In my teenage years, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I sometimes attended a church characterized by a certain kind of behavior that I used to call “spirit-filled.” The idea was to be inhabited by God. Lifted up, carried away. In those days, I wanted – more than anything – to be given “the gift of tongues.” The church was located in the Monte Vista Hotel and was separated by a thin partition from the Monte Vista Lounge, a bar with red Naugahyde couches, pool tables, cowboys, bikers, college kids, and hippies. It made for interesting vocal juxtapositions: “Thank you, Jesus! Maranatha! Praise you, Lord!” would ring out from our side of the divide, and in the next moment, from the other side, the smack of pool balls followed by muffled obscenities. It may never actually have happened, but in my memory I hear outbursts like “Hallelujah motherfucker!” In hindsight, I see people looking for rapture on both sides of the curtain. To be lifted up, carried away. I thought it meant to meet Jesus in the clouds. Those on the other side of the curtain sought rapture just as earnestly but down a different path.
At the age of fourteen, my greatest fear was of missing the Rapture – the name believers give to the extraordinary moment in which Christ would sweep his righteous followers up “in the twinkling of an eye” to “meet them in the clouds” and whisk them away to heaven. Those who were left behind would have a rather rough time of it. They would have to suffer through the Great Tribulation—a period during which Satan and his minions (good word, “minions”) would rule the earth, and people would die in various gruesome ways. Although it’s not clear to me now how the pieces of my eschatology fit together, I must have thought that there was a way for people who missed the Rapture to redeem themselves (bad theology there) by holding firm to their beliefs in the dark days of the Antichrist. Plan B, I guess you might call it. And so I practiced for plan B on my way home from school.
Play, as coaches are fond of telling us, is preparation for life. So I made up a game. By taking a circuitous route, I tried to make it from school to home without being seen. I flirted with the boundary between woods and houses, crossing a few roads here and there, and sprinting the few unavoidable sections that had no cover of trees or bushes. The goal was simple enough: make it the mile home without being apprehended by the Antichrist’s secret police, who, if they caught me, would torture me, try to force me to reveal the location and membership of house churches, and brand the number 666 on my forehead. The rules of the game were a bit more fluid; in general, if anyone acknowledged my presence, I lost. It was a bit trickier with oncoming cars. If I darted for cover before they were too close, I considered myself hidden. If a car turned a corner and faced me head-on, all was lost. If I lost the game too soon, I changed the rules in my favor. My method was to flit from tree to tree, or woodpile, or rock, seeing but not being seen. The easiest part of the journey was the section where I could go up into the Ponderosa forest and follow a dirt road that paralleled a gas pipeline. The hardest parts were closest to home and school – inhabited landscape. Of course, the game didn’t begin until I was far enough away from school as not to be observed behaving oddly by other students. I may have been an earnest believer, unashamed of the Lord, but I still didn’t want anyone to notice what I was doing. To be branded an idiot by my peers was worse than being branded by the Antichrist.
The price of being caught by the secret police was high. I vividly imagined an array of torture techniques they would use on me to get me to reveal the location of home churches, the few remaining cells of believers who had somehow missed the Rapture and had to stand firm in the face of persecution and martyrdom. I was not at all confident that I could withstand these tortures. Would I betray my Lord and family if, for instance, they buried me up to my neck next to a red ant hill and then poured honey in my ears, eyes, nostrils, and mouth? Would I curse the name of Jesus if they put my testicles in a vise and slowly crushed them? What if they used a cattle prod? What if they captured someone I loved – say, my brother – and threatened to do one of these things to him unless I told them what they wanted to know? When I honestly considered the likely level of my resolve, I shuddered. Better to win the game and get home unnoticed.
On one occasion, I saw a pickup truck on the pipeline road. This was unusual; usually, the rough road was empty. I darted into the woods and hid behind a clump of cliff-rose, waiting for Satan’s minions to pass. To my dismay, the truck didn’t pass. It stopped right by my hiding place. Had I been seen? My pulse quickened. Actually, the game sort of melted into real life, and I wondered if I had really been seen and if I was about to encounter some trouble. The events that unfolded, then, would stick in my memory as vividly as any imagined torture. I had not been seen; in fact, the truck’s passengers were certain of their isolation, which is why they stopped the truck. A boy and a girl, a couple of years older than me. High-schoolers. From my dusty, scratchy vantage point under a bush, I saw them hustle, in the grip of some urgency, to the bed of the pickup, while the boy was unbuttoning his Levis. He sat on the tailgate and the girl knelt before him. I forgot all about the Lord, and it didn’t even take a cattle prod.
