One Great Love Story in the Making

All photographs in this post courtesy of Brenda Ahearn. https://brendaahearn.com/

“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”

It’s February, the month of love. As a newlywed who just experienced what I thought was the greatest love story ever told, what else could I write about other than the wonderful, terrifying, miraculous, tumultuous, confounding, thrilling, joyous topic of love?

If you had asked me on the momentous day that I said “Yes” to my husband-to-be on top of a mountain 6 months ago to describe what life together would be like today – almost three months after our bliss-filled-on- top-of-the– world-head-in-the-cloud-nine wedding day, I dare say my response would have been nothing close to the reality that is our life that we now live together today.

Mind you, we did things the old-fashioned way in that we did not live together – at all – before our wedding. November 24, 2018 was not only the happiest day of our lives but it also marked the beginning of a very different kind of living arrangement between two people that had been living quite happily and singly for an average of 31 years.

No, my enraptured response would have been much different than our reality. A response conceived through a culture- skewed filter of what not necessarily perfect love is but what normal love is – especially normal love ensconced in marriage. Despite having grown up with two sets of parents who loved each other – however imperfectly – and seeing couples in our social circles navigating married life with what we assumed was aplomb – we frankly had no idea what normal love in marriage was like. And apparently, our idea of what love is, let alone our idea of what is normal in love, is rather abnormal.

Within three months of our blissful wedding day my husband and I realized after many mutually restless nights and days filled with tormented thoughts that we were both castigating ourselves for not having a normal love-filled married life – although given the number of marriage counselors and self-help / couples-help books on marriage out there – no one seems to have a normal love-filled married life. In one book I read on marriage recently, it was stated that marital counseling, while prolific in our population, is the least successful form of therapy out there. I pity the counselors who must reflect on the numbers of couples they counsel who still end up divorced.

When the tension between us finally became more than we could bear, we spent another sleepless night talking it out into the wee hours of the morning. In doing so, we both experienced a marital epiphany of sorts. While we both had vowed to communicate with one another openly – no matter what – we were both too afraid to put into words the feelings that were brewing inside of us. Once out in the air we realized that these feelings were mutual – and the fact that we both shared the same fear about them seemed to cement our commitment to each other to keep trying. The first lesson of love in OUR marriage learned: communication is key and our love for each other is like no other and will look like no other.

As a culture, we are seemingly obsessed with the romantic run up to and creation of the epic wedding day that epitomizes and celebrates a couple’s love for each other. It would be interesting to compare the numbers on how lucrative the wedding planning and wedding production industry is with the marital counseling industry in all its manifestations – but space and time do not allow for that here. My husband and I kept our wedding celebration very low key and considerably budget minded. We were more interested in professing our love in a way that was true to who each of us was than having the party of the year – yet we still found ourselves getting caught up in the expectation trap.

Perhaps a wiser course on the way to marital bliss would be to recognize that the start of a relationship and its frenzied journey to the altar (or lakeside, or wedding hall, or beach) is not the high point; it is merely the first step in a much longer, more ambivalent adventure. A journey towards understanding our inner selves in relation to the one we love for the long-term that deserves far more attention than most of us would like to give.

When we said our vows, our hopes triumphed over knowledge – love was all that mattered. Knowledge would come later – after the commitment had been made. Knowledge was not intentionally avoided – we went through premarital counseling – we had the deep conversations we thought we needed to have – but nothing can truly prepare you for the far less romantic mundane aspects and minutiae of life together after the celebration is over and real-life sets in.

How, for instance, would each of us who were both very independent spirits, each proud owners of their own homes in which we relished our solitude, react and adapt to sharing that solitude with someone all of the time? Or, how would two people whose only companions within those respective homes having been two dogs (of completely different generations and personalities,) react to having those cherished companions in a constant argument with one another and furthermore have those companions get scolded by our beloved??

Perhaps we should have been talking about how we felt about putting a used coffee cup back in the cupboard since it had only been used once instead of putting it in the dishwasher; or how we interpreted one of us spending their evenings lost in books and music while the other recharges with football on the big screen, or when two people who are used to silence at home are suddenly sharing a home – what happens to the silence and what happens when that silence grows (oh my!) – than spending our precious pre-wedding time searching for a rustic unity candle that exemplified our perfect love for one another!

