adventure, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Desert, Faithful Living, God, Henri Nouwen, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Perseverence, River, Silence, Uncategorized, wilderness, Zion National Park

Always Worth the Climb

Let me tell you about a day I spent alone in Zion National Park last month.  My husband and brother-in-law set off at 7:30 a.m. to hike the Narrows, the most popular hike in the park.  The Narrows is a train of steep, high canyon walls along the Virgin River, and the only “trail” is upstream through the river itself.  The fellows wanted to hike a minimum of 6 hours upstream, then back in knee-deep water hiding infinite ankle-twisting hazards. Not wanting to go that far, nor get my feet wet (or my ankle broken a 2nd time), I opted for the more moderate 3-mile hike on the Watchman trail, followed by an hour in the museum, an afternoon nap in the shade of a giant oak at the lodge, topped off with a cappuccino from the coffee cart.  Not exactly “wilderness” but delightful nonetheless.

The Watchman is an uphill trail along a dusty, rocky path of switchbacks and ledges on the south and west sides of the east-side canyon wall.  In the early morning, when I hiked, it is gracefully shady and cool, and much less crowded with hikers (Zion N.P. has 5 million visitors per year, so it’s not a place to seek out wilderness per se).  The trail begins at the Virgin River and rises about 600 feet to a football field-sized outcrop with a 270-degree view of the park. I found myself thinking about the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built this trail in 1934.  CCC  Who were they? Could they conceive of the millions of people who would hike here for the next 100 years?

Toting 64 oz. of water, two granola bars, an apple, a hiking hat, my camera, and hiking poles, I set off alone, thinking of the distinctions Henri Nouwen makes between loneliness and solitude. It can feel lonely hiking alone in such a beautiful, magnificent place because there is no friend or lover to share the experience.  But, Nouwen insists that solitude does not depend on outer circumstance, rather an inner orientation of solitary rest that underpins our spiritual health.[1]   I did feel lonely at times, but it was also an inspiring, uplifting, strangely restful day in the canyon.  Besides, I made a few friends along the way.

I had silly conversations with a chatty canyon wren that was flitting gaily amongst the juniper and prickly pear.

I spent 10 minutes studying a green lizard near a wet patch of seep, and kept busy sweeping the heights with binoculars in search of peregrine falcon and California condor.  I saw mule deer with their laughably large, light-filtering, body-cooling ears.  I kept watch for the western rattlesnake.  (Since I am easily startled, I like animals and people who make noise to announce their presence).

Still, it was already pushing 80 degrees, this was an upwards hike, and because I am prone to acute altitude sickness, I had to rest often, yet keep going, albeit slowly, watching carefully where I put my feet, and leaning -sometimes too heavily- on my trusty hiking poles.  About halfway up, some people approached coming down.  And I thought had started out early!  Then commenced the “dance” that occurs on narrow, gritty trails alongside high, dizzying ridges- no one ever wants the outside position, nor do you want to flatten your back along the canyon wall looking “craven” -as they’d say in Game of Thrones.  Onward and upward, through pinion pine, scrub oak, mosses and ferns doggedly rooted in the sandstone cracks and seeps until I was nearly level with the tree line. Here, the trail turned abruptly southward, still climbing toward a large plateau just made for walking, sitting, snacking, sunning, and thinking.  There were about 30 people already here, and more streaming in behind me, but I had the strange feeling that I had the place to myself.  That is the inner serenity that Nouwen speaks to, and that nature beckons us to immerse ourselves in.

The views are always the reward for hiking up.

True, I didn’t hike a Rocky Mountain 14er, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless.  With the binoculars, I could make out our old RV in the far parking lot, and the throngs of people at the Visitors Center.  To think this was all carved out by the Virgin River over time.

It made me wonder what God is carving out, ever so slowly in my life, and if the result is as beautiful as all this. And that unfolded another secret of solitude: it creates in us a deep, inner, carved-out space for the Spirit of God. Always worth the climb.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Henri J.M Nouwen.  Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.1966.

adventure, Affirmation, Blessings, Blue Skies, childhood, Creation, death, Growing Up, Nature, Risk Taking, sailing, Uncategorized

Unbounded Joy

Last week I sailed my new little dory for the first time.  It was heavenly. Until the wind died that is. My one-hour sail turned into a 4-hour battle to move even one foot forward.  I know. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from being becalmed;

I can easily point out life stations in which discontent and a slovenly spirit toyed with my well-being.

Still. Just one brief hour skimming across the blue deeps, trimming sail and being consumed with the watery, foaming song of the bow slicing through the water was enough to make my re-entry into the world of sailing a delight I will never forget; an unbounded joy.

I grew up sailing an old Grumman aluminum dinghy that was my mother’s first boat. It was slow and stable, not good in light winds. When I was 12, she bought a new, fiberglass Butterfly, a beautiful, sleek turquoise boat, sail number 4607. Oh how I loved that Butterfly! It could nose ably into the wind, rising up onto the lee gunnel in a gallop across the water, straining like a racehorse to run fast. At 14, I was allowed to sail it alone, and it was then that I discovered the singular joy of a solo sail, where all the conversation is in your own head, and the music is orchestrated by God Himself. Sun. Wind. Crystal blue, cold, inviting water. Freedom and solitude.  Bliss.

