The heart of a backpacker beats with the same timbre of an artist’s. We’re both aware that beauty isn’t extraneous; it’s necessary. Beauty encountered will not leave us untouched; creation, song, word, and aesthetic are requisite to experience the fullness of the Divine Christ and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.
Sometimes finding beauty is easy. After days immersed in a blanket of glowing sunshine, the scent of pine and moss percolating, and the sky’s constant movement, I sense God in a tangible way, and my soul comes alive with the joy and intimacy of it.
But sometimes finding beauty is not so easy.
My husband Josh and I have walked hundreds of trail miles together, and we now have countless stories of adventure—fodder for both shared reminiscing and literary metaphor.
One of our trips stands out above all others: a fourteen-day hike in the Alaskan backcountry accompanied by Josh’s brother, Joe. Himalayan-esque peaks, countless glaciers, untouched wildlife, and an occasional grizzly spotting left an impression of having been somewhere otherworldly. There was a sense of timelessness in the remote Alaskan wilderness, as the landscape seemed to pose the exact same way it would’ve thousands of years ago.
Being in a trail-less backcountry is both freeing and disconcerting. There’s every possibility available to get to a destination, but no suggested path. I tend to like suggested paths, laid out clearly with signs and borders, knowing that someone else has determined the most efficient, or safe, or delightful way for me to go. But sometimes it’s the risk of forging uncharted territory, geographically or creatively, that forces us to discover a side of ourselves we didn’t know existed.
One afternoon as the Alaskan adventure was coming to a close, we came to a decision point in our hiking. On the left, there was a clear corridor beckoning, leading to a place where we could camp by a river within a couple of hours’ hike. Off to the right, a towering butte grabbed our attention, as the map promised a pristine alpine lake on the other side.
It was unclear if we’d be able to scale up and down the structure safely to the lake, but in a Lewis and Clark spirit of discovery, we decided to head up the side of the mountain.
In less than an hour, I was perched precariously on the steep mountain terrain, my boots digging into slipping gravel. My mental state had shifted into full panic mode as a rock tumbled all the way down the sixty degree slope I’d gingerly picked my way up. Adrenaline seeped into my body generating a fiercely pumping heart and an onslaught of tears. I looked up to where my husband was situated on a rock outcropping twenty yards beyond me.
He put out his hand to beckon me, “Come on, just a few more moves and you’ll make it.”
“I can’t do it,” I protested, my lip quivering. Never volunteering to venture into situations involving the combination of heights and exposure, I was angry I’d been coaxed into this one. Even if I made it to where my husband was resting, I didn’t know how I’d get safely down. Perhaps this quest for the lake had been a mistake.
My brother-in-law, Joe, was resting on another rock well beyond me, examining wounds that sharp skree had imprinted on his limbs, a physical testament to the mountain’s superiority. He shouted down to us, “I’m going to go a little further up, to see what it looks like on the other side.”
I still hadn’t moved from the spot where I was sure I’d slide down the hill at any moment; I dug in the tips of my boots and white knuckled a couple of small boulders above me.
As my husband tried to calm me with encouragement, we heard Joe‘s voice.
“Hey guys!” he shouted from his vantage point. “We have to go back down,” he motioned with an injured hand.
I felt both terrified and relieved that our next course of action was getting off this hill that had turned me into a blubbering mess, uncharacteristic of the calm, self-controlled version of myself I like to project. We started down slowly, sliding frequently with the rocks.
When we all made it to a safe spot on the mountain, Joe shared the details of what he’d seen from the top. The lake was lovely, but we wouldn’t be able to access it from the route we had tried. He’d also spotted a majestic waterfall slightly off in the distance—one we hadn’t known was there. Joe suggested we head towards the falls to set up camp to nurse our physical and emotional wounds.
As we reached our prized destination, the spray of the rapidly flowing water baptized me into renewal, washing my dirty, tear-stained face with fresh mountain water mist.
“This outcome is more than okay,” I thought, because I encountered my vulnerability that day. I was exposed to aspects of myself I usually tried to hide: anger, fear, and faithlessness. Comprehending that I was subject to the higher force of nature gave me fresh perspective spiritually, too.
The journey is often the point. The trail bring us to sources of great beauty, but it also exposes our frailty—something we need to understand to make great art, or to have authentic relationships, or most importantly, to understand our need for salvation.
Sometimes our climbing ends with defeated descent and it feels meaningless, just like hours of writing phrases that get deleted or forging melodies that end up burned in the fires of our minds. But we move forward, not trusting in the intended destination, but in the experience that changes us into refined versions of ourselves. And it’s there we find new creativity and beauty we would never have found before, sourced out of our dependence.