Affirmation, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Cycling, Faithful Living, God, Hardiness, Hope, Life's Storms, Mountains, Perseverence, Pilgrimage, Risk Taking, Uncategorized, virtue, wilderness, wisdom

Test Your Mettle

Lately, I have been thinking about the notion of testing one’s mettle.  It’s an old-fashioned way of explaining resiliency, the capacity to soldier on through tough times, and drawn-out challenges. I think the key concept is that we grow in character by stepping out of our comfort zones, and enduring hard experiences. This happens to us as an individual, and to “we” as a community.

We test our own individual mettle to see if we have the courage, tenacity, and inner strength to climb the mountains in our way.

This is jarring, because our world is oriented towards personal comfort, faux strength, and instant gratification. And, because testing oneself is so disorienting, we rarely welcome a chance to see what we’re made of.

First, we don’t want to appear as if we’ve stumbled, splayed out publicly in our weakness, hurt, disbelief, and despair. We often fail to test ourselves because we are too busy acting as if we don’t need to.  Second, such testing is uncomfortable. 

We lay ourselves bare for the blacksmith’s hammering, a tempering that flattens and smashes our beliefs and suppositions on its way to forging strength and stamina.

Third, we are afraid of failing the test, of running the gauntlet only to find ourselves worse off than when we started.  When has your life been at a place of testing?  What was your response?

As a timid kid with little self-confidence, my first tests were all physically-difficult enterprises that pushed my fragile mental and emotional stability to-and beyond- their limits.  Climbing a 13,000 foot mountain while hampered by asthma and anemia was beyond difficult, always served up with a mental side dish of “I can’t do this.” But I did.

Taking a graduate biochemistry course without having the undergraduate requisite of general and organic chem was insanely challenging, my mind constantly gnawed with “I can’t do this.”  But I did.

Biking long distances, when the legs were dead, the seat numb, the fatigue’s lie of “I simply can’t go another mile” an unwelcome inner whine. But I could, and I did.

When we could not have more children, the emotional ache was unbearable. When confronted with “you can’t have kids” I finished my doctorate and taught for 20 years. I had thousands of wonderful kids over time.

Fortitude is an odd virtue. It digs deep, finds strength we didn’t know we had, keeps us moving forward, upward, and outward.  It is gas on the fire when our tank is empty. It is a second wind.  Each time we overcome some unpleasant or challenging circumstance, we carve another notch of confidence in our belt. But, I say fortitude is odd because for people who know and trust God, the real story is not in our own strength and endurance and ability, but in our weakness, our exhaustion, and our inability. All of creation glorifies the Creator.  When we manage to do something we thought impossible, and credit ourselves with fortitude, we take credit for something God did in and through us, trying on God’s glory for size.

We are fallen and always falling. The strength to stand is not our own. Nor is the strength to endure. Those who trust in God know this secret: we don’t have to survive these things alone in our own strength.

God will test your mettle. He will allow some uncomfortable, disorienting, heart-rending chapters to be written in your life. How you respond is up to you. Just know, you don’t have to go it alone.

~J.A.P. Walton

adventure, Creation, Creator, death, Faithful Living, God, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Mountains, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

Trust Your Boots Girls!

In an icy parking lot earlier this week, the footing was dicey, and, at one point, I blurted out to no one in particular, “Trust your boots girl!”  This adage bubbled up from a deeply-etched memory of a time in high school when a group of gals was climbing Mount Meeker in the front range of Rocky Mountain National Park.  At 13,911 feet, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to peaking a fourteener.  At one point along that climb, there was a steep portion, prompting one member of our group to happily call out,

“Trust your boots girls!”