Each of us is unique and every marriage is unique – and our understanding and view of love and what is normal in a marriage will be just as unique. Our ideal of what love is – formed by a culture that romanticizes and materializes every aspect of it – dares to threaten and diminish the love that was so alive at the beginning. The idea that there is a perfect way to love and a perfect formula for marriage is just wrong. But, these conflicting narratives are everywhere – in movies and songs – great forms of literature and greeting cards – even jewelry and breakfast cereal commercials, and they fly in the face of the normal-for-us love that survives and thrives amid our conflicting schedules, tired minds, long workdays, differing fiscal philosophies, and dogs that don’t get along.

As author and founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton, said in a recent On Being interview, “We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.”

Nowhere, other than through firsthand experience, do we learn how love deepens and stumbles, survives and evolves over time. Love is at once a painful and perplexing, touching and revelatory attempt by two flawed but earnest individuals trying to meet each other’s needs in situations of frustrating uncertainty and stubborn ignorance that neither of us had really contemplated before. No one had the nerve to tell us that our feelings of angst and conflict towards one another in the process of loving one another have much more to do with ourselves than what is wrong or right with our partner as we prepared to walk down the aisle.

Nowhere are we taught that love grows in the disappointing and the mundane moments of our day to day life just as much as it grows in the romantic, playful and joy-filled times.  If we all could have that insight, we would be starting our married lives off from a much more generous starting point.

Being a human being and trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship is challenging no matter how well-matched the couple may be; there is no such thing as a perfect match; and every couple will encounter problems. Love is something we have to learn and keeping learning from. What challenges us the most we learn from the best. Love is not just an emotion, it is a skill acquired through time that requires patience, understanding, tolerance, generosity, imagination, courage and hope.

Frederick Buechner’s words on marriage inspire me to believe my husband and I are enjoying one great love story in the making:  “They both still have their lives apart as well as a life together. They both still have their separate ways to find. But a marriage made in heaven is one where they become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.”

Our marriage continues to be a beautiful risk of the heart made with complete confidence in one another. We are learning to appreciate each other’s individuality, flaws, and imperfections as they are every bit a part of the wonderful person we fell in-love with and married. We are triumphant with hope and growing in love and becoming more richly ourselves together than either of us ever could have become alone. May you be blessed in such a way  as well – no matter where you are in your relationship with the one you love.

~ ~ ~

A reading from our wedding ceremony:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

–  Colossians 3:12-17

 

 

 

Mountain Envy

“The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”

My father always told me that envy was not becoming to me nor would it do me any good. “Just because so and so has (you name it here) doesn’t mean that you need to have it nor deserve to have it.” My mother grew up in a family of 10 and lived in a railcar until she went away to college. Aside from her love of fashionable clothing – much of which she sewed herself – she delighted in the simpler things in life. She did not need grandiose experiences or the next best thing to make her happy and neither did our family. Growing up with this household ethos, I learned to accept and be thankful for what our family did have. I still take a great deal of pride in being satisfied by the simpler things in life and place more importance on the relationships I have enjoyed than any possession I might acquire.

These values became even more ingrained when I moved to the Flathead Valley of NW Montana 5 years ago, but I also realized that same contentment had limited the expanse of my horizons. There was a lot more to life than I had been allowing myself to experience. I discovered a zest for doing things I had never done before – like climbing mountains and letting my wanderlust go wild. The experiences inspired in me an unquenchable desire to explore and challenge myself physically and mentally. Not only was I doing something that brought me joy but I was also meeting wonderful people along the way. The best part of this new discovery was I had become a do-er rather than the contented watcher I used to be. This new zeal extended into other areas of my life too – I found myself saying yes to things I had always just thought about doing. Singing in Choirs (plural), joining Toastmasters, pursuing my Lay Pastoral Associate license, and volunteering for various organizations and events. Saying yes can become addicting and, as I found out at one point, can quickly lead to overwhelm and burnout – but for the most part – saying yes simply opened doors to opportunities that in the past would have passed me by.

