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Monday, April 28, 2008

Chapter 7 - "the badlands"

As we busted through the border separating North Dakota from Minnesota it felt like I was thrusting my chest forward to rip through the tape in a relay race. Almost immediately the landscape changed into something entirely Big Western. Mid-Western seemed flat, sometimes hilly, but always predictable. The country into which we moved wasn’t called the “Badlands” for nothin’.

It had an attitude...like bad, bad Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole %$#@ town. A junk yard dog-type of feel. I felt like I was in a Western movie, 410 to Yuma or something with Clint Eastwood in a cowboy hat. It’s amazing how the simple sight of the Wild West can catapult you into a feeling of playing Cowboys and Indians in your neighborhood as a kid. The canyons were wide and unfeeling, jagged and unforgiving. There wasn’t any soft side to this scene, no sensitive grassy knolls on which to spread a picnic blanket and throw a Frisbee. No pavilions for family reunions or swing sets to keep the kids occupied while the adults did some sight seeing. Nope. This place couldn’t have been further from civilization.

Funny enough, there was an exit approaching off of which was a rest area overlooking the “Painted Hills”. We pulled off and there wasn’t a soul in sight. In fact, the rest area was shut down and covered with goose poop, buffalo feces, untamed weeds and get this, tumbleweed. That’s right, 100% natural organic tumbleweed rolling across the abandoned parking lot. We pulled the truck off the side of the road in front of the fenced off area, relieved ourselves next to the truck, and then made our way through a gap in the fence into what appeared to be an old historical site named after F.D. Roosevelt. Apparently, he sectioned off a plot of land and declared it hallowed ground for one reason or another. As we crested the hill, it became quite clear why he did such a thing. It was breathtaking.

The hills were just what they were called, “Painted”…they were carved out like God took his index finger and gouged out deep caverns and sweeping ravines as far as the eye could see. It then looked like God dipped a paintbrush into the most brilliant oranges and reds you could imagine and splashed them on the freshly carved rocks leaving them refined and rustic all at the same time. They reflected the sunlight back at your retina with a radiance that made your eyes squint in order to focus. It was the first time I felt that my eyes needed to adjust to the vast landscape. My lenses just weren’t trained to be needed for such immense and expansive scenery. Initially, I felt my eyes straining to reconfigure, modify and reboot. I can’t explain to you adequately this visual sensation, but I know what I felt, and it felt like my eyes were saying, “I haven’t been tested like this in a long time, hang on, let me dig deep and see what I have packed away that I haven’t needed to this point.” It took several minutes of narrowing my eyes and then widening them over and over again as if to wake them up to this new and glorious discovery, the discovery that creation is bigger than you can take in sometimes. Most of creation has been broken up into city blocks and county plots and 45 acre farms and 200 acre fields of hay or corn or beans. Ponds and little lakes and slender rivers make up the bulk of the heart of America. It’s green and gregarious, manageable and tamed by society. All the sudden you’re telling your eyes to wrap around what can’t be described as anything but infinite. Transcendent.

As my eyes began to adjust, it was like looking through binoculars and finally lining up your eye balls with the tiny glass lenses, getting the two separate pictures to coalesce into one large circle. From there it was sheer ecstasy. My eyes surveyed the aesthetic brilliance of every curve and protrusion, every sharp drop off and gradual shift in rock formation. As I was taking it all in, my friend spoke into the wordless moment, “There’s a buffalo!” At first I couldn’t make out the creature down in the valley between two rock faces. Then finally I caught a glimpse of the ugly, mane of that cow-like creature and stared at it like it was Elvis. You see, I’ve never seen a buffalo in the wild. It’s hard to say how seeing an animal in its natural habitat makes you feel, but put it this way, it’s entirely different than seeing them pent up in the zoo with chlorinated water and rocks made out of chiseled, stained cement. He was just grazing like a normal cow minding his own business. He wouldn’t be the last buffalo we would see in the wild.

