For Sale: A Good Tent

I have a confession to make. Though I fear that this admission may lead to the recall of my Dahlstrom Card, for the sake of honesty and the all-important Need To Tell A Story, I make it here with fear and trembling:

I haven’t slept in my tent–or any tent, for that matter–in four years.

I’ve been outside, of course. I’ve trekked in the Dolomites and hiked regularly in the Cascades up until it a few weeks before my daughter was born, but none of my adventures in the last few years have involved sleeping outdoors.

Now, I’m setting the tent up in the living room, trying hard not to poke out any windows or eyes with the poles that stretch from wall to wall. Luci is fascinated and delighted, but I feel more conflicted. You see, I’m setting it up so I can take a picture of it, a photo that I’ll post in our community online flea market as I try to sell my precious tent. I try to feel like Jo March in Little Women, selling her hair to purchase train fare for her mother to visit their father, wounded in the Civil War, but I’m unable to avoid a sense of betrayal. My tent, which I’ve set up in a castle, which has visited the beaches of Normandy, may soon belong to someone else.

The truth is, I had actually thought this particular tent was lost until a few weeks ago, when Timmy discovered it lurking behind a suitcase in the rafters of our attic. Dusty but essentially the same reliable, simple tent is has always been, it seems to beg for more excursions. Why, it seems to inquire, has it been so very long? Yet its discovery led us to a trying and oft-repeated conundrum: Do we bring it with us?

Europe being a place of cheap, comfortable mountain huts, I’m not actually sure why it ended up here in the first place. I imagine that on some trip back to Germany, I had space in a suitcase and just knew that I was a Tent Person, and therefore must have a tent, easily accessible, wherever I lived. And I’ve used the tent a bit, though not nearly as much as I probably expected. There are, after all, the huts.

The tent takes up most of the living room when I set it up. I unzip the door and Luci walks in, amazed. To her, this tent she’s never seen is as marvelous as any cathedral. She actually gasps once she’s inside, peering out through the mesh windows and sliding her little feet around on the blue floor.

“Can you read me a story in this tent?” she asks, producing a book as if by magic.

“Yes, I can read you a story.” What are tents for, after all, if not for stories? I crawl in beside her, and begin to read Miss Rumphius for the hundredth time. I know it well enough that my mind isn’t on the story as I read, but rather wanders back to the last time I slept in the tent, almost four years ago, a time that made dragging the tent from one continent to another more than worthwhile.

Sunset in Montreaux

After the wedding of one of our small group girls, a recent graduate, my former (and last) roommate Emily and I spent three days camping in Montreaux, Switzerland. Our campsite was a large lawn on the shore of Lake Geneva, three kilometers from town, and we were camping because Switzerland–at least that part of Switzerland–is just too expensive to sleep in. So we were camping, at the end of my first four years at BFA, just a few days before Emily was moving back to Minnesota. It was trip for celebrating friendship, and four good years. She would soon move home, and I would come back to a school pared down of many of my closest friends and the students in whom I’d invested the most. It was a trip to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget our last evening in Montreaux, sitting by the lake and taking picture after picture of the most breathtaking sunset either of us had ever seen. After a while we stopped talking about it, stopped talking at all, basking in the rose gold splendor splashed on the water and sky. There were tears in that sunset, both of gratitude for the good years that we’d shared, and sadness for the end of this season. When the sun was really gone, a navy sky billowing in its place, one of us–I can’t remember now who–said:

“The thing is, there’s always another sunset. Even though this is the best one we’ve ever seen, there will be more.”

Confession: The last time I went camping was in 2014. It was with this dear friend, and it was grand.

And it was true then. For me there were four years of marriage, a baby and now another. She returned to new friendships and jobs, and built a new home. Later this summer, I’ll go to her wedding, a whole new sunset. We haven’t yet seen the best God has to show us.

Luci and I finish the story, and I take the tent down. She doesn’t want me to, and I don’t really want to, either, but since it takes up the whole living room it really can’t stay here much longer. As I roll it up, remember all the other times I’ve carefully folded and stowed it in its bag, I realize that this tent belongs to another sunset. That sunset, four years ago. Later, I’ll joke with Timmy that I have a five-year plan for tent purchases.

We’ll need a four-person tent within the next two years, I tell him, seeing in my eager daughter a future camper, and vowing that this next child will get on board, too. We will go camping together; it’s just what families do. Then, in five years, we can get another two-person tent, a lighter one for when we’re able to go backpacking again as a couple. This was just my first tent; it won’t be the last.

