Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Supremacy of the Unexpected

After a cross country plane flight and late night exodus from Baltimore-Washington International Airport I have found myself once again surrounded by the icons of America in our nation's capitol. I have only been back at work for a few days, but they have been eventful days that have further enhanced a lesson I brought back with me from Arizona; we never truly know what to expect when we walk out our door in the morning. If we are open to whimsy and the call of adventure then even the most routine tasks can be filled with unexpected delight and wonder as we move through trials and challenges.

On Sunday last my recently graduated and adult-ed sister Callie and I embarked on an adventure. We had hoped to cross the Grand Canyon, but the popularity of the canyon kept us from that goal and despite my best efforts we were unable to acquire the appropriate permits and authorization for such a journey. We decided that the primary purpose of the trip was to go backpacking and to find an adventure, so why should we let a pesky little setback stop us? The Grand Canyon is far from the only beautiful region of Arizona, so after consulting a handy map of the Tonto National Forest we elected to venture into the Sierra Ancha wilderness, an area that neither of us had ever seen before. As we drove into the hills armed with our intuition and a map showing creeks and springs in the area, our hopes were high, though the decidedly low flow rate of Rose Creek should have been a sign that we were in for a rather different experience than we had anticipated.

We drove in on a dirt road that was something less than maintained, and successfully identified a parking area that appeared to give access to two different trailheads. We wanted the one angling to the south so we started down what appeared to be a trail, complete with a nice wooden sign seeming to confirm what the nice brown dirt path through the ferns had previously led us to believe. Only minutes into the hike we crossed a narrow creek, which we took as a good sign that we would encounter such water throughout the area and continued on with high spirits, only to discover that the trail mysteriously disappeared on the other side. Referencing the map I did my best to plot a course, identifying what could be a path and heading in that direction. But that path too soon disappeared, and the exercise was repeated... And repeated again... And again... And again.... Finally we abandoned any semblance of a path and just started heading East, knowing that was the direction we ultimately needed to travel. Once we abandoned our attempts to find our way through the wilderness and simply trusted that we would come upon something to guide us on our way if we turned in the direction of our ultimate goal, less than ten minutes later we spied a clear path cutting through the woods, and upon looking to our left could see a trailhead less than 150 yards away from where we stood. Quickly walking to this trailhead we discovered that we had, in fact, stumbled across the very trail that we had thought we had been on for the last hour, within site of the true beginning of said trail, which was nowhere near the place that we had begun. Seems like there's a sermon in there somewhere...

So we started anew, this time on the clearly designated trail, making for a spring clearly marked on the aforementioned map. But the distances indicated on the map turned out to be more like generic estimates rather than precise calculations and we soon found the sun setting around us. We kept pushing on, trying to reach water (after all, this is Arizona in the summer and though we had started with 7 liters, our supply had already dwindled significantly) believing the mythical spring would appear around the next bend, but failing to come across it. Finally Callie said we needed to stop and we did so, unknowingly landing in one of the best camping spots on the entire trail. For when we rose the next morning to once again pursue our quest for water we thought we would have but a short distance to travel before it came to an end. We could not have been more wrong. We passed through dry creekbed after dry creekbed, finally arriving at the location where said spring was marked on the map, only to find that it too was naught but dry ground. Despite 3-4 feet of snow this winter there was nary a drop to be found, and had we continued past our stopping place the night before we would have not only failed to find water, but also been without a single good camping spot for several miles. Had we started on the correct trail in the first place we would have hiked an hour further that night, only to find ourselves in precisely that same situation. Our mistake had actually led us to the best place we could have been.

Without water we could not hope to continue on our current path and we decided that our best strategy was to plot a new course that would take us back to the one creek with flowing water that we had crossed when first leaving the car (which we would not have known of had we not started in the wrong place) along the most direct path. What we did not realize was that this path took us straight up a hill in the longest mile I have ever encountered. We were exhausted indeed when we finally intersected the road about 1 mile above where the car was parked, just so happening to come to that crossing at the precise moment that "Red," the fire tower monitor was going past on his dirt bike. The only other person with ten miles of us happened to be going down the road at the exact moment that we came to it. Unexpected indeed! 

