Disappointment and Relief

       My plan, the one I’ve been talking about and writing about for so long, was to spend forty days hiking the Colorado Trail. Instead, I spent six. I was defeated by altitude sickness. More than once I found myself sucking for air like Matthew McConaughey in the movie, Intersteller, and then bent double throwing up on the trail.

       Here is my first draft analysis; a data dump of sorts.

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       Did my gear work like I expected? Everything worked just like I’d hoped. Well, I had some slip-on camp shoes that I tossed in the first trash barrel, but besides that I was very happy.

       Did my body perform as expected? I had no physical injuries or pains. No blisters or foot problems. My after-market knees were wonderful and my right shoulder (the one that’s bothered me for two years) had a great trip. My quads were usually burning at each summit, but that quickly subsided.

       On Wednesday, I hiked two 12,000+ summits connected by an exposed rocky ridge. It was beautiful, and possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I end up spending the rest of my life on the couch growing lazy, at least I’ll know I did those peaks.

       Was I adequately prepared? I don’t know what else I would have done, or could have done, except be born at altitude, or live in Colorado. I knew I was front-loading my hike, doing the most difficult part of the trail first, so I never expected it to be easy. I’ve hiked at altitude before, but not for so many miles as this. I had no idea how hard it would be for this 61-year-old flatlander. I never expected to be taken out completely.

       Was my eighteen months of preparation wasted? Not in the least. Preparing and listing and spreadsheeting are the most fun part of an adventure. And I wouldn’t have attempted anything without working it out. I’m not an impulsive person. I like to know what I’m getting into. I want to be a student of everything.

       Did I give up too soon? That is always the fear, isn’t it? That you’re giving up only one day before the best day? But I spent six days unable to breathe, light-headed, nauseous, and throwing up at least once during every ascent. I think I would’ve tolerated this if it got better the longer I was in the mountains, but it didn’t. In fact, Friday, my last day, I passed out two different times while sitting on a log to catch my breath. I woke up on the ground staring at the sky, wearing my backpack so that I was like an inverted turtle with arms and legs in the air. I was concerned that I might fall off a cliff and never be seen again.

       When Cyndi and I were finally able to text each other, and she said she was coming after me, I felt, not disappointment or shame, but huge relief. I took the tangible release of tension as a message from God that I was making the wise decision.

       Friday evening, I sat on a log at the intersection of Forest Service Roads 550 and 564, wiped out, exhausted, and prayed, “Help Cyndi find me, or send someone else.” And then I heard a pickup coming up the road. It was a silver Tundra belonging to our San Angelo friend, John. He and Cyndi were coming to rescue me.

       When Cyndi got out of the pickup it was all I could do to keep from crying. The first thing she said as she ran across the road was, “I love you; I am so proud of you.”

       Will I try again? Maybe, but I doubt I’ll do it alone. With each passing year, doing things by myself feels more and more selfish.

       What do I think this all means? I don’t know, but I expect I’ll be working on it for a long time. My friend John Hard taught me that small inflections make huge changes in the trajectory of our lives, but we can’t know the direction or destination until time passes. However, in the moment, we must be honest with our story if we want God to shine through.

       Why am I telling you about all this? Because so many of you have followed me on this journey for so long. We must be honest about our lives, both victories and disappointments, or we rob each other of the opportunity to see God in each of our own lives. And besides, a life without goals and dreams is no life at all; certainly not one I want to live.

       Thank you, Cyndi, for loving me. Thank you for rescuing me yet again.

       Thank you, God, for putting dreams in my heart. Thank you for giving me one more turn to do what I love.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Disconnecting

I’ve spent this week trying to put my stuff away. You know what I mean: the stuff we leave stacked over there across the room, and the plumbing connections piled in the garage we didn’t get back to yet, and the books that want to be re-shelved, and the pile of mail that aren’t bills but ought to be kept track of, and the tail ends of so many projects that just won’t stay completed.

Why am I doing this? Because I am leaving this weekend and I might be gone as long as six weeks.

I haven’t disconnected from everyday life for so long since the three summers I traveled with Continental Singers. But that was forty years ago and I didn’t have much to disconnect from.

I also haven’t been away from Cyndi for so long. We spent two weeks apart in 1980 when I attended a Halliburton school in Duncan, OK. She and our two-month-old son went to northern New Mexico while I was gone, so she could study china painting with her grandmother. And then the next summer we were apart for three weeks when Cyndi attended a summer class for Texas Tech at a camp near Enchanted Rock, Texas. In the last 36 years we haven’t been apart more than a week at a time.