Long after the tent is put away, when I’ve begun to make dinner, Luci wanders into the kitchen. “That tent was good,” she tells me, a weighty declaration of approval.

And looking at her, her hour-old love of tents, it’s not the past camping trips I see, marvelous as they were, but the ones still to come, in a bigger tent, in a new place.

“It really was, Lu. It was a good tent.”


Thoughts From the Valley

“With every job when it’s complete
There is a sense of bitter-sweet
That moment when you know the task is done…”

Mary Poppins

Camping in the valley

February 2010. I’m crying in a theater in mid-town Manhattan.

Heeding the advice of one of my bosses from college, who regularly travelled to New York for business, I’ve taken this evening off from the International Baccalaureate (IB) conference I’m attending to see a show. During lunch I got myself to the Times Square TKTS box office, where I learned that my Broadway options included Mary Poppins, the clear choice for my evening of solitary fun. I got dressed up, went alone to a Thai restaurant and ordered food too spicy to eat, and then arrived promptly at the proper theater, ready for my first-ever (and last, at this point) show on Broadway.

The tears don’t come until the end of the show, which proves just as merry and quirky as the movie I’d grown up loving. With everyone else, I clap along to “Step In Time” and giggle at the escalating ridiculousness of the verses of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” The show ends, however, with Mary Poppins’s departure, as she sings the lines above and continues:

Though in your heart you’d like to stay
To help things on their way
You’ve always known they must do it alone

The valley

I’ve come to New York this week to learn how to be a better public school teacher, but I’m not sure I’ll be staying. In fact, I had an interview earlier this week with TeachBeyond, a mission specializing in global, Christ-centered education, an interview that is one more link in the long chain of events that could lead me not just away from public education, but away from Seattle, and the United States, entirely. Untethered by property, debt or a significant other, the timing is right to teach overseas. There’s also the nagging feeling of calling, the desire I once had to serve the children of those in ministry, who are trying to decipher God’s work in their lives and hearts in the midst of the details of a ministry-centered lifestyle. Children, if I’m honest, like me. I always wanted to teach them, and now I might have the chance, somewhere far away, like Germany.

As Mary Poppins bids Jane and Michael farewell, though, my eyes fill with tears, because I’m not running away. It’s been four years at my school in Seattle, and though we had a rough start, I’ve grown to love the multicultural, unpretentious, earnest place that is Ingraham High School. I love that my students know so many languages and teach me about the wide world beyond Seattle. I love that I get to show them that Shakespeare can be fun, or that Lord of the Flies is relevant to real life, or that a graphic novel can “count” as good literature. I love that we could celebrate together when America elected our first black president, and mourn together when I got laid off (and eventually rehired) at the end of my third year. It’s time to go, I’ve started to suspect, but I still love it.

Almost eight years later, the feeling is the same. I know it’s time to go, feel confidence in the strong, sweet longing for my daughter to grow up near her aunts and uncles and for Timmy to embark on a career in mental health counseling. I see the hazy outlines of good in the future, imagining unexplored delights and challenges. It’s misty and uncertain, imagined rather than assured.

Up to the pass we go!

I often imagine transitions as a mountain pass (a real, specific pass in central Austria, if you’re curious). We’re hiking upwards, unable to see or truly imagine what awaits us on the other side. We’re free however, to look back at where we’ve been, how far we’ve climbed. We can be thankful, or even a bit nostalgic, for the valley below us, a green meadow crisscrossed with streams and frequented by wild horses. Above us are clouds, rocks, sky, and the promise that if we keep going, a new 180 degrees awaits our exploration. I’ve never been disappointed by a pass, and I’ve never been disappointed by listening to God. It will be good, God promises, because I am good.

It’s not a guarantee, I know, that we’ll get to love all the places we leave behind, but that’s how it’s been for me, so far. I’ve never scrambled up the hill in retreat, thanking God for every step that takes me farther away. I’ve always been able to look back with gratitude, the bittersweet journey of moving from one well-loved home to another.

Today I’m savoring the valley, thankful. My students began the morning sitting on their desks, energetically reviewing for their final exam. “What are the influencing factors for realism?” someone almost shouts into the morning stillness. As they talk over each other, rushing to give the answers that they’ve memorized, I sip coffee and listen, amazed. Amazed that they care so much, that they’ve worked so hard, that I get to be their teacher. We have one more semester here, a semester I know will be full of details of packing, moving, job interviewing, and traveling. But I’m thankful for moments like this, too, times to look back with gratitude and ahead with expectation, keenly aware that God has been–and will be– very good.

