4:45 am, the square numbers of my watch alarm flash at me in the darkness. I silence it and lay still for just a moment, listening to the soft breathing of the students next to me, the rhythmic waves of an ocean that never sleeps, the occasional bird, and other than that…nothing. I slip out of the tent trying to intrude as little as possible into the morning sacredness. It is beautifully routine: opening the stove, pumping the fuel bottle, the small flare of match light and then the soft blue glow of a priming flame. The rolling and stuffing of the very little I have, or need, for life here, everything tucking away into its same familiar spot in the backpack. The only light the small circle of my headlamp, the only sound the ones I’m making. It’s like being a visitor, yet feeling home.
The stove is ready and as I turn it up it roars into life and sound. A pot of water for coffee goes on top. It’s 5 am, and the student leaders of the day are up and beginning to wake the rest of the group. Everyone is tired, but they don’t complain. Everything has a reason in the woods, including what time you get up. I’m sure it helps that they don’t even know what time it is…it’s just dark or getting light, light or getting dark, with so much more actually being affected by those distinctions than it does in the world of light switches. I sit and watch them for a minute as they move around in the morning. Ten days ago they didn’t know how to pack a backpack or light a stove, but here they are settled into the routine, water boiling, tents coming down, packed packs leaning against trees, all before the sun has even begun to pierce the inky black. Life takes more work here and we are governed by the series of processes that have to happen to give us strength and move us on to the next night’s location. Maybe it seems tedious to some, but mostly it feels restful, in our overwhelmingly stimulating society, to only have to do a very few things, and be able to do them well. Less options mean less questions, and then space for the deeper questions to emerge, the ones that need an un-distractedness we almost never allow in everyday life. Aren’t you bored in the woods, people sometimes ask? Almost never. In its restrictions I actually feel a freedom that is often missing in my everyday life with its 90% of time spent choosing between options that don’t actually matter, leaving so little time for what really does. I’m not saying I’d want to be here all the time, but that reality, that reminder, is why I treasure this escape on a regular basis.
We’re on the trail by 6 am. The students know the trail, for we hiked it in just two days ago. And so they know that we have to start our day with quad-burning ‘Red Hill,’ unrelenting and exposed and 100 times easier if we can beat the heat of the sun to the top. My co-leader and I didn’t make that decision, today’s student leaders did. As their knowledge grows, so does their ability to make wise decisions for the environment in which they find themselves. It’s the reason I was glad to wake up at 4:45. We hope they will carry these lessons with them out of this place, a reminder that wisdom requires attentiveness to what has come behind and what goes before.
We walk the first part of the trail in mostly silence, stopping only to take off and put back on boots for one chilly river crossing, and then we are at the hill. One by one on the way up, headlamps switch off, the slowly increasing light becoming just enough to let our eyes adjust to its natural dimness. Ahead of us a rugged coastal peak juts into clear blue sky, and the sun is rising right behind it, rays of color seeming to squeeze around its sides, too eager to wait for the full orb to burst from the top. Later, at the end of the trip when we’re telling stories, this will be many people’s favorite morning. We reach the top of the hill just as the sun breaks through in its full brightness and heat, and stop for just a few minutes for some celebratory selfies (these are college students, after all!), and then shoulder the packs and continue on. There are still many miles to go.
There is something really incredible, if strange, about walking all day, just one foot in front of the other, and then going to sleep just to do it all over again the next. I realize to some people that sounds like some unique form of torture, and I’ll admit, that thought occasionally crosses my mind, usually followed by, “who thought this was fun?” But more often than not, I am reconciled to myself by the end of the day, and loving it again. It doesn’t look like accomplishing much – a measly amount of miles in this world where I can wake up in New York and be in California by the afternoon if I want to – but the place we just came from? You can’t get there except on your legs. You can’t zip in and out again, and there is a wonder in that. A secret, almost. Definitely a simplicity. It’s not the same as the people of old, or the few remaining nomadic groups of today, equipped as we are in our first world society with countless ways to make even the backcountry comfortable and relatively high-tech. But the idea is still the same: you can only bring what you carry. Life must be simple, for it consists of what you hoist on your back. And the older I get, the more I realize my back is not invincible, nor is my faith, and so the less I want to carry, literally and figuratively. The more I want to leave behind, hand over, or give up altogether.