And therein lays the rub – while pursuing one profound opportunity this summer, other passions and opportunities have been passing me by. I can’t do it all. This has been a difficult reality for me to accept. Normally, I would have accumulated, at the minimum, 100+ miles worth of snow and dust on my hiking boots by this time of year but alas, I surrendered my mountain adventures to a higher calling of sorts. While my hiking buddies have been climbing to mountaintop after mountaintop and posting stunning photos all over my Facebook feed every weekend, I have either been studying or writing sermon after sermon and cramming my other duties into the few hours I have outside of work all year long. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to use my recently attained Lay Pastoral Associate license to its full extent while my pastor is on sabbatical this summer. There really is nothing I enjoy more than dwelling in the Word, writing about it, and now preaching it (I still have to pinch myself!) except maybe contemplating those words on top of a mountain.

So yes, I will make a full confession here to harboring within my soul a severe case of mountain envy.  As unbecoming as it may be, after seeing the beauty of blue skies and majestic mountains only through the eyes of my fellow mountain lovers – my home – work – church existence has been getting to me. I longed to escape, to behold what I couldn’t, to experience what I didn’t have time for – a dirty mountain trail and the endless vistas I had coveted from my computer screen.

And when I finally, FINALLY, got the chance to hike my favorite hike recently… there were no beautiful blue skies and the mountains were enshrouded in smoke. I would like to say that I sucked it up and didn’t pout – but then I would be committing yet another sin on top of envy – deceit. Recalling my friend’s (who don’t work in the summer) joyful posts from the day before – ONE DAY mind you –  showing the bluest skies I have ever seen (ok, so maybe I am milking this…) and abundant wildlife (bears and moose galore) did nothing to help quell my urge to stomp down the trail with a welt in my throat and moistened eyes. Thank goodness it was a solo hike!

 

 

 

 

16 miles of a smoky Many Glacier day lay before me. The long, pre-dawn drive to the trail head is what kept me motivated to go on. And go on I did! Because I am doer now, remember?  Besides, it is hard to stay mad or miserable on a mountain trail (unless it is raining, then I am mad and miserable!) As I walked (note I wasn’t stomping anymore) I could feel my clenched jaw slacken and the tension between my shoulders ease. I have completed or attempted this hike three times before. The first time being the only time I actually made it to the Swiftcurrent Lookout. The other two attempts were thwarted by forces of nature I could not control. This time, the only force I had to contend with was my attitude and as it would turn out later – smoke. I determined I was not going to be disappointed again. But I still had this bitter taste of disappointment that lingered as I passed by lakes reflecting nothing but greyness and made my way up the switchbacks with repetitive views of a grey valley diminishing the higher I climbed.

“Why, oh why couldn’t you have made today be a good day?” I demanded of God.

By the time I made it to the pass, I was in a severe depression – not because of any emotional issue I was dealing with but from the smoke wafting in the air blighting the sun and blunting out any view while telling a story of fires burning again somewhere.

Another mile straight up now and I would answer the Lookout’s beckoning. I started on my way.

“But really, why?” I kept thinking. Is this some sort of obsession I have with making it to the top? It started to rain. I turned back for a moment and then in defiance I turned around and continued on. The wind started to howl – how could it be so windy and still be enshrouded in smoke? And then my lungs began to burn and my eyes water. It was 7.5 miles back to the trailhead and I had had enough.

I sat down on a protected ledge and had my lunch as I gazed out at a darkened valley.  It was delicious. And God finally answered me.

“What makes you think today isn’t a good day?” was all He said.

Feeling a bit convicted, I took a swig of hot coffee, gathered up my gear, and glanced up at the lookout in the grey yuck above me. “I win,” I declared, “and I am going to enjoy the rest of my hike.”

With a skip in my step I made my way down to the pass where I met a couple from Texas who were freaked out because apparently a bear had been following me.

Then I saw a cow moose and her baby, and I met longtime friends who were hoping to make it to the pass but weren’t sure they could, and I found the most beautiful patch of wildflowers blooming vibrantly under the grey skies.

A hint of sun broke through just as I made my way down the still flowing creek bed and shone on a lone stem of fireweed. It was a magnificent photo.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels stopped and posed for me, sharptails strutted for me,  and tree branches created the perfect frame for an exquisite waterfall shot.

The grand finale was a majestic bull moose bathing in grey waters and putting on quite a show for my appreciative eyes.

It was a good day! I laughed as the sun came out for the last 2 miles – making the forested walk glisten and the birch bark glow. I was reminded of my father’s words, “Envy is unbecoming” and added some new-found wisdom of my own – it will wreck your day. No matter how much “better” someone else may have had it, your present is all that you have. Make the best of it and you will find much more joy on your journey of being a doer.

