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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Into the Wilderness -- Part 1 of 2

It was the gorgeous summer of 1990. Julie and I were celebrating our first anniversary with a backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Although it was July, we expected to see patches of snow “up there.” We had prepared carefully, planned food and gear and each day’s mileage down to the last possible detail. We would be leaving civilization behind, trekking into the wilderness. It was serious business.

Neither of us were strangers to the outdoors. Julie had led backpacking trips as part of her ministry at a Bible camp during college. I had been hunting and camping most of my life. A year earlier on our honeymoon we went whitewater rafting. We were not intimidated by the mountains, but we respected them.

Not far into the first day’s hike we realized we had been too optimistic. Julie’s pack didn’t fit quite right, and the straps were digging into her neck. Climbing uphill was even tougher than we had anticipated. And to top it all off, just a few miles up the trail we were confronted by a tangled mess of trees across the trail. It was an avalanche path from the previous winter, and no maintenance crews had been out to clear the trail yet. Rather than tackle a two hundred yard swath of tree trunks thrown around like matchsticks, we decided to take it easy and camp for the night. The next day we could conquer the avalanche path, when our legs were not so shaky and sweat wasn’t dripping in our eyes.

Crossing that pathway the next morning was worse than we anticipated. It took a good hour to get over, under, and through the impossible mess. The worst part was passing the packs through narrow openings where we could not carry them on our backs. We climbed on, through alpine meadows and stands of scruffy trees. Another three miles in – and up – we encountered our first snow field. The trail had not been traveled yet this season. A field of clean, white snow lay before us, straddling the trail and disappearing down the treacherous slope to our left. We loosened our packs (in case we fell) and tightened our shoelaces (to avoid falling). Step by careful step we plodded across the snowfield. On the far side we congratulated ourselves at being alive. We walked a quarter mile more to the second snowfield. Now we were old hands at this. We paused to check our gear before negotiating this difficult obstacle.

Then he appeared. One second I was tightening my shoelaces, and the next he was smiling, “Excuse me!” and bounding past me on the trail. His appearance burned into my mind: Sunglasses. Running shorts. Fanny pack. Low-top, high-tech, ultra-light-weight hiking boots. His shirt was looped through the belt of his fanny pack and his bronze skin gleamed in the sun with a light misting of sweat. A water bottle hung on his hip. He bounded across the snowfield, never missing a stride, and ran on up the trail.

I’m quite sure our jaws were hanging open. Who did he think he was, treating the mountains like that? How irresponsible. No common sense. But … Wow! He had left the parking area, several miles below, and ran – up the trails, over the tangle of avalanche felled trees, through the meadows and over the snow and past us – all in the space of a few hours. And he obviously planned to run over the pass ahead, around the lake, and down the spur that led through the river bottom to the west, back to the parking area. At least ten miles.

As we plodded on, we talked about the amazing figure of the running man. I think we had to talk about him, just to make sure we had not imagined him. Finally we reached the pass – a narrow place affectionately known as “the Catwalk”. There we found mountain goat tracks on a windy defile where the slope fell away five hundred feet to the left and eight hundred feet to the right. And the runner had been there before us.

After leaving the Catwalk, we passed from a slope that faced more or less south to one that faced north. It was completely covered with snow, deeper than our heads in places. On our own, we would have been at a loss where to go next. The trail markers were covered with snow. But the runner had been there before us. His footprints never faltered, never wandered. He knew the trail well. Print after print, those footsteps were like silent words that whispered directions to us. Across the slope, over the ice bridge across the gorge where we could hear water running below our feet, through the trees poking partway up through the snow – we followed him across at least a half mile of unmarked snow before the trail became visible again.

In the years since that time, I have often thought of that runner. He has become a sort of picture of Jesus for me. So often I feel at a loss, without direction, not knowing where to go or how to get there. As a husband, a father, a son, a pastor … there are days it seems like I’m just making it up as I go along. Yet in those hopeless fields, there are tracks to follow. There is a Savior who promises to show me the way. Though I am weak and timid, he is faithful.

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