FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: LOST IN YELLOWSTONE (CHAPTER 25)
“Lost letters, a horse named Roxy, and The Virginian.”
We had traveled a long way, and the end was almost in sight.
This Thursday had been the most eventful day of all, and we had put many miles behind us amidst it all. I was not finished with meeting a variety of individuals this day, even after amazing visits with Moffit and DiMaggio. Although I saw no more bears that evening, we still would meet up with plenty more irony. Knowing the wooded-type of terrain I was in, and the lateness of the evening, I am sure more Grizzlies were about, though. While the excitement was unmatched, I think I was more than glad to settle for the irony the rest of the way.
About an hour after meeting the Grizzly, a young hiker came toward me heading south. It’s funny how much you learn about a person when you meet them on the trail, even when the encounter may be only two or three minutes. This young hiker’s name was Jake Griffin. He was twenty-nine years old, unmarried, an avid hiker, and on a month-long hike through the Continental Divide. One thing I noted as I thought back to all my hiking encounters: There were no amateurs out on these trails, obviously, except the one who hails from a little town south of Dallas.
As he came close to me, Jake called my name, more in the form of a question than a statement. I affirmed that I was he, and he greeted me with a protein bar and began telling me of meeting Todd on the trail some ways ahead. Todd, clearly concerned with my safety over the last eight hours, sent Jake ahead with the bar hoping he would run into me. Jake and I visited for a few minutes; and when he got ready to head on to get to his campsite before dark, I reached into my bag and found one of my Isaiah 40:31 cards I carry with me wherever I go, and handed it to him, with my blessings. Then he was on his way.
I’ll jump ahead and tell you of something funny that happened regarding Jake a couple of weeks after we got home. One Wednesday night, a friend at church handed me a letter that had come to the church’s address for me. I was curious what was in it because it had a Gaithersburg, Maryland address. When I got home and opened it, I was pleased that it was from Jake. He wrote a nice note in the letter, and he also included two of the pages of the journal I had written on this Yellowstone adventure. I had looked for those pages, but they never surfaced. Jake found the pages on the trail about a mile or two after he and I had met. Even though the pages do not have my name on them, he knew, of course, that they belonged to me, which is a little funny. I’ve laughed and told people that I think I was the only one in the wilderness who had a pen and paper. At least, I never saw anyone else produce either. I think the pages must have fallen out of my bag when I eased to the ground to find my bear spray when the Grizzly came out. My eyes were so fixated on our Grizzly friend that I probably never even looked down when I walked up the trail toward him.
I was curious as to why the letter came to the church’s address in Red Oak, until I remembered the card I gave Jake had the church’s address on it. As soon as Jake found a post office, he mailed them to me. I told him when we met that I would befriend him on Facebook, and he said he would look forward to it, but it might be a couple of weeks before he got to a place where he could get reception. I had forgotten his name, though, because, for some reason, I did not write it down.
Often when I pray now, I mention all of these hikers we met on those trails deep into Yellowstone. As avid hikers, professional hikers, really, I can only imagine how the families of the Jake Griffins and Mr. Moffits of the world feel with their loved ones out so far into the wilderness. In many cases, they may not hear from them for weeks.
Something else that I would learn only after escaping that wilderness: Several hikers this same summer came up missing, some of them hikers in various parts of Yellowstone. Other accounts surfaced from Tennessee and Alaska. Some of those hikers ended in tragedy, sadly. There also were several bear attacks throughout the summer. Some would survive to tell their story, others would not. These sober thoughts remind us of just how treacherous hiking trails so far away from anyone are.
Those thoughts make me appreciate Jake’s letter even the more, not only because of the irony of finding my notes – and the friendliness to take the time to send them to me – but also because my young friend had made it safely thus far on his summer’s adventure. I now follow Jake’s blog on the internet as he braves that part of the world alone. Perhaps the card he carries with him will remind him that a tired hiker he met briefly on the trail one Thursday evening still remembers to say a prayer every now and then that he will make his journey safely back to his Maryland home. The prayers are merely returning the favor, really. That eventful week the good Lord had answered the many prayers that were lifted up from Texas and from a couple of friends waiting anxiously for us outside the Thoroughfare.
Of the many things this journey turned out to be, I will not forget that at the top of that list it was a prayer journey.
I had another surprise coming half an hour or so after Jake went on his way traveling his world.
I continued to move slowly, exhausted but not so much that I had any trouble keeping on going, even though I feel I had gone up to ten miles that day. But I was about to receive an unexpected reprieve. Out of the blue, an older man came up the trail riding a horse and stringing another one behind. I don’t even remember seeing or hearing him coming until he was right on me.
“Are you Steve?” he asked, and immediately, he reminded me a great deal of actor Robert Duval. My very first thought was that he was a park ranger sent out to rescue us. We would learn the next day that a ‘rescue expedition’ would have been set up had we not come out of the wilderness by Saturday afternoon. That was a day and a half away.
I acknowledged to the man that I was Steve, indeed, and he proceeded to tell me who he was and how Todd had sent him to come find me. Then he said, “Jump on up here and let’s go for a ride.”
I managed to get up on the black horse that was tied to the horse he was riding. The horse was a friendly one, a black mare named Roxy. My Robert Duval friend rode a brown horse I learned was a Missouri Fox Trotter. His name is Dale Guilford, from Idaho Falls, Idaho, and he is an English teacher, track and football coach, and, clearly, a cowboy. For the last mile of Thursday’s marathon journey, I rode up on Roxy, gave my legs a much-appreciated rest, and had a literary conversation with a cowboy. Somehow, it all seemed a bit surreal to me.
Roxy was gentle, easy to ride, so it was a little like riding in a limo compared to the slow steps by which I had been trudging down the trail since early that morning. My time of meditation out on the Snake River in the early moments of this day seemed like a week ago. As we rode, I began getting the cowboy’s life story and saw quickly that he was a great storyteller with plenty of adventures to go with it. We discussed novels we had both read and taught and, especially “The Virginian” because my grandson Connor and I had just finished reading that novel a month prior to our trip. I knew Mr. Guilford would be familiar with that novel since he was an English teacher and a cowboy – and since we were in the state of Wyoming where “The Virginian” is set.
Wister Owen’s novel is one of the many great connections we have with the state of Wyoming, and, of course, we had developed many more connections and memories since we had finished the novel. It’s a beautiful thing to me to see life connect the way it has, magnified during the past five days of journeying through the grandeur of Yellowstone. Just in our meeting with Mr. Guilford, you think: How many people would you run across who are not only familiar with but have read Wister Owen’s classic novel – yet, just such a man came to me riding a horse named Rebel.
Long ago somebody got it right: Truth, indeed, is stranger than fiction, even if the fiction is as fantastic of a novel as “The Virginian.”