In The Wilderness

Isaiah 40:3 “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Matthew 3:3 “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord make straight paths for him.’”

The New Yorker cartoon, by Robert Mankoff,  titled “A Voice Crying In the Wilderness” depicts rugged snow capped mountains far off in the distance and valleys and pine trees behind a slope where a woman stands. She is wearing a dress and has a pocket book slung over her shoulder. Her arm is up and she waving and calling out, “Get me the hell out of the wilderness!”

It made me laugh out loud. It struck me how we often talk about our “wilderness” crying out to God to notice us down here floundering about in a wilderness, sometimes of our own making, often struggling in circumstances we can only endure.

Once a year we try to catch some alone time.  New Year’s Eve’s eve found us with the opportunity for a get-away, private time to stay overnight and enjoy each other’s company. My dear husband (DH) and I had a lot of laughs just kicking around Montauk and Amagansett, having lunch together, searching the libraries for book sales, visiting Camp Hero, where we were privileged to watch an owl just waking and hunting for dinner. We scurried up and around the hill trying to stay in site of the owl. It flew gracefully from acre to acre trying to eat its kill without two gawking humans presuming to capture it on film like Wild Kingdom on location.

The next day we veered down a short road north of the railroad tracks to Napeague Harbor to what we call “Red Beach” as the sand must be loaded with so much iron that it is dark red. I was just thinking to myself how dreadfully exhausted I felt , as if someone had stolen all of my red blood cells and replaced them with molasses, and could use a nap or ten when my DH turned parked the car and turned off the engine, “Come on!” he coaxed.

I reluctantly got out of the car and tried to cheerily head down to the water’s edge. I had already gotten out of a walk in the blasted cold by staying behind to clean up the kitchen from our dinner the night before. Now there were no more excuses.

The water’s edge was a frothy ice floe with garbage strewn all about, broken balloons, and ribbon, green peppers and scallions, bottles and an alarming amount of junk all across the beach. We picked our way along looking for beach glass and watching the seagulls smash razor clams on the beach. My DH ran back to the car for my hat, the wind was blisteringly cold.

We walked and walked and crossed a small fjord where the harbor crosses into the “walking dunes” behind us. We clambered up the dune and looked across the expanse; it seemed like uncharted territory despite the carefully placed signs prohibiting vehicles of any kind.

Wading across the water we headed north along the harbor, I worried that our feet would get wet and that we’d freeze to death. Two men were in the water clamming, their bright yellow waders announcing their presence from a distance. I spotted the tracks of a gull who’d cracked open a scallop, a guide to opening mollusks without thumbs.

The land swung out to the left as we reached the end of the harbor, we could hear the intermittent shotgun fire of men who would rather cover themselves with deer urine and squat in sub zero temps,  shooting at perfectly innocent creatures, than stay at home and interact with their families.

We headed over high dunes to the other side of the promontory to Napeague  Bay. The beach was strewn with large rough-hewn logs and driftwood and star fish, frozen in place.  I starred at the smoothed tree trunks longing to lie down on it, but afraid I’d never be able to get up.

“It’s amazing that star fish are actually shaped like stars,” I said to my husband, smiling to myself at God’s cleverness.

“Too bad stars aren’t really shaped like that,” my husband commented.

We poked around for a time, looking at the abundance of shells and snails and gulls. We started heading southward along the edge of the bay. My hip was really starting to ache but I kept trudging along, well aware that I take two steps for every one of his, and my gimpy pace is about one tenth of his.

“I think we could take this route back,” DH said pointing to the long beach ahead.

“How do you know?”

“We need to get back to those dunes over there,” he told me quite confidently.

“How do you know?” I responded, squinting at the dunes that seemed worlds away.

“Come on,” he said, walking ahead. He found a large walking stick, appropriate for his height and stalked ahead of me. We were zig zagging across the sand, in an effort to find our footing. Too soft a ground was dragging us down, and too rocky a ground was tripping us up. We saw a man far in the distance with what looked like survival gear, a pop tent for sub zero climes and a cooler.

“Hey there’s a guy there, and he has a dog,” DH exclaimed.

“Good, if we get hungry we could eat the dog.” I said. This little jaunt was turning into a day long expedition and I hadn’t had lunch yet. Why do I always find myself in this position? I wondered to myself. I was so tired I could have slept on the gravel edge of Montauk Highway, and here I am traversing the wilderness! The cartoon leapt to my mind and I started to laugh.