While at Colorado State University, I reveled in backcountry cross-country skiing. I took a 2-day lesson the first time, and the instructor emphasized the need to trust your skis so that you could flow with them as they glided.  Just before moving back to the Midwest for grad school, I purchased a set of used skis and boots from the ski rental store. The next snow, I waxed them up to go skiing. I could not ski! My left foot kept sliding sideways, and the ski itself seemed to awkwardly tilt my boot so I had no traction or control. My husband-to-be laughed at my claims of being an experienced skier. We soon discovered that the store in Fort Collins had sold me skis with two right-footed bindings. Trust your boots indeed.

When learning to kayak in Wales, we practiced rolling in an indoor pool. Despite heroic attempts, I never did master a tip and roll.  The instructor’s advice to trust your skill in the whitewater rapids didn’t sit well with me. I knew if I capsized, I’d be permanently upside-down knocking my head on submerged rocks.  Having once before been pinned under a turtled boat (see blog post Unbounded Joy, 7-31-18), a healthy respect for the water had evolved into an irrational fear of drowning.

It is just common sense to be fully prepared for a wilderness adventure-to have the right equipment and skill set to see you through to a happy conclusion.

When paddling or hiking, you have to trust your instincts, your experience, your companions, and your preparations. It is folly to be unprepared.

Still, you can never be prepared for everything. Accidents happen with no warning. Wind and weather are fickle. Forests catch fire, and rivers and canyons can swiftly flood. What can you trust when the world turns inside out, when trickles of doubt mushroom into cascades of fear for your safety, even for your life?

Proverbs teaches that trust is an outcome of wisdom, and that wisdom, in turn, is the principal heir of a healthy fear of God.

This is not the kind of fear that makes us dread God’s judgment, but, rather, the kind that sees beauty in creation and is wowed by the God who made it. Not fright but reverence. *

It seems to me we prepare for our trip through the wilderness of this world- on this side of the river- much better than we prepare to face a holy God, misplacing our sense of security by trusting in things, jobs, money, ‘safe’ cars, our own thinking. When my husband was in the ER a few years ago with multiple and deadly pulmonary emboli in both lungs, we did trust that the surgeon would do his best to keep death at bay. Still, our ability to remain calm and hopeful (it was surreal to be honest) came from a stronger, deeper, surer Source. From God himself, whom we love, fear, and deeply trust to make the path through the wilderness straight.

I hope you can spend a little down time this winter working out in what, or whom you place your trust. Life is fragile at best, and downright slippery at its worst.

~J.A.P. Walton

* for more on the wisdom of Proverbs, see God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Tim and Kathy Keller. 2017.

adventure, Adventure Tourism, Bryce Canyon National Park, Camping, Creation, Creator, Desert, God, hiking, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Mountains, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Praise, River, Starry Skies, Uncategorized, Water, wisdom, Zion National Park

Thin Air, Thick Dust, Beauty All Around

It is good to be home in Michigan after a 3-week spell in Arizona and Utah. Here, I can drink deep draughts of the autumnal palette of green, vermillion, orange and gold, reveling in this bounty of colors so much rarer in the western landscape.

Phoenix was particularly hot and dry where the greenish-yellow of the prickly pear and saguaro cacti stands in base-relief against the purple of distant mountains. Here, the only deep greens are on the golf course, watered with precious and dwindling flows from the Colorado River, and on the cell phone towers painted green to look like giant saguaros.

Climbing out of the desert into the high mesas to the north, the landscape changes in an instant. The cactus and sand give way to rock and bristlecone pine at the higher elevations. In appearance it seems an unforgiving landscape, but

the Hopi and Navajo have lived here for a thousand years, “thriving long in adverse conditions: poor soil, drought, temperature extremes, high winds.”*

Past the Grand Canyon and on into southern Utah, aspen join the autumn chorus, waving golden, glittering arms in gladness. Here, the weathered rock cathedrals tower, where sandstone is king, and sagebrush his queen as they reign over free-ranging cattle on a thousand hills. Here is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, those life-giving ribbons of water, home to the pronghorn antelope, nattering prairie dog, and swift peregrine falcon. Here, too, is Zion, a river-carved fortress of sheer honeyed walls, and Bryce, with its colorful hoodoo armies blown by winds like fine glass.( Zion National Park   and Bryce Canyon National Park )