Just before the end of that day’s section, the students have a beautiful chance to illustrate that very principle. There is a dangerous section of foot wide trail with cliffs up on our right hand and down on our left to crashing waves below. On the first journey through, going the opposite direction, we stopped them here to explain the danger, and challenge them to choose what we hardly ever do: weakness over pride. This time, we don’t even ask. Reaching the point in the trail they know, several students simply stop and take off their packs, letting others of us pick them up. Whatever battle had to be fought internally, it had already been won, in no small part by the presence of a community that has chosen to define weakness and strength in different ways, and a trip that strives to emphasize at every step the truth that we are defined by what Christ says we are, and nothing else. That, and the necessity of the trail. Watching them, and knowing how hard it is for me to admit weakness in my own situations of necessity, I am so encouraged. How often in life do we take action so decisively, in a way that can’t be hidden, to say “I’m weak and incapable of carrying my portion of weight through this section. In this way, you are stronger. Will you walk twice as far to carry my pack as well as yours?” Of course nobody says those words, but that is what the action demonstrates. For better or worse, it is sometimes harder to hide weakness in the woods. I pray it teaches these students, and myself, to not hide it other times, when it would be easier to. And so others of us shoulder an extra pack, take an extra journey through the section, and it is simply part of being a group. Part of being a body, even. Tomorrow someone else will be weak in a different way, and so no one mentions it, we simply walk on.
We reach our next campsite at 11:30. The students are estatic – it took them significantly longer on the way in, and they wanted to get to camp early enough to hike back to a nearby waterfall. It’s an easy half mile back to the falls, but as we walk further back into the thick growth, thinking it must be getting close but seeing nothing, we begin to prepare ourselves for disappointment. “It must be small,” the students are saying. “There’s not enough space. Why did we bother hiking back here?” Even a mile of extra walking is a lot with the preciousness of time and energy here. Then, without warning and almost seeming to defy possibility, what had been nothing but woods turned a corner and opened into a wide clearing, deep, circular pool, and an incredible 300 foot waterfall crashing down from blue sky.
Laughter and joy and pictures and wonder fill the next several minutes, and then the student leaders tell the group they’ve chosen this spot for today’s Selah, an intentional pause to be with the Lord. For 30 minutes we sit and face the crashing water. I find myself watching the water fall with an attentiveness I never have before, realizing it doesn’t simply fall from top to bottom so much as bump along, slightly diverted by every rock along the way. Sometimes a side current becomes so small it hits one last ledge and simply vanishes into mist, never even making it to the ground. And every single time, the path is different. Watching becomes wonder which becomes prayer, though perhaps not with any words. As Mary Oliver says,
maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world in the clasp of attention,
isn’t the perfect prayer, but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
but of pure submission. Tell me, what else could beauty be for?
I blink away tears as I return praise for just being here, not only with my body, but my heart and mind as well. It is not that I don’t think of home – a shower perhaps, a bed off the ground – or long to talk with those I love, but I have just sat and watched a waterfall for 20 minutes and thought of nothing of the past or the future, the burdens or the fears I inevitably carried into the woods with me. It is an addictive peace, impossible to forget when you’ve tasted it, but incredibly challenging to recreate. I have learned enough to not try to make these moments last. They are gifts to remind me that I spend far more days out of the woods than in it, and that I must fight for that same contentment in the rest of my life, without waterfalls or maybe 20 minutes to sit at all.
We get back to camp by mid-afternoon and settle in for presentations the students have been working on for several days. It’s one of their largest assignments, an engagement with the ideas of beloved and imposter, two concepts from a book they had to read before the course began. It’s a reading and discussion common to many trips we lead, but on this one we have the most time to dive deeply into it, and I’ve been looking forward to today. These concepts of what it truly means to be and live as the beloved of Christ, and discovering and uncovering the imposter selves we put forward to others, hit at the very core of the discussion of identity, such a powerful one for college students. The next two and a half hours are sweet ones. There are skits and laughter, challenging questions, confessions of doubt, and confessions of sin. There are realizations and tears and washing of feet in the icy cold river. Some of the students mention, both then and later, that they have never had such open, honest conversation of faith with a group before. It took 11 days of just us and the woods, but they caught a glimpse of what vulnerability and edification look like, a glimpse of authentic relationship in this world of nonstop communication but so little connection. Later, in a rare moment alone, I pray that as our time as a group inevitably ends, and quickly, these students will realize that community is not limited to these people, or our days in the woods. I pray that this glimpse will push them to recreate what they have been a part of here, and that they will seek out those who not only remind them that they are beloved, but also that the One who loves them is worthy of all of their life in response.
Night comes early in the woods. Crouched in small clearings beneath a thick canopy of trees it gets dark here before the rest of the sky. We wait as long as we can, eyes adjusting to the dim until we can’t see what we’re stirring and the headlamps begin to click on. Over dinner my co-leader and I debrief the day. Just the night before we had hit that point of asking, “are we doing enough?” Maybe it’s the wrong question, but one that usually comes at some point in every trip. And the Lord’s challenge for me in it is always the same: that the growth of these students is not where my identity lies either. But I am called to be faithful in the small and simple moments, and sometimes in those the Lord allows for sweet reminders that He is there, and He is working. I’m thankful for today’s glimpses. We pull over the next day’s student leaders to talk about tomorrow, then gather the whole group one more time before bed. It’s only 9:00 as I’m crawling back into the tent, but I will fall right asleep in the sweetness of physical exhaustion. Tomorrow morning will come early again.