I entered this essay on wilderness into a contest for the Christian Century two months ago. Some of the images and metaphors are inspired by the late poet and philosopher John O’Donahue in his seminal work, Anam Cara.
We hadn’t planned to do such a long hike. We were just excited to be in the wilderness of Yosemite for a couple of days in November. Yet when I overheard the Park Ranger describe to a couple of chaps the fourteen mile hike up Vernal Falls, and then up Nevada Falls, then hiking above and crossing over on the Panorama Trail, marching up to Glacier Point, and then blazing down to the valley floor on the Four Mile Trail, my curiosity was piqued. We approached the elder statesman of our national parks, and, with a twinkle in his eye, he gave us the same recommendation. He sized us up, “Yah, you’ll make it, but you sure as hell will be tired and sore afterwards. This is the type of hike you want to go and discuss doing over pizza n’ beer. If you do it, it’ll remain in the family annals forever.” My wife Kristi and I went outside and sat under the glare of the mid-day sun. “So, what do ya think?” we asked each other. It certainly wasn’t the relaxed jaunt we anticipated, but there was something captivating about the ranger’s recommendation. We felt we could do it, but we also knew it would be a stretch. The decision was made.
The following morning we arose before sunrise. It was thirty five degrees out, so we outfitted ourselves with long underwear, jackets and stocking caps. Along with our lunch, we packed lighter clothes, knowing that the temperatures would climb into the seventies. Crossing a river, we headed up towards the falls. Like a giant monolith, Glacier Point towered above us. I crooked my neck to see the top of the precipice. The trail going up and up and up was heavy underfoot with large stones. The morning was gray and bleak and cold. The silence and grandeur were palpable. Our bodies were miniature in scale compared to the vastness of the wilderness surrounding us. It felt like we were the protagonists in a Lord of the Rings movie, moving towards some enchanted land. The undulating, sometimes unsure path maneuvered us hither and to, across rivers and up waterfalls. Finally we reached a high haven where the glory of Half Dome spoke majesty to us. The trail delivered us over and down, across, and, was it true? Up another mountain? Yes, it was true! We soldiered on, walking like persons half dead, drinking in the beauty, begging our bodies forward to the pinnacle of the day’s adventure. Finally, atop Glacier Point, our beat-up bodies radiated sheer glory. We found rest in this holy habitation, looking down on all that we had covered, enjoying a moment of sublime ecstasy. After a fine rest, we sallied gaily down the mountain. After an eternity of switch backs, we returned to the valley floor, where, returning to our digs, we did enjoy a pizza and a beer. We did it, and yes we were tired and sore.
Often, wilderness takes us “out there.” We take a hike. We sit on a rock. We backpack through wild and uninhabited regions. We breathe in the thin, untainted air. We sit under a two hundred year old tree. We feel small, yet alive, broadened. These are the hallmarks of the external journey. But another wilderness journey beckons us. It is far more grueling, demanding so much more. Feeling unforgiving and inhospitable at times, this journey delivers us home. It is the journey to the wilderness within, filled with rocky crags of hurt and disappointment, with giant monoliths of pain, but also covered with cool streams and green pastures of hope and healing. This journey is not one of bagging or conquering. It is subtle, disarming, beckoning us to come and look, as the flaming bush brought exiled Moses to I AM. Actually, this journey requires patience with self, a touch of gentle, loving care. Strength is found through solitude, in the wilderness within, in this journey home. It is the journey of the soul, and it is the journey we do well to take. In our nurtured souls we find shelter, as we take the time to be, as we become acquainted with our true selves. Inside of us resides a world unknown. Looking into the eyes of a stranger, a friend, or a loved one, we look into a world we cannot fathom. Often, we are a stranger even to ourselves. Our fragmented lives bury shards of pain unuttered, memories unspoken, incidents of shame, relationships distressed, and a weightiness of heart which overwhelms. There appears no path home. There is no peace. Joy is ever elusive.
Our Yosemite adventure last year was sandwiched by two heart-wrenching blows. Before, was a failed and final fertility attempt. “Why, O God, do you stand so far off? Why are we left out, while others are brought in?” The sharp daggers of disappointment dug deep. After, and most recent, we found ourselves on an island of uncertainty, standing before a closed door. Stripped of agency, we could only pray and wait. I found myself puzzled and panged, which is why I packed my bag and took the hike into the wilderness within, the wilderness of the soul. On this solitary journey I found mountains and crooky crags, longings unfilled and hopes dashed, but I also found the sweetness of silver streams of grace mingled with golden, glorious rest. Reflection, solitude, diving deep within, here is where I make a friend with myself again. Here is where the Holy One sets out the linen, prepares the table. I just stop, sit, and listen. At the end of the day, it is the wilderness within, the journey I take in, back, to my Faithful Friend. Thank you, Lord Jesus.