For more concrete information about our upcoming transition, including ways you can be praying for us, see our most recent newsletter. Thank you, as always, for reading and journeying with us.

Where We’ve Landed

Hiking with Timmy and my dad in the mountains  around our new home.

Hiking with Timmy and my dad in the mountains around our new home.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.

John Muir, “The Yosemite”

After a supper of delicious hamburgers with my parents, I leave the chalet half an hour before sunset, turning right to walk up our short road towards its origin at the nearby Interstate. I walk towards a glowing mountain, Guye Peak, its rocks and trees shining in the day’s last light.

Our road isn’t a long one; tonight I’ll traverse every inch of it twice in under half an hour. Settled comfortably among fir and hemlock trees are steep tin roofs and fortified first floors, built to withstand the ten feet of snow that some winters bring to this mountain community, their long gravel driveways branching off of the main road like veins on an alder leaf. Some of the houses are inhabited year-round, and many are not. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to be lonely and quiet, solitude for better or worse.

You’d be wrong, though. Though this year will hold many things for us, some still hidden around corners we can’t foresee, I suspect that solitude won’t be one of them. By the time Luciana arrives in November, we’ll be six people and four generations in this chalet, a green-trimmed house with three bears painted cheerfully on its front. We are sharing space, coffee, the occasional box of peaches, catching rides together for errands to the nearest “big town” and the even bigger city, an hour away.

Timmy splits wood with the neighbors!

What’s more, this street itself is alive with community. Rain or shine at seven each morning, the neighbors gather with dogs and friends to walk to the mailboxes a half-mile up the road, swapping stories of the previous day and sharing plans for this one. Most of these long summer evenings see us gathering again, this time at the far end of the road, a cul-de-sac just a stone’s throw from the thundering highway, where someone has painted a pickleball court for our community amusement. There is a book club, regular movie nights and block parties. Already we’ve been invited to trivia night at the local brewery and a luau that was unfortunately postponed due to July rain.

Halfway through my walk, a car full of neighbors pulls up beside me, all of its windows rolled down. “We saw your sister today!” squeals a tiny voice from the backseat, upon which his parents eagerly tell of their trip to Seattle, which included a stop for cookies and coffee at Holly’s Danish bakery. The boys wave newly-acquired toys and tell of the wonders of the summer day, and the parents ask about Timmy’s trip to Germany and how I’m faring without him for these few weeks.

After five years in the overseas missions community, I’ve concluded that there are as many different kinds of Home Ministry Assignments as there are missionaries. Some spend twelve months traveling coast to coast, racking up the miles and the churches, sleeping in living rooms and sharing meals with far-flung friends, family, supporters and alumni. Others settle in one place, seeking the stability of school and community for their children. No two years are alike.

With Timmy’s internship at the VA hospital starting in September and a baby joining us in November, the scaffolding of our year is somewhat clearer than it was ten months ago, when we began planning for this season. There will still be surprises, we know, places where the expectation and the reality don’t line up as we thought they would. Still, we’re reminded daily that it is the grace of God and the support of many, many people that allows us this time, and grateful with each morning walk, each smile across the dinner table, to share this place with people we love.

The North Cascades

The North Cascades

A Sunset

Sunset in the Dolomites

Dreizinnenhütte in the Dolomites

…But I didn’t want to say
the heart breaks, even though I know
it’s true & the breaking
can be a good thing
sometimes, like the way
my heart shatters
a little each time
I think of my friends
& how lucky in life
I’ve been to get
to know them, to have
had the time to laugh &
drink & dance & to argue
& feel hurt too.

Gina Myers, “For N&K”

We wanted to watch the sunset. At the end of a long day of hiking, which took us from our Austrian hotel up and up, through echoing, stony valleys to this Italian pass at 7300 feet, we were exhausted but committed to the darkening sky.

I’d gone to Austria to hike with my parents, starting their 40-day trek through the Italian, Austrian, German and Swiss Alps. In the midst of a slow summer, I took the train across Austria, and now tottered up the trail behind them with my week’s worth of clothing, while they trotted along gaily, minimalist packs bouncing. We hiked much of the day, stopping for lunch in a sunny, green meadow and arriving at our destination, Dreizinnenhütte, a few hours before a massive three-course dinner. Full of the improbably delicious feast, we wandered outside with cameras and coats into the chilly evening, hoping for a show.

