In 2010, I made my first trip to Alaska. More than six years in the planning, it was more than a vacation. It was a celebration with two friends to culminate the end of my Ph.D. program.
Needless to say, by the time I finally arrived in Alaska I was nearly uncontainable with excitement. With 20+ hours of daylight to burn, we’d tour an area during the day and drive most of the night to our next destination. “This is so cool,” I would say. And two minutes later: “This is so cool.”
We had planned our trip so the final few days held the thing I was most looking forward to: Denali. At 20,320 feet, Denali (or Mt. McKinley) is the largest mountain in North America. In the years leading up to our adventure, Denali had taken on near-metaphysical proportions in my mind. I knew only 1/3 of the visitors to Denali actually got to see the mountain. Denali is known for creating its own weather pattern and hiding itself in broad daylight behind a screen of clouds. But I didn’t care. I wanted to stand in the presence of the mountain even if I couldn’t see it. I was so excited that just the thought would set my heart to thumping.
It was nearing midnight when we finally pulled onto the Talkeetna Spur Road towards our campground. Just ahead of us, someplace, was Denali. I will never forget driving down that road, straining to look ahead. It was dusk and the clouds were glowing. Off on the horizon it was nearly impossible to tell: was that a cloud? Or a mountain? Mountain? Cloud?
And then we came around a corner and it was THERE, hovering above the clouds like a mystical floating island. After six years, I was staring into the face of my mountain.
This past fall, I had the opportunity to travel back to Alaska for work. I added a vacation day onto my trip and headed north from Anchorage along the now familiar route. I was going to visit my mountain! It was crystal clear and cold and the moment I turned onto the spur road, Denali was visible. Its massive white face loomed shining against the dry blue sky. That was too easy, I thought. Where was the mystery, the anticipation, the straining to see it?
I stopped the car and got out to marvel at it. And then a horrible thought suddenly occurred to me: that is not the mountain I have hanging on my wall.
I scanned the horizon. Surely not! Had I really taken a picture of a different mountain on my first trip? That mountain that had burned itself indelibly into my memory – was that not even Denali??
When I got home I compared photos, and sure enough “My Mountain” was not Denali. As near as I can tell, it is actually Mount Hunter, the next tallest mountain to Denali’s south. Denali, on that first night, must have been hiding in the clouds.
You know, there are times when God hides mountains in the clouds. Sometimes physically. Sometimes metaphorically. This is probably good. If I knew the size of every mountain looming in the mist I’d probably never set foot outside my bedroom door. Instead, God has a way of showing us just the path ahead, just the mountain we need to contend with right now. When we peak one, no matter how tall, there is always another. Even among the tallest mountains in the world, climbers will argue which one is the toughest, which route is the most technical, which face is the hardest. There is always bigger. There is always tougher.
Sometimes what we think is the highest mountain we’ve ever seen is really just a foothill to something more. Praise God we do not have to climb it alone.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalms 121:1-2).