It was a Friday. And it was a pleasant day, so my dad’s cousin Penny and her husband Rick were taking me to hike the Butte. Pronounced “Beaut” not “Butt,” the Butte is a large hill providing views of the surrounding Palmer, Alaska and the nearby Knik Glacier. As I clambered into the back seat of their sand-colored Tundra truck, little did I know what a memorable outing we were about to commence.
“Looks like no one’s home,” Cousin Penny sang out, checking the eagle nest along the side of the highway that she and Rick regularly watch.
“Yup, they seem to have all flown the nest!” I responded.
We sped on, pulling into the parking lot at the Butte about twenty minutes later.
Clambering out of the Tundra, I curiously read the sign at the trailhead which detailed the history of the Butte: settled in the 1920-30’s, formerly a site where sheep, cattle, and children were raised, and now a popular hiking site for Palmer residents and visitors alike. Cool.
Rick, Penny, and I started up the trail. Almost simultaneously, Penny started the “Lord have mercy’s.” Little clouds billowed up around our hiking boots as we trudged through the light brown dust thickly coating the trail. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy!” Penny cheerfully chirped as she labored up especially steep parts, making me chuckle as I climbed behind her.
The trail mellowed out for a bit after the initial segment. We paused by a rusty barbed wire fence and noticed animal trails weaving through the fields behind it. They reminded me of corn rows I’d seen back home. We climbed a bit further and then took a longer break. Below us, the reindeer farm nestled at the Butte’s base was conducting a tour; trucks were pulling off of the old Glenn Highway and joining the flow of the newer highway connecting the Valley to other parts of Alaska; some rooster was exhibiting his ignorance of the time of day; small planes flew by at eye level; the Knik Glacier was out in full-view for us to see.
“Here Bek–take a look through these.” Penny handed me Rick’s binoculars. “If you want real quality glasses–” Penny paused to gesture with her thumb in her husband’s direction, “Rick’s binoculars are top-notch.”
I grabbed the binoc’s and took a look at Knik, and then handed them back. Rick started scanning through them for sheep. The three of us stood there together in peaceful silence, enjoying the break and the view. After a few moments, the binoculars reminded my cousin of something.
“Oh, Rick, tell Rebekah about that analogy of the telescope,” Penny prompted. “The one Father Brian was talking about in church the other week.”
“Oh,” Rick said in recognition. “Well,” he started, carefully choosing his words in a way that reminded me of my grandfather, “the analogy is about the love of God.”
Rick proceeded to talk about the incredible and dangerous gift of free will that humans have been given, and the idea that hell is not so much a place characterized by the absence of God as it is the condition of not being able to get away from God for those who have chosen to reject his love. Just the day before, Rick had mentioned how this same idea is in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. One of my college professors gave me a copy of The Great Divorce a few years ago at Christmastime; I loved it, and have since re-read it more than once, for pleasure and for a lit class. I remembered the part of the book Rick was referencing: to those who choose to reject God, in the end, God essentially tells them “Thy will be done,” a character in Lewis’ story explains. The condemnation of people to hell, then, is not so much God’s choice as their choice, according to this example…
So, to complete the analogy of the telescope (or better yet, a magnifying lens), God and his love are like light–pure, perfect light–and the orientation of ourselves towards God determines how the light affects us. For those who choose to turn towards God and be open to him, the light is magnified; but for those who turn away from God, and so turn the telescope/lens the wrong way, away from themselves–the same are burned by the fire ignited by the concentrated, inescapable light that is channeled through the lens. (Another way to get at the same concept, I thought, is that in turning one’s back to God or to the light, one is engulfed in one’s own shadow; it is our own rebellion which puts us in darkeness.) But even then, the love of God is never removed from the rebellious, never stops pursuing them…I found myself reminded of a lecture from my Christian Thought class during my last semester of college. I also found myself reminded of things I had read in George MacDonald: An Anthology, containing excerpts from MacDonald’s writing, selected and edited by C.S. Lewis.