I longed for the Rapture. Not only did I want to be lifted up and carried away − I wanted it for everyone I knew. I thought, in those days, that rapture happened to the ones who held on to the right formula. I was afraid my friends might miss the Rapture too, and this led me to engage in annoying and even illegal acts of evangelism. Later, it led me to seminary, where I banged my head against the sacred walls, trying to understand grace against a backdrop of rules and doctrines and contradictory bible verses. I grew up, got married, had a daughter, and worked a range of jobs from firefighter to fisherman to teacher to group home manager for a household of developmentally disabled men. Through it all, I was still waiting for an outward sign of an inner transformation. Still waiting for the gift of tongues, you might say. It never came.
Eventually, my rope of certainties ran out. To make a long story short: In just a few months, both my marriage and my church unraveled. I began to feel a pretty strong dissonance between who I thought I ought to be and who I was turning out to be. I tried to hang on to doctrines but felt them slipping away. To help myself stay grounded, I went on hunting trips with a man I had always considered “righteous and spirit-filled,” but I increasingly found that I couldn’t talk to him about much of anything except elk and God. It turned out to be not enough to talk about.
I was surrounded by people who mattered to me, but I wasn’t sure – not really sure – that I was one of them. I felt like an imposter in my own life. I tried to make sense of the issues that were dividing the church: the role of women, the inclusion of homosexuals, the literal interpretation of scripture. My best friends at the time were traditional and orthodox, suspicious of the waves of change that were sweeping through the congregation. (The women’s prayer group had read Women Who Run with the Wolves. Maybe the men were scared of them. I think I was scared of them.)
My marriage crumbled. I remember crying in my garden, feeling disconsolate after ripping out the dead peas and the spent, symbolic tomatoes. I left my wife’s house and “lived in sin” with a woman who had a rocky relationship with the church and a good relationship with wine, trouble, and laughter. She had been in the church for decades, coming to it in the heyday of the “Jesus People” movement years before I came along, but had always been a bit of a black sheep. She was given to flaring jealousies, blasphemous inclinations, and a wicked sarcastic wit. She loved jazz, fishing, skinny-dipping, and the wind blowing through her hair on road trips. She was schooled by the nuns of St. Ursula’s convent in the tough town of Great Falls, Montana. For these reasons, and others, I liked her.
I had also heard that she had the gift of tongues. One morning as we were making scrambled eggs, I asked her about it. “Oh yes,” she said. It was quite a moment for me; I was in the presence of… well, something. Was it rapture? “Could you do it?” I asked. “Can you do it for me now?” I was sort of kidding. I had always had the understanding that one couldn’t decide to do that sort of thing, that it “came upon you” when God deemed you worthy or the moment ripe. But I’ll be damned if she didn’t start spouting Holy Ghost Language four inches from my face, as if it was no big deal. She could speak in tongues, alright. She could turn it off and on like a faucet. She proved it to me over bacon and eggs, after I had spent the night before with her, in sin. It was impressive, I must admit. But also, somehow, ordinary. Something shifted in me, and I knew, quite suddenly, that it didn’t mean a thing. (The gift of tongues, I mean, not the night of sin.)
These days, the mountains of the North Cascades are my church. They are, for one thing, much quieter. Above timberline, there is stillness rather than babbling, and when I enter into that stillness I can begin to listen to my own soul, to look for my own answers down my own path. When I enter into the stillness, I don’t feel like an imposter, and I don’t need to know the answers to every question. I’m not sure if it’s rapture that I feel in the mountains. If it is, then it is a quiet, deep, still kind of rapture – not like sexual excitement or religious fervor.
