Blog Entry - 11.19.14

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Pictured above: (1) An old miner's trail winds up into Hell's Canyon. (2) One of many coyote dens along the way. (3) An unexpected encounter. (4) Fiery red rock outcroppings deep in the canyon. (5) Close up of tortoise's scarred armour. (6) The mercy stone.

The Stones Begin to Speak
Part I - Tortoise in Hell's Canyon

That is why I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart. I am going to give her back her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a gateway of hope. There she will respond to me as she did when she was young, as she did when she came out of the of the land of Egypt.
-- Hosea 2:16-17

There are seemingly endless things that can agitate us and cause anxiety if we let them, and yet there is a simple remedy if we only let go and let God. With that internal battle playing out in my head that day over 15 years ago, I fled to the desert for some sunshine, fresh air and peace.

The sunshine was as abundant as usual over my home which lies in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Arizona. The air was exceptionally fresh and clear from a recent rain and a favorably gentle breeze. The peace seemed elusive.

I was heading northeast across a stretch of raw desert, careful to avoid the jumping cholla cacti that were growing prolifically in my path. It was made all the more difficult by their castoff pads that littered the ground. Having been stuck by the barbed spines on numerous occassions, I knew that if I wandered anywhere near them they would easily 'jump' at me and imbed deeply into any patch of flesh.

I managed to hook up with an old jeep trail that continued up into a canyon with only two cholla pads lodged on the side of my boot. I paused to scan the distant mountains for any interesting features that might be worth exploring while I flicked the pads back into the brush with the tip of my knife.

There were in fact a number of striking features in the canyon off in the distance including some stunning red rock towers, exposed multicolored strata and thick desert greenbelt that ran the length of a deep and wide arroyo. It would be a long climb, but I was definitely in the mood for some strenuous exertion to quiet the angst and immerse in the deeper quiet that surely awaited in the remote areas off in the distance.

After another couple of miles the old jeep trail abruptly narrowed and was getting rougher by the step due to tailings littering the way. I spotted what looked like a small cave in the mountain above me, but figured it might be a mine because of the red tailings piled up at the entrance. Curious, I scampered up the steep rock face for about 100 yards and peered down an old abandoned mine shaft. Quartz outcroppings were abundant around the shaft, so I guessed they had been mining for gold.

There were a couple of other abandoned mines nearby that I explored as well. One cut directly down into the mountain. My best guess at the depth was about a 250 feet deep after I dropped a couple of rocks into the abyss.

From the higher vantage, I was able to take in more detail of the canyon stretching higher up to the east into Bell Pass. The sun illuminated a unique red rock outcropping about a quarter mile further up the canyon, so I dropped back down into the arroyo, careful not to slip on all the loose rock littering the side of the mountain.

I plodded on with a number of thoughts still swirling in my head, until the deepening quiet and solitude of the canyon began to present an opportunity for a new line of thought which centered on God and His great Mercy.

I passed a number of coyote dens cut into the soft clay of the arroyo walls with the very ripe scent of game on the air. It was midday with the sun shining brightly, so that old trickster of Navajo lore was bedded down for the day, waiting for the sun to dip beyond the mountains and the night hunt that was sure to come.

I paused there briefly with a great weight of sinfulness weighing me down and a great yearning for forgiveness building within me. Father!

Maybe I paused there only a brief moment, or perhaps it was quite a bit longer, but I'm sure I was simply held in the timelessness of God's now which was flush with His infinite mercy. Thank God.

Apparently not content to work that great mystery of grace on my soul and leave it at that, Our Father punctuated that moment with the perfect signal grace, one that He was certain I would understand.



The healing embrace of Our Merciful Father and the warming quiet was gently broken by the faintest of sounds. There was a little shuffling nearby, but I couldn't pinpoint the source. I took my time scanning the area up and down the surrounding wash until my eyes caught the slightest movement ahead and to my right.

Fancy that. It was a very rare and solitary desert tortoise with armour measuring roughly 18 inches in length. Surprised and delighted, I could barely move as a small stream of tears started to flow down my cheeks.

Tortoise was slowly plodding up Hell's Canyon, past some smelly coyote dens, with the greatest of effort. Upon closer inspection, I could see some scarring on the back and sides of his old shell, probably the result of battles with coyote who no doubt tried to make a meal out of him on multiple occasions.

Even so, there was tortoise looking no worse for the wear, and I couldn't help but marvel at this simple little creature of God's making, so perfectly and lovingly outfitted for survival in this harsh environment.

Okay, so I'm about as human as they come, and the little encounter at the tail end of the Big Encounter was the icing on the cake as it were. Truly profound and refreshing!

Invigorated, I headed further up into the canyon to explore that area that I had spied earlier from the higher vantage point.

Twenty minutes later I turned a sharp bend in the wash just past a large mesquite tree and came upon a secluded spot at the base of a massive red rock outcropping. For some reason, I simply felt like I had arrived, though I can't quite express why. It was a unique spot, not nearly as stunning as other scenery I had experienced in Arizona, but there was simply something compelling about it.

I rested there for about a half an hour as I took in the surrounding features and began to wonder who in their right mind would name this area Hell's Canyon.

In the soft sand and clay of the arroyo I could make out various tracks. Horses had been this way, so had the occasional hiker. There were fresh deer tracks and I could also make out the smaller hoove prints of javelina. Of course there were coyote tracks here and there as well.

Above me in the rock face was a small cave that sort of gave me the creeps. I decided not to explore it that go round, for fear of what might be holed up there. Maybe that was not very rational, but the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end.

The ocotillos were in full bloom with their marvelous little fiery flowers on the tips of long extended branches. In fact the whole desert was fairly green and fresh from the recent rains and it seemed as if a variety of curious little birds suddenly decended on the area with their talkative chittering and lovely bird song.

Of course I was surrounded by desert rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes, including one peculiar red rock that stood out in sharp contrast to all the others. Not entirely sure why, but I immediately came to think of it as the mercy stone.

A few yards past the mercy stone, just on the edge of the arroyo, I spied another pile of rocks that looked like it might have once served as a fire pit.

Hell's Canyon. Bah! For the time being, I started to think of it as Hidden Canyon.

I immediately set about clearing the fire pit and got down to the business of setting a very solid foundation for what was to become a massive rock cairn constructed as a tower measuring about five feet in diameter. On that first go round I managed to get it to about four feet in height and named it St. Patrick's Cairn for one of my patron saints.

Eventually tired from the handpicking and moving of some very large rock, but satisfied with the effort, I headed back down the trail wiith the intent of many more trips to the spot to finish the work.

The work maybe seemed a bit fuzzy and odd at the time, but it was slowly taking shape in my heart nonetheless.

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