In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard described her (and our) journey as earth-bound travelers with,
In orbit around the sun I’m moving 64,800 miles an hour. The solar system, as a whole, like a merry-go-round unhinged, spins, bobs, and blinks at the speed of 43,200 an hour along a course set east of Hercules.
Hercules, wonder and mystery, is a constellation in the sky above. We are east of Annie Dillard’s real and imagined Hercules as we careen across the universe. We spin and bob, heading for places of wonder and mystery and discovering, sometimes, it’s not the mystery we aim for, but the mystery we discover in the moment which matters most.
Now a retired minister, I led numerous church backpacks, with journeys to places east of Hercules like Presque Isle, the Great Western Divide, the Marble Mountains, and the Appalachian Trail.
A member of one of my congregations joined a backpack to take her first steps into the wilderness. Margaret, in her seventies, was the oldest in a group of a dozen or so hikers. Together we traveled from Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows toward a lake with the plainest of names: Nelson. The group included veteran hikers. But some, like Margaret, had never hoisted weight on their backs for a sojourn into the mountains.
An avid walker and gardener, she was likely in better shape than most of her trail companions. But gaining the thousand feet in elevation from trailhead to lake after five dusty miles was far from a brisk evening saunter on the city sidewalks. However, Margaret had overhead the many coffee fellowship conversations at church about prior backpacks. She had listened intently when others recalled spectacular wildflowers blooming in a meadow or a sky glazed with orange and purple while the sun played hide-and-seek with the granite spires.
“Take me,” Margaret pleaded with me. “I want to go!”
What did conservationist John Muir say? “John the Baptist was not more eager to get all of his fellow sinners into the Jordan River than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of the mountains.”
“Take me,” Margaret had said.
I told her that wonder and mystery have prices like sweat, blisters, and sprained ankles.
“Take me,” Margaret had said.
During the morning after our night camped at Nelson Lake, on that day following those uphill miles, Margaret searched me out by the sun-dappled shoreline. Her drooped shoulders and weary eyes revealed each one of her seventy-plus years.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” she said. “All night long my heart pounded. I thought it would leap out of my chest.” She glanced toward the lake. “I thought I might die.”
It was the elevation, for the oxygen keeps thinning with each step.
It was her age, for by the end of our second decade, let alone the seventh, it’s downhill and down the drain for lung capacity.
It was exertion, for a septuagenarian can never reclaim a teenager’s energy.
“You should’ve woken me, Margaret!”
“What could you have done?” she asked with a shrug.
And just maybe, when she said that, her shoulders straightened and her eyes brightened. She had survived the night, after all. It was morning. But even so, not long before, she heard death knocking at her heart’s door.
Later that morning, for it was only a weekend hike, we retraced our mountain steps for the return home. At our last group break, a few miles from hike’s end, we munched on snacks at Elizabeth Lake, another bright blue spot with a common name. Along the trail I’d paid attention to Margaret, dreading the possibility of her falling behind. Or worse. But she kept up with everyone.
And then, for a moment around Elizabeth Lake, she disappeared.
Where was Margaret?
Suddenly, there was a splash. Margaret, now wearing a swimsuit, plunged into the lake’s snow-fed waters. At 9,500 feet in elevation, breathtakingly cold was an inadequate description about the lake’s temperature.
“Come on in!” she shouted to us.
No one joined her. Not the devil-may-care kids or the veteran adult backpackers. But we cheered her. What joy!
It would be Margaret’s first and last mountain trip. But she hadn’t wanted to ignore the wondrous lure of water, of a plunge to be baptized in the beauty of the mountains.
We journey toward and through these places of wonder and mystery, all of us heading east of Hercules. It’s the places and moments where we choose life that matter the most. Often the place—with a common or uncommon name, in our neighborhood or in the wild—is also where we are reminded that death comes, that mortality is always our companion. Will we risk the plunge? In my particular Christian tradition, one baptism is sufficient, but even after we are dried off from the first one, there will be more opportunities to make the plunge from life to death to life.
Margaret kept tending her garden and striding through the city blocks after her only backpack. But I can still hear her, with Elizabeth Lake’s water sparkling on her gray hair like Christmas tree tinsel, crying out:
“Come on in!”
Again, maybe John Muir said it best with, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”