Dolomites 2Dad explored the top of the cliff, finding the best shots of the stony surroundings from every angle as the midsummer shadows lengthened. Mom and I sat down on a rocky ledge, our backs to a cliff and our feet far from the next edge. Across the valley, the Drei Zinnen–three battlements–stood in a stately spotlight, watching over the lodge perched precariously on the pass behind us. We leaned against the sun-warmed stone and watched.

And talked. For an hour or more.The sky changed from blue to yellow to pink, then again to blue, casting deep shadows across the wrinkled mountain faces before plunging them into black silhouettes against the last light. Far above, the first stars began to sparkle as our conversation deepened, like the night sky. To future, past, marriage and family.

Dolomites 3Though it wasn’t even a year ago, I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I remember basking in the luxury of a long conversation, side by side and gazing at a sunset instead of a computer screen. I marveled for the hundredth time at this wise, gracious and courageous woman who raised me, and felt the unspeakable good fortune of being her daughter, being here in the Italian Alps with her, sharing a sunset.

People used to ask me often–and now slightly less often–what it’s like to live “so far from home.” It’s a complicated question, more complicated than they know, because home has become huge, enveloping oceans and continents in its wake, borne all over the world by the people who’ve helped create it. But that night, up in the mountains sharing sunset and stories with my mother, that’s what I miss. The unpressured beauty of time in the same place. It’s rare and precious, not to be wasted or taken for granted when nights like that one come along.

Dolomites 4And even over the telephone or through the grainy windows of FaceTime and Skype, I am the most fortunate daughter. To have a mother who makes time across time zones, who listens and loves, who encourages me in this calling that’s taken me far away, and who has a home where we’ll bring our new baby into the world in November.

If I’ve begun to learn anything in this three-month venture toward parenthood, it’s been that life is unpredictable, and every day is precious. I’m sure that my 26-year-old mother, pregnant with her first child and moving to San Juan Island, never imagined that thirty years later we’d be sitting on a cliff in Italy watching the sunset. But we did, and for that, and for her, I’m endlessly thankful.

Hiking with my parents, summer 2014

Hiking with my parents, summer 2014

Waiting for Spring

Early Spring

Early spring forest


This is the spot:—how mildly does the sun
Shine in between the fading leaves! the air
In the habitual silence of this wood
Is more than silent: and this bed of heath,
Where shall we find so sweet a resting-place?

William Wordsworth, from “Traveling”

I walked the woods for months, looking for it. In the delicate, soft browns of the leafless trees. In the pale sky, crisscrossed with branches that let in every diffuse beam of monochrome light. In the damp earth, silent underfoot, without crunch of frost or splash of mud to whisper up from dusty boots. Spring was nowhere to be found, though winter had long ended.

Even back in Seattle days, spring was my least favorite season. I’ve grown fonder of it here, because warmth comes sooner and deciduous trees and wildflowers lend a bookend transformation to the splendor of autumn, but even so it doesn’t come soon enough. I am happy with winter–with real, colorless winters of snow and frost, mornings so cold they take my breath away–but sometime in March I stop wanting it.

I want spring to fall on us suddenly, like a screen at the back of a stage, a change of scene, temperature, everything. I don’t want to linger here, as with autumn, when I cling to the shortening days like the last leaves grasping their branches in a final splash of color. No, I’d like cold to warm, all in one go, please? Not William Carlos Williams’s “sluggish, dazed spring.” I want E.E. Cummings, “puddle-wonderful” and “mud-luscious.”

This March, deep in the frustration of early spring, I found out one morning that I was pregnant. Am pregnant. With the realization came delight and excitement, the new thoughts whirling around Timmy and me, our own little tornado of unfamiliar hopes. We whispered in the pre-dawn dark our prayers for this sesame seed of a person. It was a lovely moment, the first day of our spring.

And after that came the cold and rainy days, outside and inside. The new fears and worries, the sickness and weariness that I’d read about but never truly understood. Many days, it was only this sickness that reminded me something was happening, since there was nothing to see. I felt better when I was outside and moving, so I kept walking through my forests, still bare and bright and leafless.

One day I walked high above our town, to where a particular stand of trees fills a dent in the hilltop and the undergrowth is especially thin. On snowy days it is elegantly striped with white floor and black trunks. In autumn it is a blaze of yellow, top to bottom.

I hadn’t really come to see these trees on this lackluster spring day. This spot that I loved was simply on the way. Yet when I got there, though the slender trunks stood where they always had, the ground was completely new. Covered in fine green carpet, dotted with white and yellow stars of flowers. A bare forest, but not quite. There was life under my feet, all around me. Somewhere, a single bird was singing.