 

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013 were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh as I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.

As I pulled out of Billings bound for the far northwest corner of Montana, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that came with saying good-bye.

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free. I had no idea what awaited me in the year and years to come. Yes, I expected change but nothing as dramatic as the changes to the entire dynamic of my life that would unfold. Little did I know that those last moments with my family in the early dawn light would be one of the last times we were all together and filled with happiness and hope.

Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving a well-paying job for what I hoped would be a career that used my talents and challenged me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning five years ago. I realize now that I am a very independent spirit with a heart that longs to be shared. My treks into the mountains seeking ever-higher peaks and grander vistas reflected the journey I was taking personally. After years of living a regimented work-a-day life, I discovered this crazy, wonderful, selfish desire to play! I still panic with realization that time slips away quickly and I wasted a lot of it in the past doing every-day, comfortable, and safe tasks rather than challenging myself, taking a few risks, and having fun. While I refused to be fenced in as I grew into this new sense of self, I desired boundary lines I could grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

In the five years since that moment of independence was celebrated, I have come to know the joys and sorrows of self-discovery. The things I once valued in life have been tested. I have come to know the depths of grief and heart break and had to navigate the roughest waters of my life on my own. I questioned my direction, my reason for being, the quality of my character, and the choices I made. In the wake of more loss than I had ever known in my life, the light that had always filled me was put out in the storm. I walked in darkness but fought for the light. I never doubted that God had a plan and purpose for this proving period of self-examination and self-revelation.

Eventually, I found my way again – led by a light that was so much brighter than the darkness that had enshrouded me. I learned to accept the compassion of others and as my spirit healed my horizons brightened and expanded.

Today, I walk stronger and surer of who I am – a child of God, a woman of faith, and journeyer of the heart. I am pursuing my passions and callings with a confidence  acquired through the fires of life.  Learning to share my heart again is where I am now. The independence I embraced 5 years ago bears little resemblance to the freedom to be, to love, and to grow that I live everyday now. Relationships matter so much more to me than the need for boundary lines and control. Each day presents an opportunity to enrich a life and mine in doing so. Yes, I get caught up in the chaos of life – one that is more wonderfully chaotic than I could ever have imagined it being when I pulled out of the driveway on that morning five years ago – yes, I can be overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenged by my choices – but the essence and outcome of both are positive growth and deepening commitment.

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, my Flathead friends, who are more like family, who gathered around me as I learned to live again after deaths of my parents, and for my brother and sister-in-law who remind me of where I am from and what I am made of.

While I have known times of great loneliness in this adventure of independence,  today, I rejoice in the wonder of love and such happiness and belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enrich my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventures that lay before me can exhaust a person at times. I gather that is why life reveals itself to me on an as needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all ends (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)

Thank you, Lord for sustaining me through this journey, for filling me with the bread of life, and giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143-7-12

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”  Isaiah 40:31

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“So, I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Let your light so shine!

“And Now for Something Completely Different!”

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.”

July 1 marked my one-year anniversary as a first-time home owner. Looking back at the frenzied week of financial stress I experienced preceding that monumental day in the life of Erika Morck I just laugh. How I managed to pull off getting my recently deceased father’s accounts transferred into my name and getting the cash ready to make the down payment is still a head scratcher. Fortunately, I was blessed with professional assistance from an outstanding mortgage company and responsive financial advisors and investment firms. I know I depleted a forest’s worth of trees in financial statements and other paperwork. And, even though I ground about an inch off my tooth enamel, the thrill of accomplishing this all on my own was liberating and I know my father would have been proud of his daughter’s conscientious business acumen.

I have learned much in this year of firsts – mainly that a plumber must have installed a high-flow spigot on my bank account. Handing the largest check I have ever written in my life over to the title company was just the beginning of the expenses. I have also learned that the freedoms that come with being a homeowner don’t mean that I will live a free life.  On the contrary, my relatively free and easy hiking every weekend apartment living lifestyle has been transformed to one of house and endless yard maintenance activities – all in the name of pride of ownership. My obsessive nature lends to hours of weekly weed eradication and taming the rebellion out of my lawn… In essence, I have become a slave to my once dreamed of source of liberation!

