The Bighorns

Summer 2017 • Ordinary Time after Pentecost
Somewhere in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Wyoming

It’s the loose stones that get me. It’s not the lightheadedness induced by heights that planes, not people, normally play in; nor the neck turned red and raw, the sun revealing fleshy nature without need of a cut. It’s not the angle of inclines, bending you low to the ground, almost crawling, baby-like, humble; nor the myriad explosions in my old, aching knees required in every descent. It’s not the rocks and roots waging war against the soles of my feet; nor even the fires of rebellion against will and resolve burning in my shoulders, lungs, thighs, shins.

It’s not such things that most threaten my will and resolve, most obstruct the reaching of the goal. It’s the loose stones—the gravel that slides from underfoot so unexpectedly; the steppingstone that proves a decoy; the laying down of a foot in search of, in need of, something firm, only to find slipperiness, causing contortions, sprained ankles slow-cooked-style, the tensing of overtired and rarely used muscles, and little deaths to my soul too small to notice and likely too numerous to count. It’s the disappointment, the false expectation. 

It comes in other forms: the disappointment of a preliminary plateau, spending all the energy you think you have to reach the “top” only to find there is another and a steeper ascent to go—it makes you want to file bankruptcy; and the false expectation of a calm lake, one you think is your destination, but it’s really only the first in a chain of lakes—it’s not what we came for, but can’t we just stop here?

A hike up a mountain is full of disappointments; the way is marked by false, unmet expectations, some obvious and maddening, most insignificant, unnoticed, never rising to the level of conscious awareness. But together they conspire in a liturgy of despair; a training of head, heart, will, body, soul, and imagination in a reality in which disappointment is at the bottom of things; a kind of anti-discipleship whose master asks, “Is it really worth it?” It’s this pedagogy of futility that most threatens my desire and intention to go on; it’s the barrage of disappointments, of expectations unmet.


And yet it is expectation that keeps me going. Pit-stops along the way help—the fast, foaming, freezing mountain water is restorative for sore muscles, life-renewing and life-giving, as if we were in the water of the womb in every way with the exception of warmth. Company, companionship, conversation help. I think of you often and that helps.

But it is expectation that most keeps me going on this journey, expectation and direction. The expectation of surprise: who could have predicted the presence of a mystifying mountaintop cave surely holding Forrest Fenn’s fantastical treasures? The expectation of beauty: redefining (or rightly defining) the term “a room with a view” by looking out our tent at basecamp; and being able to behold, from atop the bluffs, sun and wind partnering perfectly with a near-summit lake to produce a million sparkling, momentary diamonds, valuable not as wares to sell but as wonders to witness. There’s the expectation of the stuff of celebration and thanksgiving: passing through the waters of a pure and bright and boisterous waterfall just gentle enough to wash your head in; tasting the original waters, as holy and dangerous as fire water, to be drunk only with fear and trembling. And there’s the expectation of rest: at journey’s end there is peace and stillness and a light lunch (who needs much food when feasting on such glory?).

A hike is about expectation. A successful hike will typically be marked by the certainty that my knowledge of what awaits is not what awaits—reality always beggars articulations and anticipations of it. That is my expectation. 

So I point my steps in a particular direction, each step making it harder to turn back; desire and intention may be overwhelmed but I am more than what I consciously will or want in the moment. I follow a well-worn path, wisdom chiseled into the face of the mountain through the long obedience of countless travelers before me, confident that they have already found goodness at the end of this way. And I listen earnestly to the stories of what is to be found at journey’s end. All this flows from, expresses, and fuels expectation. And it is expectation that carries me when my feet no longer want to. Hope impels me to press on to the receiving of a gift that, in this life, few people get.


And yet there is always the return trip, the hike back down (which you’d think would be less exhausting than the hike up, but it never is). These moments of beauty and rest are so fleeting. As the sun rises on the most breathtaking basecamp I’ve ever seen, I’m uncertain about whether the mountain before me is a picture or a window, an end or an invitation. So I’m torn between greed and gratitude—between humbly, joyfully receiving the moment with open palms and clenching my fists around the moment while planning for the next opportunity to reproduce it.

These moments of glory and beauty and rest are so fleeting. And the temptation is to gather up as many as we can, like a child pulling up wildflowers for a bouquet. Quickly it becomes a bouquet of death. What if that is a sign that wildflowers weren’t meant to be captured and collected but enjoyed precisely as no possession of ours? And what if the fleetingness of moments of beauty and transcendence (or is it immanence?), the fleetingness of rest and recreation, is a signpost in a strange land—an indication that we’ve got things backward when we try to amass adventures and recreation and rest as though they are our end in life, a clue suggesting the true nature of our present relief and experience of beauty? The way up the mountain and its end are truly wonderful goods, such wonderful goods that they can beguile us into chasing after them like wind, and all the more so if we are convinced that the way up the mountain and the mountaintop is all, or the best, there is. But our Master says that whatever we leave for his sake will be repaid a hundredfold and more, eventually. This mountain is included in the promise. Unexpectedly, not only does expectation propel me up the mountain; it is also expectation that helps me to truly receive with joy the view from the top and, for the sake of love, to leave it.

I remember the words of Herbert, that lasting rest was purposefully withheld from us as a kind of pulley to tug our heavy, idol-prone hearts higher than even the mountains they are disposed to settle on. And I remember the words of the prophet, that we await a new heavens and a new earth. This mountain will be made new. Indeed, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be raised above all the mountains, and this mountain in its glorious newness will rejoice on that day.