Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Not-So Mountaintop Experience ...and Yet

Image result for mt sterling trailhead imagesMy husband and I love to explore our favorite trails, over and over, where cathedrals of trees rise up around us, and rushing creeks sing endless ancient choruses. But even on those familiar trails, something new always emerges, the seniority of an old growth tree towering overhead, or suddenly, the sun's rays slicing through the thick canopy like a prophetic vision of God.  Always we return to civilization with a story or two, and sometimes the resounding silence of the woods even follows us inside.

But last week, we hiked a trail we did not know, realizing that the beginning of a familiar trail is in hiking a new one. Our now-preferred routes were once strangers too.

This trail was on our way to see some herds of elk, gathering at Cataloochee for a little autumn party. A little side hike was a welcome break after navigating fifteen miles of potholes on a lonely gravel road. 

The carved wooden sign at the trail head stated in bold print:  Mount Sterling Trail 2.3 miles, a morning's journey, not daunting at all. Another trail would intersect in a half mile.  All I knew from my limited experience was that when the trail name includes the word "mount," count on it being steep.

Immediately, the path started upward. We were on our way.  "Do I need a heavier long sleeve shirt?"  I asked Bill, as I shivered in the early morning coolness.  "Not likely," he said. I was still skeptical.

In the first quarter mile of the ascent, I was down to a tank top.

When we reached the other trail branching off, the sign repeated:  Mount Sterling Trail 2.3 miles.  The same as a half mile ago.  Hmmmm. Not what our map said.  What else don't we know?

The path became even steeper.  Sometimes a little ignorance is a grace, I justified. But the truth was  we hadn't read the guide book.  We hadn't asked anyone about it.  We didn't know the "story" about this trail. It was another mile longer than expected, not unbearably steep, but it was a continuous climb. Each switchback vaguely promised a break, but as we climbed and approached yet another turn, the path was relentless.  It will flatten out at the next bend, I lied to myself   But no rest area was to be found.

Just keep on, I said to myself. Think about the view from the top!  That is always worth it. The rocks and the roots threatened to trip me on every step, but gradually I began to see them as footholds, at times almost like steps carved into the side of the mountain. 

We came around yet another bend, and quite suddenly, that was it, the end of the trail.  We looked around us, and then, at each other.  There was no view.  There was nothing but some scrub trees and another trail sign that pointed down the mountain in two opposite directions.

A mountaintop experience without a view?  We climbed all this way, and there was nothing here.  "I can see why this is not a popular trail," I said to Bill.

"Well, it was a nice hike on a beautiful day," he said.  And indeed it was, view or not.

On the way down, back to the car, we passed quite a few hikers on the way up.  "Should I tell them there is nothing there?" I whispered to myself.  They looked so excited.  I hated to discourage them.

And of course, as I hiked down, my mind began to find a story in this journey.  Don't climb for just a view.  There may be some other purpose in it.  It may just be about the conversation, the being together, the just getting out and trying new paths in life.

That could have been the tale on this hike, the purpose for this trek.  But I should know better than to guess how the story turns out when I'm still in the middle of a saga.

A young high schooler was coming up the trail towards us, keeping quite a pace as she ascended.  She obviously didn't know about how her hike was going to end.  About twenty yards behind her was a man with two teenage boys, evidently her father and brothers.  As we passed them, the father asked us excitedly, "Was it so amazing at the top?"

Ummmm.  "Well," Bill said.  "There really wasn't anything there."

"Isn't this the Mt. Sterling Trail?"  Yes.

"There is an historic 60-foot fire tower at the top," the man said with great anticipation in his voice, sweeping his arm upward, "the tallest fire tower east of the Mississippi."  Like, didn't you see it? They proceeded in their excitement upward and onward.

We shook our heads. There was nothing there.  Boy, are they going to be disappointed.

But later,we discovered that indeed there is a 60-foot historic tower, standing tall less than a quarter mile from where we lingered at the top. If it had been alive, it would have bopped us on the head.  If we had read the guidebook, if we had explored the summit even a few dozen yards, if we had even looked up, we would have had a much different experience.  No doubt about it.  We missed out.

Image result for mt sterling fire tower

There was more than a view at the top, but a panorama. God designs the awe.  I can look at the images on my computer screen, but that is nothing compared to what is real.  We missed out on the poetic view.  We missed out on the wonder.
Image result for mt sterling fire tower

It was a gentle reminder that there is a incredibly strong connection between what I know and what I see, what I read and discover in God's Word, what I pray, and what I end up doing that day.  Over and over, Scripture profoundly influences my vision and orders my day-- what I see around me, who I notice, how I respond, and Who I'm walking with.  It matters.  It matters a lot.  Read the Guidebook.

What else don't I know?  That which God has placed right before me. 

God's faithfulness helps me know that the wilderness is a place of flourishing, not despair.  Silence is a place of His fathomless Presence, not His absence.  And that reality takes my breath away.

Same trail, different outcome. Ordinary day, extraordinary day.  His Word does not just influence my expectations, but helps me watch for the unexpected that God Almighty always brings.

I am yet in the middle of the story.

Thus says the LORD:
"Stand by the roads,
             and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is,
and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls."

                  Jeremiah 6. 16

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