The Final Stretch

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains! See how the wicked string their bows, fit their arrows to the string to shoot from the shadows at the upright. When foundations are being destroyed, what can the upright do?”
— Psalms 11:1-2

Since I’ve been in the hiking vein lately, I’ll stick with that and share my favorite part of those journeys: it’s always the final stretch.

It seems like every adventure is precipitated by a great deal of heavy thinking, followed by another long stretch of deep thought on current affairs from sources like Drudge, along with the occasional brooding. It’s like someone throws a rock into the calm pool of my thoughts the second I get ready to go, and naturally it takes some time for the silt that gets stirred up to settle back down to the bottom. Yesterday’s outing was no exception.

Some time ago I spotted a vast green belt cutting through the dusty desert off to the northeast. I wouldn’t have known it was there, but saw it from the high peak of Tom’s Thumb on a previous hike. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to check it out, but only got around to it yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk any of my kids into going with me, so I jumped in the car and headed off alone.

I cruised north and decided to wander up Happy Valley Rd. because I wanted to pass by an old iconic Arizona steakhouse that’s been around since the 50’s. Sadly, I discovered that it was shuttered which did nothing for my mood. Apparently they’re getting ready to bulldoze the landmark for yet another stupid ‘development’. Great. I had my first mesquite grilled steak there in the early 70’s and my last taste of Pinnacle Peak Patio with my wife and kids a few years back.

I suppose nothing ever remains the same –– everything on earth eventually passes away –– but that seemed to only stir the waters up a bit more for me. I snapped a few quick pictures of what’s left, and slogged down Dynamite Blvd. to the Needle Rock cutoff. All totaled, it was 24 miles from home to a small wash near the green belt.

Out in the Sonoran Desert, a healthy green belt means water. I could smell it the minute I got out of the car and strapped on my gear, but since the terrain was new to me and thick with large trees and other desert growth, I relied on my experience and best assumptions to try to get to the water. That didn’t work out. After trying various routes along small washes and game trails, I ran into nothing but impassable brush and cattail patches towering ten feet or better.

I also ran into the remains of a wild colt that looked to be no more than a couple of months old and dead no more than a day or two. A massive turkey vulture was picking away at its skull. My mood could have gone further south at that point, but I caught sight of some magnificent blue herons perched in some cottonwoods nearby. That snapped me out of it.

I backtracked, started praying simply and calmly, and explored a whole new route. Ten minutes later, I popped out on a spectacular stretch of the Verde River.

Maybe it’s the fact that I live in the desert, but I get downright joyous around any body of water. Thankfully the Verde River delivered and was flowing wide and strong. I trekked up and down the banks for miles, exploring every little unspoiled nook and cranny. It was still a chore to quiet my thoughts, but got a whole lot easier as time passed and I basically wore myself out.

I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that I saw at least 100 different species of birds, raptors, and waterfowl including some I’ve never spotted in Arizona. I also ran into many free-range cattle grazing and drinking from the river, including a massive steer with a spectacular set of long horns. That one reminded me of the fake steer head that used to hang above the entry to that steakhouse and I had to let out a big chuckle. God is good.

As the time slid by, I started noticing smaller and smaller details, including some curious green frogs that let out a little sound like a bird chirp as they dove into the water. I also ran into an enormous mushroom that defies description, flourishing in a shady spot. As for those cattails, they were simply the largest I’ve ever seen anywhere. Truly, it was like stumbling into some kind of lost world… the kind we used to read about when we were kids.

I must have sat there by the river for a couple of hours while the silt settled back to the bottom and the waters cleared. Yea, I smoked a good cigar too, which didn’t hurt either as far as I was concerned.

Eventually I got back on my feet for the final stretch and sipped the last of my trail water. What makes the final stretch so great is the fact that I’m contentedly beat from the exertion, thoughts at peace, and I’m heading for home.

Just before reaching the car I stopped to rest on a leaning tree, which was fortunate, because I had the opportunity to notice one more small detail around a busy ant hill.

Having already experienced such a diverse slice of flora and fauna, I was somewhat surprised that I was so riveted by the little scene. At first glance they looked so frantically busy, but then I began to see how purposeful they all were.  I would even say, peaceful.  True, it was virtually impossible to recognize any distinguishing features from one ant to the next, but it struck me quite profoundly that God knew every unique feature and purpose of each ant, right down to the smallest of details we can’t even begin to fathom.

What a journey! From the heavy weight of Drudge headlines and other worrisome thoughts to the simple wonders of mere ants.  The ride home was awesome!

The enemy never tires of throwing rocks into the pool of our thoughts to disturb the peace. Some folks seem to be able to snap right back, while others like me have to trek all over the place –– repeatedly –– to get back on track. Hey, whatever it takes, but I think that Our Lord is always patiently trying to show us a better, or rather the best way.

I just wanted to share that with everybody. If nothing else, it just reminds me that none of us are ever alone. Ever!

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