Until one day at the age of 16 when I made a near-fatal error in judgment about the wind. I had been sailing a little recklessly, to be sure. I was experienced, had righted a tipped boat many times by myself, but on this day, when a gust took me and the boat right over, the boat quickly turtled, a term used to describe the mast sinking from parallel to the water to pointing directly down to the bottom of the lake. Butterfly masts take in water like a big straw, so once turtled, they are hard to right. On this day, as I slid across the fiberglass down the lee side of the boat to be dumped in the water, the tiller extension (a long bar that swivels off the end of the tiller to allow the sailor extra reach for hiking out) somehow slid under the shoulder seam of my life jacket.

As I kicked to free myself from underneath the boat, I was dismayed to learn that I was, in effect, tightly trapped to the boat deck. Of course, I was wearing my contacts and had my eyes closed (dumb).

I fumbled around long enough to realize that my life jacket was ironically going to kill me.

So, I unzipped it, scrambled loose, and burst to the surface to cling like wet laundry across the placid and welcoming big white underbelly of the boat. That incident frightened me, no doubt.

Until last week, I never again sailed a boat solo,

and I had very little trust when sailing with my husband that he would keep the boat upright and not dump me into the dark and deep waters of Crystal Lake. I spent years dreaming about sailing my own boat, but the doubt would hold me back. The Butterfly was eventually sold, and we went through a few iterations of sturdy little day cruisers for our family- the Flying Scot, the Wayfarer. They were too big for me to sail alone, and the gnawing desire to sail something small and safe kept growing.  I chose the 12’ dory because of its stability, and because when there is no wind it can be sculled for good exercise. The uncanny thing is that its tiller is too short, so we are building an extension- a nice smooth teak one without the T-shaped butt that can tangle in a life jacket.

Last week’s sail was fraught with a kind of humiliating comedy because I ended up needing to be towed in about an hour before dark (after refusing a tow 2 hours earlier with unexpectedly stubborn pride). But before the wind died, that sail was also a victory of will over fear, of returning to an important piece of my development from child into adult. It welcomed me back to my first memories of the power of the wind, the beauty of the white sail kissing the deep blue sky, and the sounds and smells of the water frothing its glad tidings underneath the bow of the boat.  Peace. Freedom. Delight. Solitude. I’ve only just begun to make up for the 40 years I missed out there.

~J.A.P. Walton

Starting August 1, WordPress will no longer connect with my Facebook profile. To receive future posts in your email feed, please consider clicking on the FOLLOW button! In the meantime, I will experiment with moving to a separate Facebook page dedicated to the blog. Wish me luck! Going on vacation for 2 weeks. More to come. Thanks for reading!

 

 

adventure, Camping, Close Quarters, Creation, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Prayer, Rain, River, Uncategorized, wilderness

A Golden Prescription

I went camping last weekend at a state campground along the Lake Michigan shore with 21 other women and girls from church. Group camping presents me with an immediate conflict- I seek out the wilderness for its solitude and quiet, as a salve to an agitated personality, but the building of intimate community through group experience is a critical component of faith formation and practice. Let’s just say it pushes me out of balance to be in the woods with so many people and so much chatter.

To ensure some semblance of quiet time apart, I took a solo tent so I could bookend the day with thinking and prayer, zipping myself inside a tiny cocoon of solitude while the junior high girls laughed and squealed in a tent as big as a 2-bedroom apartment.  We were each having fun in our own way.

The second night, there was a long, slow, low rumble of thunder from far out on the big lake as I zipped up for the night. While rain in camp makes for muddy messes, and complicates the packing up of tent and fly, being snug and dry inside your tent as a thunderstorm rolls in, over, then onward is a singular thrill.  The flash of lightning, the bass thrum of thunder, and the percussive rain all around is like a cleansing bath for the soul. As I lay on my back, a gentle storm all about me, I was reminded of the way the spirit of God stills us even in the grip of life’s gales. The prophet Isaiah wrote that from the heavens above, clouds rain down righteousness; they shower it down to earth so that salvation can spring up, a salvation God creates and showers upon us. (Isa 45:8, paraphrased). In truth, all restoration and flourishing come from God.

But, our life is usually too rushed to feel like it is flourishing, restorative, and life-giving.

The present often seems more like a flooding river hurtling itself downward, always rushing in multiple directions, void of any sense of calm, hungrily sucking in those unaware and unprepared, flinging everything in its path down, and under as the waters close over, drowning all light and life. We are constantly trying to catch our breath, to hear God’s voice in this wilderness, and to spend a quiet moment alone with Him, that His Presence fills our present.

Who needs to worry about the future with a present like that?

If you are tired of your to-do list a mile long, I highly recommend a solo night under the trees in a rainstorm as a golden prescription.

~J.A.P. Walton