by Veda Gonzalez
Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump… Like the pulse of a heartbeat, I could hear my ‘four-legged’ walk in my head before I even opened my eyes in the early morning. I had learned to walk with hiking sticks for this hundred mile backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier in Washington on the Wonderland Trail. The sticks gave me the mobility, speed, and security of having four legs, but quiet they were not. Initially, I had thought another hiker was coming down the trail, but I quickly learned it was all in my head…
My eyes now open, the thumping quieted. I knew by experience that it would disappear as soon as I started moving. But for a few moments more, I enjoyed the pattern of rain drops on the grey fabric of my tarp, still snuggled in the warm, dry comfort of my sleeping system. I could hear my hiking buddy, Pat, moving around in her tent. Only the knowledge that she had probably been awake several hours already (she’s the morning person) and the knowledge of the mileage we had to cover that day, motivated me to unzip my bag, shimmy out, and begin dressing in the chill of the predawn morning at 8000+ feet elevation.
After several days on the trail, we had settled into a pattern of quickly getting dressed, breaking camp, and starting the day’s hike with a granola bar in hand. With several miles behind us, we would stop to boil water for yummy oatmeal with butter, dried fruit, nuts, and a cup of tea. Lunch was a power bar and a small bag of trail mix. If we were doubly blessed, we also found blueberries to pick and eat along the trail. Supper was rice or angel hair pasta with dehydrated vegetables, spices, coconut oil, and jerky or tuna. I loved my food – my fuel. Fuel I would need to power me (and my 25 pound pack) over the 100 plus miles we would travel (93 miles of the Wonderland Trail and a few more miles of ‘lostness’ and backtracking), and the 47,000 feet of elevation change that we would climb and descend. Going around Mt. Rainier is like going around the edge of a giant pie crust. You are either going up or going down. It is rarely flat.
Several days prior, as we drove across the Columbia River and topped the ridge to its west, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Rainier. It was still very far away, but when I saw it my heart just fell to my stomach. It was so HUGE, so AWESOME, and I, 60 year-old woman that I was, was going to hike around THAT!!?! What was I thinking!!!?!
His answer to my incredulousness, was – one step at a time. By God’s grace, He gave me what I needed one moment, one ridge, one day at a time. And by resting in that, I got to totally enjoy what was before me – the flora, the fungi, the animals, the scary wind, the earthy smells, the light, the stars, the color, the textures, the rain, the cold, the warmth, the precious sunlight, the roaring glacial creeks, the peace, the simplicity, the challenge, the adventure!
To quote something I found on an online blog:
Involves something new to you,
involves the unknown,
exists outside your comfort zone,
pushes your boundaries,
requires you to take a risk,
gives you a sense of accomplishment,
teaches you something valuable,
helps you grow & evolve.
Walking with God is an adventure. How could it not be? So if you’re bored, maybe you should check yourself to see if you are indeed walking with Him. Negative emotions like being bored, jealous, stressed, or depressed, are God’s gifts to us. I see them as little red flags that pop up to get my attention and let me know that I’m getting off His path in some way. So when I notice the red flag, I ask Him, “Show me what I’m doing wrong.” Then I repent and get back on track.
Oh, man! What is this??? I’m getting a fever blister on my lip???
It was our second day on the trail (of 13 days). Not being a very intuitive person, my beloved faithful God sends me fever blisters to let me know I’m stressing about something. The only people I have ever stressed about were my own children, but YHVH was showing me that I was stressing about my hiking partner, Pat. She was ill, not feeling well, unable to eat, and struggling. The Wonderland Trail goes through wilderness. At only 3 points on the trail does a road meet the trail. You can’t just hold up your hand and say, “I’ve had enough. I’m done.” Could I trust God to get her to the next camp, and the next, and the next? Could I trust Him to take care of her and get her around the mountain?
Pat and I hike at different paces. The only way I could hike at her pace was to hike behind her and that drove her crazy (understandably, she felt ‘pushed’). So we settled on meeting up several times during the day and then meeting up in the evening at camp. Night after night, God was faithful to bring her into camp before sundown, and often, she was in better shape at her arrival than I had been at mine (I would get almost hypothermic in wet, cold conditions). Night after night, I praised Him for His faithfulness in taking care of her, and I grew in my trust for His faithfulness.