And I thought, this is me these days. Full of life I can’t see, but life real and important, all the same. Life below the surface, beginning slowly like the first spring days. How much easier to have it all at once. Not a baby right away, perhaps, but maybe a lovely round belly, with feet I can feel stretching inside of me, reminding me with undeniable kicks that something new is coming. Instead I wait, with the practice of thirty springs before now, for the new life I cannot yet see, or often feel.

Now, several weeks later, Kandern is soaked in warm rain, the leaves unfurling their highlighter greens on every branch, as promised. Spring always comes, even when I’m impatient. As for my spring, it’s lime-sized and slower in unfolding, but here with me all the same. Teaching me to wait, to hope, and to thank God for each new day of this new season of our lives.

Later spring

Later spring forest

Walking Towards Waterfalls

HikingThe trail turns steeply upward once we’ve left the road.

We’ve been walking along a creek in Lenk, Switzerland for a while, carefully skirting the edges of the path to avoid marring the smooth grooves of the langlauf, or cross-county skiing tracks. Now, the signs take us off the wide, flat track, into deep snow that clings to the side of a ridge.

It’s a brilliantly sunny Saturday in the Berner Oberland region of the Alps, where the entire student body and an entourage of about 50 adults have retreated for a weekend of laughter, teaching and worship in the mountains. I jump at the chance to go hiking after lunch, falling in line near the back of an enthusiastic group of students, eager to hike “to the waterfall.” That none of us have ever been there is no concern; we trust our guide, and besides, this waterfall is rumored to be frozen. We concoct grand visions in our imaginations, visions that now pull us up the hill.

IMG_3492I’ve grown up in the mountains, so this walk is familiar. Even after I left the Cascades behind for the hills of Seattle–Phinney Ridge, Crown Hill and Queen Anne–I’d get away every chance I could, seizing invitations to camp, hike and rock climb in the summer, to snowshoe and ski in the winter. I’ve never been on this particular path before, seen this particular waterfall, but I know what this feels like, sinking into snow up to my knees, peering up a wooded slope and searching for the horizon of the summit.

When we crest the hill, coming out onto a wide, snowy field occupied only by an icicle-edged barn, the students can talk and breath again. The path widens, and we walk side by side. I hear from a new junior about her home in Albania, the place she knows best of all. Former students ask me for book recommendations, and want to know why I became an English teacher. A senior tells me about her old school in Central Asia, which this year was performing a musical she loved.

IMG_3506“I used to do that,” she says. “The musicals.”

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

She nods thoughtfully. In many ways, she reflects, BFA offers opportunities she wouldn’t have had back there. But yes, it’s hard to leave it behind. Always hard to leave behind.

Our path takes us up a wide, gentle valley, as we follow painted poles through the snowy wilderness. I strikes me that I don’t know where we’re going, but I can imagine it, because I’ve been places like it before. My students, international and less lovers of the outdoors than I, have only seen frozen waterfalls on the Internet and, well, Frozen.

The same, I suppose, is true of the paths that they’re walking on now. I could imagine what college would be like, because I chose to go to one in the same city where I’d grown up. I hadn’t been a student, but I could readily picture the transition. The seniors I talk to as we walk through the snow, they’re applying to universities all over the world, many in countries and states where they’ve never even visited. One young woman tells me that she and her siblings live on three different continents.

“How is that?” I ask her.

“It’s… hard. But when we are together,” she adds with a grin. “Then it’s very special. Very close.”

IMG_3507I’ve been volunteering this year with a women’s mentoring ministry called Walking Together. When we named the ministry, we discussed how the most important mentorship often springs from our willingness to come alongside one another in whatever circumstances fill our lives.

As staff at Black Forest Academy, we wonder often what we can do to prepare our students for the transition away from here, how we can equip them with the faith, joy and strength to make them resilient followers of Christ wherever they go next. The short answer, I think, is that we can’t. We’re not the sources of faith, joy or strength. The best we can do is keep walking with them towards frozen waterfalls and foreign lands, sharing our lives and pointing them back to Christ, their strength and joy wherever they go next.

Prepared {A Place For Us}

My parents plan our next steps.

My parents plan our next steps.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-5

After dinner–a four-course Tyrolean meal that included prosciutto-cloaked melon and spinach späzle–I head back up the trail. I walk in flip-flops, eager to get out of the boots that I wore for 18 kilometers today. The trail is still uneven, just as it was when we came this way around mid-morning, and it’s colder up here than the valley in which we’d hoped to spend the night.