I remember a particular day in the mountains of Washington that shines in my memory like a jewel. In some ways it was typical day, like many others, and so it carries with it the sacredness of the familiar rather than the exotic. Why it stands out in my memory, perhaps, is that it was during a particularly rough time in my life. I was stumbling in my second marriage, I couldn’t find good work, I felt inadequate as a parent – in general, my confidence and joy were at a low ebb, while my sense of failure and inarticulate resentment were rather high. I was going to the mountains, I guess you might say, to be lifted up and carried away.
I was headed for the Stuart Range, a splendid outlier of jagged granite peaks on the eastern flank of the Cascade Mountains. My plan was a one-day traverse of the upper Enchantment Basin peaks: Dragontail, the Witches Tower, Little Annapurna, and Enchantment. The climbing wasn’t technical, but the elevation gain was prodigious and the effort involved substantial. It would be a long day in the mountains. I would make a circuit across the Upper Enchantment Basin – a stark and barren rolling upland of white granite, snow, wildflowers, golden larches, and lakes. This time of year, the lakes would be frozen and the meadows covered by undulating waves of eye-numbing whiteness.
I set out from the trailhead at about three in the morning, making my way through the woods with a headlamp. At about 4:30 a hint of light on one side of the sky told me where the sun would rise. I startled something, maybe a bear, that crashed through the underbrush. The typical pre-dawn downslope wind rushed through the Icicle Creek watershed, chilling the sweat on my neck and making me shiver. I made my way up switchbacks, lots of them. Just as the sun broke over the horizon, I arrived at Colchuck Lake, still frozen, beneath the broad, craggy north faces of Dragontail and Colchuck Peak, catching the salmon-colored fire of dawn. That’s when the work started. A heavy snowpack meant deep snow even in June, and I post-holed my way around the lake and then started to step kick in the long snow chutes that led up to Asgard Pass and the upper basin.
It was a stiff climb up Asgard Pass, kick-stepping into the crusty snow and scrambling between heathery benches and granite outcrops. The sun got higher; the lake below me got smaller. On the final slope up Dragontail, the snow turned to mush in the growing heat of the day. My ears buzzed. To my right, the sheer north face of Dragontail dropped off for two thousand feet. To my left, the moor-like expanse of the Enchantment Basin rolled down to the splendid granite prow of Prusik Peak.
On the summit of Dragontail, I sat down for a meal of greasy pepperoni and half-melted cheddar cheese on rye crackers, but while cutting the pepperoni with my pocketknife, I deeply sliced into the notch between my thumb and index finger. I wrapped the wound as well as I could and then finished my meal. Perhaps from exertion, or loss of blood, or the dazzling whiteness of snowfields, dots danced before my eyes. I felt unnaturally light. I looked out at the sea of jagged peaks, the sharply defined north ridge of Mount Stuart etched against a cobalt sky. The looming dome of Mount Rainier seemed to float somewhere between this world and the next. I felt the impulse to offer praise, but I don’t remember that I expressed it. I think not; one of the joys of long mountain days is the opportunity to be in prolonged silence.
I visited several summits, each one splendid. Finally, it was time to leave. I glissaded down narrow snow chutes, paying close attention to my feet lest I hit a rock or a dimple and snowball for a thousand feet to the banks of Colchuck Lake. Once down, I tried to shave off some distance by taking a shortcut across the frozen lake that turned out to be not-so-frozen. After an hour’s rest on a flat boulder, stark naked while my clothes could become, if not dry, then at least a little less wet, I made my way around the lake, post-holing to my hips in treacherous early-summer snow. Finally reaching a trail, I began to trudge the final five miles to my car. It seemed to take forever. I fell into a plodding rhythm defined by the recurrent squelching of wet shoes. With each mile and each thousand-foot drop in elevation, the temperature rose until the day was scorching.
By the time I reached my car – fourteen hours and twenty miles after leaving it the night before – I was parched and exhausted. I plunged my head into the icy waters of Icicle Creek. Spray from the cascading water split sunlight into slivers of rainbow. I stripped out of my damp clothes, put on some dry shorts, found a sandy patch between granite boulders along a turbulent stretch of creek, and fell almost instantly asleep. When I woke, I couldn’t remember where I was, how I got there, or what was supposed to happen next. There was only the rush of the creek, the wind through pines, and a sky blue enough to swim into. It was how I imagined transitioning into the next world.