Then, one night, she didn’t show up before dark. It was a beautiful, clear, warmish night, but no moon. I had peace because by that time I KNEW that YHVH would take care of her. I also knew that we both had broken a major backpacking rule: neither one of us had lights. I had left my headlamp in the car when we first started the hike and Pat had dropped hers somewhere along the trail. So now Pat was stuck on the trail without a light. And things in the wilderness look totally different in the dark. I prayed for her, unable to backtrack down the trail myself because of no light, but trusting and having peace that YHVH looked out for her. In my mind, I felt she had everything she needed to survive in the pack on her back. Since it was such a nice night, she could just throw her sleeping pad and bag out beside the trail and stay warm, gazing at the same beautiful stars I was, and sleep until morning’s light. She also had food and water. I didn’t sleep, but I had peace. In the morning, as soon as it got light enough to see, I would leave camp and take off with just food and water to go find her.
However, about 3am I saw some really bright lights zig-zagging down the mountain and as they got closer, I could hear Pat’s voice. What was this? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? No, but it was Pat and four endurance runners who had stumbled upon her in the dark (they run the whole trail, non-stop, day & night. Crazy yes, but angels nonetheless). She had made it to within 0.2 miles of camp so they led her in and gave her a wool cap and a parka to stay warm. God was faithful to take care of my friend!
But guess what? The way I imagined His care (sleeping beside the trail under the beautiful stars in her cozy sleeping system with her pack containing all she needed right beside her) did not look anything like the reality of His care for her. Instead, when she tried to keep going in the dark, fell into a creek, almost fell down a waterfall and cliff, and left her pack there in a panic, His Hand was what shielded her and kept her from disaster. His Hand led her back to the trail. And when she was shivering/sleeping in wet clothes beside the trail, His Hand cuddled her in His composting moss and His Hand brought along the four trail-running angels with headlamps to guide her into camp. And it is His Hand that continues to heal the trauma of that night. God indeed does take care of those I entrust to Him. And when His care looks totally different than the care I envisioned, I still know that God indeed does take care of those I entrust to Him. This is one major life-lesson that I took away from the Mountain.
God used the Mountain to teach me other things as well. I have backpacked since I was 20, but never on such a long trip and never in such an awe-inspiring location. The West is big; its mountains are big, its glaciers are big, its rivers are big, its weather is big. This bigness could squash me. That realization was humbling. Indeed, I found out later that two people had lost their lives on that trail this year. For the first time ever, I gained a healthy, respectful fear of nature. At one point, the wind was so strong it would blow me several steps (even with my four legs!). There were parts of the trail that weren’t even one step wide with drop-offs on both sides. The cold and the wet and the wind and exhaustion drove me close to hypothermia more than once and to a numbness where I could hardly think. I had to cross rivers that were so swollen with glacial melt and rain that the boulders being tumbled around under the water sounded like thunder. If one of those boulders contacted a human leg, it would snap it. Needless to say, I found a different way to get where I needed to go. I learned that God is bigger than my comfort zone. I learned to sit when I wanted to panic (and run), pray, feel His peace, then hear His wisdom. He would make a way and then open my eyes to see it. I have always said that if there was not at least one point in any challenge I undertook when I did not wonder why I was doing this, then it was a challenge not worth my time. It would not stretch me beyond my comfort zone so I could not grow as a person. This hike definitely was not lacking those points!
“I, your God, have a firm grip on you and I’m not letting go. I’m telling you, ‘Don’t panic. I’m right here to help you.’” Isaiah 41:13 (MSG)
But God also taught us pleasure lessons. He showed us His love by bringing us delightful moments. He brought a chipmunk to our campsite to dine with us one evening. “Chip” had no intention of begging; he just wanted to join us. He would snip off a long stem of grass, run his hands down it to the seed head, and then eat the seeds and discard the stem. Then he would snip off another one. He must have done it a hundred times. I felt blessed to dine with a chipmunk.
