Thursday, August 09, 2012

Make sure you're on the right road


For those who have read and enjoyed John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, you will understand the significance of "the journey" as a metaphor for life. Pilgrim's Progress is built upon such key biblical texts as Matthew 7:14 -- "But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." The Pilgrim's road to the Celestial City is depicted as a narrow path, fraught with distractions. There is at least one point at which Pilgrim is led to turn away from the narrow path and to follow a broader way which seems easier ... but which leads ultimately to destruction. His only recourse is to turn back, retrace his steps, and reacquire the narrow path at the point at which he departed from it.

This is called "repentance."

My Conquest Pro, loaded and ready for the
journey up the mountain to Alder Lake.
Several weekends ago I had an ample demonstration of this principle in my own life. Each year for the past five years I have participated in an annual cycling event for the nonprofit organization 4US. This flagship event raises funds to purchase ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers in Pierce County and beyond. These machines are effective because they unveil the truth about the nature of an unborn child.

Every few years the routes change for the cycling event, and last year they launched out from Ft. Steilacoom Park in Lakewood, WA (south of Tacoma). Routes were designed for 25, 45 and 70 mile riders, and launched southward toward Yelm, then back.

The challenging part of the ride last year was that it occurred on the same day as our church's annual Family Camp. I was disappointed not to be able to do both. But when I discovered this year that the two events coincided once again, I figured out a way to do both: I was going to start with the 4US riders, cycle out to the turnaround point, then rather than turning back and returning to Ft. Steilacoom, I would proceed on up the mountain to the Family Camp location at Alder Lake.

This was a personal challenge at several levels. One was that the 50+ mile ride would require me to climb up the slopes of the Northwest's most famous volcano, Mt. Rainier, carrying about 40 lbs. of camping gear with me. The second challenge was that I would need to find a good, safe route.

So I turned to Google Maps. I am a huge Google fan and constantly defending their mapping technology against detractors. Google Maps wanted to take me up the south side of the Nisqually River Basin, then cross over on top of the La Grande dam in order to achieve my objective. There were several warning flags about restricted road usage on the route, but I examined it through satellite view and it looked like it could be done. (Here's a link to the route they planned for me.)

So, I placed my faith and trust in Google Maps and launched out on the Saturday of the event, departing Steilacoom Park shortly before 9 a.m.

I achieved the halfway point, the city of Yelm, about 11, earlier than I expected, and I was pleased. This was the point at which I was departing from the other 4US riders. From this point onward I was on my own. I had intended to eat lunch in Yelm, but had been riding hard and wasn't yet hungry. So I made the decision to press on.

Brody helped me find my way through the forest.
As I expected, when I cycled out of Yelm on Bald Hill Road I began to encounter the climb. What I didn't expect was a lack of opportunity for lunch and refilling my water bottles. Soon I was well into forested areas, and running low on water. Halfway up I stopped and dined on a Cliff Bar, and finished off most of the rest of my bottled water, then pressed on.

I began to run into trouble after departing Bald Hill Road and dropping down into a boggy area just south of the Nisqually River. The paved road I was following ultimately ended, about 10 miles from my destination, and I was confronted by a private gravel road and lots of large "No Trespassing" signs.

I hesitated at the entrance to this private community but soon saw a woman who was mountainbiking, being followed by a very friendly-looking dog. I asked her about my prospects about entering the private community without being shot, and she said she thought I would survive. So I pressed on.

But ultimately I came to the end of the gravel road, and the very last home in this very out of the way spot. I was still at least 5 miles from my destination. As I sat there, pondering what to do next, the woman I had spoken with earlier ... followed by the dog ... approached. "Am I on the right track?" I asked her.

"Yes," she told me, "I think you are close to the forest access road you are looking for. But we should consult with the gentleman who lives here, regarding whether it will actually take you across the dam." So I waited as she went to see if that gentleman was home.

He was, he came out and we spoke, and he was very gracious. At this point I was completely out of water, so he kindly filled my water bottle and donated another from his own collection. He told me I would need to press onward across a ridge that once contained a path, now overgrown by brambles. I wouldn't be able to find the way by myself, he informed me, so he would send his dog Brody with me to be my guide.

So, I pressed onward. With my bike, laden with camping gear, which I now had to walk through the brambles on a mountain ridge, following a dog.

After about another mile Brody and I emerged onto a forest service road. I truly would not have been able to find my way without him, as the trail was completely overgrown. At this point I had a decision to make. Mountain man, who had proved trustworthy so far, told me he thought I actually could not cross the dam to my destination. The only way around, he said, was back at Yelm ... now nearly 3 hours down the mountain I had just struggled up.

But, he said, if I traveled 10 miles down this gravel road, I would arrive at an overlook where I could see the dam and view my chances of making it across.

But by this point I was thoroughly exhausted, and thoroughly disillusioned with Google Maps ... which had been lying to me for the past 5 miles. What they said was a road was in reality an abandoned path overgrown with brambles, and navigable only with the help of a local dog. I had lost my trust.

So, I turned right on the forest service road, rather than left ... heading back toward Yelm. I repented.

Once in Yelm, I could reacquire a way north across the Nisqually River. But it was a long, long way back. My 50-mile bike ride turned into 80 or 90 miles.

Celebrating at Alder Lake with my friends
Lars and Becca Passic.

I ultimately made it to Family Camp at Alder Lake, but not without a major detour up the volcano and back, that cost me more than 5 hours and nearly all of my energy. (In case you're curious, here's the route I should have taken, which would have been only three miles longer than my "shortcut." Make that 40 miles shorter.)

Lessons learned? Well, the primary lesson was that you can't always trust Google Maps. You can't always get there, from here. But, I also learned a lot about the journey ... about the kindness of strangers, and trusting a dog named Brody.

And I learned to carry more water than I thought I would need.

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