It is an entirely different kind of wilderness than what we experience in northern Michigan and southern Ontario.  Here, damp, verdant, fertile. Out west, thin air thick with dust, where the only immediately visible abundance for hundreds of miles is rock. To be sure, both are beautiful in their own ways. Both point to an imaginative Creator, who paints with a bold and vibrant palette.  Both give us the same gifts that wilderness always gives: delight in its bigness, contentedness with our own smallness, hope that life and beauty abound wherever we find ourselves, and that

nothing on this earth is godforsaken at all.

~ J.A.P. Walton

* William Least Heat Moon. Blue Highways. Chapter 2.

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Up to Your Hips in Trouble

This photo was taken 41 years ago this month while backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) with friends. We had just finished our freshman year at Colorado State University, and were ready to celebrate before scattering for the summer. It was warm and sunny the day we left, and we could see for miles, with hardly a cloud in the sky. How deeply good it feels to exchange a mental burden for a physical one, to walk off the inner sludge that final exams cause to accumulate, and to finally be able to greet spring with exuberance and open arms.

Taking to the mountains is a kind of spring-cleaning for the soul.

We hiked up to 11,000 feet to base camp among the fir and spruce at Lawn Lake in the Mummy Range. We were the only ones there. After making camp in mid-afternoon, we hiked around the lake, wished for fishing poles, had a leisurely dinner, and planned out our route to, weather-permitting, summit the Mummy, and, with luck, even Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon mountains the next day depending on their snow cover. When you have grand plans in the mountains, you go to bed and get up early. We were bedded down before dark.

The RMNP website expressly warns about the vicissitudes of the wilderness: “Plan ahead and prepare: Plan your trip carefully. Prepare for extreme weather.” And for good reason. I can recall a July day backpacking in the park’s Never Summer range when a cloudless sky on a high plain at lunchtime became a menacing black, cold, and lightning-laced fury within the hour. We were caught high and unsheltered, forced to abandon our packs, spread out, and squat low on our haunches while the booming thunder shook the ground. I was 15, and my cheery camp counselor told the others to stay away from me, because with my mouthful of braces, the lightning would seek me out first. To this day I don’t know if she was serious or teasing. I remember finding the storm curiously invigorating-I was afraid and awed at the same time.

While sleeping the deep sleep of a college student freshly emancipated from classes and exams, the night got colder. Much colder as it turns out. We awoke around 4 a.m. when there was a muffled thump, and my tent-mate and I were immediately pinned inside our tent and sleeping bags. What in the world? I could just wriggle my arms free to push against the weight and find a flashlight. Imagine our surprise when, unzipping the tent fly, there was 3 feet of snow up the sides of the tent, the snow from the spruce having dumped with a tent-collapsing thud. Oh Oh. We were NOT prepared for snow, much less a blizzard of wet, heavy snow. Of course, back then, there were no cell phones or emergency GPS gizmos. The snow was already up to our knees, and it was steady. We could wait it out, or get out before it got deeper. We hoped, by going down, the snow would abate. So, by 4:30 a.m. we were packed and headed out by flashlight. It was a slog, sometimes the snow up to our hips. But, by noon, we were safely down, and headed into Estes Park for hot coffee and the best waffles the world has ever known.

The wilderness of life has its own storms. Illness. Job loss. Poor decisions coming back back to bite us. Weather disasters. Family strife. One night we lie down in peace and happy anticipation, only to be slammed awake, smothered by the fear, anxiety, and panic of an unexpected storm. The Bible has a consistently affirming message: “Do not be afraid.” “I will never leave you.” “God is the strength of His people, and a refuge in times of trouble.” I can’t promise that the outcome is always as good as hot coffee and waffles. Knowing God, it will be far, far better.

~J.A.P. Walton