Backwoods Adventure or Confessions of a Healed Hermit

   Written by on June 20, 2014 at 8:41 am

Dear Thinker,

Where shall we place people in our priorities? I think I learned the answer way back in ’71.

I’d gone to Ely, Minnesota, in February for an Outward Bound winter survival school. Six of us were assigned to a team.  There was Michael, an ex-heroin addict, 20, trying to find a new life; Kathy, 16, very bright and very much the liberated feminist; Scott, 34, a young business exec, burned out, looking for something besides career; Principato, an inner-city Chicago thug, 17, emotional, undependable, out for fun, first, last and always; Tony, age 40, an excellent drama school teacher, husband, father of four, who kept asking, “Why am I doing this? I don’t have to prove anything to anyone!”

logo-Stephen CrottsAnd myself, a 21 year old Furman University junior looking for a semester lark. The six of us were outfitted with fishnet long underwear, wool pants, mittens, down parkas, felt-lined boots, and heretofore strange equipment like snowshoes, cross-country skis, compasses, match safes, and axes.

A Norwegian instructor named Trish coached us from a distance on topics like how to make camp, frostbite, broken legs, orienteering, safety on ice, and outdoor cooking. For the next three weeks we endured the bitter freeze of 40° below zero as we hiked cross country on skis or snowshoes and camped out in blizzards.

Principato got on everyone’s nerves by stealing and refusing to do his part of the work. Michael twisted his knee and we had to carry him four miles to help. Tony griped incessantly. Kathy cried. And I took a wrong compass bearing and got us all lost. Then came the solo.

I was tired of my team, looking forward to being alone. And that’s what a solo is…alone.  You’re taken to an isolated spot, stripped of your skis, snowshoes, and radio…everything except the clothes on your back, five matches, a sleeping bag and three beef bouillon cubes.  Your job is to stay alive and alone for three full days. “Glory!” I thought.

Day One. I carved myself an ice cave in the 14 feet of snow covering the ground. I sharpened a stick for protection against wolves, gathered firewood by breaking dead branches off trees, unrolled my sleeping bag, and found I had another 20 hours left in my first day. So I whistled every tune I knew, sang hymns, and prayed for everyone important to me around the world twice.

Still, I had 19 hours left. So I climbed a tree and studied the vast snowy expanse of forest and lake in every direction. I listened to the wind moan, watched a pack of wolves chase a deer out onto the frozen lake and tear it to pieces. Then I climbed down to prepare my own supper: evergreen tea and watery bouillon soup. Afterward, I took a nap. Curled in my ice den, snug in my sleeping bag, I dreamed of girlfriends, fried chicken, and a hot shower.

Awakening at dusk, I found I had nine hours left in day one. Building up my fire I recited all the poetry and Scripture I knew, wrote in my diary, and then climbed my tree again to watch the stars.

Still not sleepy, I retired to my bag anyway and lay there thinking and thinking and thinking. A man can only sleep so much! And my day was something that limped along painfully, something from which I could not escape. Six hours to go! And an empty, frustrated, restless chaos began to sweep over me. “But what is it I need? What is it I want?” I mused to myself.

Day Two: 5:00 a.m. I couldn’t sleep anymore. Nothing for breakfast. Nothing new to sing. Snow too deep to walk far. Not enough wood for a fire. 270 below zero. I climbed my tree. I thought of my stereo, the rocking chair, lemon pie, and hamburgers. I prayed for every missionary around the world.  Then I thought, “I wish Principato were here, or Kathy, or Scott, or Tony, or Michael.”  The idea of their company filled my senses like warm coffee.

The third day drifted by deliriously. Hunger. Boredom. Mental anguish. Cold. Each took its toll. Glassy-eyed, I scurried about my campsite like a crazy old hermit. Then I thought, “Tomorrow it’s over! Tomorrow they’ll come for me! Tomorrow I’ll be with my friends!”  And I began to see their beautiful faces—Tony, Principato, Kathy, Scott, Michael, and Trish!

I fell off into a deep sleep that night, a smile on my chapped, whiskered face.  “People,” I comforted myself, “people tomorrow.”

Bright and early the next morning I awoke with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. And I knew. I knew what my gift would be. I’d missed my stereo, a hot shower, fried chicken, a rocking chair, television, my books, and a warm bed. But most of all I missed people. People, God bless them! Those frustrating, lazy, disappointing, whiny, critical, two-legged companions; so hard to live with, so hard to live without. I missed them. And more than I wanted anything else, I wanted people.

Principato came to me first. “Yo! Stephen! It’s time! You out there?” he called from the ridge. His voice rang like music in my ears. And as we met we hugged in tears. For us it was as it was for two other brothers long ago, also separated for a time. Then and there Jacob had said to Esau, “Truly, to see thy face is to see the face of God!”  (Genesis 33:10)

I think about that often as I live among people today. God is first. Undoubtedly so. But people are second. Ahead of self, food, music, career, comfort, adventure, whatever. When God said, “It is not good that man should live alone…” I think I know what He means (Genesis 2). And I think I’m ready to be with His people now…

About Stephen Crotts

The Reverend Stephen Crotts is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Charlotte Court House, VA. He is also the director of the Carolina Study Center, Inc., a campus ministry, located in Chapel Hill, NC. Pastor Crotts may be reached at carolinastudycenter@msn.com.

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