This past Friday we had the day off school so we packed our bags and joined some friends for a night away in the mountains. I needed to get away. The heaviness of life’s challenges was starting to overwhelm me and my soul was screaming for a mountain top experience. The city air felt thick and I was longing for the thin air from up high. I wanted to be saturated in the magnificence of God’s creation, to see the stars shine bright in the midnight sky, to smell the pine and dirt and wood. I knew I had become so bogged down in the minutia of my own life that my vision had become clouded and obscured. I wanted to see clearly again. I wanted to put the smallness of my worries into perspective. I wanted to inhale the crisp fresh air and let it fill my lungs and breathe easy. I wanted to look out from the top of the mountain and feel a small part of something big and wonderful. Little did I know that while I was focused on reaching the mountain top, it would be the journey that would speak to my heart and teach me beautiful lessons of perseverance, courage and faith.
We started our hike in the morning. The sun was shining brightly but the air was a cool 30 degrees, made even colder by the intense wind chill. We were all bundled up but the exposed parts of our bodies hurt from the frigid cold. The hike started in an open field that led to the woods. The wind was whipping through the wide valley and within minutes we were questioning whether or not we could continue on the hike. I’ll be honest, I wanted to turn back. We were only 3 minutes into a 5 mile hike and I was already wanting to call it quits. We all agreed to keep walking, atleast until we reached the woods. Maybe the forest of trees would shield us from the winds. We continued ascent up the mountain and as the path began to take a bend, everything changed. Suddenly the wind was at our back, almost propelling us forward. The parts of my body that were once numb and frozen began to thaw. The pain in my face and fingertips dissipated. I was so thankful we had decided to persevere.
And I thought about my path, our paths. Sometimes things are so hard, so unbearable. We may feel completely overwhelmed and worry we can’t take the next step. The harshness of our situation can leave us numb and paralyzed. The only thing we want to do is quit and turn around and go back. I remember while going through chemo. After each treatment I was so stripped down and hopeless that I felt like I would never survive. I wavered between wanting to fight and wanting to quit. I would lay sick in bed for days, but slowly I would reach the bend and the pain would subside and I knew I would make it. And the good days would give me the hope I needed to continue. Sometimes we just have to keep pushing ourselves to take the next step and we will eventually reach a bend. And as you turn the corner and change directions, you suddenly find the wind at your back. And you realize that you are strong enough to continue and that circumstances are fleeting and that moving forward is the only direction that will get you to the top.
We continued on our way, following the path that had been traveled by so many thousands before us. It was a clear and wide path that wrapped like a snake around the mountain. We knew exactly where to go and where it was leading us. There is something about a path in the wilderness that makes you feel safe, it assures you that you are going the right direction. But off to the side, heading up the mountain, you could see a few thin indentations softly whittled in the brush where people had decided to go off the path and blaze their own trail. All the different trails and paths would eventually get you up the mountain, but the journey would be different.
So many times we follow the wide path because it is clearly delineated and well traveled. It’s safe. It allows us to go into auto-pilot because it doesn’t take much thought to just follow the path right before you. We plan out our lives and live as if we are entitled to our futures. We talk about where our kids will go to high school when they are just starting kindergarten. We build homes and call them our “forever home.” We believe that our marriages will survive the sickness and health, ’til death do us part. We have tunnel vision and just keep taking the next mapped out step. Until suddenly we find ourselves lost and off the main path. Maybe you are told you have cancer. You lose a loved one. You can’t make your next mortgage payment. And the brush is thick and the way is confusing. But you know that the direction is still forward and if you keep moving you can reach the top. Life is so rarely what we plan for. I remember when my brother passed away. Everything seemed right and easy until I received the phone call that he was dead. And I looked up and I was no longer on the path I had planned. I was knee deep in brush with no clear next step. And I was scared and confused. But when that happens we have two options, we can backtrack or we can find the courage to blaze our own trail. And when we find the courage to blaze our own trail our footsteps slowly erode the ground underneath and leave a new path for others to take.
About half way up the mountain we came to a lookout point. The boys had run ahead and when I arrived I saw my son Marc sitting with his legs dangling off the boulder. My heart stopped and crazy mom took over. I begged him to move away from the edge. I pleaded with him to move slowly, and not slip, and be careful. I was terrified. I had no idea how far he could fall. I had no idea what was on the other side of the boulder. I was just paralyzed by the what ifs and the image of my son plummeting to his death. After being heckled by Marc and his friends, who assured me that they were indeed safe and that firm ground was just beneath their feet, I ventured out on the boulder to see for myself. And it really was fine.
I laughed at myself as I realized how fearful I had become over absolutely nothing. From where I was standing, it looked scary and unknown. I was convinced that on the other side of the boulder was a thousand-foot free fall. I was convinced that something bad could happen. I was blinded by my fear. And in life we are often paralyzed by our fears, by the unknown. We often can’t see over the edge. We don’t know what is on the other side of the current struggle. And we operate from a place of fear instead of a foundation of faith. And when our fear holds us back we lose perspective and can’t see that even if we fall, it will be okay. Sometimes the only way to conquer the fear is to walk right through it and trust that there is firm footing on the other side.
After our pit stop at the look out, we continued our way up the mountain. After finally reaching the top we were met by a rickety old fire lookout. Once used by the firefighters to detect forest fires, it now afforded all those who persevered to the top an amazing 360 degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.The wind began to pick up and the burning cold from the windchill returned. I debated whether to climb the rusty old tower, but I had come so far, I had to go all the way. Step by step, I slowly climbed to the steep staircase, several times stopping to tighten my grip as strong gusts of wind ripped through the tower. Finally, as I took my last step, an overwhelming sense of peace settled over me. I was sore and freezing and could no longer feel my hands or my face, but I had found what I was looking for. I could see the enormity of the sky as the sun light created the most beautiful shades of blue delineating the peaks and valleys that spanned hundreds of miles in the distance. And the cares of the world melted away as I stood on the mountain top feeling small and humble and part of something so much bigger. And I thanked God for both the sacred lonely valleys and the beautiful hope-filled peaks, and for all the pit stops along the way.
You know that old saying, “Life isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well I think life is about both. The journey is full of gifts and lessons, highs and lows. The journey teaches us who we really are and asks us to dig deeper. The journey is full of obstacles and detours and a windchill that will make you want to turn back. The journey is clear and wide and obvious at times; and other times it’s foggy and lonely and uncertain. The journey pushes us to take difficult steps as we face our fears. And yes, the journey is the only way to reach our destination, to reach the mountain top. And while you walk up the mountain, with every step you learn to breathe. You breathe in perseverance when the wind is at your face, you breathe in courage when you find yourself without a clear path, you breathe in faith when you can’t see over the edge. And when you finally reach the top and see the beauty of your destination, and allow yourself to feel a small part of something magnificent, it will simply take your breath away.