Yes, I bought the house with open eyes – but the driveway turned out to be much longer than I thought this winter and the yard much bigger than my future-puppy mommy eyes led me to believe. Alas, I do love the new me – somewhat domesticated, still lively, but much less restless in my quest for roots. I have been firmly planted on my nearly ¾ acre of paradise.

Add to all this domestic bliss a final year of theological study – and now filling in for a pastor on sabbatical on the side of a 40 hour a week job – and my life has pretty much become devoid of spontaneity and spunk. And lately that has been getting to me. Consumed by deadlines and responsibility, I have forgotten how vital play (aside from entertaining the pup) is to our well-being.

And so, it was with a bit of tongue -in-cheek anxiety that I said to myself: “And Now for Something Completely Different,” threw caution to the wind, and said yes to a Social Distortion of epic proportion (at least in my quiet little neck of the Symphony society!) Abandoning my usual “control of the situation” modus operandi I allowed 2 days of my life to be planned by someone else – someone I trust with all my heart mind you – but still – this is something completely different!

Embarking on a 2-day midweek (mind you!) auditory adventure the likes I have never heard nor willingly seen before or even remotely fathomed, this church-lady was about to get her groove back.  Bound for Spokane’s Knitting Factory and the Historic Davenport Grand Hotel, the journey began with a stop at Kootenai Falls and a walk on the swinging bridge.  On to Idaho we spotted and snorted at the microcosm of wealth tucked into the beautiful little burg of Sandpoint, ID with it’s very “now” drive-thru convenience store and stately “cabins.”

Then the reality of the big city hit us as 6 lanes of traffic ushered us into Spokane at a snail’s pace with construction detours all over the place! Needless to say, my hands gripped the steering wheel as I tried to remember learning to drive in downtown Denver. It should have been a piece of cake but that was 30 some years ago and a lot of small town living in between. My perseverance paid off big time when we finally found our way to the “grandest hotel” in Spokane. Built in 1914, this world class wonder did not disappoint!

I reluctantly handed the keys of my bronze baby to the valet – never in my life have I had my car valeted before! We did decline the tuxedo wearing bellhop’s offer to carry our 2 duffle bags to our rooms. I honestly would not have known what to do with my hands!! I stood agape in complete awe of the soaring architecture complete with gilded columns, tiled ceilings, and gold faucets shimmering in the candelabra lit bathrooms.  I felt like a princess and even better, was treated like one!

 

We had a few hours to kill before getting our eardrums blown, so we strolled along the beautiful river-walk downtown, window shopped and store snooped, and then decided to find food. Google maps was NOT our friend in this instance. In search of “locally-sourced, award-winning cuisine in a relaxed yet intimate atmosphere” we found ourselves walking in what my mother would have called the “red-light district!” That was decidedly not what we wanted on our menu so we opted for the Spaghetti Depot complete with railcar booths and 2 kid’s birthday parties.

It was now time for the main event – one of my companion on this adventure’s top five bucket list items – to see the iconic 3-decade plus strong punk rock and roll band Social Distortion. Now I know, this is not normal Erika fare, but I must admit that they have something here!  And, as I said before, it is high time for something “completely different” in my life. Really.

We started the night in the balcony but quickly decided that the main floor front of stage vantage point – also known as the mosh pit – was where this epic moment in our lives would take place. Yes, really. Their searing guitars and heavy locomotive rhythms shook me from toe to temple – as did the crowd. But I rather liked this all-but-perfected mix of punk, bluesy rock n’ roll and outlaw country.

The rest of this two-day spin through spontaneity consisted of wondering what happened the night before, restoring my hearing, hiking along Lake Coeur D’Alene, and making the long drive home. Arriving at my doorstep I felt like I had just lived more life than I have in the last 2 years in just two days. It felt wonderful! Invigorating! My mind not only felt refreshed but stretched.  Indeed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

If variety is the spice of life, bring on the flavoring! I am hungry for more and feel as if a wall has come down opening up a whole new dimension in my life.  My sermons will even be written from a slightly different perspective now!

The moral of this story – anything done over and over again – even activities that bring you joy – lose their pleasure impact. There is also great truth in the saying “All work and no play make Erika a dull girl.” It is good to let go and dare I say – go a little crazy at times! Life is meant to be lived fully. When I take a final stock of my life someday in the far off distant future (I hope!!) I won’t remember how perfect my lawn looked on July 14th, 2018 but, I will remember the absolute glee of getting my groove back to the roar of electric guitars and the wonderful self-discoveries made along the way.