After speaking to Red we traveled back to the car and blessed water, deciding that this particular wilderness would be more appropriately visited in the spring, when the water flowed in abundance, and that we would instead travel further north to a location where we knew we would find water known as "Fossil Springs." In miles it was not too far away, but I neglected to account for the fact that the highway suddenly turned into a dirt road for miles at a time along which 25 mph seemed to be flying. Nevertheless we achieved our goal and made it, not only to the trailhead, but the four miles down to the springs, with just enough daylight left to set up camp. We had figured we would be surrounded by other visitors, but as it turned out we saw nary a soul until we headed back up the trail the next day. In sharp contrast to our desperate search for water earlier that day, here we were surrounded by gushing springs, coming out of every crack and crevice in the rock, flowing into a creek filled with beautiful travertine pools, swimming holes, and mythic beauty. It was a paradise of tranquility and we had it to ourselves. Sometimes the greatest joys of life rise out of the unexpected trials and challenges and the way in which we respond to them.

As I returned to work Thursday morning after four hours of sleep the night before, I expected to be stationed at the WWII Memorial, but when I entered the ranger station that morning I was informed that I was being sent to Lincoln instead. A delegation of Russian dignitaries was visiting and had requested that a ranger meet them and their state department escort at the Lincoln Memorial in order to interpret it for them. The supervisors decided to pull me from WWII and send me to Lincoln for the sole purpose of me being that ranger. I met the delegation as planned and did my best to paint a picture of the Lincoln Memorial for them, which was quite a challenge because I normally focus on the memorial as an icon of the unity, freedom, and equality of this nation, speaking of the way in which Lincoln redefines the founding principles of this nation and lays groundwork for a great movement of freedom and liberty. I was addressing four Russian dignitaries who had served in the Russian government for many years, long before I was alive, when the government was not that of Russia, but rather of the Soviet Union. How does one portray a memorial to the values of a nation that was the greatest enemy of the nation one's audience represents? Now that was an audience I did not expect! 

I spontaneously decided after work on Thursday to go and give blood at the Red Cross, and did exactly that. As I rode my bike home later that evening I approached an intersection near my house just as the light was turning yellow. I came to a stop at the front of my lane, as did the car in the lane next to me. The light turned red and the cars traveling perpendicular to us began to move forward as their light turned to green. At least three seconds after these events occurred a lady traveling in the final lane on the road I was on came flying down the road and entered the intersection in a collision course with the aforementioned cars. The car in the first lane hit the brakes and managed to slow down enough, but the driver of car in the second lane never saw her coming, continued accelerating directly into the path of this woman, who slammed straight into him, totaling both vehicles and sending the cars out even further into the intersection, blocking all four directions of traffic.

I jumped off my bike and entered the roadway myself, succeeding in stopping traffic traveling in the opposing direction (who still had a green light) while I and two other men ran out into the road. It turned out that both drivers were conscious, their was no significant bleeding or visible trauma, and both could move and speak, so my limited medical training was quickly proven to be irrelevant, but I did help get the man out of his car to safety on the side of the road, while the woman was so much in shock that we left her alone in her vehicle. In the end both drivers left in an ambulance, and two fire trucks and squad cars responded. I remained at the scene and when an officer questioned the driver who was hit and he was unsure what had happened I volunteered to give my account, as I had seen it happen directly in front of my eyes. So I became the primary witness, and if the woman's guilt is contested I could be called in to testify to what I saw. Pretty crazy, and definitely very much unexpected!

It is not the plans we make, but how we respond to the situations we find ourselves in that determines not only our character, but also what we take out of life. Adventure is not something we go and look for so much as something that we have an opportunity to participate in when it crosses our path. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

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