Friends: Several weeks ago, Frances and I journeyed to the Smoky Mountains for our first hike, and even more, for the opportunity to be with people we love, and others whom we would come to love. The Lord blessed both the hiking and the people aspects of the trip, particularly the latter, in ways that made our time in Tennessee and Georgia one of the most wonderful occasions of our lives. I haven’t known whether I would write about the blessing because it remains so large in our hearts and minds that it seems difficult to imagine encapsulating it into a few essays. Several days ago, however, the words seemed to come, and I send the first part to you as the introduction to what we affectionately refer to as…
“Glen and Frances’s Excellent Adventure”
(also known as)
The Mountains and The People
Part 1 - The Mountains
As I type these words on Monday afternoon, November 3rd, I consider the fact that two weeks ago at this time, Frances and I journeyed upon a course which, at a certain point in our hike, she unaffectionately referred to as “Dante’s Outer Circle of Hell” (a.k.a. - the Boulevard Trail that spans the distance between the summit of Mount Leconte and the Icewater Shelter in the Smoky Mountains).
We traveled the five and a half miles to the Leconte summit during the morning, experiencing much greater effort and difficulty than anticipated. The paths that lead to Leconte, while beautiful, frequently offer to hikers steep ascents and rock-strewn paths. Sheer precipices border the left side of many trails, motivating hikers to hug the mountain on the right (some of which have steel rods hewn into the rock, providing cables to grip in order to allow for hopefully safe passage). We enjoyed much of the climb, but found it tough and tiring.
Upon reaching the summit of Mt. Leconte, we breathed a sigh of relief - at least somewhat. However, we still had nearly six miles to go before reaching our space reserved for the night at Icewater Shelter. We couldn’t rest on the laurels, therefore, of having ascended to Leconte’s 6500 foot elevation. We couldn’t rest at all. We had to reach the shelter before dark because of Smoky Mountain National Park rules, and because Dante’s Outer Circle/Boulevard Trail offers very few flat areas suitable for pitching a tent. We considered the possibility of turning around and descending Mt. Leconte, ending our hike on the same day it started. The prospect seemed more than appealing. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t see us doing that. “We’re not known for quitting, Frances” I said. She nodded. We looked at each other, took a deep breath, and set off on the Boulevard Trail, excuse me, Dante’s Outer Circle, that would summon every bit of physical and emotional energy we possessed (which would not be enough, thus making us eternally grateful that we live by the strength of Another).
Supplementing the challenge included the omission that during our brief moment on the summit of Leconte ("Yep, this is the top. Now let’s go!”), we forgot to replenish our water supply. It made for the possibility of an interesting afternoon, and I now report to you that it was. Oh, how it was! Not long after we set out for Icewater Shelter, I began to suffer severe leg cramps due to dehydration (which necessitated my drinking much of our water supply). Frances injured her knee (she didn’t inform me about her impairment until the next morning). And we ran out of water halfway through the afternoon. Thankfully, we encountered no bears during this period because if we had, well, I don’t think I could have been as civil and gracious as I might normally have been. “Get out of my face, Yogi!” Moreover, Frances would likely have murdered any beast that sought our company and fellowship (the Smokies folks frown severely on bearicide). We grew more and more exhausted, frustrated, concerned about reaching the shelter, and downright angry at ourselves for having misjudged the trail and our limitations. “I hate hiking” said I at one point. “I hate it too” responded Frances (ah, the joys of marital unity!). Then and there we determined that never again would we allow ourselves back on any trail other the ones that lead to our refrigerator and restroom at home. Home. I’m sure we both thought, “I wish I was home with Dorothy and Toto in Kansas!” (although we live in Alabama, and don’t know any “Dorothy” or “Toto" in Kansas).
When all hope seemed lost, a ray of light shined into the Inferno. We came upon a mountain stream. A mountain stream! As I typed that last sentence, a thought occurred to me for the first time since encountering the glorious trickle that cascaded down the rocks. 25 years ago, I wrote a guitar instrumental called “Mountain Stream.” It has long been one of my and Frances’ favorite pieces of music we’ve done, and little did we know that perhaps it was written as the prelude to the beautiful stream in the rocks that provided blessed relief in a most difficult time in our lives (I’ve included the link to the music below if you’d like to hear it). Thank the Lord, our water problem was solved. We filled our containers, drank, and then continued the journey to the shelter, refreshed, but still unsure as to whether we’d make it before dark. The last few miles of Boulevard Trail challenge weary hikers with one twisting, uphill ascent after another (supplementing the delightful torture with numerous fallen trees that require either a climb or a contorting posture that reminds one, uncomfortably, of long ago Limbo competitions - ouch!). I’m not embarrassed to admit that our “hike” at times devolved into a stagger.