Let your rebel light so shine!

A Life in Full Circle

Growing up, Mom would fill my head with stories about her summer days as a young woman spent at Whitefish and Flathead Lakes. Her stories were filled with the wild escapades of a college girl serving as Dean of Women at Flathead Lutheran Bible camp ( Lutherans can get a little crazy, ya know) and the life of a nanny for a doctor and his wife’s little girl at Camp Carefree – where luxurious homes and Whitefish Lake Lodge now sit. These stories served to educate me on the “ways of the world” and what I certainly “must never, ever do!” but secretly, I cherished those glimpses of the woman who would become my mom. I wish I had known her back then. Perhaps she was a bit like I am today, trusting, a tad naive, full of dreams, with a playful side burning to be set free. When she told me these stories I never dreamed that I would one day be living on the stage where all these adventures and life lessons played out. 

Last night I stood gazing into the placid waters of the lake she so loved. I wondered if her thoughts might have mirrored mine. Did the quiet lapping of the water slow her heart and quiet the frenzy of life? I wondered if she could really see me now, her daughter, living out adventures and learning lessons in life in the same place she found her independence. Fortunately for me, the lessons I am learning are ones that my life will be built upon. Lessons of perseverance, patience, and promise. Lessons of storm, sorrow, and strength. Lessons of a life filled with love. 

Oh Mom, I wish I could share these days of my life with you. I wish I could see your smile and yes, even your jaw clench with worry again. I wish I could tell you MY stories and the lessons I am learning from them. I wish we could have, if only once, walked along these lakes that so captured both of our hearts. I would give anything to sit next to you in silent appreciation of the grandeur of God and wonder at the sweetness of life. 

Thank you for most of the lessons you taught me. I really did listen and now I appreciate them for what they were and are – your love for me and your hopes for the best for me. You can rest assured, your hopes have come to fruition. I miss you, Mom, and I love you more than words can say.

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.

An Adventure to Remember

This post is a month overdue in celebration of my 3rd Anniversary as a Whitefishian (August 14th), however, as today is the last day of summer I thought it was appropriate to post at least one epic adventure I enjoyed this year. Here’s to mountain enigmas, escapes, escapades, and and another season of life in the books.

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Such a serene beginning.

“Oh! My back!! My back! I think its broken!” she screeched as her partners congregated around her and jumped back and forth wondering what to do other than scold and laugh at her. Eventually one jumped to her aid and freed her from her agony as the imposing pressure was lifted and she scampered away, breathless but seemingly all in one piece. She would live to eat another nut.

And so on a perfect, bluebird sky morning, I began my much anticipated, dreamed about, read about, planned for, trained for, prayed about, stayed up late waiting to get on the much prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse. You see, I have had more than visions of sugar plums dancing in my head during my last three years of living in paradise. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse has captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. And finally this was the day, on my 3rd Anniversary of being a Whitefishian no less, that my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

The sun was just starting to warm the cold mountain air as it made its way around Going to the Sun Mountain. Cars filled with die hard explorers and nonchalant goat watchers were already filling the Logan Pass parking lot and it wasn’t even 7am! The busyness of human beings preparing for the business of conquering this sanctuary interrupted the sanctity of this mountain morning and in the heat of it all, a family of ground squirrels found themselves dancing and darting around me until one sorry squirt of a squirrel slipped under my swiftly stepping foot and got squished.

Just like that, within 200 feet of our transport vehicle, I had my first wildlife encounter of the day. Squealing myself, I instantly felt the weight of the world hang itself on my back pack – no way could that little lady have survived a squishing like that – and yet she did! Her sibling or suitor- I couldn’t really tell which, squealed right along with me and they both shot out from under my step with impressive speed.

Was this a sign of things to come? Perhaps. Alas, I had visions of my own mountaintop squeals – of delight mind you – spurring me forward, even as my cohorts had already shot ahead of me on the boardwalk, climbing to the Hidden Lake overlook.

Surprisingly, I found myself already sucking air – something I have never experienced before – I am a distance runner for goodness sake- the 20+ miles that lay ahead of me should be a walk in the park – no pun intended. Heck. I swiftly clamored up the boardwalk to Hidden Lake in the dark just last fall to watch the eclipse! Finally, as my lungs gasped in relief, the lake came into sight and it was time to shed my jacket – as fast as I could as my hiking mates were already heading down the trail in the shadow of Mount Clements.

