Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blazing a Trail

For the past two weeks much of my time off the desk at work has been spent learning about and designing a program telling the story of the Appalachian Trail. It is really quite a fascinating story and quite a fascinating trail. Did you know, for example, that the 2178.3 miles of the trail not only pass through 14 states, but also involve a total gain in elevation of 471,151 feet? To put that in perspective, that would be like spending five months climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest from sea level 16 consecutive times. Sounds fun huh?  I would love to hike the entirety of the trail someday, but for now am contenting myself with reading about the accomplishments of others and hiking bits of the trail here in Shenandoah.

Just last night I hiked another mile of it as I descended to one of the park's many waterfalls. Hiking the trails here in general is always inspiring, but there is something about that particular trail that places it in a different league. It is a great way to feel part of something bigger than yourself and that is never a bad lesson to remember! It is this feeling that inspired me to use the AT as the centerpoint of the program I am designing. I don't get to do much interpretation here in Shenadoah, so I want to maximize this opportunity! It is just a simple talk given on the terrace of the Visitor Center, but why not make it something more and leave people with something more valuable than information itself?

Life is indeed a precious gift and the celebration of life continues to call to us. As you may have noticed, the world failed to end last Saturday when it was scheduled to do so. Apparently now the date has been revised to October 21. It was rather convenient that it didn't end at 6:00 Saturday evening as that was right in the middle of my friend Wes' wedding, which Alison and I traveled to Kansas City to attend. Instead of the world ending we were blessed with the opportunity to see two individuals join together as one, something we ourselves will be doing in 232 days in case you are not counting down yourself!

When we returned to the house in which we were staying following the wedding we soon found ourselves hiding in the basement in fear of a tornado headed in our direction. Thankfully the tornado did not strike that particular house, but it came pretty close. The next day, after a visit to the Truman Library and some very tasty barbeque we arrived at the airport only to find that our plane was delayed, resulting in us missing our connection in Minneapolis where we would have been stranded had we not been rescued by old friends who lived in the area whom I had not seen in 13 years.  Though delayed until the following morning we still made it back to DC in time to drive out to a pretty amazing ropes course by the name of "Go Ape" in Rockville, MD where we spent more than two hours traversing various suspension bridges, swinging on tarzan ropes, and sliding down ziplines.

It was a splendid celebration of both my birthday and the manner in which our lives have become so intimately connected to each other.   It is sometimes nothing short of amazing how the interweavings of the web of life come together to form new and interesting patterns. As Alison and I continue to look forward to our own wedding and the beginning of our own new life together we find ourselves not out on our own, blazing a new trail through unknown wilderness, but instead walking a path that has been trod by others if we have the eyes to see the blazes marking the way. It is all too easy to find oneself lost in the forest of life, cut off from seeing the path ahead. In such moments the blazes of those who have walked the trail before us can provide the guidance we need to reach our destination.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Promise of New Life

It has been raining here in Shenandoah. A lot. The sky appears to have decided it must dump water upon us at every turn. That has made life a bit interesting this last week, especially as I was making several trips to and from the park in order to be in DC for both of Alison's graduation ceremonies this past weekend. It has also come to serve as a powerful picture of the glory of the promise of new life. Each time it rains, as the clouds dissipate, the sun shines forth all the clearer and the land is filled with the promise of life.  It makes me think about the way I look at life. All too often I see the negative side of the "rain"; the inconvenience of having to run through the rain and getting wet, not being able to go hiking as planned, being stuck inside when I would rather be outside, nearly having Alison's graduation ceremony on the mall rained out, having to drive much slower on Skyline Drive due to the rain and fog.  

Thankfully my thinking does not stop there, for those are but a few small areas affected by the rain. This same rain is what has made the waterfalls so glorious. This same rain is what has caused thousands of beautiful wildflowers to spring up all around the park. This same rain is what creates absolutely spectacular depth in the clouds in the sky as it begins to clear. this same rain and the storms that come with it is what held Alison and I captivated as we sat in my truck simply taking in the sheer power of the storm swirling around us. This same rain represents the very force of life itself. 