Separation from Cyndi is the most traumatic part of my summer adventure in Colorado, and the part I can least prepare for. Missing her doesn’t fit onto any of my maps or spreadsheets, although I suspect it’ll find its way into my journal.

Fortunately, being apart nowadays is easier that it was in 1981 since we can phone and email and text. Disconnecting doesn’t feel so permanent. Also, even though I’ll be in the high-country of central Colorado, it isn’t like being around the world when we sent our daughter Katie to Denmark for an entire year.

Still.

Six weeks apart is a long time. That’s the reason I’ve never seriously considered hiking one of the longer trails, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t mind being by myself, I actually look forward to solitude, but I like hanging out with Cyndi even more.

Who will I share my jokes with? The other hikers on the trail won’t be interested in hearing the song lyrics I woke up singing in my head the same way Cyndi does. They won’t make fun of me the same way Cyndi does, the way that makes me feel known and accepted. They won’t give me that look – you know the one - when I try to put in too many miles or push through an injury. They won’t encourage me to keep working through wild ideas or listen to me ramble on and on and on about a clever podcast I heard.

So why am I leaving? Good question. I’ll admit this hike is very much a selfish following of my long-held dream. It’s a goal that’s important only to me.

Knowing why is usually harder than actually doing. The real reasons why we do things typically surface only part-way through the project, or many months after finishing.

For me, this is not a “finding God in nature” story, but a “finding God on the trail” story. The process, the progression, the evolution, is as important as the location. I don’t expect a blissful walk in the woods. I expect it to be hard and risky and unpredictable. It’s the unknown of it that draws me in.

While preparing for this trip I’ve read many accounts written by through-hikers, and unlike a lot of them I’m not hiking to escape the overwhelming pressures of my daily world, or settle grief, or fight addiction, or even to simplify my life. I’m doing it because epic adventure stories stir my heart, and I want to see what happens when I’m the one doing it. Also, it sounds fun.

So if you see Cyndi while I’m gone, please help fill the vacancy I’m leaving by offering to replace some light bulbs, or unscrewing jar lids, or carrying out the trash. That’s mostly what I do around the house; Cyndi does all the rest.

 

P.S. Cyndi told me she wasn’t really worried that I would be attacked by wild animals. “But,” she said, “If you were, except for the two minutes of terror, I would know you died doing what you love.” How can I not love a woman who cares so much as all that? I’ll hike as quickly as possible to get back home to her.

P.S. P.S. follow my hike on Facebook at the page, Colorado Trail 2017.

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Summer Pilgrimage

       In ten days I’ll begin my summer odyssey, a 486-mile hike from Durango to Denver on a route called the Colorado Trail. I expect to live out of my backpack at least forty days, which is a 1200% increase over my previous backpacking experiences.

       I’ve wanted to complete an epic adventure like this for a long time, maybe my entire adult life. A friend was asking about my plans and wondering if it was possible for him: “How old are you?” I said, “I just turned 61. But next year I’ll be 62 and that might be too old.”

       Leonard Sweet wrote that all stories fall into two categories: coming home stories, and leaving home stories. I wonder which this will be: leaving home to go to the wilderness, or coming home to what I love to do? What I hope this will be is leaving behind the debris of life, age, and distractions I’ve accumulated during 61 years, and coming home to a fresher and deeper life with God.

       What do I think will happen? How do I expect to be changed by the adventure?

       I expect to learn new survival skills, how to make myself comfortable and civilized. I think I probably know most of the skills I need, I just need to trust myself. But maybe more important than learning survival skills, I hope to come away with confidence that I can improvise and survive on my own, make good decisions, stay healthy and engaged, and keep moving no matter what happens.

       I expect personal depth, a broader view of life, an I’m-beyond-the-trivialities kind of thinking. I expect spiritual insight from so many days living inside my own head. I’m carrying Bible verse cards with me, and plan to use them daily to open my mind to God in a new way. This practice shaped me during my formation years at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s, and influenced everything I teach and write today. It’s time for another round of influence.

       I’ll have a generous dose of solitude, maybe too much, even for a solitude lover like me. I’ve often said I tend to go to seed after three or four days by myself, but I’ve always wondered what lays on the other side of those three days. What happens after, five days, or a week? Will I go crazy, or will I break through to a new ability to see and understand.

