Monday, January 03, 2005


Ready to Bolt

You approach the stray cat. It crouches. As you get closer, slowly, you can see the tip of the tail twitch. Its legs may tremble. Its ears are back and the whole face expresses fear. And then you cross an invisible boundary and it bolts, rising, turning and starting to run all in one fluid complex motion. You can tell it's a stray from its behavior; a pet cat will stand up straight and walk over to you. That's one that's never been hurt.

People hide these signs. Daily interactions go on and you never know who's on the edge and who's confidently expecting the best. God knows.

I was hiking with some friends. Years ago, in Rocky Mountain National Park. Every summer my family spent the whole summer out there in a cabin on the park's eastern boundary. Every day I'd get up and watch the weather change on the peaks along the Continental Divide: Pagoda, Thatchtop, Taylor, Hallett, Flattop, Notchtop. We'd go hiking over there, staying on the trails to the named sites. This time some friends from the church had come with me to Emerald Lake, which lies in a cup amid huge boulders and slabs of rock that have fallen from the cliffs.

Above, on the left, was the long cliff of Hallett Peak. It's a spectacular mountain, notable from anywhere in the Estes Park area. On the right is Flattop, whose slope is more craggy and broken. The canyon between runs up steeply to a deep cut-out in the edge of the flat peneplain at about 11,700 feet. A permanent snowfield is held in the cirque just below the precipice. About halfway down the canyon toward the lake is a slanting ridge of rock, and right on the edge of that ridge was a big boulder. Below it is a slope of broken rock that looked as if I could climb it.

This was about 1972 or '73. I had never done any real off-trail hiking, although I'd read about it. I said "I'm going up to that boulder," and one of the men in the group said he'd join me. We set out up and over the rough slabs of lichen-covered gneiss, mostly grey with stripes of dark grey, white, black with the glitter of mica over all.

We made it. It was a simple walk, choosing a route based more on the gradient we were able to climb than any technical issues. I got up behind the boulder, over the lip of the ridge, and then stepped out around it so I could look up the canyon.

The wind was a living force. It pushed at me, palpable as a river in flood. The day was overcast, at least this close to the Divide, and around me was only grey. Shattered rock, cliffs, an alien world that I didn't know at all. It was a far cry from the warm and inviting forests not far below. If I'd had hackles on my back as a dog has, they'd have risen. It was too much. I bailed back over the edge and got my frightened little mind back into a place more familiar.

Strangeness has a force to it. From the stray cat's perspective an approaching human looks like a monster, threatening. From one little man's point of view that canyon had nothing to do with humanity and I didn't belong at all. I ran, bolted with my tail between my legs.

God leads to country even stranger than that world of stone and sky between the peaks. I try to stand but even when just looking at my feet and holding onto God's hand, it's hard to go forward. It's just plain strange. No one has ever cared about me before. I'm supposed to believe that the God of the Universe does? This is the stuff of fiction. Nutcases and crackpots believe they speak with God. Normal people get on with life and limp along as best they can.

They also, very wisely, stay the hell out of the high rough country. My problem is that I either learn to live there, or I die. Somehow I hang onto life even when most of it is meaningless. Life hasn't meant much for about as long as I can remember, and now God wants me to believe in him? Believe that he can make my life meaningful? More stuff of fairy tales and imagination, lives built of tissue paper that tears at the first brush of life's winds.

I remembered that encounter in the rocks. The place wouldn't leave my mind, rock burning in my mind. Later on it was the trees, glowing with fall colors on the side of a ridge far away. I decided to walk to it, although no trail ran there. I didn't have enough daylight to finish the trip, but not until I came to California where chaparral precludes off-trail hiking did I, from that moment on, spend much time hiking on trails again. I'd take off from our cabin and be about the business of the mountains all day, coming back at sunset. Ultimately I made round trips from the cabin to the Divide, and even led some people down Chaos Canyon past that boulder on the ledge. This is called learning.

I just wonder if God has any patience for it. I'm slow, I'm clumsy, I'm weak and sometimes I become downright obstreperous. I just don't want any more. The strangeness gets to me, I look over the edge back at where I used to be and it's awfully attractive. My ears go back, my legs tremble, and I'm right on the edge of bolting. Let me out! I can't do this!

If I actually get around to asking God about this, he just isn't bothered. He apparently sees me in one way only: perfect, in Jesus Christ. He started this, he'll finish it.

I got a lecture on self-righteousness years ago. At the time I thought the word applied to those people who were proud of their ability to live within the rules. God has taught me what the reality is: me telling him what's good. Me looking for something familiar in the midst of the shattered pieces that have fallen off of my soul, which I have to see in order for them to be put back where they belong.

I have to know I'm depressed before God can do anything. I have to know that what I'm doing isn't helpful before I can look for a better way, and I'm a lot more comfortable with the old way than I am with looking at the things God wants to show me. I like my life simple and uncluttered, no upsets, no alarums.

There must be a strangeness limit. I'm near it, I think. I also have a feeling that God knows my limits, and is waiting for me to relax and let him handle the directions. That is also strange.

Somebody call me when it's all done. I've about had it. It's a well-known fact that God loves cracked pots. I think I need some glue.

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