These last two weeks have been quite busy for me, but they have also been filled with the celebration of new life.  Last Friday my Fiance walked across the stage and received her masters degree. Two days later she joined her fellow graduates in a celebration on the National Mall. Despite having to work the day in between and make several trips back and forth to the park, I was able to attend both ceremonies. It was more than a celebration of accomplishment (though it certainly was that!), it was a celebration of new life and new beginnings.  Tomorrow I go back to DC again, just in time to catch an early morning flight on Saturday to attend the wedding of a dear friend in Kansas City. It too is a celebration of new life as two become one.  

Two days ago four new seasonal interpretive rangers arrived. I have already discovered commonality with two of them, one who worked at Fredericksburg and another who worked at the Statue of Liberty and Petersburg. The latter has both a BA and MA in American history and appears to hold many similar interests to my own. While I could be jealous that these rangers are getting paid significantly more than I am and getting to do many of the programs that I would love to do, I would rather give thanksgiving for the fact that I get to be here at all and also that I have new friends, people while whom I can share both stories and experiences.  

This afternoon I looked out the window and saw a newborn fawn struggling to walk behind its mother. It too was a picture of new life and the promise of change that comes with spring.  So perhaps the rain in life is more than something that gets us wet and makes our lives more inconvenient. Perhaps there is more to the rain than first meets the eye. Perhaps there is more to our lives than we often see. Perhaps new life and the promise of the same is rising around us all the time if we take the time to see it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Forest Reborn out of the Trees

Sometimes it is all too easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. An analogy that bears notable weight for me given where I am currently living, surrounded by trees wherever I go. It is all too easy to be overwhelmed by the individual trees we encounter in our lives and in so doing to lose sight of the larger picture of the forest. And it is unquestionably the forest that holds true significance.
I was keenly reminded of this truth on Easter Sunday as I sat atop the highest peak in Shenandoah, gazing across the expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains as the sun rose over the piedmont of Virginia. I didn’t see any individual trees, any pathways, any roads, or houses. I saw rolling hills and a spectacular fiery orange ball illuminating the horizon. In that moment the trees didn’t matter. All that I had to accomplish or worry about seemed suddenly less important. The uncertainty of life faded away. The stress of not knowing how I will support myself and my new wife once I am cut here in November, of Alison finishing school, and trying to make plans for a wedding became trees amidst a forest of color and illumination. They are important yes, but they are merely single trees amidst a much larger picture that reflects the glory and majesty of our Savior. And that is where our focus must be if we are to appreciate the wonder that surrounds us and convey that wonder and mystery to others as we help to bring the kingdom of God here to this earth.

This lesson was brought home in that sunrise, but that has by no means been the only moment recently in which I have received a similar message. My job here is very different from what I have done with the Park Service before and it is often harder to see the impact that my role has on people and their ability to experience the wonder and majesty of God’s creation. Sometimes though, it could not be more apparent if it was written on the wall in front of me.

I shared last week the story of twin girls that were inspired through the Jr Ranger program. My interaction with those girls was such a moment. Yesterday I experienced a remarkably similar moment with another set of twin girls (weird…) with whom I sat and discussed what they had seen and experienced in the park for quite a while as they sought to prove their mettle as Jr Rangers. It is through such moments as these that the heart can be awakened to a higher calling, a wider picture, a view of the world that encompasses not only individual trees, but the full expanse of the forest.
Two weeks ago the mountains were rocked with the intensity of thunderstorms throughout the day, the same storms which dropped tornadoes across the Midwest, which flooded Georgetown in DC, which closed Skyline Drive due to flooding and stranded hikers  in some of the more inaccessible canyons due to flooding rivers. I hiked into such a canyon the following day, two weeks ago tonight, and experienced the sheer majesty and power of nature in a powerful way. I promised a fuller account of that experience, and here it is…

