A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
The canvas walls of the two-man tent were closing in around me. The heavy cotton fabric of my sleeping bag wrapped around me like a boa constrictor, tightening its grip with diabolical efficiency. My heart was pounding. I was breathing hard, each anxious breath escaping my mouth and forming a doom-laden cloud in the cold mountain air. Off in the distance a coyote howled in what I was sure sounded for all the world like fiendish delight.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered to Anita, who was snuggled in her sleeping bag next to mine, “I’ve gotta get outta here.”
Anita didn’t reply. I assumed she was sound asleep. Good, I thought as I pulled on my shoes, my coat and my hat and stepped out into the dark, desolate night. She won’t see me cry.
OK, I wasn’t actually crying. But I was preparing to freak out. And not just because I’m the world’s worst camper (you can look it up – it’s in Wikipedia under “Coleman Challenged”). I was also exhausted from a long day of hiking in the mountains with 250 teenagers from our church youth group. I was overwhelmed from trying to organize activities to keep them busy learning and feeling the things we wanted them to learn and feel. The temperatures were unseasonably cold, plunging below freezing as the night wore on . . . and on . . . and on.
Oh, and did I mention that I’m claustrophobic? You might just as well slide me into a casket full of spiders as ask me to sleep in a small tent and a tight sleeping bag.
So I stayed in my little tent of horrors as long as I could, then I left Anita and went out to face the freezing night alone. The sky was clear and ablaze with stars. The North Star was as brilliant as I have ever seen it, and I could swear the stars of Ursa Major were winking at me. The wide-open stillness of the scene was beautiful – and a refreshing change from the smothering closeness of the tent I had just left. But it was also cold – oppressively cold – and I knew I needed to find some way to keep warm or I would be forced to dive back into the tent and risk being swallowed alive by my boa bag.
Shivering, I wandered around the camp and found myself standing near the fire pit. Of course I didn’t have any matches or anything else with which to build a fire (that would require, you know, planning and foresight and good camping skills and stuff), but I thought I could see a few glowing embers remaining from the fire we had enjoyed earlier in the evening. I found a stick and poked at the embers, and they flickered invitingly. I laid the stick against the embers and immediately it began to smoke.
“Come on, baby, light my fire!” I muttered.
Hey, you’re liable to do anything – even channel Jim Morrison – when you’re cold and claustrophobic.
From within the smoke I could see a small flame burning on the tip of my stick. The flame grew as it engulfed more of the stick, and I began racing around the camp to find more wood. Within a few minutes a nice little fire was burning, which did wonders for my cold hands.
But it did even more for my shivering spirit. There’s something about looking into the dancing flames of a campfire that exhilarates and calms – simultaneously. I kept the fire stoked for the rest of the night (much to the chagrin of Anita, who, it turns out, awakened and spent the biggest part of the night wondering if her wacky husband had finally lost it and was howling at the stars with the coyotes). And when the morning sun began painting the surrounding mountaintops with soft light I felt a surge of energetic elation knowing that the night was over.
And I had survived.
As we continued to trek our way around the mountains on a beautiful clear, warm day it occurred to me that there are times for all of us when life seems cold and dark and oppressive, and we find ourselves alone – shivering and fearful. If we can just find something to cling to long enough to help us make it through such times – something like the fire of faith – eventually a new day will dawn with new warmth, new energy and new light.
And we will survive.
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— © Joseph Walker
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