Monday, June 23, 2003

AUGUST 2001 To say that I was apprehensive as I climbed into the back of the jeep would be like saying Neil Armstrong had a bounce in his step when he climbed out onto the moon. It is an understatement of the highest order. I looked up at “the high country.” I had been higher. I had even skied higher. But I had heard enough about the roads in this area to know that this was no place for the weak of heart or the frail of body. And I was feeling pretty frail. Our “Marble experience” had been an excellent one to date. New friends, new surroundings, and a healthy dose of wise counsel had brought refreshment to the weariness that had taken up residence in my bones and in my soul. Still. “The high country” sounds so… well … high. High and untamed. I was a man with shaking hands and pounding heart. My vision had cleared but my confidence had been reduced to rubble. And now I was, of my own free will, climbing into the back of a vehicle that looked as though it had seen far worse days than I had. Our little lodge was already located at 8,500 feet. Why did I feel like I had to prove something?

Not to worry. We barely made it out of the Marble driveway when “Old Betsy” sputtered, coughed, and died. It was a sign from God! Stay home! Take a nap! Read a book! But no, it was not to be. Henry, our tour guide for the afternoon, sent one of the guys back on foot to retrieve … "the old jeep." It seems that Betsy had been the newest vehicle in the fleet. In moments I was climbing … again … into a vehicle that looked like a holdover from the dustbowl evacuation of the early 1900’s. This Land Rover looked safer because it had a roof. It turns out that roofs are over rated. I was soon to learn that the backcountry highways of Colorado … mainly dirt ruts that they call “roads” … required a man to bounce up and down. I was wearing a baseball cap. Baseball caps have little steel buttons right in the top center as an anchor to their construction. Six inches above my head was a metal roll bar. Every bounce that required me to rise 6 1/16 inches or more out of my seat brought crushing pain to my skull as the steel button punched its way deeper toward my frontal lobe.

As we proceeded up the mountain the scenery went from simply stunning to awe inspiring. Between flashes of white hot pain on top of my head and the relative calmness of those “in between gaping holes” moments I noticed that at times we were a mere foot from the edge of eternity. But what an eternity it was! The side of the “old” jeep opened up to an unlimited view of … well, of the world. Henry pointed out the sights as we drove along. Over that mountain is Aspen. And over there, those mountains are called … something. He gave us the name during one of my white-hot moments. But they were big enough to have their own identities. And here you’ll see elk or deer or God knows what. We walked back into the trees a short distance to find one of natures unspoiled waterfalls. I actually took my hand out of my pocket where I had been rolling my Xanax back and forth long enough to reach out and splash it in the frigid pool. Climbing back into the ancient Land Rover we came face to face with a nice new jeep with a dummy driver. He was going counter-clockwise in a clockwise world. The narrow ruts were not wide enough for vehicles to go in both directions at once and so local rules stated that everybody drives in the same direction. (Interesting sidelight: The loop was roughly 12 miles long. If you happen to live one mile to the left of “town” and wanted a gallon of milk to wash down your Frosted Flakes … tough luck, baby. You still had to drive 11 miles of terror-laden terrain for your drink.) But good old Henry knew just what to do in these circumstances. Only sissies and flat landers really need roads. He simply made a sharp left and drove up the side of the mountain. Once our tail end cleared the road he stopped and waited for the ignorant city slicker to drive by and then he slid back onto the “highway” and we continued on our way.

My head was bruised. I was woozy. Oh, it’s not that I was not fascinated with what I was seeing. I just was not really prepared to pay the price that was being exacted. This was a pretty rough place!

And then it became worthwhile. Suddenly the cost was not so high. We rounded a corner and the most scenic moment of my life came into view. To our left was the Crystal River and on the other side was a dilapidated old mill, long since shuttered to the world. It’s vacancy gave it a charm … a mystery … a beauty that would not have been there if it had still been cranking out whatever it use to crank out. Henry, my wife, my pastor friends, and I all got out and walked to the rivers edge. The only sound to be heard was the rushing of the cool, clear, water making its dash over the boulders.

We walked silently, each lost in our own thoughts. The world was awash in the beauty of God. Our stay at that river was far too short. For once I actually wanted a tent and a sleeping bag. I did not want to leave this place. It was a cathedral of water, mountain, and sky. I just wanted to worship here.

And yet the moment passed and it was time to go. As we climbed back into our trusty transportation to continue our beating I realized that I had just experienced one of those moments in which God defines our current reality. Life had been so hard. Those were days of illness and frustration. The pain came in flashes and then receded, allowing me to see God’s hand and presence for just a bit before the next wave washed over me. I took the remainder of the ride without so much as a thought of regret or despair. The short minutes spent at the mill had made it all worthwhile. The occasional whacks on the head or crashes into the nearest pastor didn’t bother me so much anymore. I had been in the presence of the Almighty.

And so there ya go. That is life for you. You move along and you take what comes at you without really having the opportunity to pick and choose. You do your best. Sometimes life is great and sometimes it really isn’t. But I have learned that the best views of the Father’s hand at work are seen from the roughest roads. Oh, I think He does His best to reveal Himself day after day after mundane day. But we are oblivious to it because we are too focused on the pain or the trial de-jour. And so Abba takes us off of the expressway and detours us on the backcountries mountainous roads for awhile. He allows us to get beaten and bruised. Some decide it isn’t worth it and they go back. Those who do miss the view God has in store for them.

Today I am very, very, glad that I did not go back on that August afternoon. I survived the event. I came away stronger, though bruised. I came away more appreciative of the easy, smooth highways that I travel most days. And yet I miss the view from the rutted road. I am traveling too fast to catch a view of the cathedral. If the mill were to appear on the side of the highway right now … I don’t think I’d see it. I am too entranced with the taillights ahead of me. It’s a shame, really. Sometimes the most beautiful views are seen from the roughest terrain. And you have to be willing to pay the price in order to see it. I do not think that God ever sends ... or allows ... a pain or an anguish without a reason. I think that He always sees our path out of the agony before we ever enter into it. I imagine that God will let me get beat up a few more times before He calls me home. I am sure I’ll complain and ask Him why it has to be so. I trust that in those moments He will remind me of the mill. And I hope I will be wise enough to shut up and enjoy the bruising.