The Scenic Route




"So who's driving?" I asked.

Jennifer piped in, "I can take my car."

"You always take your car," I complained.

One time Jennifer actually rode in my car, but that was the time I lost control and spun around in the road. Jennifer said she had forgotten about the incident but always insisted on driving her car anyway. On this occasion I prevailed, or at least forced a good compromise--we each drive our own cars. I had three passengers; Jennifer had only two.
The interesting thing about these trips is that I usually found the driving more exciting than the hiking itself. Little did I know that of all the weekend afternoon hiking I would do in the Blue Mountains, this episode would be the one that would be considered adventuresome.
The cars could take us no farther when we all came to our stopping place. We climbed out and stepped into the natural scene with its tall trees above and moist earth below. John said, "Matt's favorite part of the trip is over now," referring to my affinity for driving. Perhaps he knows me too well.
"I do like driving pretty well," I said.
Two ridges enclosed the narrow valley where we parked: a sunny one and a shady one. The shady side seemed about as appealing as the dark side of the moon, and the sunny hillside was clear of natural obstacles. Bearing in mind that this was still winter, one person voted for the sunny side. But the voice of the majority said it wanted to go up the dark, treacherous hillside, and it won. This was a historic decision.
The journey laid out for us began with crossing the south fork of the Walla Walla River to get to the foot of the ridge. From there it was a sharp, four-limb climb on loose, wet, and mossy soil. I wished that I'd worn a different pair of pants, but I committed to making the most of it since there was no way to go on but to become good friends with the mud and vegetation.
After the group had separated a bit, there was room to decide how to best make the upward trek on the hill face. About four of us were still together. Caleb was an agile character. He thought it was the easiest to climb straight up through a steep crevice, while David thought it optimal to take a longer, more gradual path. John followed Caleb, and I followed David. At the top of the crevice I looked down and greeted John as he climbed up. "Hi John. I think the other way's better." John was becoming VERY good friends with the mud and vegetation. As we waited for him, Sam told us how the meaning of the customary term for personnel on ships, S.O.B., was changed to "Souls On Board" because it seemed nicer, especially when the ship was sinking.
Probably as old as the hills, the moss befitted them. Much of it was frozen and covered with snow. Eventually, we exchanged the moss for sprawling patches of thorns. I remembered the words of someone from a foreign country on a previous hike, something to the effect that a person wouldn't do this voluntarily unless he were a refugee in flight. Hiking wasn't considered recreation in her country.
Still an upward slope, the hill was starting to level off as we drew closer to the crest. Thorns disappeared leaving only friendly trees and grass. Shortly after Caleb found a survey marker, we triumphantly reached the top of the hill. The sun was low in the sky. John read from Steps To Christ. Caleb prayed. Of course, nature doesn't make the Sabbath, but we try. That worship made the Sabbath a success. We watched as the sun set behind the next ridge.
Jennifer started to clench her arms close to her body for warmth. There was still sun on the other hill. "You should have climbed the sunny hill," John said to the cold people. Since it was getting dark and cold, it was deemed too difficult and dangerous to go down the steep, slippery, and thorny way we had come. We decided to follow a logging road downhill. The only catch was that it would take us much farther from our point of origin! We started plodding down the easy road cut in the hillside. There were not obstacles--yet.
"This does seem easier in some respects," I said.
"In what respects is it not easier?" John asked.
Silence. I was reluctant to complain. "I do like driving pretty well."
Caleb shared a peanut butter granola bar he had stashed. I was feeling pretty comfortable except for the cold. It was a longish walk. As we neared the bottom of the hill, I imagined that the road would make an easy transition into a path that would lead back to the cars. Not so. As this was a defunct logging road, several bridges crossing tributaries of the Walla Walla River were removed.
It was now dark. Rubble from the remains of one of the bridges was piled below, forming a hazard with protruding spikes through which we had to climb down to cross the tributary. Everyone crossed on rocks or downed trees. Two small flashlights helped unsteadily. By the time we had finished crossing back and forth over the water at each "bridge," I had put both my feet in the icy water.
Sabrina and David had some discussion about how many people were in our group. David counted seven dark forms. "We started out with eight, so we're not do'in too bad," he said. He also suggested that in a few hours the moon would rise and give us light to find our way. I expected to be home in a few hours, but I wasn't sure enough to risk speaking too soon, so I held my tongue. His comments were ignored, for the most part.
The last of our crossings was the most difficult. We were now at the foot of the ridge and looking for a place to cross the south fork of the Walla Walla river itself. It was too great to expect that random trees or rocks would be helpful in this case. We left the road behind us and continued still farther from our destination along the bank of the river. Sam and Jennifer were topographically savvy. At this point, they were familiar enough with he territory to lead us through the dark to a particular location they had learned about from previous hikes. The rest of us followed blindly until we came to the place. There, lying most of the way across the river, were a pair of long tree trunks, covered with sheer ice and snow and just inches above the water.
One by one, our group of seven crawled on hands and knees across the tree bridge. Each person took several minutes. When the people with the flashlights crossed, there was only one light to guide. Sabrina remembered a verse from the Bible:

When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. . . (Isaiah 43:2)
My hands became numb on the icy log. As I hoisted myself up onto the other bank and stepped down on solid ground, Jennifer congratulated me. "You're a survivor." We knew that a simple walk on a nearby trail would, in time, bring us back to the place of our hike's beginning.
As the trail passed between a rocky cliff's face on one side and a cliff's edge on the other, flashlights were almost essential. John's flashlight started to flicker, but the real danger, if any, was over. The sky was darker than any I'd seen in a long time. We could see Orion. John and I talked about the Orion Nebula and whether it is in the belt or the sword of the constellation, the unspoken significance being the tradition that says that Jesus will return through the Orion Nebula.
We eventually made it back to the cars, Jennifer's and mine sitting peacefully side-by-side as two friends. My hands had never really warmed up from crossing the river on the icy tree trunks. My fingers were so numb that they mooshed around my car key in the lock, and I had to ask John to turn it. When Jennifer and I started our cars, the soft green glow from the cars' clocks completely illuminated the interiors in a way which our eyes were never before adjusted to detect.
The ride home was a warm and restful one. I felt like driving straight home, but Caleb suggested that we take another route he called "the scenic route." So we did. The scenic route took us up on a high hill from which we could see the lights of both Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla before us, the stars above us, the dark hills below us. I stopped my car and turned off the headlights to get out and enjoy the awesome view.

I'm glad I had the experience of that hike. Though I'm still said to enjoy driving, I believe that the drive back home that night would not have been as rewarding if it were not for the hike before it. I'm old enough to know that life is the same way. Early on, we may compete with one another to do what we want, but then we learn that in order to truly succeed we must make the most of our opportunities with the people in our lives and with God. The scenic route, then, really began when we decided to hike up that mossy hill.

Later that night, after I had warm and dry clothes, I drove to Caleb's house. In reflection, the story of dark, cold, and wet already felt like a private legend. I told Caleb's roommate about all we had been through, and from there it turned into an enjoyable few hours of friendly conversation. When I finally left Caleb's house, I caught the moon rising slightly above the horizon.



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