins ended and sharp claws of snowshoes began. Oh well – I needed a new pair anyway.

An exit on the ride home took me by the boy’s bench, so I stopped by to say hello.

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Anna had left a wreath, and once again my heart swelled with thanks for the friends my son made while he was still here with us.

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Do you know how much they loved you, silly boy? 

Not much snow on the driveway and stairs when we arrived home, tired. Nothing that a quick shovel and a nap couldn’t fix.

Later, under winking lights, I eat dinner cooked not-by-me and watch some football with the fam.

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2019, I have high hopes for you.

Given the carnage of past years, the lightness I feel on Day One seems miraculous.

Perhaps this will be the year that God does exceedingly abundantly more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Actually, it seems as if He already has.

 

 

 

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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