Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer. (NLT)
I had been hiking alone in the dark for hours. I knew that mountain lions were in these mountains, and as nocturnal creatures, they hunt at night, typically taking their prey from behind. I had covered twenty-five miles, I was exhausted, and I kept looking over my shoulder.
After running competitive marathons for ten years, I had discovered my full potential. One hundred miles a week, daily doubles, weight training, and good coaching had given me considerable success, but maintaining that level took a toll after a decade without a break. I had plateaued and was ready for a new challenge.
I shifted my focus towards running for fun. My favorite kind of training had always been trail running. Living in the Seattle area, I was surrounded by the countless peaks of the North Cascades. There are trails that start in the city and link all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends for 2653 miles between the borders of Mexico and Canada, following the mountain ranges of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades.
Many of my teammates were “ultramarathon” runners, competing at distances beyond 26.2 miles. Most “ultras” are 50 miles or 100 miles in distance. Typically, they are run over extremely challenging and beautiful terrain, on trails, and in the mountains. I considered training for a 50-mile race and did some test runs, including a 50K (31-mile) trail run.
To train and further test my fitness, I chose the 75-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, between Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Pass. This portion includes 16,000 feet of elevation gain, stunning views, towering mountains, old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and at least a dozen lakes. It is called “The Alpine Lakes Wilderness” for a reason.
I decided to do it solo, and I gave myself two and a half days to complete it. I approached it as a spiritual retreat, knowing that I would have a lot of alone time, to listen to God, and to focus on Him. The wilderness is a place to experience God in a unique and powerful way. Devoid of distractions and confronted by the awesome beauty of nature, it is where it is easier to clear one’s mind and to listen to the Spirit of God. The wilderness is where the Israelites spent a lot of time developing their identity. It is where John the Baptist went to preach. It is where Jesus overcame temptation. I have developed a biblical theology of the wilderness, based on the many references to it found in the Bible, and I frequently go there to commune with God.
I packed as light as possible, including my one-man tent, trail running shoes, a light jacket, sweat pants, a headlamp, baseball hat, a thin sleeping bag, a water filter, energy bars, and dehydrated food.
The sky was clear, and the sun was hot when Heidi left me alone at the Snow Lake Trailhead at 11 a.m. at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, just off Interstate 90, in the midst of snowless ski slopes. Two days later her brother, Shaun, would pick me up at the Stevens Pass ski lodge alongside Highway 2. I waved goodbye as she drove off. Examining my map, I felt my stomach sink with the sudden realization that I had been dropped off at the wrong place. I reviewed my trail guide and it confirmed the fact that I was nearly two miles from where I should have been. I frantically tried to “call” Heidi, but there was no cell phone service. What are another two miles anyway? I began jogging down the road in the direction of where I should have already been.
The first section of the trail follows a very popular day hike that leads to the Kendall Katwalk, just below Kendall Peak. In the late 1970s, the “Katwalk” was created by dynamiting a 4-foot-wide trail into a 50-degree granite cliff with an 800-foot drop off below. It is a breathtaking vista that is extremely hazardous when it gets icy.
This day was ridiculously hot. I was uncomfortably warm by the time I had completed the sweltering six miles (plus the two extra due to my dumb mistake) and 2600 feet of elevation gain, in order to get to this incredible landmark. Once there, I faced the sobering understanding that I had another 19 miles to hike to reach my goal of 25 miles for the day.
I jogged the flats and the downhills. I power walked the uphill switchbacks.
I made good time, and the route was mostly straightforward. At the ten-mile mark, I passed an intersection. I descended a steep section of trail for 30 minutes before I found myself staring a beautiful spectacle, literally. Spectacle Lake is overlooked by Chikamin Peak and Lemah Mountain. It has dazzling blue water. I tried to continue on the trail, but it disappeared into the brush. I backtracked and tried another direction, with the same result. It was getting late and I started to panic. Referencing my notes, I discovered another major mistake. Spectacle Lake is NOT on the Pacific Crest Trail. I had gone the wrong way when I was at the intersection at the top of the ridge.
I had no choice but to climb back to the top of the ridge where I was able to resume my hike on the PCT. I had added more miles and had lost more time. adjusted my goal for the day to 18 miles from the PCT trailhead. According to my map, there was a backpackers’ campground at that point on the trail. Factoring in my two “detours”, I needed to complete 22 miles to get there. Tomorrow I would have to make up a considerable amount of distance.
It was now 7:45 p.m. and I had eight miles to hike before I would stop. It was difficult to see in the dark, so I dug out my headlamp and turned it on. Out of frustration, I castigated myself with negative self-talk as I strode through the dark. This day was not as fun as I had hoped.
