I finally punched my South Rim ticket, checked off another of my 100 Life Goals, and I was not disappointed. The view was amazing; the energy on the edge of the cliff exceeded all my expectations. While getting my backcountry permit at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, which in itself was a little disappointing since it was only a piece of paper instead of a tag wired to my backpack, I learned that Big Bend National Park does not allow hammock tents, which was exactly the type of tent I had with me. I had to make some last minute changes. I left my hammock in my pickup and took only my rain fly. I also bought four extra tent stakes in the Big Bend store in case I needed additional tie-downs.
The weekend weather forecast was clear sunny skies in the 90s, so I hadn’t packed any rain gear. Which means, it started raining while I was still in the parking lot. I dug a rain jacket from behind the back seat of my pickup and converted it to a pack cover. I didn’t much care if I got wet but I wanted to keep my sleeping bag and extra clothes dry.
Once I finally hiked in to the Boot Canyon campsite, setting up my rain fly as a shelter in was easier than I’d feared. Probably because I spent three hours on the trail thinking how to do it. Also because it wasn’t windy, raining, or dark.
Just as the sun was going down a young hipster hiker walked past my campsite and said admiringly, “Nice lightweight shelter.” I said, “Thanks,” as if that had been my plan all along.
As part of my original plan I had my Therm-A-Rest sleeping pad with me to spread my hammock for more comfort. It turned out to be a great idea; it was all I had between my sleeping bag and the dirt.
Remarkably, I slept better than any other first-night-on-the-ground ever. I was surprised considering how awkward it was to get inside my shelter and get comfortable
Friday morning, I hiked around the South Rim and it was stunningly beautiful. I even took time to sit in the shade and read and write a bit before moving back down the trail. And then, to my surprise, I arrived at my campsite at Laguna Meadows at 2:30 in the afternoon, much earlier than I’d expected. What should I do? Did I really want to pitch my shelter and hang around six hours until dark? Should I just hike on down?
I perched on a boulder and prayed, “Show me what to do. It makes logical sense to hike on down this afternoon, but will I miss something you want to say to me tomorrow on the trail that I won’t hear or understand back on flat ground? I’ve already tested my knees and legs, and I’ve already proved I can improvise a shelter, so there’s nothing more to prove. What should I do?”
And just then a man and three teenaged boys walked up, fresh from the Colima Trail. They had just seen four bears on the trail about fifty yards from my boulder. I finished my prayer, “Thank you for that confirmation, God. I am heading down now.”
Here’s the thing. I am always nervous during the week leading up to a trip like this. Not about danger or animals, but whether I planned my gear correctly, whether my knees and legs can take it, whether my trail craft will pass Paul’s scrutiny.
In fact, I often entertain secret wishes that something will come up and interrupt my trip and I won’t be able to go but it won’t be my fault and I’ll have a worthy excuse instead of fear. But once I’m in camp and gear is set up, and I sit listening to the wind in the trees, I’m so happy to be exactly where I am, grateful to God for keeping my safe and healthy, thankful that he has blessed me with the desire to do this sort of thing.
It is impossible to prepare for everything. There are simply too many things to consider: rain, park rules, wind, rocky ground, darkness, losing a job, financial ruin, disastrous relationships. Life can throw stuff at us so much faster than we can prepare.
All we can do is depend on experience, insight and grace from God, and plan to accept the discomfort that comes from improvising. The only alternative is to stay inside our safe lives, in our safe circles, among our safe tribes … but trying to live a perfectly safe life comes with its own dangers – we too easily lose heart.
The Bible reminds us to watch over our hearts with all diligence. I don’t know all that means, but I do believe it means occasionally sleeping in the dirt under a makeshift shelter.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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