       There is a tendency in life to shrink our world as we get older. Mostly it’s a good thing to narrow our focus and put our time and energy into our most significant places. But often we just stop doing things because they are too much bother. Things we used to do, like going to movies or plays or concerts or church or parties. Personally, I tend to withdraw from things where I have to interact with lots of people; I have to constantly fight against that. I want to increase, not decrease, my exposure to new ideas and influences.

       And so I hope this hike is part of that. It would be easier to stay home and think about hiking and read lots of books about backpacking. It would be easier to take a handful of weekend hikes instead of staying on the trail for six weeks. But I don’t think either of those would open my world in the same way.

       I also hope this hike brings some clarity about our next steps. I’ve been feeling squishy and uncertain what to do next in ministry. Should I continue teaching every week like I’ve done since 1990? Some members of our class have been in the room listening to me for ten years. Surely they’ve heard what I have to say, how I say it. I wonder if they need a new voice in their lives. I’m not looking for a reason to bail out. I can’t imagine a life without teaching, without giving back, but I sense change in the air, and it may be something I haven’t even thought of, but  I hope God will speak to me about that somewhere along the trail.

       I’ll start hiking early Sunday morning, July 16, leaving at a trailhead just north of Durango. I’ll be what they call a NOBO (northbound hiker). I’ll have opportunities to check in with Cyndi and update my progress; I plan to use a Facebook page Colorado Trail 2017 to post photos and writing.

       Pray for me, that I will be safe, make good decisions, and come home to Cyndi. We haven’t been apart more than a week since 1981.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

 I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Long Term vs. Short Term

      Last Thursday, because I am training for my big hike in July and August, and also because I resent the weather dictating what I can do or how I should live, I rode twenty-five miles on my bike. It was very hot. But I was careful. I kept my effort well below maximum, never felt lightheaded or dehydrated, and I drained two large water bottles laced with electrolyte replacement during the ride.

      I went inside, cooled off with a bowl of Blue Bell Cookies-and-Cream, and soon felt wonderful. It was my birthday eve, I was turning 61 the next day, I had just ridden an hour-and-a-half in brutally hot weather, and yet I was feeling good, if slightly dull, and ready to take on the next challenge of the day. I was a mighty warrior. I was quite proud of myself.

      Then I took a quick recovery nap in my big brown chair and felt even better.

      Later that evening I met Cyndi at Jason’s Deli after her last yoga class of the day (she taught four classes and attended two more, the life of a business owner), and she said, “I came home this afternoon and you were riding your bike. I did some chores, then went back to the studio and you still weren’t back home.”

       “I was fine. I made it back home. It was a good ride.”

      She smiled sweetly while staring through eyes I’ve learned to recognize after 38 years of marriage as warning sirens, and said, “Your first goal for the hike is to make it to the starting line healthy and injury-free.”

      She was repeating a mantra we’d both used often back when we were training for marathons. It doesn’t matter how hard you train if you’re too hurt to make it to the starting line. Cyndi trumped all my excuses and explanations for riding in the heat with logic.

      In a poorly-thought-out attempt to show I hadn’t been completely foolhardy I pulled out my phone and keyed up the Cyclemeter app that I use to measure and document my rides. “At least it wasn’t 100* when I rode,” I said. “We didn’t hit the high temperature of the day, 103*, until after I was long finished.”

      But when I showed my ride statistics to Cyndi she noticed it recorded a temperature of 99*. At least it wasn’t 100*, but not enough under the mark to help my case.

      I said, “If it helps, I’m not planning to ride tomorrow. It’s supposed to be even hotter, 105* way too hot for cycling.”

      “When are you doing your birthday ride?” She knew I was planning to ride at least 61 miles in honor of my new age.

      “Not until Saturday morning. The high for Saturday is only 83*.”

      “You might need to break out your long sleeves.”

      The thing is, planning for long term success (such as completing my summer hike) is hard to do at the expense of short term goals (like cycling lots of miles). Staying healthy to the starting line seems too abstract when compared to doing something useful today.

      And I’ve been working on this hike, and by that I mean seriously planning and studying, since January 2016, a year and a half. I don’t want to jeopardize all that now. I’ve already become obsessive enough, weighing my gear and pouring over my notes and rechecking my lists. Cyndi reminded me, “You don’t need to add an injury because you got lightheaded and tumbled into the street.”

      Cyndi is a smart girl, and I love her for it. One reason we’ve survived, actually flourished, for 38 years, besides the fact I’ve been hot for her for at least 42 years, is that we’ve continually kept our eyes and hearts on long term goals and plans. We want a great future together, not just a great today.

