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BOWEN COLUMN: Chapter 3: Miles to go before I sleep

We can long debate as to the first mistake we made. I’m sure some of you – our four wives in the front of that particular class – will say that even thinking about taking such a hike even for a fleeting instant was the first mistake we made. I think Roy and I will readily agree with that. Randy and Todd might not, as their ages and conditioning level triumphed ours significantly. I feel confident I can speak for Roy on this front.

But that slight possible mistake aside, the first true mistake we made – and there will be many, many more – is starting the first leg of this 67.5 mile hike in the heat of the day at 4:30 p.m., and that after two full days of traveling. Roy and Randy had driven from the Oklahoma City area, which covers a full 1200-hundred miles by the time we pulled into the Heart Lake Trailhead.

But at 4:30 p.m. Sunday evening, four ambitious hikers arrived at the southern entrance of the Heart Lake Trailhead. Our goal for that first evening was the Sheridan Trail campsite, about eight-and-a-half miles deep into the wilderness, two-and-a-half miles of that trail being down the steep side of the mountain. I did not realize it at the time, but the last leg of the trip, on day seven, we would be scheduled to make that two-and-a-half mile trek back up that steep rugged mountainside.

It was hot – Texas hot – as we grabbed our backpacks, weighing between thirty and fifty pounds (I believe Randy’s was nearer to the fifty). Our hiking poles in hand, we quickly had some nearby hikers take a picture of the four of us at the entrance of the long, hot trail, and we started out in single file. The first three miles, though hot, were mainly flat terrain. I scarcely remember any other flat terrain the rest of the way, although there was some, I know, but most of the trail I experienced over the next six days was up-hill – going and coming. I say that with a smile, but you understand.

After three miles of making our entrance into these Yellowstone Red Mountains, heading due east, we came upon the majestic Sheridan Mountain, looming 10,308 feet tall to the south. I suppose Sheridan in her glory was the one landmark that remained anchored, unmoved during the next six days. She looked down upon us every step of the way. Every morning, and evening, you would not have to go far before she would emerge from behind the forest of trees, a great symbol of strength and stability. With the trip’s serving to bring back memories of all the miles behind you, looking up at massive Mount Sheridan reminded me of the biblical Mount Zion the old prophets speak so much about. The great apostle refers to it much later, saying in his Hebrew letter, “You have to come to Mount Zion!” In biblical terms, that mount, symbolizing the church of the Lord, still stands above all others.

On the days ahead, though, our Mount Sheridan stood tall, too, serving as a tower of strength for me, perhaps for us all, as we faced the coming dangers.

At the first view of the mount as we emerged from wooded three-mile hike that introduces us to the journey, we began that treacherous three-mile hike down the slope of the Red Mountains. We had to keep a steady eye on each step and could not look up at the mountains, until we paused at a rock or a landing to rest a moment. Looking up at those towering mountains when we could, and down into the foothills, we could see God’s handiwork stretched out like a curtain. I suppose we could see as far into the distance as we ever had seen before. I noticed, for the first time, that we were beginning to be surrounded by mountains on every side. It would be when we came to the bottom of this steep decline that the circling of the mountains would be complete. We were hemmed in before and behind by the Lord, as the psalmist once says referring to God’s providence. I didn’t realize at the time just how much the Lord had us hemmed in during those days.

Those first few hours we filled our hiking with as much talking and joking as much as we were able, thinking it might serve as a distraction. It must have been around 7 p.m. when we finally made it to the bottom of the mountain. It is there that we began to see a rare and amazing sight, as some of the only geysers in the world began to appear.

The gorgeous geysers began to spring up, on both sides of the trail, north and south. I think the last time I remember our being all together that evening was when we came to the first of the geysers. We stopped for a moment, and this, it seems, was our first extended rest, and it less than ten minutes. The other rests were the short, ‘three-breaths’ rest types – as I call them – as you pause to catch your breath long enough to give your aching legs some much-needed oxygen.

When we came to the geysers, I do not remember if the other hikers took off their backpacks, but I took mine off and told my companions I was going down for a closer look. One of the friends cautioned to be careful as I eased down a fairly steep slope.

Ah, the geysers are just something to see. Mini-volcanos, their two-hundred-degree waters able to snap the life out of a body instantly – and they have. A sulphury smoke seeps from its crystal-clear waters, kind of like your breath on a cold winter morning, and you can look down into its green-tinted depths and see limbs that have fallen into them, now a powdery-looking gray. I say ‘limbs’ – I mean tree limbs and branches. We’re sure glad it’s not the other.

I admired these boiling pools, one of the great phenomena of nature, until Roy hollered out, “Steve, we’d better get going.” Reluctantly, I took one or two final close-up looks at God’s great creation and made my way back up to the group to continue our trek, moving deeper into this wilderness with every step.

But, as I made my way up, thinking of Roy’s summon, I thought of Robert Frost’s great poem, “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Miles to go before I sleep.

How true, how true, that would prove to be.