The wind was briskly blowing against our beaming faces. It was about 35 degrees. I felt like I could have stayed there for days, but Montana summoned us onward. We turned to leave the vacant national park and I turned to catch one more glimpse of the beauty. Needless to say, that tired feeling I was fighting off only a half an hour earlier seemed to dissipate like a misty cloud. I felt like a new man, ready to conquer the North Dakotan highway.

Little did I know what I was in for…

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chapter 6 - "staying awake"

I don’t know if I’ve shared this or not yet, but we were geared up for about a 30 hour trip, that is if we drove through the night non-stop. Needless to say, the 6 hour hold up only served to make the already death-defying trip that much more torturous. Driving through Minnesota was akin to having a root canal while also having your planter’s warts on your feet removed with a dull, rusty scalpel. It seemed that the bulk of my energy went toward just “staying awake”. I didn’t know how much mental fortitude it took to try to keep your body from dozing off. It’s harder than running a marathon at some point.

The concentration, the Lamaze-sort of focus, the hallucinations, the little games you play with road signs and the measuring system in the top hand corner of your world atlas to figure out how far you’ve come and how much further you have to go…this kind of stuff gets borderline psychotic when you’re over-tired and under-fed. I can’t say as I was under-fed completely, I just mean that I wasn’t feeding myself with good food that stabilizes your immune system and provides nourishment for the vitals that are working hard to keep you alive. I was cramming my gullet full of things like salted peanuts, pickled bologna, Gatorade, potato chips, chewy Sprees, Gobstoppers, beef jerky and mini-carrots. It was getting old real fast.

Oh, back to staying awake. I can’t begin to tell you how demoralizing it was to think you were getting closer to North Dakota only to find that you had 200 miles to go. The sinking feeling in your gut is measurable. Thoughts run through your mind like, “This can’t be. I could swear we’ve already been in Minnesota for what seems like a week.” The ruminations only serve to burden your eyelids like 45 pound plates slid onto a weight bar at the YMCA. It only makes matters worse when you’re feeling this greasy sludge coat your body like the morning dew. A film of cheesy oil covers your face starting with your forehead and working it’s way over the remaining exposed skin and on into the places where skin is rubbing against skin like your armpits, etc. You want to take a shower almost reflexively, but a shower seems so far away from the proximity of possible. As your eyes glaze over and your mind starts to eat itself, it’s funny how paralyzing life becomes all the sudden. It starts to set in that you can’t just have what you want, when you want it. Beyond that, you’re forced to start accepting the fact that you are only going to get what you don’t want and you’re left to figure out a way of making due with that reality. You also begin to connect with the fact that you are a long way from home, and going back isn’t an option. That’s weird, and it’s probably why a lot of people never go far from home. I call it the “just-in-case” theory of living ruled by the “what if…” questions that leash you to a lesser life and tether you to a small world-view. I was feeling that subtle theory being tested.

You don’t say this stuff out loud, because in many cases, you don’t have good thoughts about what’s happening that lead to good words to describe the reality. But something profound is being raked over the refining coals of adventure, and it’s an undoing that you can tell ahead of time won’t stop until you’re undone. And I don’t know anybody that likes to be undone. Isaiah mentions that in the sixth chapter of his journal, and it doesn’t sound appealing…though you can’t argue with the results of giving into it.

As I fought to stay awake…I realized that this was why I was on this trip to begin with. I’d been fighting to stay awake in life for quite some time in my heart and it was necessary for me to figure out a way to stay awake my whole life. My heart was hitting rumble strips for the last couple of months and those pestering little notches carved in the pavement of my spiritual journey were telling me something I just had to respond to or else.

As I harnessed all of the energetic capacity of my faculties in the last hour of my driving stint, my eyes caught a sign that released another shot of adrenaline into my blood stream. Welcome to North Dakota! The only state in between us and the state of Montana. The place I was staying awake to get to. The place that my heart needed to see in order to stay awake in this journey called life. It was enough adrenaline to keep me awake for 15 more minutes. Enough minutes strung together to get us to what are known as the “Painted Hills” or the northern stretch of the “Badlands”. 15 minutes was all I needed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Chapter 5 - "breakdown"

We made our way through Illinois and on into Wisconsin. I must say that the aesthetic scenery wasn’t keeping my head from bobbing in the passenger seat. It’s the kind of land that makes you feel like you’re watching a video loop. Every now and again there’d be something that would catch my eye, but mostly I just felt like time was dragging and my eyelids were heavier than molten lead.

