Embracing Wilderness

26 02 2011

I remember that first solitary retreat I had in the Smokies. I was ready for some solitude…ready for some renewal…ready for some time in the mountains and in the woods. So I found myself in the small town of Townsend, Tennessee just outside the national park and on the first morning, I left just before dawn headed for Cades Cove. In past years I had enjoyed Cades Cove’s eleven-mile loop – its history, its beauty, and its wildlife (turkeys, deer, birds, bears) – from a car’s view. But I wanted the relationship to go a bit deeper this time. So I parked my car just inside the cove and headed for the Rich Mountain Loop trailhead. I was feeling alive. I was feeling the renewal I was seeking. I was heading into the woods – into the wilderness – with excitement and an adventuresome spirit.

As I trekked deeper into the forest – higher into the mountains, I was taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds: an occasional view back over the cove or a deer sighting…the rustic smell of earth and the sweet smell of Frazier firs…the melodic conversations of birds ringing in the air. Deer, birds…no turkey yet…no bear – yet.

You ever have those moments when the reality of the present moment becomes so vivid and clear? This was one of those moments. I became starkly aware…I was in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness, on a trail that did not see a lot of traffic (half way through a nine-mile hike and not a human seen nor heard, that’s what I wanted, right?), where I have no bars on my phone, and it was a real possibility I could cross paths with a bear. On past drives around Cades Cove I saw bears from the safety of my car, but for some reason it didn’t really register that bears don’t just hang out on roadsides waiting for people to take their pictures! “What am I doing here? In the middle of the woods? All alone?” And now my brain recalled that the Great Smoky Mountains trail map in my backpack had a box dedicated to “Bears – Guidelines for Your Safety.” What didn’t I get about the words bears and safety when studying the map that would lead me into the wild?

When I came back to myself, I recognized the emotion rising up…fear! My awareness became heightened…my senses on high alert. I was now listening – perceiving things – out of fear. Turning back was becoming a plausible option. I wasn’t quite half way into my hike any way and my legs ached from the steep climb. I could cut my hike short, turn back, and cover ground that would now be familiar…returning to the safety of my little box known as a car.

But, I also noticed that the surfacing fear within was laced with the thrill of adventure with which I began my journey. My DNA was whispering, “Finish what you started.” I leaned back into the solitude surrounding me – and with the sights, sounds, and smells of mountain forest still lingering, I stepped deeper into the wilderness.

I am reminded of the Israelites fleeing into the wilderness as Pharaoh’s army pursued. Could it be that wilderness can be a refuge…a sanctuary? There must have been fear – heightened awareness…senses on alert. Was it laced with excitement…anticipation…a sense of adventure…of freedom? Then days turned into weeks; weeks into months; months into years…still in the wilderness. The Israelites, discouraged, restless, and fearful – wanted to go back to Egypt! They would choose chains over freedom…death over life? At least in Egypt they knew what to expect…it was comfortable…like a box. But through struggle…through conflict…through unrest…through sitting in their own darkness, they noticed the lingering sights, sounds, and smells of Yahweh’s promise, “I AM will lead you. I love you.” In the midst of uncertainty and the unknown the Israelites stepped further into the wilderness. It was in their DNA. They had to be true to who they were called to be. Who knew? It was in the wilderness where the Israelites heard God more clearly…where they came to know themselves more fully – more wholly.

Could it be so with us? Do we dare step into the wilderness? Do we dare stay there until the promise land opens for us? I suspect it depends on which voices we heed – fear, power, ego, status quo…or, the Voice within that calls us to seek God; to lay down our chains and live in freedom; to live life abundantly. Wilderness living is not easy…but, is it worth it? This is the question each of us must answer as we peer into a mirror…as we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness.