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Out of the woods

From the Christian Science Sentinel - June 18, 2012

Even now, I can hear that line from the Gilligan’s Island theme song, “a three-hour tour.” In that TV show, the passengers were expecting a short trip, but their adventure turned into a much longer stay!

I had an adventure several years ago that reminded me of those words. I was vacationing with my family and friends at Lake Tahoe in California. Shortly after lunch one day, I asked my wife to drop me off at the top of a pass, where I thought I would ride my mountain bike along a ridge-top trail and then into one of the canyons that go into some ski areas. I’d then take roads back to the lake. It was supposed to be a three-hour ride. 

Although I usually carry a daypack of things, including wind pants and jackets, I was going to be out for only a few hours, so I decided to just head out wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

I should have suspected trouble later when one of the trails I found looked very unused with lots of fallen trees across it. But I continued down the trail. Eventually, it dissolved into nothing at the top of a canyon. There was nowhere to go. So, while holding or carrying my bike, I decided to bushwhack my way back down, thinking it would lead out to familiar territory. The bushwhacking became steep and precarious, taking lots of time. At the bottom, I found nothing familiar and realized I was lost. Hours went by as I crossed streams and fought through thickets while trying to keep a logical route using the sun as my only indicator of direction.

I began praying—not just for me but for my family and friends who knew of my outing and who might already be concerned that I hadn’t returned yet. I also knew that my wife, a lifelong Christian Scientist, was probably praying as well by now.  

Poorly prepared as I was, I realized I needed to keep pushing on—I didn’t want to spend the night in the mountains. I was grateful that I wasn’t feeling dejected or confused despite the opportunity for physical and mental exhaustion. I recognized that this was actually the perfect place—here, in this solitary situation in these majestic mountains—to feel the calm at-one-ment of God’s presence. Being in the mountains always brings me a feeling of freedom and joy, along with a sense of God’s nearness. 

Even in the night’s darkness, I tried to retain the thought of spiritual contact and know that I was not alone, but under God’s protection.

Finally, at the edge of a meadow, I found a faint path. It led to an obscure wooden trail marker with faded lettering, but I couldn’t recognize either destination it pointed to. Using the evening sun as a guide, I made a choice. Again, the path appeared little-used and I was hauling myself and my bike over many streams and fallen timbers. Night was falling rapidly, and so was the temperature. My feet were soaked, and I was scraped up from the rigors of the day. Still, holding that thought of at-one-ment with God, I felt strengthened, even as I reconciled myself to the likelihood of spending the night alone out in the mountains. 

When the evening light disappeared, no moon was visible. I had already lost and refound the trail several times earlier. But even in the night’s darkness, I tried to retain that thought of spiritual contact and know that I was not alone, but under God’s protection. 

I found that I could still see the trail a few feet immediately in front of me. Then these words from the Bible came to my thought: “a pillar of fire by night,” from the Bible story of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert (see Exodus 13:21). I thought about the daily portion of manna that fell continually and fed them during their journey, and I reasoned that I needed to see only a few steps at a time. So I kept moving forward with my mental torch of spiritual ideas acting as a pillar of fire.

About an hour and a half later, I thought I saw some tents. Not much earlier I’d already seen a “tent mirage” that turned out to be a white granite boulder. But these were tents. I called out and heard a voice yell back.

Soon several people were around me offering warm clothes. Using their cellphone, I reached my family and assured them I was OK. I spent the rest of the night in a spare space in one of the tents. Even with the extra clothes and tent, I was still cold. So I affirmed that the same “pillar of fire” ideas that drew me here would continue to comfort me. And I was able to rest peacefully through the night.

In the morning, several things were revealed to me. First, about 80 yards back, the trail I was on would have bypassed a route to this campsite if I hadn’t made a direct turn at the trail convergence. So in the darkness, I was led down the right path without even knowing it. Second, my tent companion, a seasoned outdoorsman, admitted that he had been quite cold even in his down sleeping bag. Obviously it would have been much more difficult for me without the protection of the tent and extra clothes. Lastly, my rescuers (a wonderful three-generation family of five) were the only ones in that entire area, and they had just hiked in that previous afternoon. The wife of this dear family said, “We didn’t know it at the time, but we were there for you. These things don’t just happen.”

She was right. While my wife and I had both been praying, a Christian Science practitioner had been called to join this metaphysical “search party” just an hour and a half before I found the campers. My “pillar of fire” was a group-supported, divinely inspired beacon which illumined the way and led to safety and right results.

Steve Simpson lives with his wife and teenage son in northern California, where they enjoy skiing, mountain biking, and tennis.

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