Silence. Stillness. Solitude. These are words that describe a time, a place, a condition, a feeling that many of us in our hectic North American culture rarely experience—if ever. Even if we do reach that time or place of quiet we quickly find ways to fill it with television or smart phones. Always connecting, never connecting. Always busy even in the quiet.
People head to the wilderness to find peace and quiet—space maybe. Yet rarely do you find one without a massive RV towing a whack of quads and sporting satellite dishes, to eventually park in a campground saturated with other massive RV’s and trailers and people. Truly, it’s hard to find REAL silence and real solitude anymore.
There was one time in my life that I vividly remember being in absolute silence and solitude. It was so quiet it hurt my ears if you can believe it. I kept tugging at my ears to make sure they worked because it was like I was suddenly deaf. I’m not one to sit long in one spot (especially at the time), so I didn’t appreciate or fully realize the moment of silence and solitude as much as I would now, I think. However it did make an impression on me—mainly because of what I experienced before the silence descended upon me, and Who met me in the silence.
It was my first summer working at a wilderness bible camp in the Alberta Rockies, and it was my first introduction to a horse pack trip. Now it’s been over ten years and my memory is getting a little foggy, but if I remember correctly it was maybe a 5 day trip through the mountains with around seven or eight teens.
The night before we were to leave, our wrangler/teacher Mark gave us newbies a packing lesson on a dark bay horse named Cherokee. This involved him demonstrating how to saddle the horse with a sawbuck packsaddle and then lift the plastic panniers (pack boxes) on either side and strap them down. He then placed a top pack on top of the panniers and then used a canvas to cover the entire pack. He proceeded to loop a diamond rope around the whole shebang and then leaped up onto the rump of Cherokee (who stood stoically, thank God) and tied the diamond hitch together at the top of the diamond. He explained that this was the way it was done and then had us all practice tying the diamond over and over.
It was very intimidating for me. First to stand at the back end of a horse and pull myself up over his rump (using the pack saddle hip straps) to kneel on top, then to fumble with a rope, all the while trying to keep the tension as tight as possible and knot it securely without losing a finger. It took a few tries to hoist myself up and I think I broke my glasses in the process. (Hate glasses, but I had scratched my eyeball pretty hardcore earlier that summer and had to wear glasses the rest of the season.) It also took very strong fingers to twist the rope to form a diamond shape on top of the pack—strength my fingers didn’t have at the time.
Well that was Packing 101, and I pretty much failed Round 1—and 2 and 3 and 4 . . . (I did, however, go back for another summer, so I guess I never learned to quit when the going was tough and eventually I got to the point I could pack a whole string of horses by myself. But that summer was just difficult all round—HUGE learning curve!)
There were four of us Senior Staff going on the trip—my tent mate and wrangler Rachael, and the guys, Mark and Craig, and two Junior staff. Mark was the only one of us who had packed before and knew where we were going. Rachael and I were told to pack light. We were given a duffel to fit our sleeping bags and gear for five days—yep,both of us in one duffel bag! The rest of the teens and staff did the same—shared duffel bags. Then we proceeded to pack four horses for the fourteen people going along. All of our food, cooking gear, shelter, horse tack, toilet paper, you get it, went on those four horses. Big top packs for these guys. (In later years working for different outfitters, we would pack an average of eight or ten horses for four people. Slight difference, huh?)
We managed to get the horses packed, the kids saddled and then we headed off down the trail. We climbed a mountain and dropped into another valley, crossed a creek or two and entered the valley of Hidden Creek. (I’d tell you more about where it was, but well, it’s hidden). We set up camp. A giant tarp was thrown over an A-frame. The food was prepared over a fire ring and let me tell you, I wasn’t very good a cooking that year. In fact I wasn’t very good at a lot of things that year, but I kept doing what I could at what I was told to do. I survived.
That night was the coldest night I can ever remember because I had brought only my smallest lightest sleeping bag—it was the only one that fit in the duffel along with Rachael’s and it definitely wasn’t warm enough by itself. I didn’t sleep. I shivered and shook as the entire lot of us slept under the big tarp together like one big family. As well, Rachael didn’t sleep, and if I think about it, probably most of the kids didn’t either. It was a very bleary morning as we all un-kinked our muscles and prepared for a day-ride up Tornado Pass.
The next night was a bit better, as Mark told us girls to take the packsaddle blankets to throw over our sleeping bags, and in a moment of brilliance (read: insanity) we also snitched the packsaddle pads to sleep on top of. (Sorry to say I was selfish enough at the time to not think of the poor kids who had to be just as cold). But Oh was it so stinky! The smell of fermented horse sweat lives on in my memory. It is not a smell you can get rid of easily, especially when there were no showers to be had for the next week, so I think our little selfish plot backfired on us. However I was far warmer that night! That—combined with a full day of riding, chaperoning kids and chasing horses hobbled to graze in the clear-cut above camp—probably helped too.
