February 20, 2005 Newsletter

The rock said, “God is here.”  Well, it wasn’t really the rock that said it, but the sign on the rock.  More accurately, someone had painted GOD IS HERE on the rock, and packed into those three words I found quite a message.

It had been three long, hard weeks.  Recovering from the flu and getting back on track during a hectic time at work had taken its toll.  So I responded with mixed emotions to the invitation from friends to join their hike on Saturday.  Feeling as if I was surviving on my last unfrazzled nerve, what I really wanted to do was withdraw from everyone and everything in an effort to preserve the last remaining vestiges of my sanity.  Writing chores had piled up at home, during the difficult work week, and leaving it to go hiking felt awfully irresponsible.

When I mentioned it to my writing mentor, Tom, I expected him to tell me I needed to keep my nose to the writing grindstone, but he didn’t hesitate.  “I think that’s a good idea,” he said, urging me to stop dwelling on what I hadn’t finished and instead focus on all I had accomplished.  He made me feel less guilty about it, and I try to listen to him, because after ten months of coaching me, he knows me pretty well.  I remembered the first time I spoke with Tom about my life purpose and his mentoring program.

“What do you want, Rhonda?” Tom had asked.

“I want to save the world.” I answered without hesitation.

I don’t know which of us was more surprised by my answer.  I hadn’t realized I knew the answer to that question, until he asked it.  I was overcome with a feeling of peace.  Yes, that is what I want to do.  I want to save the world.  Quite a tall order, but it’s true.  No wonder I occasionally go through periods when I feel overwhelmed by all the work I have in front of me.

“You’re not going to find what you’re looking for in Knoxville.” Tom had answered wryly.

I had been stumped by his remark.  I didn’t know whether to ask what he meant or to defend the newly adopted hometown in my native state of Tennessee.  Instead, smiling back at Tom, I had chosen to say nothing.

Now here I was ten months later, and as I rose early to prepare for the day on the trail, I reminded myself that I need to take care of my body, mind and spirit, especially during this time when I’m trying to juggle my job and writing.  After all, saving the world takes a lot out of you, I surmised, as I forced myself to be positive about this outing.  Maybe God has orchestrated this opportunity because it’s just the medicine I need, I thought.  Maybe he has something he wants to show me . . . to tell me . . . to teach me.

Boy, did he ever.

The sign on the rocks was terribly out of place.  Smack in the middle of Burnt Mill Bridge Trail in the Big South Fork National Park area, defacing the landscape in any way was not only irresponsible but a clear federal offense.  My compatriots reacted vehemently.  “What idiot would do this?!” They asked incredulously, as we all stood there staring at the painted rock, which I had finally coached them into calling “cabbage rock,” due to the crinkled veins of iron ore deposits exposed by erosion of the surrounding materials.  Devoted to the mantra of “leave only footprints; take only photographs,” they were appalled at the ignorance behind such an act.

My mind raced as I stood there on the banks of the Clear Fork River looking at the message painted with bright red and blue paint on one of the spectacular sandstone rock formations characteristic of the area.  I wondered, “Is this what you wanted me to see, God?”

At once, I was swept back to my experiences growing up in small country churches.  There was always an altar call at the end of every service . . . urging sinners to just get out of their seats and walk down to the altar, because that’s where God was waiting.  I remember in later years thinking, “If that’s where God really is, then I want to be the first in line, because I have a few things I want to talk to Him about!”  But it never worked out the way I expected.  When I made it to the altar, the only person waiting for me was the kind old preacher and a few caring church members.  I had gone through that routine many times in my adolescence and young adulthood.  It seemed as though I had been searching for God all my life, when, lo and behold, apparently he had been sitting out in the woods under this sandstone rock altar waiting for me all along!

I have to assume that God actually did NOT inspire someone to leave this marker just for me to eventually come along and discover.  The hand painted sign was simply redundant.  This was one of the most beautiful trails I had ever hiked.  The natural signs of God’s presence were abundant.

