I don’t know if I’m going to get off this mountain. . .
The heat of midsummer had spread across the stark expanse of northwestern New Mexico on the day I found myself driving northeast towards the town of Chama. The monolith of Shiprock loomed far away to my left, standing sentinel-like over a land where, in the words of Willa Cather, “the earth was the floor of the sky.” I was on my way to join two old friends for a camping trip into the San Juan mountains just on the other side of the Colorado state line, with U2 as the soundtrack of choice. It was a subconscious choice to continue looping the song “40”, listening to Bono quote from the Psalm of the same number, “I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry” and “You have set my feet upon a rock / And made my footsteps firm.” I wouldn’t recognize the significance of this foreshadowing until several days later, sitting on the side of a mountain with my face drenched in tears and my brain completely incapable of moving my legs another inch.
I would be lying if I said it was an easy matter to relate the following story. To be sure, it is difficult for most of us to volunteer our weakness to audiences beyond the relative safety of our closet walls. However, I fear that I am especially protective of that safety—at least, when it comes to supposed mental toughness—because of the preexisting physical limitations already placed on me in the form of congenital heart disease. I’ve spent most of my life having to square with the fact that some weaknesses are impossible to hide, yet believing that because of this, I should redouble my efforts to conceal all of the others. I have always been terrified of becoming that guy who cracks when the chips are down. Though not always successful, I have sought to develop a moderate degree of mental toughness for the entirety of my adult life; and where actual toughness has been lacking, a masquerade has usually sufficed. But both toughness and masquerade deserted me on a Saturday in the southern Rockies, leaving me in the helpless throes of both mental and physical weakness, the likes of which I had never before encountered.
Our destination was Elk Creek, a snow-fed rivulet known for its excellent trout fishing. My friend John had wanted to fish there for nearly a decade, and he had invited me and our friend Parker to join in the fun. We had all been friends in college, the two of them serving as role models for the earnest mess that was freshman and sophomore me. John, in particular, has been something of an older brother ever since I subjected him to the first of many lamentations on life, love, and the lack of. In short, it promised to be a memorable trip.
We hiked several miles into the mountains to the meadow where we would set up our camp, each carrying a pack of gear and cracking jokes along the way. The trail narrowed as we marched on, sandy and somewhat slippery in many places and punctuated by mini rock slides several score yards apart. I fell several times, though not dramatically, finding myself a bit unnerved by the shaky footing and the number that the altitude and my pack were doing on my already low endurance. However, we made it to our camp without incident by mid-afternoon and proceeded to begin casting our lines, all the while reveling in the bliss of having passed from a chaotic world into a land of myth in a mere matter of hours.
That sense of wonder characterized the next two days in that valley, the elusive trout and not-so-elusive mosquitos notwithstanding. After eating a hearty lunch on Saturday, we broke camp, said goodbye to that little slice of paradise, and beat our way back up the rather steep hill that led to the trailhead. I was already exhausted by this point, but didn’t dare admit it to John and Parker, who moved on up ahead while I slowed down to catch my breath. The trail became more precipitous in another hundred yards, and it was at this point that the panic attack began.
What followed over the next ninety minutes was an experience wholly foreign to me. I’ve had dear friends describe their own panic attacks, but I had never had any similar experience from which to empathize. As I looked over the edge of the trail my stomach started seizing up, my already-rubbery legs turned into a pair of iron weights, and the tears started trickling out of my eyes. What is happening?
I sat down, attempted to calm myself by muttering the Twenty-third Psalm. Give yourself a minute, Williams. You can gut through this. Ten minutes later…nothing. My feet felt even heavier than before and at this point I was full-on sobbing. I don’t know if I’m going to get off this mountain. Five more minutes…Maybe I can crawl.
Crawl I did, slowly, painfully, every second begging God that a fellow hiker would not round the bend to witness my humiliation. None did, but eventually I had to run into John and Parker, who had paused to rest and let me catch up. “You don’t look good,” greeted John, at which point I dropped onto the top of the cooler and buried my face in my hands.
Surely, I thought, surely this is enough humiliation. Maybe I can go on from here. I started up and took one look down the ravine before everything began seizing up again. This time, the voice in my head was shouting. I’m not going to get off this mountain. I’m not going to get off this mountain. I tried to fight it, but my gut was too honest to lie to me: You’ve snapped, Williams. You can’t muscle your way through this one. There is no toughing this one out.
It was at this moment that I knew there would be no returning to the trail before embracing the breakdown for what it was. And loathe as I was to assume any gut feelings were a direct order from the Holy Spirit, I was fairly sure that this order was freshly delivered from God Himself.
And so I broke. First, crying harder than I had already cried that day, then crying harder than I had in my entire life. It was as if every memory of fear, of smallness, of “not being strong enough” returned in a single whirlwind to the forefront of my mind, finding utterance in the sobs that were shaking my hunched frame. John started praying and then Parker, somehow drowning out the anguish of my arrogance being subjected to the hammer of God. Eventually, amidst all of my blubbering, the most wretched confessions of pride and insecurity poured forth, stumbling out of my mouth and down the ravine that had so recently conquered me. Amidst this veritable landslide of penitence, tears of fear somehow became tears of contrition, the last resort of a feeble man who was finally yielding to the truth that it was quite alright—nay, even the very best thing—for him to declare his abject weakness and insufficiency to the world.
If you are picking up on a few Gospel parallels at this point, you’ll begin to understand some of the thoughts that began running through my head as I blinked back the last vestiges of the tears and watched Parker quietly hoist my pack over his own. John, in turn, first helped me to stand up, and then trailed my walking stick behind him for me to grasp, thus linking my steps to his. And so they led me—still shaking, sniffling, and unsure—half step by little half step, all the way back down the rest of the trail. Never have I done anything in such an enfeebled state. Never have I gripped something as hard as I gripped that staff.
I would completely understand if this story sounds at least a bit melodramatic. Many folks would have found that trail and that mountain far less intimidating than I did, and perhaps even I would find it so if I returned there now. But for that day, they were the site and catalyst for a much-needed breaking point, a wall upon which I crashed but could not break through. They were a loud reminder that mere awareness of my weakness was useless as long as I insisted upon covering it up with facades of strength—as long as I insisted before God and everyone else that I was the one who would set my feet upon the Rock. It was thus a mercy of God to have that Rock shatter such delusions of both mental and physical strength.
Yet the mercy did not end here. Having first broken, it now restored, making that great slab of Rocky Mountain granite an Ebenezer to an hour when Psalm Forty took on the flesh of my own story, an hour when the Lord inclined to my helpless cry and made firm the footsteps of both body and soul. Thus, I must echo David’s praise throughout the rest of the chapter—singing forth this new song of glad deliverance and unrestrained mercy:
“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry. . .
You have set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.”
Thanks be to God.
Photo by Breanna Galley on Unsplash