Life is a kind of hike. Preparation is good, but you cannot be totally prepared. Unexpected beauty comes with unexpected difficulty. And the joy that you encounter is inextricable from the difficulty and even danger of the experience—even when you were promised an “easy” time.
I have made no secret of my disdain for the continuing overreaction to and correspondingly imprudent and often dictatorial demands in the name of COVID-19 made by policy makers at a number of levels of government. However, it is also true that even bad policies might have some benefits if we have open eyes. God draws straight with crooked policy lines.
One of the blessings is that with so many indoor activities closed off, the great outdoors has beckoned us more than ever this spring and summer. Every Sunday we have tried to go on a hike or outing to some trail or park in the area. Some are better than others. Some make us wonder what goes on there. On the trails at a nearby park called Snail Lake we kept discovering items in the brush off the trail. They turned out to be DVDs of classic opera—with Korean subtitles. Is this place the site of some nocturnal Korean opera fan cult?
Our annual drive out west to my in-laws north of Seattle proved to be another opportunity to be outdoors a lot. Given the violence in and around Seattle proper, we made no trips into town. Besides, coming from the Twin Cities, we have that sort of stuff at home. Even my usual visit to my cousin over by the University of Washington was put off given the reports that the highway was blocked off at the exit nearest her. We were to be exclusively country mice on this trip.
We have a number of local spots that we usually frequent near Grandma and Grandpa’s house: Storm Lake for kayaking, fishing, and swimming; the Pilchuck River for coasting along the current and playing on the sand dunes; Lord Hill State park for fairly easy hikes; Jetty Island, a man-made island for messing about on the beach. Other than Jetty Island, which had closed their ferry service, we were able to do most of the things we love to do there. And that includes a big hike.
In the past few years, along with one or two of my wife’s siblings, I’ve taken the oldest three on a larger hike in the Cascades. Two years ago, we went up the Lake 22 trail, which is a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike that goes up 1350 feet until we hit the lake, 2400 feet above sea level sitting on the north side of Mount Pilchuck. Even in summer there is snow on the mountain right above the lake—and a dip in the lake is a bit like one of those “polar bear” swims people do in the winter.
Last year we went up to the peak of Mount Pilchuck itself, over 5300 feet up and requiring us to ascent over 2300 feet over the 2.7 miles to the peak. On that hike all illusions of my still being “youthful” and “in shape” were shattered in stunning fashion. I brought up the rear, but I made it.
This year we decided that we would take yet another trail in that region. Like Lake 22, the Heather Lake trail goes up to a lake on the slope of Mount Pilchuck (northeast this time). It is more like Lake 22, ascending to 2400 feet or so, but the climb only takes us up a little over 1000 feet. Aunt Margaret, who was not with us for the hike this year, said it was an “easy” climb, and that even the little kids would be able to do it. So, we packed up the whole family, including Grandma, and headed to the head of the trail.
The older boys were allowed to go ahead as they are faster. The middle kids, Grandma, and I went in the middle, and my wife and our two daughters made their way much more slowly. The four-year-old acts according to the self-help guides of old: She stops to smell the flowers. She also didn’t have her tennis shoes, an event alas all too common in our family—a couple years ago we went to a Minnesota Twins game and discovered after parking that son five was barefoot. As you can imagine, these two situations made things both more peaceful in one sense and a lot slower. My wife ended up carrying the little one up much of the trail.
“Aunt Margaret should,” I huffed 15 minutes in, “be sued.” The trail was much steeper than we anticipated. Many of the steps were from one enormous tree root or rock to another, often 18 inches high. Grandma, who will be 79 this year, was a champion, but I walked behind her to spot anyway. She’s no longer some kid of 59. What we thought would take an hour or so up and an hour down was about twice as long. Yet there were charms.