14086448_1284313418259920_5606975740344039861_oI met up with two other blondes – one a fisherman and fellow Scandinavian I am sure with his long flowing locks and handsome outdoorsiness and the other – the first goat of the day… looking sublime in a meadow of flowers. The Norseman and I kept pace together all the way down to the lake far below and then parted ways as he took his place along the shore and I proceeded to ford the Fjord! Sigh… for a moment there I was in a fair maiden’s heaven!

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But THIS is where the story gets interesting. Once we crossed the inlet to Hidden Lake (which I did with aplomb!) the trail came to an end and the real adventure began. Bearhat Mountain loomed over us to our right and Reynolds Mountain soared high to our left. We made our way along Hidden Lake and then began our grassy, bushy, sappy-tree-filled ascent up from the lake basin. We emerged above a cliff band and were treated to a view of a massive slope of scree – yippee.

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I hate scree.

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The scree slopes from a safe distance.

I haven’t mastered but will tolerate scree skiing down a mountainside but climbing up or worse, side-hilling across what seemed like an endless expanse of unforgiving sharp rocks was not what I had emerged from the trees in hopes of seeing. My crew was much more adept at navigating across the goat-trail-less rock field than I and I soon found myself alone- just me and those ragged rocks – oh and a stupid creek in which I fell face first in my graceless glory. At that moment, I thanked God for my solitary state. It was after one massive downhill slide which was not the direction I was aiming for, that I had to sit down and have a good cry before I could pick myself up, brush myself off and do it all over again!

Pulling myself together with my sap covered hands, I made the final push to the ridge where the group sat, in the distance, basking in the sun and watching my every stumble, I just knew it. But I made it, with a smile on my face no less – and found the perfect rock on which to rest my sorry self and devour my first PB&J of the day.

14115526_1284313534926575_8143115894599556429_oIt was at this peaceful moment when I got the great idea to have our awesome crew leader Sue snap my photo because I needed to prove I was actually on this hike. Removing my camera from my back pack and nestling my pack into the hillside I posed with a happy smile and…… my pack began to roll, and roll, and roll right over the cliff edge and down, down, down the embankment over and over and over again until it finally came to rest at a spot that seemed a mile away.

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Super-zoomed…

I just stood there in shock – everything – my much needed PB&J, my water, my extra clothes, my keys, my license, and my cell-phone were now at the bottom of the basin! Sue sat with her mouth agape and I started laughing because it was all I could do to keep from crying…That was when Paul, the uber-hiker who had completed a 17-mile hike and 2 peak summits the day before jumped into action. He could see it and I could make out the speck of it with the zoom on my camera. At least my beloved camera wasn’t inside! He made his way down the steep, cliffy slope and I watched in adoration as he swung it over his shoulders and began the trek back up. Overjoyed, as he came over the edge I noted that my water bottle was gone, as was my bear spray – but not to worry – my thermos of coffee would hold me over and the bear spray – well I was with everyone else, bears wouldn’t dare bother us!

Paul asked me if I had my keys in the pack… and I glanced at the open pocket and the empty key fob that had supposedly secured my keys safe inside. I almost threw up. My keys were gone! Lost forever on those rocky slopes. Then Paul pulled his hand from his pocket and produced not one but both sets of keys! I could have kissed him – but I settled for a great big bear hug. A glimpse of silver had caught his eye – my house keys some 600 feet from my bag and as he made his way up and he came across my car keys another 900 ft. or so away. It was a miracle!! A sheer miracle, I tell you. Amazingly- everything else in that un-zipped compartment stayed put including my phone. And Paul remarked that this was one of the nicest packs he had seen— one that I no longer despise so much myself! Paul assured me he had enough water to share just as Jason (not one to be outdone in heroism) emerged over the edge with both my water bottle and an exploded bottle of bear spray – what a mess that created- and I was once again complete.

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Sheer drop to Avalanche Lake

I quickly devoured my no-worse for-tumble sandwich and we were off to our next point- the cliffs overlooking Avalanche Lake. This is where people have died I was told, and the scenery certainly supported that reality.

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From there we ridge walked a ways to a point overlooking Lake Mary Baker and the Floral Park basin we would descend into… a long unforgiving adventure in scree again that ended in a grassy flower-filled expanse of beautiful flat land!

