Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
I arrived at the wilderness reserve eager. Work had pounded me for weeks and life had pummeled me in general. My inner world gasped for air in its smog, though the heart can suffocate in prosperity as well as toil. That evening I set out to care for it, praying God awaited me amidst the shaded trails and chirping crickets. Before departing the friendly confines of wi-fi, I checked for an estimated sunset time: 7:17 PM. I caught a matinee with a friend and afterward I told him I was off to trek through the woods for a time of processing and reflection. I cringed with every word I offered. I think I even left out prayer. His look confirmed my fear and made me qestion my sanity. Am I one of “those” now? Am I crazy to think that God wants to answer my heart cry and that He can do it through a couple hours of squirrels and silence? To answer “no” would leave me like a bat, expecting to hear only my own echo ricocheting off heaven’s floors.
Nonetheless, I went.
I pulled into the parking lot and hit the trail by 5:50 PM. Unfortunately, at least I thought at the time, I lacked a map and thus had no clue whether the particular trail I chose looped. In hindsight, the excitement of breaking in my first pair of Chacos blinded me to wisdom. They handled the terrain well, like tanks in sandal form. With the seasons changing, I judged that their time for use decreased with each fall day. I trekked up Tennessee’s version of a mountain and began my dialogue with God. Rocks the size of quarters and dimes mixed with hard dirt below me. Crickets anticipating nightfall accompanied every step with songs. The soon-to-be fading sun still shone strong because of the altitude. I stood atop a canyon with hidden valleys on either side. A passing hiker assured me the trail did in fact circle around. This lessened my panic, though I knew darkness would sneak into a wooded area long before an open field. I quickened my pace.
After forty-five minutes the trail turned to the right and paralleled a lake. Soon enough I found myself on a bench in a clearing that overlooked the water. The early fall trees hinted of the almost-but-not-yet across the lake, using it as canvas. The sky joined in, splattering pink into the artwork. The only displeasure was the stench of stagnant water. As I sat, I drank in the sunlight provided by the gap in the trees. Yet that same sunlight also provided false assurance that I had plenty of time to get back before nightfall.
As I journaled, my dialogue with God moved from my head to my hand. Fish plopped without warning, interspersing my thoughts. I looked up hoping to catch such a fascination. I became accustomed to the playful taunting, the pink ripples reminding me of what I could and would not see.
The serenity lasted until 7:15 PM when I realized that light wouldn’t penetrate the forest. I wrestled with the desire to stay despite the risk of getting lost on the return. The tension brought a rush of adrenaline as my feet led me away, though my heart stayed on the bench. For 100 yards, I continued glancing back, lassoing my heart to accompany the return journey. I’m so glad I did.
Darkness met me like a cloud. The trees’ thickness suffocated most of the remaining beams. I felt a bit like Annie Dillard who said, “After thousands of years we’re still strangers to darkness, fearful aliens in an enemy camp with our arms crossed.” Yes. Except my arms swung beside me as I speed-walked. The woods can be terrifying at night, even in one of the nation’s safest counties.
At 7:30 PM, I figured I had at least another thirty minutes, though my mind jumped to the worst possible scenario. Having eaten my last Nature Valley bar, I faced the reality of wrestling with my stomach through the night.
When alone at dawn or dusk, unidentified movement can frighten. In high school I used to get up before school to run in the months leading up to basketball season. The wind chilled my lungs with each breath and frozen sweat trickled down my neck. Worse though, was running through a neighborhood decorated for Halloween. Every scarecrow or hanging corpse represented a mugger. This hike back to my car felt similar as I fantasized about my worst fears. I told God about it. I hated the terror, shamed myself for it, and considered it weak. And really, what purpose did it serve? Yes, fear precedes wisdom, but the latter would have meant bringing the flashlight that the darkness now required. But instead of illuminating the path with my cell phone, I told God about my fear.
I saw things move all around me, and then I heard a twig snap. My heart stopped. Four deer stood just to my left a couple feet off the trail. They must have feared the Bambi story in the dim light because they stood so still I thought they might be fake. In the silence of the standoff, one raised its front leg with the elegance of a dainty lady. Once they determined the frightened hiker was unarmed, they returned to their dinner. My gaze stayed with their every move. God, is this your answer to my fear? I often respond to charismatic saints with skepticism: did God really tell you to do that? But this time the question stuck in my heart, Are these deer a gift from you, Lord?
I had to inch closer even to see them. The lakeside tension returned and my heart and feet argued: Do I continue on, or let the night fall over me as I sit with what God has given? My stomach joined in there, too. I had to go. I would linger over the disappointment of leaving them for the next ten minutes as I walked. By now, my pace slowed as the trail turned upward. I recognized the mountain where I had started. Good news and bad news. Sweat now seeped through the back of my shirt into my backpack. It also dripped down my face; what started out as a leisurely walk became a full day’s exercise.
Halfway up the mountain I passed another hiker coming toward me. More fear. My heart thumped. He passed, deciding to spare my life. Twenty feet later, another deer danced across my path, stopping when it sensed my presence. Lord, is this a second gift from You? Though I saw it cross the path, I could no longer glimpse it through the night. I recalled a sign stating that the park closed when one needed a flashlight to proceed. That works, I have no flashlight, so the park must stay open to me.
Leaving the deer that lingered in the darkness, I continued toward the trailhead. The mulched trail evolved into small granite rocks that I knew led the way back. Rocks beat Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs hands down. Relief flooded over me as I realized this would not be the night I’d die in the woods. I spent the final ten minutes reflecting on the time at the lake as well as the sprint out. And I thanked God for the deer. I hated to leave the gift; years had passed since I’d experienced interaction so personal from Him. I enjoyed the rest it brought to my tired heart. The quiet and cool became my friend, and a breeze brushed over my face. The familiar rocks crunched beneath my Chacos, which I now had no misgivings about. All through college I’d been told how life required Chaco sandals.
The crickets continued their celebration, as if oblivious that I nearly spent the night amidst them. My stomach turned at the thought. The trail gave way to the pavement of the parking lot and I looked toward my car. A streetlight shone down. My heart stopped. Next to my car awaiting my return I saw the silhouette of a young buck.