Gigantic stumps of trees, some of them ten feet in diameter, that had been cut down years before were great for climbing. Boards that had been inserted into them by loggers served as steps to climb up onto the eight-foot-high tops. Some trees were hollowed out in the middle and served as instant forts. Others had new trees sprouting from the top of them, a beautiful symbol of our life which is built on the lives before us. “And for all this,” Hopkins wrote and I remembered, “nature is never spent / There lives a dearest freshness deep down things.”
As we got toward the end of the trail, it leveled off, and we went by several small waterfalls. My boys did as they always do: go and stand behind the waterfalls. Is there anything more magical than a waterfall? What transformation might come of going behind it? What properties do its waters have for us when we reach out our hands into them?
At the end of the trail we reached a place where we could walk either direction around Heather Lake. Boardwalk built over the marshy areas allowed us to stay dry. As we curved around the right side of the trail, we saw several boys on top of rocks dipping their fingers in the lake. Not as clean as Lake 22, we saw no one jumping in. Instead, the action was on the far side of the lake where there were boulders twenty feet tall or higher. We spotted my oldest on top of one standing like some explorer looking out over newfound territory. Other hikers sat eating their lunch on the tops of adjacent boulders.
Like Lake 22, there was a slope of snow and ice above this lake, which was probably a rock scramble another several hundred feet up. Though Lake 22 had signs and website warnings about climbing the scramble, Heather Lake did not. All five boys ended up ascending to the snow to bring down snowballs in July.
I sat on one of the rocks below watching them climb. Limber, agile, young, probably a bit reckless they were. But in a society that obsesses about safety, I was proud of them for going up. Much of the way up the path I had been smirking about hikers wearing masks to prevent contracting coronavirus from, I guess, momentary crossing of paths with other hikers and infected wildlife. While I do not want my own children to be too reckless, children and adults who shirk all danger will miss out on pleasures and are themselves dangers to society.
As I thanked God for these children, I also prayed for them. That they would continue to be brave. That they would continue to climb over hurdles they faced. That they would lift up their eyes, like the Psalmist, “unto the hills” and detect “whence cometh” their “help”: “from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1).
At a certain point the oldest one came back down the scramble but didn’t know where the other ones were. Looking but not finding them, I decided to do the scramble myself and find out. The terrors of the parental imagination had them sliding down the snowy slope off a cliff—or meeting a bear. About halfway up, I stopped to look around and realized they were now 100 feet below me. We had crossed each other on the hillside. A wave of relief but also the recognition that I now had to get down this scramble came over me. Though I had not fallen, my knees were getting sore from the climb. I made it safely back to the lake. Son number three had indeed looked into an ice cave up there—something signs said not to do—but did not encounter any bears or have it collapse on him. A warning and we left.
Grandma had started down earlier, so she could be careful. She slipped once on the way but was not hurt. We crossed paths with my wife and my youngest daughter who were turning back (the older daughter had finally gone ahead and made it up to the lake). We all finally returned to the van and drove back to the house to eat crabs my wife’s aunt had trapped and brought over.
I’ve decided not to sue Aunt Margaret. Though it was tougher than we thought and we encountered difficulties along the way, Heather Lake was worth it. Life is a kind of hike. Preparation is good, but you cannot be totally prepared. Unexpected beauty comes with unexpected difficulty. You are sometimes at the head of the pack, sometimes behind, and sometimes smack dab in the middle. Sometimes you hike with people to help them and sometimes they are helping you. You will often be looking for a bathroom. You encounter plenty of people along the way who are polite, crazy, rude, generous, and a whole host of other qualities all mixed up together. You worry about things that are not a problem at all, while other things you did not think of become problems. Poetry and Scripture make the experience so much better. And the joy that you encounter is inextricable from the difficulty and even danger of the experience—even when you were promised an “easy” time.
Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide who summited Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, was once asked why he did not do more climbing feats. “I have climbed my mountain,” he replied. “Now I must live my life.” The first is a pretty good preparation for going on with the second—even if you’ve been at the second for a while.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.