“Get Me The Hell Out Of The Wilderness!!!” I yelled at my DH.

He laughed as well, having seen the cartoon that morning. He passed me the walking stick, “Here this will help you.”

I used it like I do my cane to support my weaker side, but it was so tall for me, making far more work than made sense.

“I think we can cross over here and start to make our way back to the car,” Dh said again.

“Really? How do you know?”

He walked up to the rise and stood there looking across the tundra, “Come here,” he said.  Having been lost in the mountains with him 27 years ago, I knew trouble when I was lost with it.

I climbed up the short rise and surveyed the landscape. I saw reeds that surely only grow in wetlands far ahead of pitch pines we’d need to cross first.  Swell.

We began to head over the dunes blazing a trail of our own. We walked east and then west, then southwest and then south east, crossing and uncrossing the shrubby and marshy areas as we needed to stay dry.

I was wondering if ticks could survive blizzards and 50 mph winds, whether or not we’d be up to our knees in frozen marsh water, as we were 27 years ago, lost in the mountains of Palm Desert. This time no one knew where we were, back  then a young Boy Scout leader had given us the wrong directions off the mountain. By the time we trudged up to our camp site, bedraggled, soaking wet, exhausted, hitch hiking back to camp, he came running up “I was just about to go to the ranger station to tell them to look for you, I told you the wrong way,” he gestured waving at a map.

My  DH must have been thinking the same thing, “Look he said. They’ve come for us,” a helicopter flew directly overhead, followed by a small plane.

“Is the plane going to drop supplies to us?” I inquired.

“I think we should go this way. We just have to get back toward that tower over there with the blinking light,” he said referring to the cell tower across the tundra, over the dune, down the shoreline, on the other side of Napeague Harbor. “As long as we keep it in sight we will get back. See?”

I thought about the name of the wilderness cartoon again, A voice in the wilderness. John The Baptist, alerting everyone to the coming of our Savior, imploring us to prepare, to shape up and be ready.  God should be the nucleus of our lives, the foundation, the edge as well. All points in between. If we can concentrate and fix our periphery on Him how more aligned would our lives be? Our wilderness would shrink, no more badlands!

We traveled up and down dunes covered with native  Bearberry (Arctostaphylus uva-ursi), something I recognized from work. I had never seen so much of it in my life! Acres and acres of it. It is very hard to propagate but a popular plant for re-vegetation projects.

I laughed out loud imagining DEC agents hiking in to arrest us, “GET OUT OF THERE! GET OUT!” they’d scream, “We’re probably trouncing on environmentally sensitive land that no one is supposed to ever be standing on!” I reported to my DH.

“I think we should go this way,” he answered.

“How do you know?” I demanded again. We were in a very soaking wet area, the native grass all pulled down in the same direction as a if a great water receded and rinsed along. “I am never following you again, THIS YEAR!” I exclaimed, knowing I was safe as it was New Year’s Eve, and I only had one more day to stick to that admonition. DH was shocked, not catching the joke.

“It’s only over there,” he motioned toward the cell tower across the harbor. And yes it was only over there, but between there and here were a myriad of heights and depths, ravines and swells, and then we’d still have to travel all the way back down the shoreline to where we’d begun.

We travelled in familiar silence, better not to discourage each other with complaint, DH about a dozen paces ahead, always waiting for me to catch up. My mind rallying my exhausted body to comply. The wilderness shrinking till we reached the fjord we crossed earlier, it was tenuous travel through mire as thick as quicksand.

We finally reached the starting point, and I read the brochure in the mail box by the park’s entrance. It turns out that staying on the suggested paths were critical. Apparently the term “walking dunes” refers to the sand itself- which “walks” or rather blows around so much that entire stands of full grown pitch pines can be underneath what looks like a sand dune. Hmmmmnnnn.  Another lesson?

Today’s wilderness will be tomorrow’s still waters, this year’s rough country will be next year’s green pasture; if we keep our focus on God, our “strong Tower”. All the cardinal points on our spiritual compass should be fixed on Him, and then we’ll never be lost in our wilderness. 

Psalm 61:3 “For You have been a shelter and a refuge for me, a strong tower against the adversary.”

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