Pike National Forest, Colorado
Every night outside my living room window, at the top of what the Ute Indians called the ‘Great Peak’ one lone light flickers. Across miles of foothills, above tundra and timberline, a single white light shines visibly in the distance. It hangs just above the highest point of the peak like a far off lighthouse suspended 14,000 feet above sea level. The tiny mountain nightlight is actually a gift shop full of tourist t-shirts, Pikes Peak mugs, and warm cake donuts that leave grease rings on napkins every morning. Above that, hangs the galaxy.
I’ve hiked Barr Trail to the donut shop on top of Pikes Peak. Up top, the Cog Railway unloads riders. Tour bus loads and car riders all gather in the warm gift shop with bedraggled hikers and runners. It’s a mountain top gathering spot for travelers of all kinds.
Half way up 12 mile foot trail, a very rustic Barr Camp welcomes experienced mountain bikers, marathon runners, and everyday backpackers. The camp is an outpost oddity, with bunkhouse beds and make-shift wooden lean-to’s available for overnighters. Bookshelves hold a makeshift library for travelers to take and exchange. Scrabble, big pine tables, and names scratched into the wood are various 1970’s remnants of communal hippie life. Breakfast is always pancakes. Dinner is usually spaghetti with mushrooms whether you like them or not. And the caretakers sleep in a makeshift loft, up the ladder, over the spare camp kitchen.
The night I rented a bed on my way to the top, I saw the most violent episode of vomit I’ve seen in my life (and yes, I am including all experiences with my four sons). Hours earlier, a very optimistic woman from Nashville got off the plane in Colorado Springs and made straight for the trail — headed to the Peak with some friends. She lived at sea level. Her body seized at the sudden shock of bodily exertion in high altitude. Round after round of gushing coughing fits, the sheer volume of slushing liquid she threw up was astounding. Poor thing, she leaned limp over the porch rail of Barr Camp. All color drained from her face.
Her friends had to walk her back down the mountain.
Search and Rescue
People go missing every year on the mountain. The caretakers at Barr Camp have plenty of stories about tourists who drive to the top and think the descent looks “easy enough”. One year Search and Rescue crews had to locate and load an overweight man in shorts and loafers into a helicopter gurney. He was lost and dangerously dehydrated. Hours before, he had waved to his midwestern friends up top and said, “Just pick me up at the bottom.”
There’s more to it than that.
Life above timberline feels fragile, exposed to a gaping sky and waterless air. Summer thunderstorms roll through most days with deadly lightning and without warning. Fall snows threaten to disorient or cause hypothermia. The final ascent of Pikes Peak is a section called ‘The Golden Stairs’ which maybe got its name because those steps feel like a heart-exploding slow plodding hike toward death or heaven.
Fourteeners can be dangerous, life threatening. But the God’s eye view from the top is worth it.
Thousands make their way to the top by way of a spectacularly nerve wracking tollway drive each year. In buses and cars, they unload and stand in awe, shiver, peer over the fearsome edge. They read the words to “America the Beautiful” on a plaque honoring Katherine Lee Bates’ lyrics about spacious skies and purple mountains’ majesty.
As though Americans discovered and claimed it all.
You’d be hard pressed to find evidence up top that an entire culture lived in this region thousands of years before these States were formed and the melting pot obliterated all things indigenous. You’ll find hot donuts, styrofoam cups, and keychains instead.
This is a picture of my culture, my people, American Christians painted with the broadest brush. We climb to the top of places long known by wiser people and claim discovery with collegiate names. We use disposable coffee cups, write ourselves into legends, build our own gift shops, and make a profit in the process. We claim all truth and beauty as our own, as though we could mark off God’s mystery and own it. We are the fat tourists wearing shorts and impractical shoes in gas guzzling cars at the top of the world.
But hidden deep in the forest recesses, under canopies less seen, we are also pockets of something authentically communal and quirky, like distant cousins from the same family. Beneath those branches of the family tree, there is shared food, humility, generosity, hospitality, and lean muscular offerings of true search and rescue.
I used to be a part of the church with donuts and coffee and all the right answers and a sense of American political conquest. That was my choice for a long time. Now, I am on a different trail with a lot of questions about how to be more the forest refuge hiker and less the tourist in the SUV.
Right now, I feel a bit lost in the community part of my spiritual journey — looking for the camp fireside and fellow travelers on their way to the top.
But I do still believe, even in my season of questions, we are meant to travel together.
Shop Lights and Stars
I don’t think Americans discovered the correct version of Christianity or the mountain outside my window. And I do think a whole lot more of us desperately need a full out search and rescue — more profoundly than our religious behaviors indicate.
But I do still believe, even in my season of questions, we are meant be a beacon of Jesus hope. To walk with the people around us through addiction and abuse. To cry over unexpected deaths and rub each other’s backs when we vomit in shocking ways. To offer food and shelter. To tell the truth about our joys and fears, and spill the mess of our intimacy all over each other so that the Highest hope and rescue can be found, together.
And I don’t think I am very good at much of it. But I’m still on the path. And I’m inviting you to join me.
We are all meant to be a beacon light in a dangerous dark world of thin air.
Together, with or without the donuts.