A mile later an image appeared in my mind like the bright flash of a camera. It was a photo that I had seen that had been taken by a “game camera”. It captured a large mountain lion about to pounce on an unsuspecting deer in the dark. When alone in the wilderness, it is not unusual to think about mountain lions and bears. Being alone, in the wilderness, in the dark makes it way worst. I thought about the fact that felines are nocturnal. This was dinner time for any mountain lions that were out here. Periodically I heard twigs snapping in the dark trees lining both sides of the trail. I was not alone in the wilderness. I used my fear to walk faster. I was tired, hungry, lonely, and afraid. I prayed helplessly as I walked on.
Those last miles stretched out, along with the seconds, minutes, and hours. At 10 p.m., I was feeling lightheaded. I had to be getting close. I fantasized about the pouch of fettuccini alfredo that I would prepare if I made it to my goal. The smell of a campfire wafted through the trees. Was it my imagination? No. It was the real thing. Immediately my fear was replaced with hope and excitement. Peering into the dark, soaked in the sweat of exertion, I saw the flicker of light. I had arrived at the campground.
Out of the dark I staggered into the camp where some casual backpackers were relaxing and chatting around a firepit. Like a zombie, I dropped my pack and placed my hands on my knees. I asked them if there was a campsite close by that I could use, and they pointed to a flat piece of ground 25 feet from where I stood. I said, “Thank-you” as I dragged myself that direction and began setting up my one-man tent. My legs cramped spasmodically as I tried to get into my sleeping bag, too tired to cook dinner. I had wondered how progressive the fatigue and soreness of one’s muscles could be. On this journey, the question was being answered. Could it get worst and worst, or was I at the point of the plateau? Would I get to the place where I would be able to continue indefinitely, without feeling as though my body was breaking down? Or would I hit the wall and be forced to stop?
The birds were chirping before the sun rose. I quietly and quickly packed up my belongings, while forcing down another bland Cliff Bar. I dreamed of a cup of coffee. The other tents remained still and silent when I walked out of camp.
I had never run or hiked more than 33 miles in a single day in my life. This day it was my goal to cover 40 miles, to make up for the detours I had taken the previous day. I also wanted my final day to be a “short” since my ride was scheduled to pick me up at 3 p.m. Today’s route would include endless switchbacks and the fording of a river.
I had thought that I was going to enjoy the solitude of these few days in the wilderness, but as I began just my second day out there, I felt starved for companionship. The hours ticked slowly by. I refilled my water supply in a fast-moving creek. I picked wild blueberries from the alpine meadows. I admired the majestic peaks. I did not have a camera and I knew I would not share these moments with anyone else. I recognized that God was with me, but I also understood that God often manifests Himself through people. I pushed my pace. I tried not to count the endless switchbacks that took me up and down thousands of vertical feet.
Climbing up and over Cathedral Pass, I approached a large stream of clear ice-cold water rushing down from the high glaciers. I found a wide, section where I could ford the stream. I took off my dirty shoes and socks and gingerly waded through the fast-moving water, thankful that I did not slip and fall. I was hungry, tired, and lonely. To my delight, I encountered a group of three other hikers who were warming a large pot of chili over their cookstove. I introduced myself and asked if I could sit with them and have a snack. They invited me over and I dropped my pack, exhausted. Digging through my belongings, I pulled out a sorry looking Cliff Bar and chugged my water.
“We have plenty of chili if you would like some,” they offered.
I was ecstatic to be with people, and to be offered some “real food.” I accepted their offer with gratitude and enthusiasm. I had covered 28 miles so far that day, and I was hoping to go another twelve before stopping. The temperature had dropped, and some clouds were appearing in the western sky. The other hikers informed me that it might rain that evening and the next day. Hearing this news kept me from resting for long. I had to continue to press the pace.
I finished off my chili, washed my small bowl, thanked my new friends, and hiked on. I felt a little nervous about the rain, but I also was encouraged by the fact that my legs were not getting “more tired”. I felt confident that I could cover another twelve miles. I had started the day hiking in darkness, and I would end the day the same way. I was encouraged when I passed the 35-mile mark for the day. I knew that I would make 40, something I had never done before.
I spent the rest of the day, and there was no “hiker’s campground” in this section of the trail. I planned to find a good spot to set up my tent, but once it became dark, it was extremely dark. I could not see anything beyond the trail in front of me.
At 9 p.m., I was done for the day. I had reached my goal of 40 miles, and a few raindrops were starting to fall. I hastily set up my tent in the middle of the trail, trusting that nobody would come through during the night. I made sure the rainfly was secure, and I collapsed inside, sorer than I had ever been. The rhythmic pitter-patter of the rain lulled me to sleep.
Early in the morning, I heard the steady fall of rain. The sides of my tent were “leaking”. My sleeping bag was wet. The faint light of dawn began pushing out the darkness. I realized that today was the day I should finish. I “only” had 18 miles to go. Tonight, I would be home, with my children and with my wife. I would be sleeping in a bed. I would be able to have some “real food”. Suddenly, I was wide awake and motivated to get started. Throwing open my tent, I stepped outside into the rain.
When you get wet, you get cold, unless you keep moving. I have learned that with a couple of layers of clothing, a stocking hat, and gloves, a person can stay warm even if it is below freezing. I did not fear the rain because I did not plan on stopping until I reached Stevens Pass.
