This weekend my friend Wayne and I backpacked the Fiery Gizzard Trail on the Cumberland Plateau near Monteagle, Tennessee. It is both breathtakingly beautiful and gut-wrenching brutal. We hiked 17.5 miles over the 2 days, 13.5 the first day and 4 the second. We slept (and I use that word generously) in the middle of the woods, in a fern thicket, with no water, no fire and a million bugs. And we hiked. Brother, did we hike. We walked through amazing, verdant forests, by gorgeous mountain streams, and past a number of “Eden” like waterfalls that begged you to take your hiking boots off and slip into the pools they created.
Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Except for the gorge. The Fiery Gizzard Trail gets its name from the incredibly deep, incredibly rocky, incredibly cruel 10 mile long gash in the ground that runs through Grundy and Marion Counties in Tennessee. The legend is that Davy Crockett was camping on the rim, bit into a turkey gizzard that had just come off the campfire and spit it out saying, “Curse you fiery gizzard.” I’m here to tell you that is not true. I believe he walked down into the thing and climbed back out then turned around and said, “Curse you Fiery Gizzard.” I believe that because I said it at least a dozen times on Friday and Saturday.
The views from the rim of the plateau are stunning. The treacherous, arduous descent and ascent in and out of the gorge is perhaps one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever done. Carrying a 30 pound backpack, enduring the 90 degree weather and the 90 percent humidity only exacerbated the already unbelievably strenuous journey. Each step through the gorge seemed to involve doghouse size boulders to climb or bowling ball size rocks (with the same amount of stability) to navigate. By the third time through the gorge we would take 10 steps, rest for a minute on our sweat drenched packs, and take 10 steps again. So have I made you want to hike the Fiery Gizzard yet?
There were some lessons to be learned in this excursion though. For one thing it struck me that life is much like that trek. Most of life is a few beautiful vistas surrounded on both sides by deep, difficult journeys in and out of gorges. We celebrate weddings, graduations, births and retirements. Beyond that we pretty much endure the journey. My friend Len Sweet says, “Life is full of an awful lot of moments and a lot of awful moments.” That is not a pessimistic outlook. It is a realistic assessment. It does not diminish the beauty of the journey. If anything it magnifies how special those all too rare “vista” moments are. When we get to the end of our 70 plus years and begin to look back I think we will see there were a handful of gloriously enchanting events and the rest was putting one foot in front of the other. There are a half dozen wonderful, “Oh my!” moments and a life full of “Oh brother!” moments. And that’s a good thing.
First, it challenges me to make the most of every single moment, good or bad. On the Fiery Gizzard hike I never knew when the gorge would end and the panorama of mountain tapestry would open before us. We had to stay engaged and expectant the whole time. In the same way, I am often surprised by one of those amazing, awesome life moments, my grandson comes running off the soccer field and dives into my arms; my wife stops by my office with a picnic lunch and a quart jar of ice cold lemonade, my son calls me out of the blue and says, “Dad, let’s go to lunch.” I would hate to miss one of those events because I had my head down in the gorge, seeing only the rocks around me.
The second thing it reminds me is that the journey is the thing. The story of our lives is not encapsulated in one single event or even a number of happenings, good or bad. The story is the sum total of the trip. I’ve done some really good things in my life. I’ve also made some pretty colossal mistakes. I have won a few times and lost a LOT. But no single chapter, or season, or decade tells my story. It’s the whole thing that matters. The Apostle Paul says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.” The whole journey is the thing.
And the last thing I remembered on the Fiery Gizzard, this hike is not the end of the story. While Wayne and I were hiking we begin having fantasies about milkshakes and cheeseburgers and huge piles of greasy french fries. At one point I think Wayne was concerned for our safety so he verbalized a plan that we both had been thinking. “If one of us is hurt, the other will go on for help and come back.” I said, “Wayne, that’s fine but you need to know that if you get hurt I’m stopping at a Dairy Queen before I come back with help.” The hike was some deal but there is other stuff out there. Bigger hikes. More beautiful vistas. Shoot, Dairy Queens. When the rocks and the sweat and the climbing is all we are experiencing we tend to forget that this hike is just preparation for something better. (I’m doing three days on the Appalachian Trail next month.)
Sometimes I start focusing on the rocks around me in life. I only see the sweat and the pain and the misery. But this hike, this life is not all there is. This is only preparation for the life to come that is so incredible the words escape us to try and describe it. All that I both endure and enjoy now fades into oblivion when I set foot in that new home that Jesus is preparing for me. He says, “Let not your heart be troubled…I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1)
The Fiery Gizzard was hard; heck, it was awful. But as I look back I’m really glad I did it. It is an accomplishment, a triumph to remember, a memory to savor. The trip was neither the wonderful waterfalls nor the rugged rock fields. It was the whole thing. So I look back with great satisfaction, with a deep sense of pride, with genuine celebration and I say…”Curse you Fiery Gizzard! I’ll never do THAT again.”
Dr. Mike Courtney is the founder and executive director of Branches Counseling Centers, a Christian counseling ministry with offices in Murfreesboro, Mt. Juliet and Springfield and in St. Augustine, FL.