It was my first run into the desert since the boys were born. My worn-out Asics wobbled over the washboard road. Heart and lungs fought for equilibrium as I heaved the dry air and trudged a mild ascent. I needed some time alone – away from the people I love most.
My calves and quads began to burn. My chest flamed with the sting of oxygen deprivation, but I pushed ahead, anxious for solitude. At the top of the hill I stopped to take in the view. The west desert sank before me then stretched wide into a scape spotted with sagebrush. A cloudless sky rose like an enormous blue curtain above the blackened rock. I was entirely alone.
“Go to the mountains or the desert. It smoothes out the wrinkles in your mind,” I said aloud. My Dad read those words to me when I was a teenager. He held a Louis L’Amour novel in his lap and quoted Brionne, a wise cowboy father who tells his son to go to the desert (or the mountains) “whenever you feel that things are getting too much for you.”
And there it was – the desert – in all it’s lonesome glory. I hopped the fence (meant to keep motorists out) and passed a tiny sign that read “3 Fingers of Death.” Yikes. That sounds foreboding, I thought, as I watched the dusty trail trifurcate at my feet. It was like choosing Door 1, 2 or 3. I had no idea what was on the other side. But taking the warning as more fun than fact, I picked the middle finger and kept running.
Suddenly, the trail pitched and I slid sideways to stop myself from plunging six feet below. My legs trembled, untrusting. Phew. I’ll take these shifty legs over a mountain bike any day, I thought, as I squatted on my haunches to scuttle down the precipice that nearly sent me flailing into a full-on face-plant.
The trail emptied into a wash still wet from last night’s rain. The ground felt silty and soft. I ran thirty yards, looking back once to see my footprints in the muddy ravine, rounded a sandstone corner, then left the shadowy canyon behind.
Sunlight drenched my face, poured into the cells of my skin and warmed my home-bound frame. I felt more alive than I had in months. Settling into a comfortable gait, I found that steady respiratory state, and ran.
When I run alone, words come. Ideas creep in and solutions rise out of the foggy mix. Leaving the edge of civilization helps me shed whatever has been keeping me from God. It isn’t always easy. I have to be ready for what I will hear – that there are doors I need to open, mud to wade through, paths I must travel with caution. But always, the wrinkles that tend to obscure my vision or unsettle my peace are smoothed flat and I recognize His voice.
There is a reason God’s prophets have always gone up into the mountains – why some of God’s most profound teaching has been done in the wild places. His children aren’t distracted there – they are accessible, alone. Even Christ chose mountains – often.
Something happens to our cluttered souls when we go up (or out) into the wilderness. We hear ourselves. The silence cleanses us, and God is free to speak.
With two babes at home needing to be fed, I slowed to a walk, stopped, and listened to the lonely. To the Holy held inside it. Then, turning east to retrace my steps, I padded a new set of footprints into the muddy wash.
Catherine K. Arveseth is a mother of five children five and under, has reviewed books for Meridian, and blogs occasionally for Segullah and Power of Moms.