It came time for me to take the wheel and give my buddy a chance to get some shut-eye. We had converted the extended cab into a nice little bunk. It was just short enough that you had to bend your knees slightly to fit, another inch and you could have sprawled out without that small and annoying little knee-bend. But it was better than sitting upright and trying to find a comfortable position leaning against the door or the head rest. So I shouldn’t complain.

After filling up at a gas station, I climbed into the driver’s seat and got acquainted with the clutch and the stick shift while adjusting the review mirror. It had been a couple years since my last manual transmission encounter, and it usually takes me a couple minutes to get to know a vehicle’s personality. This truck had some low gears that didn’t even need to be used. You could have just about started in third gear, but I never did. I jerked myself forward in that sensitive first gear. I couldn’t ever quite get used to the hair trigger response of that dang gear. Time and time again, I would try my best to start with a gentle and gradual movement, but no matter how slow and methodical I was, it would prematurely engage and yank us forward like we were hauling a hay wagon with a loose chain. I got a little better as the days wore on, but I can honestly say I never did master that temperamental vehicle.

As I put the truck into cruise control, dusk fell on the monotonous landscape and eventually gave into the darkness. Because of bypassing my traditional Sunday afternoon nap, my mind and body were weary beyond words leaving me less than poised to get us through Wisconsin and into Minnesota. But I used every technique I knew to keep my eyelids pried open. Shaking my head, listening to my Ipod, singing music, praying prayers, opening the window for some fresh air…you name it. I hit the rumble strips several times which sent this adrenaline through my blood stream waking me up for about a minute or two until my head started jerking around like a bobble head once again.

After about two or three hours of dreadful driving, I saw a dashboard light flicker momentarily. At first I wondered if it had been doing that all along and I just became aware of it. But as it flashed on and off, I had a feeling this was a new little dysfunction. I turned around and woke Doug up asking him if this mishap was anything to be worried about. It was the battery light and I knew what that probably meant because I remembered having this happen to me a while back just before my car died leaving me stranded and ticked. He acknowledged that this was a new misfortune and said that we should probably stop and get it checked out…so I did. We stopped at a truck stop, the kind where you can take a shower, do laundry, grab a greasy burger and talk with other truckers around the clock. They had a mechanic shop connected to the operation, so we coaxed a greasy man to check our alternator. Doug climbed up into the engine and hooked some little clamps to the battery and a ground looking for irregularities. There were none to be found, but the little flashing battery light begged to differ. “who knows, maybe there’s nothing wrong and the fuse is jacked up or the communications computer is trippin’.” That’s what I thought inside my brain.

Doug decided to drive again and I tried to catch a cat nap in our little makeshift bunk. It seemed like it wasn’t long before I felt Dough pulling off the highway again. I knew something must be the matter, cause we weren’t on the road for long. He mentioned that the lights seemed to be dimming and that the battery gauge was falling. After hitting a gas station and asking where a Ford dealership was, we were delighted to find that it was about two miles down the road. It was about 2 in the morning, so the dealership wouldn’t be open until 7:30am, but it would give us a place to park until the morning.

We drove down the road and saw that the dealership was next to a hotel…perfect! “God is so good”, my heart mused. You know, all these phrases fill your mind when you realize that God caused the battery to die at an exit where there was a dealership available to care for the unique needs of this Ford (Found On Road Dead) truck. We turned to take a side road that led to the parking lot of this dealership and the truck died just as we turned onto this road. I mean, it croaked. It wouldn’t even turn over. We sat in the middle of the road about a thousand feet from the desire destination, my buddy was torked. He decided to walk to the hotel and get a room for the night, but what he didn’t realize was that the sign that appeared to be a hotel was only a sign pointing to a hotel that was about a half a mile down a side road. So he decided to walk the remaining distance only to find that the hotel was closed when he finally got there. He has a bum knee, so he was limping pretty bad when he finally got back to the truck.