I stuffed my bedding into my backpack. I shook off the rainfly and disassembled my tent. I began plodding down the muddy trail in the rain. Gazing at my feet I realized that my trail running shoes were already soggy. It was something I was familiar with
The eighteen miles that I hoped to hike that day would take me over three passes. Eighteen miles was far less than forty miles. I was getting an early start. At a pace of twenty minutes per mile, I would be finishing in six hours, at 2 p.m.
My stomach was revolting from my diet of snacks and grains. As I began to ascend the first pass, the rain turned to sleet. Over the next five miles, I climbed nearly 3000 feet of elevation. I felt the moisture make its way through my jacket, to my skin. The sleet turned into large, wet snowflakes, something I had failed to anticipate. I kept climbing switchbacks. Soon, the trail was covered in snow. I hoped and prayed that this would stop before the trail became invisible under a blanket of snow.
Summiting the first pass, I jogged the downhill switchbacks. Mile, after mile. As I descended, the snow transitioned to sleet, and then to rain. The trail was a shallow, muddy stream.
Once again, the train turned uphill, and the rain gradually transitioned to snow. My hands were numb with cold. My feet were soaked. I only had ten miles to go. The slushy snow was slippery under my feet. Cresting a second mountain pass, I tried to jog downhill. This time my feet slipped out from under me on the icy snow. I fell hard on my butt and my hamstring cramped with exhaustion. I rolled onto all fours and caught my breath. I would have to be more careful. The snow swirled around me in the wind, alone in the wilderness.
Back on my feet, I gingerly descended, into the mud and the rain.
As I began to ascend pass #3, I saw my first sign of civilization. Large powerlines crossed the ridge in the distance. I knew that I was now approaching Highway 2 and I would eventually hike through Stevens Pass ski resort. I was anticipating the sight of the chair lifts, but I had another six miles to go. Back in the slow, my hands were not the only things that were cold. My body was. I pushed myself harder, hoping to warm up. The trail was now a solid carpet of white. The only footprints were my own.
As I approached the final summit, I heard voices. Cresting the summit, I nearly bumped into two ladies who were going the same direction that I was. It was wonderful to have some companionship! I introduced myself and fell in line with them. They were “through hikers” and had started this trail in Mexico four months earlier. I was in awe of their perseverance as they neared their goal of the Canadian border. Together we descended the zig-zagging switchbacks in the rain, catching a glimpse of Highway 2 in the distance. It was at this time that we caught up with another hiker named Mark. He was all alone and heading to Stevens Pass as well. A “hammock camper”, he had endured a sleepless night of rain and snow. We were all cold and anxious to get to civilization.
The ladies planned to hitchhike to the town of Skykomish (population 198), where a “trail angel” would host them for a day, allowing them to rest, wash clothes, and resupply. I was hoping my brother-in-law, Shaun would be there at the Stevens Pass parking lot, waiting in a warm car.
The final miles were difficult, but the company made it easier. After 2 ½ days, I walked into that parking lot, cold, but thankful. I had made it. I pulled out my cell phone and called Shaun. He did not answer, so I left him a message, informing him that I was there waiting for him. No longer hiking, my temperature dropped, and I began to shiver.
Meanwhile, the two ladies stood on the highway and quickly caught a ride to Skykomish. Mark went to his car a drove off. Alone, I wondered how long it would be before my ride came. I was soaked, exhausted, cold, and hungry.
A door opened at the Stevens Pass Lodge, and a 25-year-old came out and began walking towards me. It was “off-season” but apparently, he was a staff member who was still working on the facility.
“Excuse me!” I said. “Sorry to bother you, but I just finished hiking out of the snow and I am waiting for a ride, and I am freezing. Is there anywhere around here I could wait, and get warm?”
“My name is Nick. I work here and I have a cabin just down the road. You’re welcome to come over, have a beer, or tea. Whatever you want! It’s no problem. What’s your name?”
I was overjoyed. I felt tremendous relief. I would soon be able to stop, get warm, and rest. What had begun as a wonderful journey of solitude had only branded into my soul the deep need I had for companionship and community.
I followed him to his small “A-frame” cabin while I continued to try to reach Shaun on my cell phone to let him know exactly where I was. Nick built a fire in his woodstove, made some tea, and did not seemed bothered by my filthy physical state. Shaun ended up getting off work late and was stuck in traffic. He picked me up two hours later.
Having completed this 75+ mile journey, I had learned some things. I did not feel ready to run a 50-mile race. More importantly, I had learned that although it may seem to be good to be alone and to “unplug”, we have been created to live in community. We need each other. Life is a journey that is best shared with others. Yes, it is good to get away from the noise and the bustle of the urgent demands of technology, work, and responsibility, but isolation is not healthy. “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18).
• Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
• Right now, do you feel the need for time alone or more quality time in community? Why?
• What factors in your life make it difficult for you to “Hear God”? What can you do to get away from the noise?