      So I suppose I’ll follow Cyndi’s advice and be careful for the next few weeks. But if you see me out riding and think it is too hot, you don’t need to tell Cyndi. She seems to find out on her own.

 

PS. Two days later, Saturday morning, I rode 62 miles. It was a bit windy, as always, but the temperature was in the upper 70’s, and I had a great time. Happy birthday to me.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Strange Indications

       I’ve developed a persistent ache in my left shoulder. It’s bothersome enough to keep me awake at night, or at least tossing and turning like a rotisserie, searching for the pain-free sweet spot. The worst part of it all is the mystery. I have no idea when or where or why or how I hurt it. It just started aching. I’m surprised the skin on my shoulder isn’t discolored; I wish it was blue and black to corroborate my story. In general, I keep my aches and pains to myself. Not because I’m so tough, but because I’m afraid to look like a silly hypochondriac.

       I hurt my other shoulder, the right one, when I fell in the garage two years ago, dislocating the tendon that converts a floppy arm into a useful tool. Paul Hamels at Green Tree Spa magically fixed it for me, and now I have full use of it except it is weaker than my left shoulder. At least it was until this mysterious aching started up. I hope my left shoulder will be as easy to repair.

       Getting older reminds me of being a teenager. Remember how we were completely shocked that all our new freedoms and opportunities were accompanied by increased expectations and obligations? Every generation is stunned to learn they are now responsible to take care of themselves and take care of their own business when all they wanted was their own phone and a chance to stay up late.

       In the same way, I don’t resent getting older, but I’m constantly surprised at the new baggage that occupies my silver-haired years. For example, any time I bump the back of my hand, it scrapes and bleeds. I never expected my hands to turn into my Dad’s hands. I’m not happy about that.

       And last Saturday, the very day we planned to look at lake houses in Granbury, I woke up with a stiff and painful ankle. How could anyone sprain their ankle while sleeping?

       Here’s another: I’ve never had great vision – I was the kid in first grade wearing glasses – but I’m still surprised whenever I can’t see. Just last night, feeling noble, I dug out my old Bible memory verse cards to take on my big hike this summer, only to realize I couldn’t read them. The writing was impossibly small. What was I thinking when I wrote them out so tiny? I don’t know how I ever read those.

       And now that I have finally outgrown face zits, which by the way took decades longer than I expected, I get blotches and bumps and tags on my face, all of which look like cancer to me. I even started going to a dermatologist. On my first visit he asked, “Mr. Simpson, what brought you in this morning?” and I said, “I decided to be a grownup for a change and get professional advice.” He told me my concerns were nothing more than marks of old-age and come back next year.

       Yet, even with all these strange aging indicators, and I haven’t mentioned them all since memory is a big one, I love being 60 years old (actually, 60.98 at time of this writing), and I’m looking forward to the freedom and understanding that comes with age.  I don’t resent the changes I have to make (running to cycling) or the adaptations (tiny printing to 12-point font), and I wonder what will be next.

       I fully expect the next years to be the best ones. I just read a headline that said “World’s Oldest backpacker plans two-month trip to Europe at 95 years old.” That sounds great to me, like something I want to do. I hope my shoulder feels better by then.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Close to Holy

       Last week I read Psalm 42:2, “My soul thirsts for God,” and it launched me to wondering how I could make that my story. How can my soul become thirsty for God?

       Does that sort of thing come naturally for human beings created by God in his own image? Or is it a thirst we develop through spiritual practices? Or could it be a completely free gift from God?

       Or an even better question might be, why am I not constantly thirsty, like the Psalmist? Is it because I’m not paying attention? Do I come close to holy without seeing it?

       Rachel Naomi Remen, an author, physician, and founder of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, wrote about a physician’s seminar in which she asked the doctors to use stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts. Once they all stopped diagnosing themselves and settled into really listening to what they heard, the room became quiet and mysterious. She said after the exercise was over, there was a long silence. Then one of the cardiologists began to speak about his work and to wonder aloud how one could be so close to something holy and not know it.

       The doctor quoted a prayer from Gates of Prayer (a Jewish prayer book), “Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

       It’s so easy to underestimate the significance of our lives, to find ourselves standing beside God’s gifts and not recognize them.

       One of my recently favorite movies, About Time, is a 2013 British romantic comedy about a young man with the special ability to travel back in time, a power he used to change his past in order to improve his future. Of course, he learns there are great limits to what time travel can achieve, and it can be dangerous. He eventually understands his most valuable gift is to notice the details of every day, to live in the present, to look for the holy as it happens.