He decided to call a towing company and get pushed to the dealership. About 45 minutes later, a truck showed up and pushed us down the road to the parking lot we called home for the night. It was about 30 degrees outside and we had no heat. I bundled up in the back and did my best to stay warm. I heard that if you get naked before you get in your sleeping bag you stay warmer, but I couldn’t bring myself to heed that old wives’ tale, so I stayed fully clothed and risked misery. I couldn’t believe how well I slept even under the less than ideal circumstances. When I finally woke up, there was two inches of snow on the truck and I could see my breath. My nose was freezing as I scrunched up my top lip to stop the steady flow of snot oozing out of my stiff nostrils.

An employee finally got there and was gracious enough to get us in right away when he heard our pitiful story. An hour and 500 bucks later, we were on our way. It was Monday morning in Minnesota and we had a long day of travel ahead. We stopped off to McDonalds, grabbed an egg McMuffin, an orange juice and a hash brown. I was so hungry. It tasted so very good. And with that, we were on our way once again.

The adventure had already begun and I was happy for the dicey detour.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chapter 4 - "the city of simpli-city"

We made our way across Michigan via Rt. 196 toward Chicago. Along the way, we talked about leaving the shores of normalcy and setting our sails toward abnormalcy (not a word, by the by). As the pickup truck carried us along, the vibrating hum of the new tires and the purr of a diesel at 65 mph almost put me into a trance. Time was flying by as we talked about the anticipation of our hearts and the reasons why breaking away from status quo feels so invigorating. As we hit the congestion of downtown Chicago, I was amazed at the glut of humanity crammed into such a small space. Millions and Billions of acres of wild country out there and people trade it for stand still traffic slogging through smog and smutty billboards.

And here’s the thing, I love the city. The hyperactivity and the convenience and the architecture and the cultural artistry have a gravitational pull on my heart, but lately, I’ve become bored with the fast paced, trendy pressure of our modern culture. Everything is rooted in the addictive drug of change…as a result, values like loyalty and rest and faithfulness are seen as old school dinosaurs. That’s why the older I get, the more I think that my favorite city is simpli“city”. A life unencumbered with distractions and diversions. A life filled with simple joys and simple things. A life that has been taught to take pleasure in things overlooked because of there smallness. It’s an acquired taste, you know. It’s the difference between cool-aide and aged wine.

So as we slowly made our way through the heart of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think that it was a picture of everything that was starting to gut my life of what really mattered. A visual of what I was hoping to leave behind for a few days. A visceral moment that juxtaposed the life of complexity and simplicity perfectly. And I was in the emotional space to take it in. To absorb it into the center of my being.

So what city are you living in lately? Simplicity or Hecticity (again, not a word, but I couldn’t find the one I was looking for). Do you ever wonder if God is calling you into the wilderness? A place to breathe. A place to evaluate. A place to wonder. A place of wonder. No matter where we live these days, it’s the equivalent of Chicago. Because the television and the internet bring the city into our homes even if we live in the country. The noise, the breakneck pace, the over-stimulation, the multi-tasking, the pressure to be hip, the taunting and tempting voice of this world telling you that you need to conform to fit the norm. I’m just wondering if there’s anyone else out there that is musing about this sort of thing?

Simplicity…yes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chapter 3 - "huffing gas"

What do you do if you're a pastor with the weekend services staring you in the face, and yet, deep within, you know that right after church you're leaving for Montana? How do you concentrate on what you're responsible for? How do you not daydream in the middle of your message? How do you stay interested in conversations about weather and when you're woolgathering about wildlife and the life of the wild? You don't.