The fire of God, which is His essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns–that the further from Him, it burns the worse (Excerpt 144).
Such is the mercy of God that He will hold His children in the consuming fire of His distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son and the many brethren–rush inside the center of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn (Excerpt 212).
The analogy of the light and the lens is not perfect (what analogy is?), and some of how I understood (and then expressed) the theology of it may be off, too. (This blog is, after all, an attempt in the art of tapping a cracked kettle, remember?) But I think it gets at an extremely important (and deeply comforting) concept–one that warrants further thought. But! We were hiking…
So, after our interesting metaphorical detour, we continued our literal trek up the Butte.
We made it to the top pretty quickly after that; the toughest remaining part was a few rockier sections to scramble up, but Penny did great and we continued to laugh at various things the whole way up. My favorite was when we came across a cigarette butt: “A butt on the Butte!” Penny punned.
We lunched at the top and then, after a brief rest, began our descent.
Penny had me in stitches with her antics before we had progressed even a yard. I wish I could capture in words how lively and joy-imparting her personality is. I can’t even come close. Suffice it to say, there’s no one quite like my Cousin Penny; and she had us laughing so hard at this and that as we walked along that I could barely walk. I was afraid we were going to go tumbling down the hillside.
“Penny, stop!” I gasped out between laughs. “You’re gonna make us fall, and then you’re gonna get hurt, and then I’m gonna laugh again, and feel guilty and responsible!”
Thankfully, my prophecy was only partially fulfilled.
We were right near the end of the hike, and all going strong. And then Penny tripped. And I still had the giggles. As my poor cousin sprawled on the slope before my feet, my attempts to suppress my laughter simultaneously suppressed my efforts to assist my cousin to her feet. She seemed to be okay, though, and started getting up herself before we could reach her–and then she slipped a second time. It immediately seemed more serious: Penny was on her back and still moving, and she also seemed to be picking up speed.
“Oh no–Penny!” Rick and I stepped towards her at the same time, from above and below her. Rick quickly stopped Penny from going any farther, to my great relief.
“I’m okay!” Penny said calmly. “I’m just upside down.”
I managed to keep from laughing that time.
A few minutes later, we made it safely back to the vehicle, in perfect timing to avoid the rain. Poor Penny was caked with the invasive brown dust from her fight with the slope. She quickly improved the situation, however, by flipping down the visor mirror and taking out her lipstick.
As Penny applied the red makeup and we drove towards home, Rick and I started laughing.
“What’re you putting lipstick on for?” he laughed.
“Well, I don’t want anyone to worry,” Penny replied matter-of-factly. “This way when we get home, hopefully they’ll notice my fresh face, and not my hair and the dust!”
“Oh Penny,” we laughed again.
“Boy, Bekah,” Rick said after our chuckles had died down, “That–that is a hike that you will probably never forget–for your whole life!” That set us off again.
“I felt like a turtle.” Penny narrated: “I’m on my back, my arms and legs are sticking up, waving in the air,”–she demonstrated– “and I look up to see my poor cousin’s eyes–” Penny held her hands up to her own eyes in big circles.
“Yes,” I laughed back, getting a sudden idea, “and then I’ll blog about it and you’ll read about it on the internet!”
We all roared. “Yeah. ‘Hiking with a cracked kettle!’” Penny stated resignedly.
Personally, I think ‘hiking with two generous, extremely gracious and funny people’ is much closer to the truth…but, admittedly, much farther from being a catchy title. And Rick was correct; I certainly will remember that hike with him and Penny for my whole life long. As I’ll probably do over the next several years, we who witnessed continued to laugh about it throughout the rest of the next couple of days…I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of Penny–on her back and upside down–on the trail of the Butte.
Lord have mercy.
This story is based on a true-life event and told with the permission of the leading characters; names have been slightly altered, however, as per their request and to protect their privacy…thanks to my cousin for many things, but in this case, especially for her indomitable sense of humor and her generously faithful readership of this foundling blog of mine.