I could go on with other uncomfortable features of this encouraging report, but enough fun for now. We finally came upon a sign that read, “Appalachian Trail”. Even more blessedly, we nearly wept as the sign also reported, “Icewater Shelter, 0.2 miles.” We did weep, joyfully! We would make it before dark! No bear would die unnecessarily! We would finally execute the longed for collapse we so richly deserved (after setting up our tent). All this happened, we ate our granola bar/cheese cracker supper, and I descended into an exhausted, coma-like sleep until regaining consciousness at sunrise the next morning to discover that Frances had lain awake throughout much of the night. “I hurt my knee yesterday, and every time I move, it’s excruciating.” Again, she hadn’t informed me of this the previous day, perhaps thinking it would feel better when rested. It didn’t, and we faced another challenge as the sun rose. How would Frances walk the three miles to Newfound Gap to meet our friends? “I will do it” she said. And I knew she would because I know Frances, and even more, I know her sublime capacity to access the Lord’s grace and enabling.
This provides another twist to the story. We originally planned a four day, three night hike in the mountains. By the end of our first day, however, we wondered if we might need to adjust our original itinerary. We knew the rest of the hike did not portend of the challenges we faced on day one. However, those challenges had surprised us greatly. What new levels of Dante’s hellish circles might lie ahead? Should we proceed with our original plan? Could we proceed, considering Frances’s knee? We decided, therefore, to get in touch with our friends and ask them to pick us up at Newfound Gap on Tuesday rather than attempting to reach our original destination of Davenport Gap several days later. Frances’s injury sealed the deal, that is, if she would be able to walk those three miles on rugged mountain trails to Newfound. Add to the concern the words a hiker told us the day before, in passing: “It’s $15,000 if you have to get a MediVac flight off these mountains.” Gulp! “And,” he added, “most health insurance polices don’t cover the service.” Guuullllpppp! (which led to the prayer, “Lord, You do cover MediVacs for your trusting, albeit, misguided children? You do, don’t You?!).
I lay in the tent praying, as had Frances throughout the night. We know the Lord well enough and have experienced His provision often enough to be sure He would help, supply, and GET US OUT OF THESE GODFORSAKEN MOUNTAINS!!! (uh, sorry, Lord!). Actually, they weren’t Godforsaken. They were God-filled, just as their breathtaking beauty and magnitude declare with such splendor. We got up, which for Frances was saying a lot. Her knee was painful and unsteady, but as the trooper you all know she is, she helped me (actually, I helped her) take our tent down. In doing so, she knelt down, which caused her to stretch her quadriceps muscles. This seemed to ease the tension in her leg, and miraculously, a great deal of the pain in her knee. “I”m pretty sure I can walk,” she said with much relief, and to my great amazement and joy. She did walk that day, all the way down the mountain to Newfound Gap, and I’m happy to report she’s still walking back at home, with no apparent lasting damage to her knee. Yes, the mountains were God-filled.
We had the most joyous journey from Icewater Shelter to Newfound. As part of the Appalachian Trail, these paths are much better maintained, although still quite steep and rocky at many points. We took our time, something we couldn’t do the day before. This allowed for the very reason one chooses to hike in the Smoky Mountains, namely, to gaze with rapture upon one of God’s annual fall exhibitions, as held in one of His most beautiful art galleries. In Autumn, the Smokies glimmer with hues and colors that no human artist can duplicate, or even imagine. The sky gleams never so blue as in October, the thrill of the chill (winds, that is) graces summer-weary brows, and the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ speaks and sings to your heart the anthems of His beautiful heart. Oh yes, the mountains were God-filled. We reveled in the scenes that hurry and exhaustion made impossible the day before. More importantly, we took more time to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Artist for inviting us to His glorious exhibition.