I remember drifting off in one of the three services never to return, not really. I mean my body was still in tact, by my spirit had run for the hills. Nothing seemed important in comparison to the tantilizing trip. Nothing captured my attention, I was pre-occupied with "gladness of heart" as it says in Eccl. 5. Completely bewitched by the thought of the unknowns just around the bend of the pastoral duties, the ministerial mayhem. I could almost taste it...

The last service came to an end and after a couple conversations, I hurried toward my car in excitement. I had to pack my belongings and meet up with my travelling comrade at 2:00pm...I had little time to trifle with superfluous conversation, or to linger in the church coffee shop sipping brew and shooting the breeze...I was on a mission...a Montana mission. I was in every way Missional.

At home, I scarfed down some grub and looked out my front window waiting for Doug's red truck to make its way into my pot-holed driveway. I had my face pressed up against the window pane like a little boy waiting for his dad to get home from work so that he could go fishing. I felt young again...really young of heart. I felt the same feelings I used to get riding my bike to Breitbeck Park to play little league at age 9 for the American Legion. I felt the same emotions I used to get walking up the front porch steps of some stranger to ask them if I could shovel their driveway for money. I felt the same racing of my heart that accompanied me when I was getting ready to go to Disney Land and we were going to leave really early in the morning before dawn. So I'm standing there with a 33 yr. old body and a 9 year old soul. It has been a long time since I've brushed up against these euphoric emotions. Way too long.

This moment was etched into my soul even more profoundly due to the tardiness of Doug in getting there. He pulled in at precisely 2:24pm...24 minutes that felt like 24 hours. 24 minutes that felt like I was holding my breath. 24 minutes wondering if this was actually going to happen of if I had only dreamed it up. 24 minutes of watching, waiting, wondering. And then, as if in slow motion, the red Ford pickup truck rounded my mailbox and glided to a stop in the middle of my driveway. It was a Diesel engine, purring and knocking and grinding like Diesel engines do. I love the smell of the exhaust...there is something about it that makes me feel like I'm on a farm, even if I'm at the mall. It reminds me of tractors and hay and silos and silage. As I hauled my luggage and bedding out the extended cab, the intoxicating aroma of burning diesel filled my lungs giving me a mild buzz. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and packed my junk in the back on the pickup. (if you're wondering why I'm making such a fuss about the smell of fuel, old habits die hard...I'm a recovering gas huffer from my childhood. I lost some serious brains cells over my gassy addiction. I supposed it's sort of like a smoker that gets around second hand smoke and feels something inside leap and lurch toward the hovering cloud, or an recovering alchoholic feeling saliva glands excreting spit at the sight of a shinny brown bottle of Bud Light. It's just like that, but it's gasoline that casts that sort of spell over my being...anyway, back to the story).

I had way too much stuff. I had a massive suitcase with the girly handle and rollers and that had to go. I brought way to much bedding. I even had my fan ready to be hoisted into the back, which would have made little difference since we didn't have electricity where we were going to power the fan. (I can't hardly sleep without a fan, but I'll wait to explain the effects of fanless nights until later...) I took some of my stuff back into the house and consolidated my belongings into essentially two bags instead of four. I left behind all the amenities, the luxuries of life. I took the bare necessities--I say necessities, but even things like toothpaste and deoderant, I learned, can be thrown overboard in comparison to the basic human needs--and with that, we climbed into the front seat and kissed the commonplace of my everyday existance goodbye. Something that felt quite barbaric, which only shows how civilized my heart truly is.

As we backed out the driveway and headed due west, I heard my heart say inside my chest, "Welp, ready or not here we go." And it was the very wonderment of my readiness that made the whole experience worthwhile in the first place. "For this I was made", whispered my heart. "I hear ya'." I mumbled under my breath. "I finally hear ya'."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Chapter 2 - "blacktop"

When you go out in search for yourself, you aren't looking for a look-alike, you're actually looking for a look-nothing-like. You're hoping to find a piece of yourself that you barely recongnize because you've met so few times. You're hoping to brush up against sights and smells and sounds that introduce you to a part of yourself that is unrecognizable, yet feels so familiar all the same.