We’d hoped. That the huts we wanted to stay in–mountain lodges perched grandly on ridges, beside lakes, in the shadow of the spiny Dolomites–would have space for us. That the town to which we’d hiked instead would provide a charming guesthouse, with showers in Internet, where we could wash our socks and hair, check email, reconnect with the grim news of the world outside the Italian Alps. That each destination today would be our last, providing rest and restoration for the walking ahead.

I’m hiking with my parents, beginning their 40-day trek through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps. The first day, we hiked as planned, up a valley to Dreizinnenhütte, red and white and boxy, balanced on a rocky saddle in the middle of a Dolomiten panorama. It was spectacular. The next day of hiking brought its share of wonders, too, World War I bunkers buried in green forests, and new mountains unfolding with each pass, but at the end our hut was full. We stayed in a hotel that night, a prim, clean, Austrian affair down the road in a shady green valley. We heard the rains pour, and were thankful not to be in a tent.

Now, the third day, there were times when we longed for a tent, some shelter that didn’t depend on reservations, transportation or phone calls. Nine hours of wandering brought us down three valleys, back up one, then back up another, so that we’re only six kilometers from where we started in the morning. Tomorrow, we’re taking a bus and train to Austria. Italy is full.

I have the lyrics to a pop song stuck in my head as we walk, Mikky Ekko wailing “Hey, is there a place for us? Where flames flicker and wave for us?” We want places, safe and dry and warm, waiting at the end of the various journeys of which our lives consist. How comforting it must have been for the disciples when they remembered Jesus’ words, after the dinner they didn’t know would be the last, a promise that he’d not only prepared a place for them, but would take them there himself. There would be room, space enough for all who loved him, a place for them to be together again.

I reach the top of the valley, the point where the trail juts into the forest, and find a bench by a creek. The water is icy cold, sharp against my aching feet, so I sit down on the bench, a forbidding wall of stony peaks folding their arms in front of me, bouncers of the Dolomites.

It’s not just at the end–the beginning of eternity–that he prepares for us, I realize. This place, somehow, was prepared for us today. The last room in the last hotel in the area, this semicircle of mountains in front of me. We’re prepared for places, too. Twelve years of traveling in Europe led me to this day, making reservations in German and navigating Italian public transport. I think of the ways that Timmy and I have been prepared to work at Black Forest Academy, the years of experiences and education, chances and circumstances, that led us to Germany and to each other. Prepared.

In a week I’ll be back in the classroom, cutting out signs and rearranging furniture to begin the year. Preparing a place for students I’ve never met. In a year, Timmy and I will be somewhere new, somewhere God is preparing for us, preparing us for. Like this strange yellow house in the Dolomites, it may not be what we’re expecting now, not the destination we’ve picked out on the map. But Christ is preparing us, even now, for the next valley, the next journey.


The quest for Edelweiss Photo: Brett Milliken

The quest for Edelweiss
Photo: Brett Milliken

…Because teachers also have teachers. One of my favorite teachers, Hans Peter Royer of Tauernhof Bible School in Austria, lost his life last weekend in a paragliding accident. Remembering this great man and leader, the following memory from Upward Bound 2011 comes first to mind as I thank God for his life and ministry.

“I am thinking we’ll go look for Edelweiss,” Hans Peter says as we sit down at the table on the sunny terrace of Hofpürgelhutte. “Want to come?” 

Nat and I, with trays of schiwasser and warm apfelstrudel, raise our eyebrows. We’ve finished with climbing for the day, and the students are scattered around the yard, sleeping or reading or playing on the slackline until supper in a few hours. As instructors, we haven’t climbed much today, instead spending most of the morning and afternoon on the lookout for distracted belayers and nervous first-time climbers among our thirty-five Upward Bound students. Though it’s been a safe and successful day, full of personal firsts for many, at the end of it we’re not exactly exhausted.

“Yes. When?” Nat replies without hesitating. (“This is one of those things,” Nat says to me later. “Those things you don’t ask questions about. He says, ‘Let’s go pick Edelweiss,’ and you just go.”)

“We leave soon. Five minutes,” Hans Peter replies. Nat and I abandon our treats on the balcony, retie our hiking boots but take nothing with us, as we’ve been told. As usual, Hans Peter sets a businesslike pace up the steep path, which veers to the left of our climbing garden and traverses a grassy slope up to a ridge.

“There,” he points. “Up there in those rocks is where we’re going. That’s where the Edelweiss is.”

