We stood in the trailhead parking lot about 20 miles and a few thousand feet above Aspen, Colorado. It was already getting close to noon, a few hours later than we had hoped to get started. The skies were gray and a fine, misty rain was falling. We had to make a decision. Head out on the trail or go back to town, find a room for the night and formulate Plan B.
I was nervous anyway, the kind of anxiety I always have when we’re ready to head out on the backpacking trail for a few days. Have I remembered everything? Will the gear hold out? What will the weather be like? Will the map be accurate and will we be able to find the right trail at the right time?
My anxiety was heightened because just a year earlier, we had tried to hike the same 25 mile loop, a loop that crossed four 12,000-foot-plus passes. But I couldn’t do it. I hadn’t trained well enough and got a mild case of altitude sickness. A year earlier, Plan B had been a shorter, less strenuous, and less spectacular route.
But my sons, Chris and Tim, had heard so much about this loop, about it’s beauty and spectacular views that they were determined. I had trained, worked hard to get ready, and wondered if it was going to be enough.
Here we were. About to begin. In the rain.
Though we talked for a few minutes about our options, there was no question. There was no Plan B. We were going to do this.
We set out, Chris and Tim with all the confidence of headstrong adolescents who delighted in physical challenges. Me with all the doubts of a middle-aged realist who couldn’t shake the memory of the previous year’s fail.
That first afternoon was only a few miles, a couple of hours, and a relatively mild climb, though I remember thinking that it was plenty steep. It would only be mild in retrospect and in comparison with the climbs that lay before us.
For some reason that trip came to mind last night as I was winding down at the end of Fat Tuesday and anticipating this morning’s beginning of the lenten journey. Last night felt like standing in that parking lot about to take the first step of a journey that was known only by looking at a route on a map. The journey itself would play out in time, step by step.
I have thought about this year’s Lenten journey and sketched out some lenten discipline for the next 40 days. I’m going to read through the gospels in these 40 days. I’m going to fast once a week, starting today (though I guess according to today’s gospel lesson, I’m not supposed to tell you that). I’m going to abstain from alcohol.
But right now, this journey is represented by intentions only. Like that 4-day hike represented by some dotted-line skritches on a map, this journey will get played out in time, step by step.
There are some big things on my calendar — a grand experiment at church, a preaching series to launch a Year of Discernment, a big solidarity event with some mosques in the area. I’m looking forward to those things.
Even more, I’m looking forward to deepening some spiritual practices that often get rusty in the rush of daily activity. Each year, Lent for me is a time to press the reset button, to wipe the dust off the practices in my daily life of faith that I intend always to be there but somehow get forgotten.
The gift for me this morning, on this Ash Wednesday morning, as I think about the steps of my journey to the Pascha, is that I have caught a glimpse of the truth that is always there, but is too often hidden to my view — the steadfast love of the One who in my baptism has called me his own.
That hike in the Maroon Bells Wilderness area was probably the most spectacular, most beautiful backpacking hike I have ever taken. It was stunning. The second day, we paused along Snowmass Lake, an alpine lake accessible only by trail, the sheer cliff across the lake reflecting in the lakes’s glassy surface. We could have sat at West Maroon Bells Pass forever, scanning the 360-degree panorama of mountain peaks. Every meadow we passed through brought extraordinary fields of blooming wildflowers.
It was also the most difficult. I developed a routine in order to get up steep final approaches to those four passes. Ten slow, small steps; stop to catch my breath. Ten slow, small steps; stop to catch my breath. Ten slow, small steps; stop to catch my breath.
And that will be my plan for the next 40 days.