Wednesday, June 7, 2017

"Why'd You Leave the Trail?"

I’d never hiked Big Elk Creek before, but despite the weight on my back and the mud on parts of the trail, I was enjoying myself.
I’m not in the best of shape, but I’m willing. I take up the rear, making sure any Scouts we’re hiking with don’t get left behind. Ahead of me is Sam, a Scout who’d never backpacked before in his life. He had a good pack, but the hike was long, mostly uphill, and he was getting a little tired. In front of him is Paul, my assistant Scoutmaster. He’s hiked this trail before. We’re in good hands.
To the left is the creek, bubbling over the rocks and through the tiny meadows at the bottom of the valley. To the right, mountains, some covered thickly with pine and aspen, others with tumbles of rock. There are mountains beyond the creek too, and as we hike the mountains get steeper, taller, and closer together. And we have a well-worn trail to follow. And Paul is leading us. No worries.
We cross yet another rock fall, stumbling here and there over a shifting slab. We walk across more rocks. And even more rocks. But we’re talking one to the other, marveling at the scenery.
That’s funny. The creek is smaller. And a bit further to the left than before. And – wait a minute – we’re climbing the side of the mountain, now scrambling over the rocks, and the creek is retreating further to our left.
“I think we lost the trail,” Paul says as we three sit on convenient boulders. “We shouldn’t be this high. We should be right next to the creek. But that’s okay. We’ll just work our way down.”
Just work our way down.
Over more rocks, now here and there punctuated with fallen trees, stripped of their needles but their bare branches still poking up like fence posts. We have to go through them, lest we turn around and lose distance, further falling behind our companions who stayed on the trail and are further ahead of us now. We wrestle our shoulders through the trees and over the branches, our backpacks get caught. We’re thirsty. Sam is out of water, so I share a bit of mine. And no matter how far we walk, we can’t seem to get down the mountain. We can still see the creek – we can even see the trail, brown amidst the meadow grasses, near the stream’s banks. But fight as we might, we can’t lose much of the altitude we’ve gained.
Gradually, inch by inch, log by log, rock by rock, we fight our way down to the trail. Our feet finally plod in the brown dust where we see our companions’ footprints. We walk through a glad,e take a turn and we see them, tents set up, a fire going. A few of them are climbing rocks. Others are splashing in the creek.
“What took you so long?” Benson, a scout, asks.
“We got a little lost,” I said.
“There’s only one trail,” he said. “How’d you get lost?”
“We kinda found a new trail,” Paul said.
“You should have stuck with the real trail,” he said.
Yes, we should have. But we were so distracted by the scenery and our conversation, we didn’t notice we’d left the trail until the landscape became a lot more difficult to traverse.
On the way home, we followed the trail. Paul, Sam and I stuck together again. This time we didn’t stray. “How’d we miss this?” Paul asked. Because it was clear our wanderings up the rock fall and the mountainside added at least an hour to our journey, as the hike from our campsite to the big rock fall where we recognized we’d lost the trail wasn’t all that long.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“We weren’t paying attention, that’s clear,” Paul added, laughing. “Or at least I wasn’t. And you two just followed me.”
Ah, the lesson.
You knew there’d be a lesson.
God and life present us with two great influences: Our companions, and our free agency. Used well, whether in tandem or opposition, those two great influences will determine how difficult our journey through life will be.
Paul is a good companion. Experienced with the backcountry, with first aid, even with backcountry rescue. But I let my trust in him override my agency. Because, when we started climbing the rocks, I saw to my left, just lower down the slope, where the trail again emerged from the rocks. I could have used my agency to call out, “Paul, the trail’s down here!” and though he was further ahead, he would have descended, got back on the trail, and we would have joined our companions for a leisurely evening. Instead, I ignored my own senses and followed that companion up the difficult path, taking the trusting but hapless Sam with me.
Had I listened to myself, had I believed what I saw with my own eyes, a simple correction would have had us back on course. But I waited until that course correction was much more difficult and time consuming.
I surrendered my agency and three of us paid the price.
Were there times, I wonder, when one of the sons of Mosiah saw the correct path, but instead of calling to his companions to set them on the right way just went along with his friends, up that difficult road that led to an angel descending from heaven and sending Alma the Younger into a stupor in which he was wracked with torment. “Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation” he says in Mosiah Chapter 27, verse 28, “repenting high unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.”
“My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity,” he continues in verse 29. “I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.”
What pain Mosiah’s sons and Alma the Younger – sons of the king, son of the prophet – could have avoided had one of them, somewhere early in their journey, noticed they were off the path if even only a little bit, and said, “Gentlemen, the path we want is over there.”
A quick correction based on what I could see with my own eyes would have prevented a lot of weariness as we backpacked Big Elk Creek. I chose, however, to surrender my agency – and three of us suffered the consequences. May we all choose our companions wisely, and love them enough to offer correction, is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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