Kelley J. Leigh

Loud World. Quiet Soul. Listen beyond the noise.

Fat American Christians at the Top of the World

barr camp 

Night Light

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.

Barr Camp

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 walked 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.

American Christians

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 white-priveleged 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.




13 Replies

  1. Kelley, this is so great. I am so enjoying your blog and catching up on you and your life. This post is so well said. So true. I can’t wait to hear more about your book.

    1. Heather! I am so glad you stopped by. Thanks for your thoughts. And yes, lunch or coffee would be great at some point!

  2. Jennifer

    I love the analogy! I have never hiked a 14er. I’ve always wanted to. Even with my time in CO. The “opportunity” never arose. Now that I look back… I never seized the opportunity. I allowed my fears and the warnings of others to keep me from trying. This is the perfect analogy for my Christian life. Thanks Kelley!

    1. Jennifer. This is so profound, ” I allowed my fears and the warnings of others to keep me from trying. This is the perfect analogy for my Christian life.” You are not alone, and speak for so many. I love having you hang out and comment. Thanks, Jennifer!

  3. Love the challenge you gently lay out here.
    Such a strange thing to discover after so much of life is past…this comfort-seeking, personal-kingdom-building path leaves me parched. How many mountains have I climbed in my 2-inch heels, pressing on for self-aggrandizing glory? So much soul-vomit along the way. Ever thirsty, I stumble upon sudden quenching moments of life, like cold mountain spring water. Rarely in the cushy seats of church, and usually where I least expect to find it. So I’m encouraged to just climb, and rest, and look, and wait. And leave my black-strappy heels behind when I hit the trail.

    1. I enjoyed this response, Teri. Liked the way you describe thirst and cold mountain spring water.
      And, for the record, you look way better than most people in black-strappy heels. : )
      Thanks so much for being here.

  4. kathy mozdren

    Kelley – I so get it. Taking the tram up to the top, all dressed in our Sunday best, is so enticing, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want donuts and coffee waiting for them upon their arrival? But like you, my owm ‘season of questions’ has caused me to trade in my Sunday best for an old, worn out pair of hiking boots. It’s not an easy choice. The path up the mountain is hard. It’s steep, it’s rocky, it’s dirty. Somedays it’s beyond what I’m physically capable of. And yes there will be vomit. It’s a lonely path too. But what reward awaits when we finally reach the top! In the meantime, I am thankful for co-journeyers like you…together maybe we can navigate the rocky terrain. Wouldn’t it be awe-inspiring to look out at the mountain from your living room window and see the faint flickering lights of thousands of ‘Jesus Hope’ laterns making their way up the face of the mountian as they journey to reach the top?

    1. Kathy. Your comment should be a blog post. I’m not kidding. I love your perspective here about the grit and challenge of the journey. And while I was waiting for my coffee this morning I looked out the window and was visualizing this part of what you said:

      “Wouldn’t it be awe-inspiring to look out at the mountain from your living room window and see the faint flickering lights of thousands of ‘Jesus Hope’ lanterns making their way up the face of the mountain as they journey to reach the top?”

      All I can say is “Yes! And thank you, Kathy.”
      So very beautifully stated.

  5. Kellee. There is just something about experiencing moments like those together, right? Something vulnerable we’d never choose but wouldn’t trade. Beauty even in the vomitting … : )
    Just yes.

  6. Kellee

    I remember my epic vomiting extravaganza in CO. And the friend who stayed by my side for 24 hours in and out of the hospital. There was nothing I could offer. It was truly one of my most humiliating and fragile moments. I was simultaneously mortified and grateful to have experienced “community” on such an intimate level.

    1. <3 that was a joy and a privilege. For real.
      Kelley J Leigh recently posted…Going Local: My Mountain Church TrekMy Profile

  7. Joann

    Graphic pictures of life-tangible and intangible. Very thought-provoking. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Mom.
      You are a sweet & constant inspiration to me in the journey.
      Love you.

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