 

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The floral in Floral Park…

I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder coming down- not falling once in the scree and letting loose in the grassy sea – only to fall flat on my face and tumble head over heels in the meadow. Once again, praying I was far enough behind that no one witnessed my graceless feat, I righted myself and joined the group for lunch on the shore of Lake Mary Baker. It was a brief stop, at least for me – as the bugs were relentless and the climb up to the Sperry Glacier loomed long and large.

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Mary Baker Lake – looking back on the “hill” we plundered down.

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And that snow is where we head up to again!

 

Did I mention it was a climb UP? Still looking for my lungs that were obviously waiting for me back home, in the comforts of my bed I presumed, I once again fell far behind this exuberant hill-climbing crew. This scree slope was intermixed with grass and shoe-lace pulling bushes making for a literal trip up the mountainside. We finally made it above the cliff bands and I breathed deeply as I looked at what lay ahead – a beautiful expanse of red slab rock, glacial melt ponds, and fast flowing streams. It all looked so pleasing to this weary wanderer’s eye. Apparently that red rock is also deadly when wet….

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This is NOT the damned waterfall I fell into.. it is unworthy of a photo.

We came to a fast moving water feature – I’ll call it a waterfall- as it cascaded down several levels of rock. I have a paralyzing aversion to wet rock due to a few bad experiences on prior hikes, but my crew made it look so easy – hopping across with an anchor rock in the middle – surely I could do this! And so I launched with the full certainty of Peter Pan that I could fly- but no… this graceless wonder bombed again and fell hard on even harder rock covered by the rushing water. Try as I might to get out I kept slipping on silt slicked rock. I scrambled for anything dry to grasp as I saw myself going over the approaching edge. Finally, after what seemed like forever I was able to roll up onto the edge and found dry rock. Soaked and shaken I got to my feet. I still had to get across!

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We “enjoyed” miles of this….

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Melt pond.

And there were my fast but trusted friends ready to help me across. God bless them for their encouragement and empathy! I made it across this time and we began our ascent up a moraine of clay, sand, snow, and rock… this was worse than scree and much steeper with a snow field below it! My hip screamed with every step and it seemed like every step I took I took 3 slides back.

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Rather other-worldly don’t you think?

As I emerged at the top, the wise group decided I needed electrolytes and caffeine. I readily accepted! Normally I don’t pop pills but these were surely needed. I was done – mentally and physically. Before us lay an expanse of more melt ponds and more slabs of rock, then a hilly climb to the snow fields of Sperry Glacier and I needed energy…. That’s when we heard the thunder. Yes, thunder AND lightning! Just the excitement we needed to spur us to the highest point in the area. God help us.

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The storm.

The snowfields proved to be easier for me to traverse than I expected. We were finally at the boulder fields that I had crossed and proved my mettle on 3 years ago when I was still a newbie to all of this – but that is another story…. Comeau Pass’s intriguing if not magical staircase hewn out of rock led to a welcome sight- a trail! We had a trail and even better it was all downhill from here! I have never felt such a spurt of energy pulse through me – a second wind! 6 miles of downhill bliss but then it started to rain and then hail…. There would be no leisurely reflection on our grand adventure at the mirror-like glacial lakes as planned.

The rain insurance policy inside my pack ($90 rain pants) eventually came through for me and the rain let up and the sun came out. The long Sperry Trail enveloped us in the trees for the rest of the hike, with early evening dappled sunlight warming us now and then. It was a quiet descent. One filled with lots of contemplation while scorning the tiny pebbles that kept working their way into my socks. The Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot welcomed us back some fourteen hours after we left. A wonderful end to an epic tale in the form of our hiking group’s traditional trail tailgate ensued with some of the best tasting chips, salsa, and chocolate chip cookies this girl has ever tasted (of course I always say that at the end of a hike!)

The sunset was one that brought tears to my eyes as I made my way along the shore of Lake McDonald. Sighs of relief and I’ll admit, exhaustion filled the air of my Santa Fe.

I had done it! Battle wounds be damned. I could mark Floral Park off my bucket list – 20+ miles of epic Glacier Park adventure. It was everything and more than I imagined and I can’t wait to do it again …. after I get reunited with my lungs and make amends with my legs.

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The End….