Saturday, April 16, 2011
06:33-Awoke to the pounding of rain on the windows of my house, rain which continued to intensify with little abatement throughout the day
08:15-Fellow ranger went out to raise the flag and nearly had it ripped out of his hand in 54 mph wind.
17:30-In a brief lull in the storm I make phone calls from the picnic area only to be interrupted by hail and torrential rain as the storms return
21:00-Hear accounts over the radio of stranded hikers and flooding on Skyline Drive as rain continues

Sunday, April 17, 2011
6:33-Awake to glorious day. The storm has passed. A new day has dawned
09:45-Visitor Center is swamped with people, a trend which continues throughout the day as hundreds travel to park to see the streams and falls in their now swollen form
17:24-Arrive at trailhead for Cedar Run Falls intending to hike an 8.2 mile loop, one of the most strenuous in the park
17:38-Set off on trail, not knowing what I will find. Soon discover that much of the trail is flooded as water flows across myriads of small streams headed for Cedar and White Oak Runs
17:45-19:58-Successfully hike down Cedar run across White Oak Canyon and up White Oak Run to the top of White Oak Falls (total of nearly 2500 feet in elevation change). In so doing I pass 8 officially recognized waterfalls, all of which are flowing at proportions rarely seen before. There are normally three stream crossings along this trail, all of which are navigable using large rocks without getting your feet wet. I find a total of five that are higher than the level of the top of my boots (15 inches above the ground); two of these crossings are above my knees. I successfully ford the stream each time, continuing the hike with wet boots and pants. The majesty of the rivers and canyons is nearly beyond description. So much water is flowing down the rivers that it is nearly impossible to distinguish the falls as the entirety of the river is one continues cascading torrent of water. It is unlike anything I have seen before. As I make my way up the White Oak Run I suddenly walk into a fairyland; water is flowing down both sides of the canyon in at least 15 separate waterfalls that would normally not even exist, all flowing down to join the river below. So much water is flowing down that the trail is flooded nearly continuously and I am glad indeed that I have my good boots on. I have never seen so much water flowing in so many places simultaneously. This single sight is worth all the effort, cold, and wet clothes to get down there. I am alone. No one else is near and the sun is setting. I am transported from a hiking trail to an alternative world through the power and majesty of the moving water, one in which there are no worries and concerns that cannot be washed away by the flow of these streams. All evil, all pain, all sorrow, all angst is washed away in a torrent of love and grace and out of the torrent rises new life, new growth and the birth of spring. My heart is lifted up in praise and wonder as I see in this landscape before me a physical manifestation of the picture of the work of Christ within me as he cleanses and brings new life. My soul is reborn.

This hike proved to be but the first of several that I have done in recent days that have continued to manifest the same truth in lesser or different forms. Though this hike was the most overwhelmingly majestic my heart still most truly lies along the Rose River, the trail along which Alison agreed to marry me. I hiked this loop twice in the last week and found a sublime wonderland each time. Bloodroot, hepatica, and trillium (guess who has been learning about wildflowers!) line the trail as water cascades down the canyons, a potent symbol of the coming of spring. It is a place of peace and a place of rebirth.

As this trail remains uncontestedly my favorite in the park I frequently recommend  it to visitors looking for a beautiful hike in the area near the visitor center. I did so several times today, twice this morning to groups to whom I gave extensive detail of the trail and spoke to at some length.  During the hour and a half after lunch when I was not up on the desk this afternoon I was twice called up because someone wanted to speak to me. Both times I found the entire party of one of these groups, who had returned to the visitor center following their hike and called me up to the desk for the soul purpose of thanking me and describing to me their wonderful experience in a majestic wonderland in great detail and excitement. One young woman thanked me for giving them the perfect day.

I may not be able to give formal programs as I have before, but I can certainly still help people to see and appreciate not only the beauty of the trees, but the wonder and majesty of the forest.