       God once reminded me, personally, to pay more attention when I was attending a Wild at Heart Advanced Camp at Crooked Creek Ranch in Colorado. After watching the movie August Rush, which affected me deeply, God brought me to the edge of my emotional limits by speaking through my own voice, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know how big it is.” I had been underestimating the impact and significance of the gifts and abilities he had given to me. I was so fixed on the details of daily life and the specifics of ministry. I forgot how big it was. I had missed the awe. I was walking sightless among miracles. I wasn’t thirsty for God.

       So my prayer for this summer while I’m hiking the mountains is that I will stay thirsty and pay attention to the miracles surrounding me.

       If you want to pray for me, pray the same prayer quoted by the cardiologist in Ms. Remen’s seminar: Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

How Do You Figure It Out?

       It’s still snowing in Colorado, which makes be a bit nervous about my summer plans. Most mountains across Colorado have measured 8-12 inches between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. And they expect it to continue through the weekend.

       I’ve already pushed my spreadsheeted-hiking-schedule for the 480-mile Colorado Trail trek one month on account of the record-breaking snowpack. If I push it another I’ll risk bad weather on the other end of the trip. But I’m not changing my plans again unless I’m forced to. Conditions are never perfect for anything, especially for outside anythings.

       I started working this particular dream in 2016 after a successful trip up Guadalupe Peak proved my new titanium knees could be trusted. The more I used my knees, the more I resurrected old dreams I’d shoved to the back of my mind.

       I spent the last two-thirds of 2016 reading books and blogs written by through-hikers, making notes and lists. I spread the word among family and friends that I was committed. Then, in January of this year, I started getting nervous about the whole thing. It kept awake at night worrying about what’d I’d eat, could I set up camp in the rain, how would I respond to hiking by myself day-after-day, would the altitude make me sick, what if I got hurt and couldn’t hike out, and, well, was I being stupid.

       And then the snow reports came out and the Colorado Trail Foundation recommended strongly that no one should begin a through-hike before mid-July, meaning not only did I now have something new to worry about, I also had to either rethink my schedule or cancel the trip. Cyndi quickly stepped in and discouraged any talk of canceling. Thank you.

       Once I decided to begin hiking a month later, reversed my direction, and left my finish date flexible, I started feeling better. And by the end of February I was past the anxiety stage and into the workman stage. As in, let’s make this happen; just work the problems. My anxiety always decreases when I start making lists.

       The truth is, for me, planning is often the most fun part. Working out routes, picking gear, all that. I wear Cyndi out talking about my lists and showing my spreadsheets and maps, but I love it. The downside of all that preparation is overplanning and overthinking (otherwise known as overworrying).

       It finally occurred to me that most of my detailed answers, the specifics of the perfect system I was going for, couldn’t be worked out ahead of time. I had to figure it out on the trail.

       All of this is way easier to type than it was to do. It’s taken my entire life to learn how to begin a project with the goal of “start and see what I can learn along the way” instead of waiting until I knew all the answers.

Creative genius Twyla Tharp wrote, “I began to see that overplanning can be as pernicious as not planning at all. There is an emotional lie to overplanning; it creates a security blanket that lets you assume you have things under control, that you are further along than you really are, that you’re home free when you haven’t even walked out the door yet.” (The Creative Habit)

       None of this concern should be a big surprise. Once we finally make up our minds to engage in a dream, that’s when the real uncertainty begins. Analytics like me tend to deal with fear by planning; we may look courageous when in fact all we’ve done in minimize our risk. At some point we have to hoist the pack and start hiking. That is, if there is a path through the snow.

 

I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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What Sort Of Story

       On our first hike up Guadalupe Peak, October 2003, it was just Cyndi and me. We were at the top enjoying lunch, looking through the log book, reading comments from other proud hikers, when I asked Cyndi what she would write. Her eyes twinkled and she quoted Sam Gamgee: “I wonder what sort of story we’ve stumbled into?” We had no idea we’d still be hiking this mountain fourteen years later. It turned out to be a big story after all.

       Last Saturday we hiked the Peak again, this time with eighteen Iron Men and family. The hike was as hard as ever. It never gets easier. I kept asking myself the same question, which is the same question we were all asking ourselves: Why am I still doing this?

