The summer after my sophomore year of college, I lived and worked at a retreat center/youth hostel in the Colorado Rockies. Every time I had the day off I checked out a new trail in Rocky Mtn National Park. By the last few weeks of summer, I had covered all the maintained trails on the western side of the park and was ready to tackle some of the unmaintained ones. (As far as I could tell, the only difference between maintained and unmaintained trails was that fallen trees weren't removed from the paths).
On the morning this story took place, I hoped a nice walk in the mountains would give me a chance to relax, pray, and clear my head. I no longer remember what was bothering me, but I remember I was pretty upset about something.
I set out with my usual pack load: a jacket, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a thermos of water, my journal, a pen, and a couple of books. (Nothing that would actually be useful in an emergency).
It was a crisp, sunny morning in the mountains, and I made it to my goal destination (a seven-mile hike) in record time. The site was beautiful, but it didn't offer the wide vistas I needed to really help me think. So I decided to continue on to less-traveled trails. These were the days before widespread cell phone use (though I can't imagine you'd get great reception in the middle of the Rockies anyway), so the moment I went ahead on the trail instead of turning back, I went off the grid.
This was not part of the hike plan I filed at the main office when I left. But I didn't really think about that because I was too preoccupied with whatever it was that was bothering me.
As I expected, the only difference between the maintained trail I had just left and the unmaintained trail I found myself on was a few downed trees I had to climb over. Soon I emerged from the woods into a vast beautiful meadow with a cool clear stream winding through it like a snake. I felt a bit like Julie Andrews in the opening sequence of the Sound of Music (only I wasn't singing or dancing or wearing a flowy dress--I did hear the song in my head though).
The lush green grass of the meadow and the clear blue sky framed on all sides by towering pines was breathtaking. After I'd enjoyed the scenery for ten or fifteen minutes, I looked down at my feet and realized there was no trail. The unmaintained trail through the meadow marked on the map was missing. Unmaintained in this case means not mowed and therefore invisible.
When I turned around to go back the way I came, I saw a seemingly-endless wall of trees. They all looked the same. There was no clear opening to guide me back to my path, and since I had no idea where I'd emerged from the woods, there was no going back.
According to my map (at least I had a map!), the river that ran through the meadow appeared to flow very close to my lodge, so I decided to follow the river. As if to mock me, it wound its way through the meadow like a meandering Sunday drive. The grass was so high that I couldn't see the river unless I was right alongside it, so I had to stick to it. About twenty hairpin turns later, I found myself at the other end of the meadow, thoroughly annoyed by the wasted time and energy and the fact that my boots and feet were soaked from traipsing through what looked a lot like a muddy marsh.
Things got worse from there. A few hundred feet out of the meadow, it became impossible to follow the river because it flowed into a canyon with sheer drop offs on both sides. I tried scaling the rocks along river's edge, but I quickly realized I was courting death and allowed myself to be pulled away from its banks. Soon, I was completely lost (actually, I'd been effectively lost for nearly an hour, but this was the moment I realized it). After several false starts down what looked like trails but turned out not to be, I finally started to panic.
My first thought was that it didn't matter if I was smart, athletic, and in the prime of my life, my 20 year-old existence was a blink in the eye of these huge trees in this vast forest. I've never felt more insignificant and out of control than I did the minute I realized I was lost in the wilderness with wet feet, no compass, and no way to make fire.
I did what I am pretty sure anyone in my situation would do. I cursed. Loudly.
Then I did two things I probably shouldn't have. First, I sat down and had it out with God. I'd gone on this hike to seek some guidance on stuff that was bothering me, after all! Now, twenty years later, I realize that my whole problem was that I was blaming God for things that were really all about me. But I didn't see that then.
Second, I decided the best way to deal with the craggy cliffs on both sides of the river was to just jump in. So, I jumped into the river and started running down it. You might ask why I was running at break neck speed down a river full of slippery rocks. That's easy. I'd lost my mind.
What happened next can't really be explained.
As I ran recklessly down the river toward my only hope of salvation, I slipped. And fell. Backwards, pack first, into the freezing cold water. I'm sure I yelled out in frustration as I pulled myself up out of the water. Now I was not only lost but also totally wet. I leapt out of the icy river. Furious.
Then I saw it.
Right where I fell, hundreds of feet down river from where I'd started, was a path. I stepped across the river, followed the path and got back to the lodge just in time for dinner.
This story has become my own personal parable about life and faith. Things