Every June, we take high school students on a weekend backpacking trip, a kind of wilderness experience. Every year, there is adventure, beauty, some difficulty related to the unexpected. And every year, I think about how this wilderness trek is a metaphor for life together.
In order to make sure nobody gets giardia, for instance, we filter our water with little hand pumps—for beverages, for cooking, for washing the dishes. It’s a lot of water. Hours of effort. Work that takes place at the water source, away from the campsite, in the middle of where the mosquitoes are thickest. It’s lonely work. And people don’t tend to notice when the water’s been pumped, just when it hasn’t.
Once the water bottles are full, we hike to the ridgeline; that’s where the views are best. But getting there is difficult, risky, uphill work. Some people get way out ahead of the rest of the group. Others fall farther and farther behind. There are loose rocks, cheat grass, thistles. And we’re all tired. It’s easy to look up the hill and see only how far we still have to travel. Harder to remember to look back, take in the beauty, and marvel at how far we’ve come. And when we all make it to the top in time for that spectacular, heart-stopping sunset, we still have to climb back down to camp. In the dark.
After a long trek up and down the mountain, there is almost nothing better than a clump of biscuit dough, slow-roasted over a fire. But it’s a long process, and the smoke gets in your eyes, and sometimes people bump your stick with theirs, leaving you with a bit more black on your biscuit than you’d hoped.
Sometimes, a two-mile hike out to the river ends up actually being four. Sometimes, passing through a meadow filled with wild roses, bursting into bloom, leaves you with bleeding legs and arms. Sometimes, there are snakes on the trail. And ticks in the trees.
So what’s the point? Why not stay home, play video games, order Abby’s pizza?
Every year, on Saturday night, I ask myself these questions. Then, on Sunday morning, when everyone shows up at church, I remember that we survived this thing together. That in the midst of hardship, we took turns cooking, pumping water, washing dishes. We hiked out to the river and back. We talked about school, about friends, about family, about scripture, about our questions, about our worries, about our fears, about the nature of God. And my story, a story that used to be just mine, has now intersected with all our stories through this shared experience of suffering, of silence, of a juniper tree just to our west on a distant ridge engulfed in sunset flame.