Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.” Wonder is one of the reasons I stare at constellations, marvel at newborn babes, and hike with my son. We have hiked many miles over the years.
Waterfall near Ithaca, NY
The best part of hiking has always been wondering what’s around the next boulder or switch back. Just ahead is a stream, beyond that a bluff, a bear smells us, then we see the bear and we stare at one another with no deferential etiquette, just unabated staring bear to man and man to bear. Then a stone chimney rises like a story begging to be told before it falls ingloriously into the humus, and a fence made with the same stone marks the land, once coveted and now abandoned.
Stories rise from the dirt mingling with campfire smoke as we tune in to the small space of earth we explore under the canopy of our immense universe. These patches of earth we walk are exalted places to discover as the immaculate artist reaches down to share light and shading, texture and color, with common dumbfounded witnesses.
Hiking gives way to wonder accompanied by the naming of the wonder using words, but sometimes, only silence is worthy of the moment. Hiking is also about the unexpected gift, often wrapped in competing emotions, converging lasers of bliss and despair pointing to what you already know but won’t say out loud.
This summer while hiking in New York with my wife Karen and daughter Jenna, a story emerged from the dense canopied forest and I realized that I was not only a character in the story, but also the audience. I experienced the gift of recognition, the vision of a different path, what my life might look like if a foot slipped instead of holding firm. In the midst of my emotional frenzy I hit bottom, no really, I hit my bottom, as my favorite white summer shorts slid into the hillside like Prince Fielder sliding into second turning a triple into a double. This scar, this hiking stain at my back pocket is courtesy of an ancient gorge cut into a wooded hill south of Ithaca, NY. But it’s the other mark, the stain left on my spirit as I walked down an alternate trail, that won’t wash away.
We were on our way to a wedding in upstate New York. My wife Karen, along with our three children, ages 25, 23, and 22, along with my daughter’s boyfriend, were meandering on a road trip that brought us a few miles south of Cornell University, an area referred to by the Chamber of Commerce pun , “Ithaca is Gorges.”
Determined to avoid a Comfort Inn breakfast bar vacation, we consulted Trip Advisor and booked a yurt, a round tent, surrounded by an organic garden of lettuces, cilantro, peppers, and herbs. Michelle checked us in. She was pretty in an earthy way like her vegetables, organic and natural, no makeup, what I would have called a hippie thirty years ago, but now she rents a round tent in her backyard garden to supplement her career as a realtor. Michelle described the gorge several hundred yards behind the yurt. “You can walk back to the falls, you’ll hear the roar, but there are no distinct trails like in public parks, so be careful.”
While Lauren, Beck, and Brandon drove to the Syracuse airport to pick up Brandon’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, we settled in and explored the garden and set up the kitchen preparing for a dinner of pasta, italian sausage, and a fresh salad from the garden just outside our door. Karen, Jenna, and I, wandered the grounds, exploring the chicken pen with several dozen laying hens. There was a manicured path along the boundary of the woods and a meadow stood between us and the forest which hid the waterfall.
We walked along the path to the edge of towering spruce and pine. Underneath the treed canopy we entered a gentle world, softly lit, unplugged. A thick layer of evergreen needles, leaves, and humus kept growth to a minimum. The forest floor sprouted only an occasional mushroom or an ambitious vine that had stolen enough sun to make a life. So the walking was easy initially, footing was sure until we started down the steep hill toward the roar of the gorge as the earth became more suspect, slick with water trickling just underneath the top layer of rotting leaves and needles.
We walked until we heard the sound of water cascading in the gorge just fifty yards down the hill, but still unseen. Karen’s competitive nature propelled her down the hillside while Jenna and I hung back watching her traverse and disappear. I was carrying a mug of coffee, walking in my favorite Sanuk beach bum slip ons, unprepared for a jaunt down a steep ravine on unstable compost. She was gone. I turned and looked at Jenna and we waited. By this time, I had set my coffee mug against a tree and given up on keeping my shoes free of mud. I was worried and set off down the gorge hoping to see the entire bottom of the gorge from my perch thirty feet above, but I could only see half of the stream bed on the other side. And I began to wonder if Karen had slipped and fallen into the gorge. I walked up to Jenna and told her to run back. Check the yurt. If she isn’t there, go get help.
Then I turned and slipped down the muddy hill all the way to a place where I was able to drop myself to the rock stream bed worn smooth by constant flowing water. I waded downstream toward the falls filled with dread, a vision of Karen lying sprawled in a heap, hurt badly, maybe worse. I was walking down a trail I never had walked down before and I began to think, “What would I do without her?”
Hiking for me had always been about the wonder of what was just around the bend, but now, just around the bend meant my life might change instantly, and I prayed that it wouldn’t, that just around the bend would be mundane and uninteresting, water, rock, soil, vegetation.
I saw nothing. I scrambled up the bank and began climbing crab-like, feet splayed, a billy-goat on all fours. It was the only way to not fall back down into the gorge.
Reaching the top, I heard Jenna calling me. But I couldn’t make out her words over the roar of the water. She came closer and Karen was behind her. Karen had somehow circled back through the trees and gone back to the yurt, oblivious to our search. When Jenna saw Karen in the garden, she cried and hugged her. When I saw Karen, I said something dull-witted that I can’t remember, and began walking back toward the meadow. We had walked about a hundred yards and I turned around and said feebly, “Don’t do that again.” And I hugged her.
I had walked down a trail unprepared, in surfer shoes and summer shorts, filled with uncertainty, dread, fear. And yet somehow, I realized it was a gift. The gift of a different kind of wonder. The gift of seeing myself walking down a different road and understanding there are no guarantees in this world. The wonder is that we are here at all. It makes me think of an exchange in one of Charles Portis’ books. A church woman engages the protagonist in a discussion about eternal reward and damnation, heaven and hell. “Isn’t it strange that people would be walking about in heaven and hell?” To which came the reply, “Is it not strange that we are walking about here on earth?”
Indeed, sometimes it is strange to be walking about on this earth unsure of what is around the next bend on the trail. But that dynamic tension is what makes our lives worth living, and if we are unaware of the absurdity and beauty that we see side by side on our hike, we become deaf and blind.
Hiking makes me more like Elijah in the Bible.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Soak up wonder like Elijah. Walk through a swirl of brilliant dancing leaves and watch heaven touch earth in wondrous moments, at a place where the holy intersects our sodden wanderings.