A possible complication involved the fact of spotty to non-existent cell phone reception in the region we hiked. Our change in plans necessitated getting touch with our friends Tom and JJ to see if they could pick us up two days early. As we departed Icewater, I texted Tom with the requests and put the phone in my pocket, thinking, hoping, and praying that sometime later in the day the message would transmit. Less than 15 minutes into our journey, I decided to look at my phone to see if just maybe…. “Yes.” There it was on the screen! Just one word, one glorious, blessed word! Not only had my message transmitted, but my dear brother and friend Tom had already responded! “Yes!” JJ and the kids would be at Newfound to pick us up, providing yet another indication of how full of God the Smoky Mountains actually are. This made our journey all the more joyous, and we skipped down the trails, well, we didn’t actually skip because Frances had a sore knee, and as a big, tough guy, I don’t skip. Except in the heart, and I can tell you that therein, we did in fact skip down the trails of God’s mountains!
We made it to Newfound Gap with an hour or so to spare before JJ arrived to pick us up. We encountered several hundred people taking in the autumnal beauty of the mountain views Newfound offers. Frances and I were the only people adorned with full hiking gear. We drew many stares, leading us to postulate that some of the folks must have thought, “Wow, there’s some experienced hiking veterans.” Pardon me for a moment as I break into uproarious laughter! Indeed, near the finish of our hike, some folks stopped us to ask about our journey. We told them where we started and where we would finish. “You’re my heroes” said one nice lady, “real hikers!” I love Frances’s response, one of the truest utterances she’s ever expressed in a lifetime of uttering truth: “It’s just a facade!” It was, but I will say that we learned a lot in a day and a half in the mountains, and next time…
Oh yes, I didn’t mention that there will be a next time, Lord willing. Actually, we’re planning on many next times! We love hiking! (ah, the joys of marital unity! - see addendum). Yes, somehow between late afternoon on Monday in Dante’s Outer Ring and early Tuesday morning in the Smoky God-filled Mountains, the Lord of those glorious peaks and valleys changed our hearts and minds about the matter. Tuesday morning and the journey to Newfound Gap will forever remain as one of the most blessed times of our life together. Monday afternoon on Dante Boulevard? We now laugh about it every time we mention it. We chuckle about our mistakes in planning, knowing that we bit off a whole lot more mountain than we could begin to chew in one day. We snicker as we recall our staggers. We give thanks as we cherish the thought of safe and unharmed bears. We smile when we think of hearing the first trickles of the blessed mountain stream that sang to our hearts more than two decades before slaking our thirst during the hardest afternoon of our lives. We bow our heads upon the memory of the sign that told us we were close to shelter. And most of all, I personally remember this: at the most difficult part of our journey, when the ascents seemed far too steep for exhausted hikers, and especially for Frances, when the rocks and the crevices and every step brought searing pain to her leg, she began to sing, over and over and over again:
“Lord, You are more precious than silver, Lord You are much finer than gold, Lord You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.”
I suspect the mountains still ring with the echoes of that beautiful and ethereal voice (those of you who’ve heard Frances sing know what I’m talking about). Over and over and over again Frances sang the chorus, breathlessly as the struggle seemed to go on forever. Sometimes she sang amid sobs. Sometimes she sang as a misstep brought searing pain to her knee. At the end, she sang with sighs of abounding joy as we discovered yet again the central truth we seek to share in our life and ministry, namely, that no one has ever trusted in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and been disappointed for doing so. And no one ever will. He is perfectly faithful and true. Indeed, I’ll remember the sights and sounds of our journey for a lifetime, and I trust, for an eternity. But none will compare with hearing my blessed wife sing when only the Spirit of God could have inspired and enabled music in the Smoky God-filled mountains, where for a time, it seemed music could not be. Indeed, “Lord, You are more precious than silver…”
Before our hike, our first hike, Frances and I agreed that we would either love the experience or hate it. We also acknowledged the somewhat troubling possibility that one of us might feel one way, and one the other (come to think of it, forget the “somewhat!” It would have been really troubling!). Thus, the fact that we experienced the same range of opinion and emotion - from hatred to love - causes us to yet again bow head and heart to the Lord who brought us together nearly four decades ago, and who keeps us together in both heart and life. Yet again, “more precious than silver…"
Mountain Stream: https://app.box.com/s/
7y40z0j8gi4oxhynmd2z (may take a little while to load)