       Climbing to the top of a mountain is a satisfying experience. There is a definite goal to achieve, and the goal is easy to evaluate. But hiking to the top of this particular mountain is not easy. The first hour is hot and steep and hard, a series of rocky switchbacks that gain elevation step after step. It is enough to send most casual hikers back down to their car. All you can do is put your head down and keep moving. There is no quick way to the top, no shortcuts, no secret passageways for people who buy the expensive tickets. You can’t conquer the Peak by reading or studying or going to workshops; you have to hike with your own two feet, and it is hard work.

       Kathleen Norris wrote, “Enlightenment can’t be found in a weekend workshop. There is not such a thing as becoming an instantly spiritualized person.” She continued, “Americans seek the quick fix for spiritual as well as physical growth. The fact that conversion is a lifelong process is the last thing we want to hear.” (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography)

       Maybe that’s one reason why I like taking groups up Guadalupe Peak, it’s a metaphor for how we achieve the most valuable things in life. It’s hard and long with no shortcuts or quick fixes.

       Another reason I’m attracted to the Guadalupe Mountains is the view. It is spectacular - breathtaking in its raw unconcern for the hiker. As you stand at the summit and gaze across the desert for a hundred miles, there is nothing visible that’s friendly to man, nothing that cares whether or not humans cross. It’s complete, self-contained, and stingy, offering no comforts to sooth a human being. Oddly enough, it’s that very indifference that speaks to my heart. From Barbara Kingsolver: “Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.” (Small Wonder)

       Here’s another reason: Hiking these desert mountains reminds us that we can push through almost anything hard, difficult, or painful if we have a compelling reason to not give up. During the last 25% of the hike when we’re all exhausted, our feet are sore, we’re dehydrated and long out of water, and we can see the parking lot way down there but there is no short cut back to the bus and there is no faster way down the mountain. Even then we keep moving.

       Later, once we are all off the mountain, settled into our seats for the long drive back to Midland, the bus buzzing with stories, injuries, photos, and hearts joining together. That part of the trip is one of my favorite moments of the day. Sharing our stories makes us brothers.

       We often say “without a scar we don’t have a story.” It is in the disasters, the injuries, the surviving, that our character is revealed and a simple set of facts morphs from timeline to story.

       One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Katz, wrote, “I am coming to see life as a series of paths, some literal, some emotional, some in the nature of life – marriage, divorce, work, family. These paths take all of us to different places. Paths are important, they are the symbols of our lives, they mark the passages of time, they take us out of our lives or, sometimes, into it.” Since that October day with Cyndi in 2003, the trail up Guadalupe Peak has become one of my most important paths. Again, from Barbara Kingsolver, “We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.” (Small Wonder)

       This I’ve learned: God speaks to me most often when I’m moving and when I’m vulnerable. Dirt trails have become a big part of my spiritual journey, and being on top of mountains helps keep my eyes open to the larger, wider, wilder world.

       At the bottom of the mountain, I thanked God for keeping us safe, for giving us the desire and ability to do this, and for giving us one more turn. I’m grateful that it’s his story we’ve stumbled into.

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

It Wasn't For Me

The University of Texas Permian Basin English department recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct a variety of programs that ultimately aim to publish West Texans’ personal experiences from the boom/bust cycle of the oil and gas industry to be shared on a website for the sake of research and to simply get firsthand stories on the record. This is what I presented at one of their readings on May 10.

      One December evening, just last winter, I was about two miles into my three-mile run when I heard the voice in my head say, “It wasn’t for you.”

      I had been listening to a podcast about trail running, and the speaker was discussing how our fear of failure controls so many of our thoughts and actions. But like it happens so often, the story I was hearing wasn’t the story my brain landed on. Suddenly I was back to 1986 and a story I’d been telling myself for 30 years: “You weren’t good enough.”

      In 1986 I was working in Midland for a major oil company as District Engineer, a job I was proud of and a job I loved. Business had been booming, still riding the wave of the energy crises of the 1970s when oil reached a peak price of $35/bbl, the equivalent of $102 in today’s dollars. It was a great time to be in oil and gas. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

      In a moment, oil prices went into worldwide freefall, eventually dropping to $8 per barrel and wreaking havoc on all of us. In Midland, companies were going bankrupt sequentially, which in turn caused six banks to fail.

      And then the unthinkable happened, the flagship bank and pride of Midland Texas, First National Bank, failed, in spite of holding $1.3 billion in assets.

      The FDIC was so busy in Midland liquidating banks and businesses they set up shop in a building near Clay Desta, now known as the Apache Building, but people like me who survived that era still refer to as the FDIC Building. The FDIC eventually became Midland County`s third-largest employer.

