On the initial days of our sabbatical journey around the country, while running in Machipongo, Va, I spotted trees displaying bright red buds, as well as vibrant-yellow dandelions peeking out of the forest leaf floor. It took me by surprise because it was January 24th, a time when signs of spring are still far off. Days later we were audience to the sun’s early rays streaking over seagrass-covered dunes, which lit our way to a feeding frenzy not far offshore, where hundreds of sea birds persistently dive-bombed the ocean surface for near 15 minutes, causing so much splashing as to mimic the musical fountain displays I’ve seen at National Harbor.And this was just the first week of our travels.
A smoky-purple/flame-red sunset was reflected in the receding water of the ocean’s waves that night, and the next morning brought broad stretches of open beach, placid waves, and a rising soft lemon sun to welcome a new day – a day that would include ferrying past a sand bar crowded beak to beak with hundreds of pelicans enjoying that same sun.
The following weeks and months would be an unceasing cornucopia of natural wonders: funny black-bellied whistling ducks perched in trees, glorious roseate spoonbills gliding over a marsh, striking Texas Paintbrushes and Bluebells speckling the roadside, double rainbows, towering sandstone slot canyons, blooming prickly pear cacti, vast desert landscapes, curious shaped hoodoos and magnificently sculpted arches, powerful elk, clever coyotes, the fragrance of lemon trees and the taste of freshly picked kumquats. I consider this while viewing heavy snow capped mountains in May. This week we hiked through packed snow to a mountain lake, and on the return came across wild turkeys, with the male in bloated regalia showing off his size and colors. A moose then came running through the valley in front of us, stopping only to drink deeply from a rushing mountain stream winding its way through the valley.
I doubt I will ever forget the night sky at Deep Bend National Park, where in one hour I witnessed more stars, planets and galaxies than I normally see in a year of nights. I recall driving a ruler-edge highway for hours over a flat desert landscape as far as the eye can see, then approaching ever so quickly a vertical wall of rock stretched across the horizon which the road seemed to dive headlining into. And then, suddenly arriving at that wall at 60 mph, being immersed in a totally new landscape of towering red rock, sharp, winding curves, ascending roadway, and splendidly carved cliffs in vibrant hues. Shocking. Awe inspiring.
We ran for miles at sunset down a dry desert wash towards an eight foot gap in a cliff wall, where in time past a river spilled out to a drop of thousands of feet below. Now we stood in that rock window, viewing a sun setting over a silent desert valley stretched far below. I remember driving for half an hour up Route 12 as it coined the Escalante Staircase to its 9000 foot summit, witnessing every imaginable shade of color portrayed in the miles and miles of rock walls, domed hills, and cavernous trenches below.
All of it, each with its own part of the orchestral symphony, declares loudly:“Glory and Greatness!”
To a degree, this wonder is around us always, as near as the marvel of my hand held in front of my face. I have come to realize that the reception of wonder is constrained more by the condition of my soul than by my proximity to glory, a condition that is much improved by Sabbath rest. However, there are places and objects and events that are demonstrably more stunning. As my wife has often said on this trip: “There’s a reason they were made National Parks.”
Yvonne and I are listening to a book called Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, a part time ranger working in Arches National Park in the early 70s. Although seemingly not a fan of religion, his comment about Delicate Arch (a stunning structure) caught my attention:
“If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.” [Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, p. 36]
One of three small books I brought with me was given to me by my pastor Kevin Rogers called: Nature’s Case for God by John M. Frame. In it, Mr. Frame quotes at length scientist Blaise Pascal. Writing in 1560, Mr. Pascal is reflecting on the immensity of the universe around us, and the minuteness of the microscopic world within us. In both cases, we do not reach their end.They go beyond us.
But this quote pulled me up short. When describing the expanse of stars stretching out in all directions Pascal said:
“But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception.”
Nature exhausts imagination! I never considered that. I will collapse breathless and unconscious trying to imagine more than what already exists around me.
Hans Solo’s quote from the first Star Wars movie comes to mind.When Luke Skywalker tries to impress on Hans how large a reward Leia could give him for her rescue Luke stutters: “Well, more than you can imagine!” To which Hans replies: “I don’t know. I have a pretty good imagination.” And so, I think, do I. But my imagination pales to the greatness and glory of the earth in which I have been placed.
This has been such a large part of our experience these first four months. Everywhere we go there is beauty and wonder and design and complexity and marvel and delight. And we haven’t even reached the northwest! Half the time we’ve been in desert—land many consider barren.
So why don’t I recognize this pervasive glory more frequently? I think Edward Abbey in part got it right—our mind gets in ‘ruts of habit’. I have at times asked people who live in startling places: “Does this ever become common?” They usually respond, “No,” but I only half believe them. The human psyche, at least my human psyche, cannot handle ongoing stimulation and awe. It burns out.
But another reason is: that I simply don’t make the time for it. I don’t get out of my bubble, “off the road,” out of my routine.While listening to a Sunday service online, my pastor shared regarding the war in Galatians 5:17 that what hinders us most is busyness, and the greatest thing we can do is stop and listen. From my A-Liner parked under CottonwoodTrees in Dinosaur National Monument I shouted: “Amen!”
Now that’s much harder to do with four kids under eight, or while fighting a debilitating sickness years on end, but it’s still true. I am primarily writing for myself. This trip will end. How will I bathe in Greatness and Glory then? What I’m learning while being away from telephone lines, billboards and asphalt is that there is life and speech conveyed in the created world around us—life and words that are good for my soul.
I write this in the shade of a Juniper, a raucous mountain stream flowing not thirty feet away, the sun an hour or two from descending below the nearby sagebrush covered hill. At present, there is no other camper in site. Someday, God willing, I’ll be back in bumper to bumper traffic, or sitting across from someone suffering from the onslaught of evil that is so pervasive in this world, and I will need to remember this place and many more like it. I’ll walk out at night and see the moon, remembering the stars that are there, knowing rivers still thunder over rocks, mountains continue their silent sentinel watch, Yellow Warblers are singing in their busy flight, and Fragrant Evening Primroses are delighting the sandstone monoliths and maybe some nearby mule deer. All of it shouts: “Greatness and Glory,” His Greatness and Glory—a greatness and glory my soul needs.