I was more involved with preparing food on this trip than I had been in previous camps—which was difficult for me and took most of my attention. So I don’t remember much about what the wranglers did, but I do believe there was concern about the horses making a dash for our base camp and they may have tried in the two days we were at Hidden Valley.
The next morning we packed up and headed for the Cache Creek campsite. It was a long ride sprinkled with a bit of rain. When we arrived we discovered the campsite wasn’t well used and covered in tall grass. It was a lot of work for the wranglers to clear an area to put up the tarp while I made a fire ring and scavenged wood to cook a meal of pasta for twelve hungry people.
Meanwhile, the horses—who had been turned loose to graze—made a dash for it. Mark, Rachael and Craig raced after them to turn them back while I stayed in camp trying to keep the kids calm. All I remember is trying to open the bag of spaghetti and dumping it over one of the kids and scattering it in the tall grass. It took us a while to gather up our supper and then get a meal cooked over a struggling fire, while entertaining hungry, tired, cranky kids. It was a huge lesson in mind-over-matter for me that night.
Well we just got supper in our bellies and it started pouring. The wranglers returned with all the horses and set up a better perimeter and then we pushed all our saddles and gear under the tarp and stuffed all the kids and staff inside to sleep. I was on the edge curled up in a two foot by two foot space. The snoring and the cramped smelly quarters, with, needless to say, the pouring rain drumming on the tarp, made for a very uncomfortable sleepless night.
About four in the morning we heard horses leave again. Mark and Rachael took off again in the rain and chased down the horses. One mare headed back to camp and they never did catch her. We were down a much needed horse, but thankfully we had just enough to finish the trip. We were behind in getting started, but eventually everything was packed up and kids mounted and off we went.
Thankfully the rain let up mid-morning yet we rode through a lot of bush that was still wet and I never did dry out that day. It didn’t help that my rain gear had melted earlier in the summer due to an exploding rock from a fire I had been tending. So I think I was making due with a poncho at first and then an old yellow slicker, thanks to Brad one of the junior wranglers that year. Ponchos suck. My jeans were wet, and nothing is as awful as riding in wet jeans with wet boots, knowing you are going to have no place to dry off come nightfall.
We made it to Beehive Mountain. It was a steep climb up to our campsite right at tree line. The water was a few hundred yards from the campsite. We put up the tarp under the shadow of a huge gigantic monstrous boulder that looked like it had fallen out of the mountain above us. It was bigger than a house and was tilted precariously, ominously over our campsite—like it was going to start rolling any moment and crush us all. That’s where we slept.
I don’t remember making food or eating it. I don’t remember much, other than climbing up a path above the trees to a wide open alpine meadow at the base of a towering rock to watch the horses while they grazed. I was alone.
I sat on top of a boulder at the base of the scree tumbling off the mountain and gazed out over the breathtaking beauty of the mountain meadow and horses fanned out grazing, and beyond, to the tree covered valley below and the mountains beyond. The sky was dark and heavy with rain clouds that were slowly drifting to the south. The sun was dipping behind the mountain at my back casting a rosy glow to the land before me.
And then it hit me. The SILENCE.
Not a breath of wind to stir grass or the leaves of the trees that weren’t there. No rushing stream. No trickling brook. No birds twittering. No insects buzzing.
The silence was deafening. The ringing in my ears hurt and I tugged on them to check if I had gone deaf.
A horse lifted his head down below me and whinnied and I knew I wasn’t. Deaf.
The silence returned and I knew that God was in that place with me. I can only describe that moment as transcendent.
And then I moved. I snapped a picture. The moment was gone. And let me tell you pictures don’t do it justice—transcendent moments just don’t translate on film. They just don’t. I heard voices below as Mark and then Rachael joined me and mere seconds later I was caught up in the continuing saga of our adventure.
Why is that moments of true silence, stillness, solidarity are so rare? Why is that we don’t recognize them for what they are until they are gone? Why is it that we are the first to move?
I want to come to that place of silence again—Of silence, stillness and solidarity before God. Not just in the wilderness, but in my day-to-day life. I don’t want the transcendent, holy moments to be fleeting, but perpetual.
In this busy, noisy world, I want to practice silence—become great at stillness. Maybe then I’ll be able to let go of this continual need to be busy. Maybe then I will set aside my irritations and anxieties. Maybe then, in the silence, I’ll be at rest and peace with God.
And then—maybe then, God will let me know when it’s time to move—and I’ll actually HEAR HIM and be ready to ACT!
“Silence is praise to you,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer in it all.”
Psalm 65:1-2 (The Message)
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Psalm 46:10 (NIV)