To reduce the impact of so many campers over one season in a small area, each campsite offered a pit toilet. Sometimes they looked like regular outhouses. Other times they were 3-sided. But some were just a toilet in the middle of the woods. At one campsite, after climbing 200+ feet to get to the toilet (can you imagine climbing 20 stories to go to the bathroom? Ha!), I discovered it was a real “room with a view”. Behind the toilet was a large waterfall. In front, if it hadn’t been raining, would have been a superb view of Mt. Rainier. It had a few trees for cover. Sitting there, early one morning, I heard the strangest sound. Leaning out, I discovered it was a bull elk bugling his heart out (about 200 feet away). It was spine tingling! I must have watched him for twenty minutes. That was a memorable toilet! I think God was showing me His sense of humor. Later, I got to watch that bull elk chasing a cow elk with calf across a river and meadow and into the woods. About five minutes later, he was back in the open, bugling again. My guess: Mama wasn’t interested!
Hiking in September, the wildflowers were almost all gone, but the fungi was prime. The colors and patterns, shapes and sizes were astounding. Why was He so creative? I think He wanted me to marvel, praise Him, and know that He shared His creativeness with me because He loves me and wants to share intimacy with me. I got to share a little bit of His image as I photographed His creation.
Rocks – I could curse them (coming down a trail of rocks was not easy) or enjoy them. I had to go slow anyway, so I recorded their shades and patterns, cracks and faces on ‘film’. The saturated color of gold, green, and red rocks wet with rain and lit with the soft light of an overcast sky is an image I will savor and hold in my mind forever. He could have just made grey rocks. But I think He wanted to bless my most miserable, cold, wet, windy day. He let me know He was still God, still good.
The bears (Aha! The feared bears!) rambled in a blueberry field. The mother was intent on grazing. Her two not so young cubs cavorted and played between moments of grazing. A long way away from us, she was aware we were there, but not scared, just wary. The distance was comfortable for all of us. Seeing them was an answer to prayer for me. The distance was an answer of prayer for Pat. Again, God is good.
Lost in thought and intent on making time, I saw a dark form fly out of the brush in front of me and cross the trail, setting my adrenaline in high drive. It stopped behind a tree, and I knew it was a deer or small elk. I slowly pulled my camera out, set it, and stepped out from behind the tree trunk that was separating us, camera pressed to my face. A black-tailed deer posed for me before bounding away, another gift of love – a God-sent Kodak moment…
After a good night’s sleep, I awoke in a light version of the same rain I had hiked in for the past two days. When I went to retrieve my food bag off the bear pole, I came upon three deer, blissfully grazing. In the still mist of the morning, they didn’t notice me for several moments. There’s such a purity in an early morning moment like this. I took it as His promise of a better day, and so it proved to be!
I saw a snake! Basking in the sunshine on the trail, he made it halfway into the bushes as I rounded the switchback in time to see his last half. The color of a rattlesnake, he had no rattle. God provided just enough information to let me know he was a ‘good’ snake. YHVH – my wise Protector and Comforter.
Ipsut Pass was the first of many 2500’passes we climbed. I sat at the top, exhausted, grateful, and realized that the ridge behind me hid the valley I started from that morning. I had gone up and over that ridge, down into another valley, and up another 2500’ to stand where I was. How was that possible? His answer was so simple: by His grace, one step at a time. Usually, I get this view looking behind me, recognizing His grace. Occasionally, I see the mountain loom before me and with trust and trepidation, I have to cling to Him.
There are no words to describe the feeling of sunshine breaking through the clouds after a day and a half of rain and drizzle. Absolute glory! It’s the stuff that makes your hands rise to the sky, walking sticks attached!
Man struggles to create one artful rock garden or one bonsai in his front yard. YHVH fills His forest with them. I just got to marvel.
To summarize these moments and highlights, let me share a prayer that I wrote in my journal about halfway through the hike:
You’re more powerful than a glacier river,
more majestic than the tallest mountain;
yet You stoop to love me and bless me.
You call me Your poem and Your joy.
You delight in me.
And I delight in You,
and in what Your creation teaches me about You.
Your creation teaches me that You love beauty and order.
It teaches me that my sin has harmed it as well,
creating chaos and power gone awry.
Your new earth will have no chaos –
But for now, I am allowed a taste….