Life with Jesus

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

Last August, my little family met my parents in Estes Park. We have done this trip every couple of years since I was a kid. We stay in cabins and hike and explore and breathe in the fresh mountain air. COVID made things a little different, but we were just happy to escape Dallas for a moment.

In the search for things that we could do socially distanced, I came across All Terrain Vehicle rentals. No one in my family had ever done this so we thought, “What the hey?!” and reserved a four-seater for a morning.

The orientation was basically just a list of things that you could do to the ATV and get charged.

  • Leave the trail? $600
  • Make a scratch larger than a credit card? $250
  • Use high gear? $100
  • Breathe wrong? $25

And then he told this awful story about how this guy was doing doughnuts in his ATV and it flipped over and severed his wife’s arm and she bled out and died right there in the middle of his circular tire tracks.

Okay. Go have fun, guys!

On our way to the trailhead, my dad almost drove the car off a cliff when I revealed that our 4 hour rental had cost $350 and then he wouldn’t stop making dad jokes about wanting champagne and a charcuterie board during our ATV experience. Which trail takes us to the spa? Excuse me, sir. When do we get to pick out our complementary diamond bracelets? HYUCK. HYUCK.

The orientation scared the shit out of us so we probably didn’t take advantage of the full range of awesomeness that the ATV offered. The Kid certainly didn’t think so. This is boring. Go faster! Once he suggested that I do a wheelie, we took any hope of him getting to drive the thing off the table.

The “advanced” trails had warnings like “One way, very steep, rocky descent with drop off” that made my dad and I shit our pants in fear so we stuck to the easier trails.

Being that none of us had ever done it before, we didn’t know what to expect. Riding in an ATV is basically like a dusty, really bumpy roller coaster (but not as fast). The crappy roads just mean that you bounce back and forth like a rag doll, while your boobs slap you in the face. I don’t really get the appeal. We knew after about an hour in that we weren’t going to want to do this for three more hours.

There were geocaches around. I haven’t written a post about geocaching yet but it’s a hobby I picked up during COVID. You use an app on your phone to guide you to little containers that people have hidden all over (literally). Sometimes, there are some goodies, like erasers or Pogs, but there’s always a log that you have to sign. There are all types of geocaches that you can find.

I had scoped out some geocaches that were unreachable except by the ATV trails and so I suggested that we try to find a cool one whose description said it was in a cave. A cave in Colorado? We gotta see this!

So we parked the ATV and my trusty phone said that the cache was a mere .2 miles from where we were. In Texas, .2 miles means you can walk there in like 6 minutes so I really thought that it would be no big deal. .2 miles in Colorado when you’re off trail basically makes you feel like Survivorman. We kept coming upon these rock formations and we thought, “This has to be it” but alas, like a mirage, the GPS marker on my little screen indicated that we still had some walking to do. At one point, I plopped down on a rock, trying to figure out where we should be headed and then I just kept descending down slippery hills covered in pine needles, scrabbling for tree roots to slow my fall. My dad kept yelling out, convinced that I had tumbled over the edge to my death (silently?). We all got to a point where we agreed that we would try to get down to one more rock formation and if the cave wasn’t there, then we were just going to turn around in failure.

Fortunately, we were lucky and we finally rounded a corner onto a cave that backpackers use occasionally. It was WORTH IT, friends. So many weird things, like a James Patterson book in a tupperware container, a tea kettle, canned ham, everything you could possibly need for a night in the mountains.

Well, it was worth it until it was time for us to turn around and go back up .2 miles to the ATV. The terrain was so steep that it was quite literally take 10 steps and breathe. The Kid and I hadn’t brought our water (it was just .2 miles, right?) so it was quite an effort to return to the ATV.

I would have rather stayed in the valley, content to chill in my little cave eating canned meat and reading a waterlogged James Patterson novel.

***

Someone asked me about Atheism for Lent recently. Remember that I did that? It will come as a surprise to no one that I didn’t actually finish because 2020 happened and punched us all in the gullet.

As I tried to articulate an answer to this person about my faith currently, I started to panic a little. Currently, my faith feels like….nothing. I’m not doing the frantic searching that I was, not concerned with what is the RIGHT way to believe. It feels strange, to not have this clammering gong in my head that says ‘YOU MUST BE SEARCHING!’

I loved church camp as a kid. Every summer, I looked forward to Ceta Canyon- the worship, the traditions, the friends! But mostly, I loved that I felt close to God. In my prayer journals in the weeks following camp, I would lament that I was no longer on the “mountaintop” where I felt closest to God. I just knew that good, righteous Christians felt that way all the time.

Truthfully, I spent most of my religious life trying to claw my way to the mountaintop, to reclaim that feeling of being close to God. In an anxious frenzy, I spent my time scrambling to be righteous, to be good, to be right, only to find that every time I thought I was cresting the summit, to look beyond and see another summit.

In Christian-land, the valley usually symbolizes bad things- darkness, death, distance from God. I knew that going down the mountain, instead of up, was not GOOD. I clambered up to avoid the downhill slide.

I don’t think I realized how tired I was.

Atheism for Lent was about challenging yourself to purposefully descend. It was heading down into the valley and facing whatever was down there instead of bloodying myself trying to avoid it.

Strangely, the valley is not so bad. Once I descended, I found a cave, with enough canned ham to last me a while, a quiet stream for water, a place out of the rain.

So, here I am.

It’s funny how long I was afraid of the valley- the valley of the shadow of death. I did whatever I could to avoid the valley, trying instead to make it to the elusive summit so I could be with God.

And yes, there’s death down here in the valley but I never considered that maybe things need to die. While I’ve been resting and bird watching and doing anything except summiting a mountain, I’ve felt a new kind of freedom. Here I sit, not doing anything to be a better believer, some days not even believing in God (or at the very least, worrying about it), and I’ve never felt more at peace.

Isn’t that strange?

I thought that I had to kill myself, give myself blisters, climb until my hands were bloodied to find peace. And now that I’ve let that thought die, I’ve found what I was looking for.

I don’t know that I’ll stay in the valley forever. Being here makes me wonder what other kinds of things are out there in the world of faith. Maybe it’s not just mountains and valleys. Maybe there are also deserts and jungles and fjords and icebergs. When I move on from the valley, it won’t be with anxiety. It will be with a sense of wonder about all of the things I haven’t discovered yet.

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