Edelweiss! Photo: Brett Milliken

Photo: Brett Milliken

Edelweiss-picking is typically the pursuit of young men, who climb to the cliffs on which the fuzzy white flowers cling, bent on bringing back impressive offerings to woo fair maidens. Austrian girls are apparently not impressed with mere roses; the flower’s worth increases dramatically with the risk taken to procure it. What we—two single women—are going to do with our Edelweiss once we find it is far from our thoughts as we trot behind Hans Peter up the path. This is a worthy quest, a rare Austrian adventure, and we were excited to seize it.

Further on, we meet the other three Upward Bound instructors, who’d set off with similar intentions, and they fall in with us. Hans Peter leads us to the left and up, towards an outcropping of rock perched on the green hillside. We can just see a small crevice, like a lazy yawn in a pointed face, where the sought-after flowers supposedly grow, and our quest arches that way.

I’d moved to Europe a year before, away from my own family and mountains in the Pacific Northwest, to teach English at Black Forest Academy. But here in Austria, at my summer job as an Upward Bound instructor, I find something familiar. Here again, I daily met the challenge of following someone up a steep path, confident that at the top there’d be a reminder that every breath, every step, every stone on these ancient mountains was evidence of the everlasting love our Creator has for us.

We reach the cave of Edelweiss just an hour before dinner, the late afternoon sun slanting golden in our eyes as Hans Peter instructs us to take “just one flower” and hold it in our teeth, so as not to crush it while we descend. Two years later, I’d give it to my fiancé, but without a recipient in mind just then I pressed it between Ecclesiastes 3 and 4. “A time for everything” on one side—my favorite lecture of Hans Peter’s, which still echoes back from the summer I was seventeen, myself an Upward Bound student—and “two are better than one” on the other, a passage I’ll hear read at my own wedding in December.

We spend a few minutes at the top, the panorama of sun-drenched Austrian and Italian Alps spread below us like a wrinkled green blanket. Buried far back in the cave, there’s a metal box with a guestbook in it, which we sign proudly, savoring the moment together before we head down for supper. We move more slowly on the way down, making sure of every step. Our leader tells us to grab handfuls of grass as we walk along, to anchor us to the hill in case we slip.

“This is dangerous,” Hans Peter comments matter-of-factly, peering down at the rock-strewn slope that ends, some twenty meters below, in the top of a cliff. “Really hold on here. With both hands, to the grass. It doesn’t look dangerous, but it is. Stay close, and hold on.”

The part of me that was once afraid of heights was numbed two decades ago by another mountain climber, my own father, but I believe Hans Peter’s warning. I know it’s dangerous, know that a hasty step could lead to a long fall. Our steps, then, are measured and slow, just behind those of our leader.

But, aware of the danger, I’m still not afraid. Because with Hans Peter, as with my dad all those years ago, it never mattered whether a place was safe or dangerous. Who I’m following makes all the difference.

Instructors on an adventure Photo: Nat Wade

Instructors on an adventure
Photo: Nat Wade

Reflecting today on Hans Peter’s life and ministry, this memory stands apart from all the lectures and lessons he taught me, of which there were many. Because this—following confidently the Creator of mountain, air and stone—is how Hans Peter lived, and how he taught us to live. Aware of danger but not controlled by fear, knowing that ultimately our safety lies in the love of Jesus, who keeps writing our story every day we follow Him, this story that doesn’t end in death, but goes on into eternity.

And even through the sadness of losing him,  I’m thankful for this teacher, whose life and words have rippled across continents and generations, and thankful for the God who promises that there are more glorious days ahead than this one I remember fondly, and that this goodbye–early as it is–is just for now.

The Shorthand of Shared History

Icicle Canyon

The sun is setting over the evergreen spiked canyon as we drive west of Leavenworth, Washington in the North Cascade Mountains. We’ve been climbing–my brother, sister, sister’s boyfriend, brother’s friend and I–for most of the afternoon, and now three of us are searching for a place to camp.

“Couldn’t we just light it with toilet paper?” Noah’s friend suggests, pointing to an outhouse full–as he sees is–of possible kindling.

“No, it won’t work,” Noah and I reply, almost in unison.

“What do you mean, it won’t work? Have you tried it?” he asks, incredulous.

“There’s nothing to it,” Noah explains. “It just burns too fast.”

“I can’t believe you’ve tried to burn toilet paper. I mean, who does that?”

“You don’t understand,” I laugh. “We grew up in the woods. We’ve tried to burn almost everything.”

Climbing in the North Cascades. This is summer.