      I had friends all over town who were laid off, or lost their businesses. Every Sunday at church we heard the update: who was looking for work, who was in trouble, who was moving away. One of my best friends, a geologist, got a job slicing meat at Albertson’s, so he got to keep his house.

      In the middle of all this terrible news, I got a phone call from the Vice-President of Production in Tulsa, asking me to consider taking a transfer to our office in Rio Vista, California. While friends were losing their jobs, I was being offered a promotion.

      On paper it was a parallel transfer, equivalent to the job I already had, but with respect to budget and activity and company visibility it was a big opportunity to step up the corporate ladder. It would be a high-profile position with unlimited opportunity to keep moving up, and I was honored to be offered the chance.

      Cyndi and I traveled to Lodi, California (made famous by Credence Clearwater Revival, “Oh Lord, I’m Stuck in Lodi Again”) to look around the town and meet my future co-workers. The main two things we noticed were the nonexistence of edible Mexican food, and the shockingly high real estate prices. It was frightening. While the housing market in Midland had collapsed, the market in central California was booming.

      We couldn’t afford anything in Lodi that was a place we’d want to live in and raise our six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. In addition, we couldn’t sell our house in Midland for enough to pay off the mortgage. Real estate prices had fallen so quickly we were $30,000 upside down in our mortgage. It would’ve taken us a lifetime to recover from a financial hit like that.

      However, in spite of all that, we were looking forward to the change, and doing whatever we could to make the details work out. I was so excited about the opportunity in California I didn’t understand the long-lasting economic price we’d have to pay.

      To prepare for the move we’d sold our extra car, which wouldn’t have passed California emission standards, and Cyndi had quit her job. We’d attended several going-away parties and even accepted gifts. We were ready to go.

      Until the end of May.

      I was in a quarterly production meeting in Seminole, Texas, when the Regional Manager pulled me aside and told me my transfer was going to be delayed for a while. He said the VPs in the meeting didn’t really know who I was and it would be a good idea for me to hang out with them and try to make a good impression. I was stunned. I’d planned to leave for California the next day. Only now I was supposed to enter some corporate fraternity rush to make a good impression to earn the position I’d already been offered and that I was clearly qualified for. It was humiliating.

      The delay stretched across the summer leaving us feeling homeless and unneeded. I had little to work on since I’d passed my projects on to the other engineers in the office. Every week I’d hear the same thing from the Regional Manager, “Not yet, we’ll let you know.”

      Finally, four months later, in September, the Regional Manager told me the entire transfer had been canceled. The future was over. When I asked him why, and did I do something wrong, he just looked away and wouldn’t answer. All I could get from him was a mumble about eight-dollar oil. I knew that was part of it, but not the entire story.

      Months later I understood that my transfer was caught up in a battle between two Vice Presidents, and my guy lost, He retired a few months later. But I was left to assume it was all my fault. I didn’t measure up in the eyes of senior management. I wasn’t good enough as an engineer. I would never be one of the big boys, one of the cool kids.

      Cyndi and I had said goodbye to so many close friends it was embarrassing to still be in town. People saw us at church and asked, “Are you still here? We thought you’d moved.”  Today, when we look back on those years, our closest friends after “the move” were different people than from before. It was too awkward to reconnect and start over.

      I never really recovered. After that day I didn’t work as late, or work as hard as before. My imagination and creativity – my best assets – went to other ventures outside my job. I still did good engineering work, but it was at 75% instead of 120%.

      Why did I give up? Because the way I saw it, I got my turn and did my best and I was smart and funny and clever, but I got slammed by the company. They took away the offer and gave it to someone else. When I realized my best stuff didn’t have a chance to succeed, I relaxed and quit playing along. In that moment I lost interest in the corporate game.

      And here’s another thing. My friends were losing their jobs, but I was still working and well-paid. I had a bit of survivor’s guilt, so I kept all my pain and disappointment inside. It didn’t seem manly to complain about a missed promotion when my friends were losing their homes.

      I continued working for the same company until they sold all their Midland assets during the 1994 oil price downturn and I was laid off. I was unemployed for the next two years.

      Since then I’ve continued to work in the oil and gas industry in Midland, as a contract engineer or engineering consultant, for a dozen different companies. I love living in Midland, and working in Midland, but I have no desire to move up anybody’s corporate ladder.

      If you’d’ve asked, I would have told you I had outgrown the resentment that came from that career-changing incident.  That my worst day was long behind me.

       That is, until one dark night last December when I understood this 30-year-old story was still haunting me.

