You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
Once in a while it is a good thing to be reminded of one’s own vulnerability. Not that we should risk danger unnecessarily, but neither should we pretend that we can permanently insulate ourselves from the tempest and the storm. For “man is born to trouble” (Job 5:7), and to try to live a bubble existence outside the perimeter of that reality is to stake one’s life on the premise that trouble will never knock at our own door.
One early spring day, I set out on the Appalachian Trail in southwestern Virginia. I planned to cover 56 miles over three days; I packed under the assumption that I would spend each night in a shelter, which meant I would not need to carry the extra weight of a tent. After a late start and many miles of relatively flat walking, I reached the base of Chestnut Knob, a 4,400-foot peak with an open summit ridge.
I ascended without much difficulty, but the weather deteriorated as I approached the long ridge. Strong winds and rain swirled around me. I quickly changed into rain gear and set out for the shelter still 2.5 miles ahead. I walked as fast as I could because time suddenly was not on my side; dusk was setting in, turning the open, wet landscape into a lonely and somewhat forbidding place. Soon I reached some woods where the path seemed to begin to descend. I checked the guidebook, which suggested the warden’s shelter was near the summit. Suddenly doubt entered my mind: Could I have walked past the shelter in my rush to get there?
Soon the gray of dusk became the darkness of night. If I turned back to hunt for the shelter on the exposed ridge, I could easily lose the trail. And if I had missed the shelter, pushing ahead would have left me no better off. My expectations of sleeping in a dry shelter quickly evaporated. I was without my tent; I had lost my bearings, and I needed to make a decision. Experience and intuition told me to stay put until the morning. And that is what I did. I placed my sleeping bag on the wet ground, got in, and tried to fall asleep. I worried throughout the night that the rain would soak through my bag, but for the most part the bag stayed dry on the inside. Still, the wind did not relent, often sounding like an advancing freight train as it slammed into the western side of the ridge. But eventually morning broke, and I emerged to resume my trek north.
Sometimes our choices are reduced to what is the least bad thing to do. That night, I lost the usual comforts that can often dull our awareness of the nature of the world we live in. Sometimes, our one option is to stay put. And that is what I did. The night was lonely, wet and uncomfortable and it once again reminded me of the thin line between danger and well-being.
—Eric Kampmann, Signposts