As a child you followed your father’s steady footsteps on a steep mountain trail above a lake called Sherando. He is a religious man, your father, but if you’re lucky he suggests rather than demands your careful consideration of the natural beauty surrounding the trail. His faith is rooted in the simple observation that an awesome creation bespeaks an awesome creator. But you’re too young to be worried about that stuff. You like to climb. You scramble up the rock-and-boulder-strewn trail effortlessly — a young, rising force of nature.
Nestled in a deep hollow in the George Washington National Forest, Sherando Lake is a mere 90-minute drive towards the setting sun from Richmond. A 90-minute drive towards the rising sun from the same starting point terminates at the western shore of the ancient and storied Atlantic Ocean. If you’re lucky you are raised in Richmond, where a short drive either with or against the earth’s rotation carries you to places so infused with the deep and timeless spirit of nature.
Your father says the grandeur of these places fortifies his faith, but this is somehow not good enough for you. You strike out into your own spiritual space. You meander. You struggle some. You fail some. You succeed some. But if you’re lucky, your father continually calls on you to walk a mountain trail with him, and on the Sherando Lake Overlook trail he shows you to see the rocks and boulders as you climb past. You take time with your father now to notice them. They are fallen. Gravity and weather stricken. They once held higher places on this mountain. Past their prime now they are relentlessly pulled down. You recognize now that gravity and time are slowly weathering and pulling your father down, and you even suspect these most powerful of natural forces are gradually beginning to overwhelm your own life force as well.
Your father still cannot communicate with you in a resonant language the meaning and purpose he finds in this life experience, but his always youthful eyes remain fixed on the intricate beauty surrounding the trail. If you’re lucky, you begin to assume his eyes, if not his faith. From your father you learn to appreciate this ability, this special human privilege . . . this observation and contemplation of nature.
On Aug 4th, 2013 my daughters douse the heat of a morning hike in the cool water of Sherando Lake. I sit on the sandy beach with my pen and paper, scribbling my way along winding mental trails, always hoping these symbols and thoughts will lead me somewhere meaningful. Faithless wanderings. My father is bent over in a crumbled sitting position on a bench behind me. He has not been able to sleep well in the tent, but somehow the noise, commotion and bright light of this crowded shoreline allow him what the dark silence of night denied. He sleeps. I am lucky because wherever it is my daughters and I find ourselves, it is there that even my dog-tired father likes to be.
I walked behind him on the overlook trail earlier. His steps less steady, the world around him partially silenced by hearing loss, his gaze directed primarily at the position of his next step, my father’s focus today was more narrowed than it once was. But with eyes and spirit still outwardly groping, he continually pointed out the ground-level features that found his interest. I am lucky because my father points out to me and my girls the way life-sustaining water from deep in the mountain’s heart bleeds out from a small puncture in its flank. He points out evidence of the mountain’s age, and thereby its elite status in creation. This mountains tells us some of the oldest stories we hear about the saga of earth’s revolutions, and my father tries to get my daughters and I to listen with wide open spiritual ears. We are lucky he notices interesting pieces of wood, scurrying little space alien insects, and strange, waist-high vegetation. We are lucky because my ever-watchful father quiets us to notice even a colorful piece of moss!
You still know nothing about the purpose or meaning of life. You have experienced no faithful communion with your father. You have no idea what to tell your daughters to believe. But if you want them to be lucky like you, when you find them behind you on the Sherando Overlook trail, you will do your best to offer them earnestly the searching and admiring eyes of your father.