       But that wasn’t the end of it. When I heard those words in my head, “It wasn’t for you,” it did more than take me back to 1986. It also opened up my eyes to the different life I now live.

      And in that moment, in that instance, as I was running west alongside Mike Black’s long fence on Mockingbird between Alysheba Lane and A Street, I finally realized the answer to my story from 1986 was not the one I’d been telling myself for 30 years. I had been wrong. I was not held back by a short-sighted employer, as I’d thought, but I’d been set free. The promotion I wanted, the opportunity I craved, might’ve been a good career move, but it wasn’t right for me. It wasn’t the best future for our family.

      Here’s the thing. If the job had worked out and we’d made the move, odds are I would be an upper-level manager today in that same major oil company, pulling down big dollars, living in a giant house, and spending lavishly on my lovely wife.

      But what would be the effect of our lives besides oil and gas? Where would our lasting impact be? Where would our significance be?

      That December night, during my last mile running toward home, I looked back at the important things in our lives that we would have missed had we made the move to California in 1986.

      The ministries we are involved in today would never have happened, and neither would the life-changing effect on people around us.

      The twelve years I spent in city government, and all the amazing projects I helped work on, would not have been possible had we moved.

      The true story was this: I hadn’t been jilted by my company. I had been saved by God. The corporate climb wasn’t for me. My place was to stay in Midland and invest in the people entrusted to us. I could never have made that decision on my own, I needed God’s intervention. I needed to be set free.

      That’s what I heard one night last December while running. The oil bust of 1986 changed my life. Made it better.

 

Finishing Well

       Do you ever wonder about finishing well? It’s been on my mind lately, which might explain why I screeched to a halt last Friday while reading this verse from my Daily Bible: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. (Psalm 90:12, NIV)

       This is actually one of my favorite verses. I’ve spent time numbering the days of my life as a fun exercise, but my list only accounts for days in the past. What about days yet to come?

       Most of my life I’ve accumulated stuff, career, and attention; now I want to spend the rest of my years deaccumulating.

       We recently participated in a multi-family garage sale where we deaccumulated a significant pile of stuff. We sold furniture, backpacking gear I once thought was important but now consider clumsy and heavy, old pictures of windmills and owls, bags full of screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers. We donated a full pickup load of clothes to the Baptist Crises Center, and we distributed several sets of dishes and kitchenware to younger generations in our family.

       Getting rid of what you’ve had a long time, or what once belonged to your parents, is not easy. How do you decide what to keep? Our rule-of-thumb is to discard everything that has no provenance, no story. Keep nothing merely because it’s pretty.

        About two weeks ago, in a podcast interview, I heard someone comment how it takes a while to deaccumulate - maybe longer than it took to accumulate in the first place. She gave as examples: unwanted pounds, anxieties, burdens, distractions, shame, prejudices, injuries, or fears.

       The podcast interviewer asked, “Why bother deaccumulating at all?”

       For me, the answer is a quote by Leonard Sweet, "The deeper I go into my spiritual life, and the more years I use up, the more important "finishing well" becomes.” Deaccumulating and finishing well, go hand-in-hand.

       I once attended a conference where the key questions was: How would you change the next five years of your life?

       My first reaction, of course, was that it’s impossible to change something that hasn’t happened yet. But I knew better. My next five years is already laid out in front of me if I keep living the same way I live today. Now is the time to consider deaccumulating what I don’t want to be carrying five more years.

       And yet, I have no desire to live a stripped-down minimalist life. One of our go-to movies, The Bourne Supremacy, has a heartbreaking scene when Jason Bourne burns all the evidence of his girlfriend and their life together, making it harder for the bad guys to find him again. He wanted to disappear.

       I’ve watched this scene many times, and it always makes me sad that he destroyed the traces of his life. It’s the opposite of how I want to live. I want to leave lots of evidence. I want to use the stories of my life to tell what God has done for me.

       But how do I decide what to keep, and what to discard for the future? There are a few things I’ll always be accumulating: ideas, observations, and connections, stories.

       In the Living Bible translation, the Psalmist asks God to help us to spend (our days) as we should. That’s a good prayer. It would be a shame if the most important things in our life are all in the past?

       A few years ago our Iron Men group took on a project to make a list of 100-Life-Goals. We each made our own list; I now realize it was my first attempt to move beyond numbering the days of my past and begin numbering the days remaining.

       I am now wondering if I should add a part two to my list of 100-Life-Goals: “100 Things To Deaccumulate.” What would you put on your list?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32