I have a feeling that my heart wasn't created to know how to live in the world that has slowly and methodically come to be. I don't ever remember hearing in the creation narrative, "And God said, 'Let there be blacktop!' And behold long winding roads emerged covering fertile ground and fragrent grass. And he saw that it was good." Cement, sheetrock, smog, hanging wires, sidewalks and florescent curbs, parking lots and prefab homes, vehicles in congested traffic, cell towers and telephone poles, shopping malls...all these and more congest our landscape with "population pollution". You can barely turn around without bumping into something man-made. And though there are some pretty cool man-made inventions, they don't compare to God-made beauty. The heart knows this even when it's raised within the confines of cultural clutter. It pines for the pines. It feels drawn to life outside the world we've created, the world God created. Like Truman in the "Truman Show", we long for Figi and we don't know why. We have to get out. We are wild about the wild. At least I am.

And though I find solace in certain pleasures of the industrial revolution and the modern age, a large part of my heart is restless for the West, a place of vast, virgin soil and undisturbed, unadulterated landscape. This becomes my obsession as the time drawns near for me to go in search for myself out there in the wilderness of Montana.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Chapter 1 - "looking for myself"

“I need to go and find myself.” I’m not sure who came up with this expression, but I’ve always been drawn to it. In some ways, it makes no sense that you have to go somewhere to find yourself, because physically you’re always with yourself. And yet, I’ve always felt that there is a part of me I haven’t met before because my surroundings don’t require that part of me to function, necessitate those hibernating regions of my heart. I’m never more myself than when I’m venturing out in search for what calls forth new responses from new reservoirs within. This is what Jesus was insinuating when he said, “Unless you lose yourself, you can forget finding yourself. But when you stay put, content in your findings, you lose yourself.” And I sense that I “lose my life” when I’m content with what I’ve found. I lose it a piece at a time. A slow leak. A subtle loss of heart. It’s soul killing.

Losing heart. All these little descriptive phrases that we humans spout off when we’re looking for words to describe feelings are telling. We say them because they feel good to get off our chest. When we say that we’re losing heart, there is a pressure released in verbalizing it that way that simply saying, “I’m not doing well” doesn’t convey. Losing heart is exactly what happens to the person who forgets he or she has one. Losing heart happens while we’re living life. We could be enjoying success and losing heart. We could be making money and losing heart. We could be changing the world and losing heart. Because the heart doesn’t play by the rules. It doesn’t simply heel to our commands and follow our bodies around like a well-trained lap cat. The heart has a life unto itself. It enjoys things that don’t make sense. It veers toward activities that don’t always lead to safety. It questions things that everyone else assumes correct. It finds joy in things that don’t lead to affluence. It messes things up. Pascal says that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of”. I think he’s on to something there.

And so when I thought about Montana, I felt parts of my heart twitch that had laid limp for only God knows how long. And the funny thing was that the more it didn’t make sense for me to go, the more I wanted to. It’s that kind of lopsided logic that makes you do silly things. Silly things that save your life.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

"Talking to Dogs": the Montana chronicles

I was in Montana last week, so it's been a while since I've posted any musings. I've decided to write about my week long trip in a psuedo-book format. Little chapters regarding different aspects of last weeks adventure that captured me and stirred up the stink inside me.

The title of the quasi-blog-book will be "Talking to Dogs" which comes from one encounter I had in a waiting room of sorts where a guy was literally talking to his dog like it was a person. Not only was he talking to his dog, but he was talking back to himself for his dog so as to carry on a reciprical conversation. It went on for like 10 minutes which entertained me and weirded me out all at the same time. But that is Montana...a place that is so slow paced and far removed from society that it's nothing out of the ordinary to talk matter-a-factly with dogs in public places.

I want to share this journey for several reasons, but the main one is to remember how wonderful it was to step back into time and live simply and slowly for a change. There are so many little nuances of the trip that awakened my heart. I hope the coming blogs will invite you into my expedition and my experience in a way that warms your heart and calls something out of hiding in your own heart.

Who knows how this will go...but here goes nothin'.