It’s true. My siblings and I share a childhood in these same North Cascade Mountains, summers spent camping every other night, bashing around the forest without much destination in mind, and lighting fires with just about anything we could find to burn. This moment, driving to a campsite slightly sunburned after a day climbing on baked granite and basalt, feels sweetly familiar, all the sounds and smells of this valley pointing to childhood and, more importantly, to summer.

I realize–as we try to explain that purchasing firewood is a rather excessive measure, when we’re in a perfectly good forest (“On the dry side of the mountains!”)–that Noah and I operate with a sort of shorthand, a secret language built on a common history. We know this will work, because we’ve done it before, dozens of times. Drive, hike, climb, rappel, belay? Build a fire with found wood? Fall asleep outside, when it’s dark, and wake up when we feel like it? Easy. It’s why we don’t run away from mice or snakes, why it takes a giant aerie of bald eagles to awake our fascination, why we decide not to set up a tent when it’s not raining. We’ve been doing this all our lives.

It’s an experience I share with my students at Black Forest Academy. Not the climbing and camping and Cascades, but the sense of bondedness that comes from a shared history, from someone else understanding where you come from, even if where you come from is fairly unusual. Our missionary kids, those of the unique heritages and indefinable origins, find this in each other, resting in this sense that a lot of their childhood is a little bizarre, but thankful to know that even this they are known and understood by others who’ve been there, too.

We arrive at our campsite, a titanic boulder overlooking roaring creek and sunset-stained valley. It takes only a few minutes to collect enough dry wood for a fire, only a few minutes more for Noah to transform them into a cheery blaze. We make smores as the sky turns from azure to royal to navy, falling silent as the fire stars appear and the coals burn low. I burrow deeply down into my sleeping bag, closing two myopic eyes one last time on blurry frost of a streetlight-less sky. My arms are sore, the wind is freezing my exposed nose, and what feels like the whole dusty mountain is braided into my tangled hair. Yet I fall asleep, at the end of this perfect summer day, thankful for such a place, such a childhood, such a brother.

Noah and his campfire.

Marker to Marker

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.

The Brothers Karamazov

Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come…

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

“We’re going marker to marker again today,” I admit to one of my teammates.

“You mean paycheck to paycheck,” laughs another.

“Marker to marker,” I insist, and it’s true.

We woke up this morning at Simonyhütte, at the base of the Hallstätter Gletscher to find a fine layer of snow dusting the ground. Our path for the morning took us higher, to where the fine powder became a thick blanket of snow, softening our steps and stinging our faces. As I checked the students before sending them on an icy climb over a lower pass on the north side of the Dachsteingebirge, our guide admonished me to put my gloves back on because “your fingers really could freeze off now. Keep them on.”

In the afternoon, we descended again into the wind and the fog, tied together and following in one another’s deepening footsteps, up and around

and then down the Gosauer Gletscher. I was thankful to follow, thankful for the compass and knowledge of the mountain guide to bring us down through the storm. I’d been up there before, on this very glacier, but very seldom during the day could I have found on the map just where we were. In the snow and the mist, it all looked the same.

Now we’ve left the glacier, and are hiking down through the moraine at its base. A century ago, this chasm held a thick strip of glacier; all that remains is a giant’s quarry, strewn sparsely with blue and yellow flowers. On a sunny day, like the last time I was here, I call this place austere and otherworldly. Today, we call it “Mordor.”

It would really be easy to get lost here, I think while I walk. The trail here is more of a suggestion than a path, and often it disappears entirely, when stones are just stones, and giant holes open up to swallow me. How easy it would be, in this visibility, to miss the hut entirely, to keep walking down and down, lost in the storm.

Then I see the markers.

Freshly painted, splashes of red on grey rock, this trail is the dotted line on a treasure map, so clear that I expect to see a red X painted on the roof of the hut. Sometimes they are far apart, these markers, so far that you need to stand almost on top of one and then turn around, slowly, until another pops into focus in a new direction. The trail is hazardous and hard to see, but the markers are always there, reminding us when we get there that we’re still on the right track.

And I think about walking with God, about how sometimes the way ahead it clear and simple, truly as easy as placing one foot in front of another. Yet how often the trail seems faint and mysterious, especially in barren places. I think about the markers, times and places that reminded me, surely, that God was with me. It’s not every step, not every day. But I can always see one ahead, or look back to the one I’ve just left, walking in the safety of God’s leading.

So the dotted line leads us, cold and weary, to the glowing windows of a beautiful place, our home for the night. From the doorway, as I wring ice water out of saturated gloves, I look back through the swirling snow, back up the trail we’ve just come down. Its twists and turns are lost in the grey snowflakes; its markers still shine faintly in July’s early twilight.