It was one of those days just made for hiking. The temperature was hovering around 65 or so, the wind was light and the air enjoyed that particular brand of clarity that only comes from a combination of altitude and last night’s rain. As I walked, the sunshine filtered through the poplar and sycamore leaves laying a patchwork of dappled light on the forest floor. The light was playing with my vision a bit, so as I headed down the narrow trail my attention was focused more upon my feet than my surroundings. I was unfamiliar with the trail, you see, and didn’t want to fall down the mountain side upon which I traveled.
It was an odd trail; not well kept, and not well thought out. It was just a simple shelf carved into the mountain side. Trails in the Smoky Mountains are usually well kept and tend to follow natural features which favor the hiker, making the trek longer sometimes, but saving sinew and muscle for another day. This trail, on the other hand, favored no one. It was a very narrow footpath designed for utility; a straight line between point A and point B; nothing fancy.
Between the uneasy lighting and the doubtful footing, my mind was engrossed in placing one foot in front of the other as I traveled. So absorbed was I that I failed to notice a vaguely familiar scent on the wind. When at last instinct jolted me from my single minded pursuit, the musty smell was much too close for comfort as was the creature who produced it.
I stopped dead in my tracks to try to locate the offending party when from around the next bend a full grown black bear ambled into sight. He was about fifteen to twenty feet directly in front of me enjoying a leisurely stroll as was I.
It would seem that his attention was elsewhere as well for he appeared to not notice me at first. Then, thank God, my offensive odor woke him from his revelries, and he stopped dead in his tracks ten feet or so away, looked up and regarded me curiously.
To this day I remain fascinated at just how much the human mind can absorb in a millisecond.
All I need to do is close my eyes, and I see that grizzled face as plain as day.
The first thing I noticed was his eyes. They were not threatening; interested to be sure, but there was no malice in them. In truth, concern was the overarching impression I received. He wanted to continue, and this gangly human was in the way. He didn’t know me from Adam, and a lack of familiarity breeds suspicion in all creatures, so he was watching me with an alert if not vaguely tired expression in his eyes.
The next thing I noticed was the grey around his muzzle. He was a seasoned bear. He was simply taking his morning stroll. Loosening up the kinks, I suppose. That grey had migrated to the fur around his eyes as well. Perhaps that was the frame that brought out the weary expression I had noticed.
Then there was the rumpled appearance of the skin around his neck. Age had placed a little extra baggage on his frame. I suppose none of us are immune from the ravages of time, not even bears.
Finally I noticed his right ear was in tatters. A badge of honor from days gone by, I supposed.
So there we were. Face to face, nose to muzzle. I don’t know about the bear but my level of concern at that moment was fairly high. I was in bit of a predicament.
I had no desire to remain on that skinny little shelf with that bear, but what was I supposed to do?
I could try backing up, but I was just as likely to step right as wrong and end up lying in the middle of the trail, and I had no desire to set the breakfast table for my friend. I could simply just turn right and jump. The mountain side was only at a 30 degree angle or so, so the worse that could happen would be a few broken bones. That didn’t appeal to me either.
So I asked myself, “What would an idiot do?” After consulting with myself, an authority on the subject, I decided a twofold approach was best. I would place one foot on the side of the mountain ready to catapult myself down and away, and with the other foot I decided to break all the rules and see what might happen if instead backing up I proceeded forward. The results continue to astound me.
I had no sooner leaned in to move my foot forward when my friend’s expression of mild interest coupled with concern changed to concern coupled with terror, and with pitiful cry he catapulted himself down the side of the mountain. As he rolled, the crisp sounds of saplings snapping accompanied by the guttural growls and grunts of the bear as he struck more substantial objects filled the forest. Finally he came to rest at the bottom of the mountain, jumped to his feet, looked up at me apologetically, and then took off like a scalded dog.
In that my legs would no longer support me I sat down on the trail and considered the happenings of the past few moments.
First of all I had to laugh a little when I envisioned that old bear trying to explain to his buddies just how an entree had chased him down the mountain. I have no idea just how big I was in his story, but I am pretty sure that I was not the 165 pound fella who stood in his way that morning.
Then I considered my mortality for a while, decided I didn’t want any more of that morning’s pie, and worked my way back down the mountain to home and relative safety.
We all face times in our lives when we feel trapped and frightened. There are times when we can’t back up, when we can't move forward and when standing still is not an option. It is at times like these when faith and trust are essential to the life of a Christian.
I am one who contends that moving forward for the Lord and His Kingdom is the only option, even if moving forward produces risk and danger. Christ never said that following Him and growing His kingdom would be easy. In truth He said it would be difficult. He said it would be dangerous; there would be dark alleys and blind curves. That being said, he also promised to never leave us orphaned. He promised to always see us through.
Here at Beulah we will face challenges as we move forward for the Lord. As we follow the Holy Spirit into the unknown, we may become frightened and want to turn back to the safety of the past; but we must remain true to the cause. We must overcome our fears and venture into the future and the promises that await us there.