Starting out at the antiquated river bridge, held together precariously by rusted iron girders and a wood-planked surface the color of an old weathered gray barn, the bridge had long been closed to automobile traffic.  I knew this was going to be special when we arrived to find a young couple, their vehicle parked safely on land behind them, walking with their small child across the bridge to meet the child’s grandmother who had driven down the other side of the river gorge.  As we crossed the bridge on foot to access the trail, we peeked curiously through the cracks between the boards underfoot to the rapids below, just as the young child had on his way to meet grandma on the other side.  How many people have walked across this bridge before me and for what purpose? I wondered, as we made our way across.  I would soon realize many surely had done so to experience the incredible beauty of this place . . .

Immediately after crossing the bridge, the trail turns left or right to follow the river’s edge.  The vibrant, turquoise water is so clear you can see the rocks resting beneath the surface.  Alternating between rushing rapids, deep, slow-moving, almost-still pools, and falls that glide over the smooth boulders like oil, the river is spellbinding.

Huge boulders rise from the water, some towering twenty or thirty feet above its surface.  Even larger chunks of sandstone, broken free from the bluffs and outcroppings along both shores, rest at the water’s edge calling to mind lazy summer days spent soaking up the sun’s warm rays against the backdrop of the never-ending sound of rushing water.

At numerous points along the trail, dripping rock cliffs burst forth with wet weather springs draining the excess February ground water into the river with the sound of a soothing fountain.  Only there’s no distraction of an electric motor powering this fountain.  There’s no distracting noise at all.  Far from the traffic, noise, hustle and bustle of the world, this sanctuary reverberates with only the sound of the earth’s life energy bursting forth.

Our feet landing on the bed of leaves barely make a sound as we walk awestruck underneath the canopy of towering hemlock trees.  We see footprints of rabbits and the trail of a beaver’s tail dragging behind him on the sandy river bank.  Then we stumble upon the beaver’s recent handiwork – stumps of young saplings, neatly chiseled into a point by the beaver’s sharp teeth and the trail of wood chips to the river’s edge, left behind when he dragged the tree top into the water.

Dazzled by the beaver’s precision, we marvel even more at the waterfall we soon encounter.  Nestled just above the trail in the dense greenery of the rhododendron, laurel, holly, and ferns that fill the forest’s floor, water pours over the rock ledge twenty-five feet above us.  The white spray bounces off the stones below then meanders through moss-covered rocks to the river.

Standing at the edge of the waterfall’s spray, I feel the moisture washing over my face.  I tilt my head back, close my eyes, and breathe deep, drawing as much of the pure air as I can into my lungs.  The damp air is cool, crisp, and fresh; and I hold it inside as if it is my first ever precious breath of real air.  I feel refreshed, renewed, and invigorated.  I know for sure, God is here.

Gazing back down at the river from the top of the bluff in the middle of the trail, I was acutely aware of His presence, even without the benefit of the hand painted sign.  In the soft sand and decaying leaves beneath my feet, I felt God cradling my every step.  I felt His gentle, healing touch in the leaves of the evergreens – full of life year round – as they lightly brushed God’s never ending love ever so gently across my shoulders when I passed by.  I beheld God’s majesty in the towering rock formations and the diverse flora thriving all along their base.  And in the mist of the many waterfalls, I breathed in God’s pure breath and drank in His life-giving nectar.  No doubt about it.  God truly was there.

But what about all the days of my forty-three years leading up to this special day in February?  Where was God then?  Was I out trying to save the cold, cruel world alone, while God was hidden away out there on the Burnt Mill Bridge Trail?

Walking the last few feet of the trail, with the old bridge once again in sight up ahead, I thought of what Tom had said all those months ago.  “You won’t find what you’re looking for in Knoxville, Rhonda.”  I had often looked back on that conversation as the beginning of a journey . . . one that had led me to finally live the life of the writer and teacher I was born to be.

But suddenly I realized, standing now on the river bank in the shadow of the old bridge, what it was God wanted to tell me here today.

I didn’t just begin the journey ten months ago with Tom.  I had been on a journey my whole life.  The last few months as Tom’s student had only been one leg of my journey.

More importantly, I realized what I had been seeking.  I had been searching high and low for God.  And now I had finally found Him.

Tom was right.  I didn’t find God in Knoxville.

But I didn’t just find God out on the old Burnt Mill Bridge Trail either.

God was there, just like the sign said.  But the sign painted on the rock was only partly correct. 

I did find God.

I found God inside of me.

Funny thing is, He had been there all along.