One morning a few days after last month’s snowstorm, I hopped into our all-wheel-drive Subaru and buckled my seatbelt, off to WriterHouse in Charlottesville. I pointed the car down the mountain road, which had not been plowed. Over night, slushy snowmelt had frozen into hard-packed ice.
I kept the car in first gear and took it slow. Around one particularly steep and challenging curve, the car tires began to slide out of control. I gripped the steering wheel, struggling to keep the car on the road and resisting the temptation to hit the brake. I turned the tires in the direction of the skid but over-corrected and slid in the opposite direction.
The ditch on my right beaconed me to give up. Then the cliff on the left waved me over with a trickster’s “what the heck, it’ll be fun,” come-on. Without curbs, the laws of physics were winning.
In his book The Writer’s Journey, Hollywood development executive and screenwriting doctor Christopher Volger recounted a story about a particularly difficult time in his life. He decided to walk alone in the forest near Big Sur, California, hoping to find peace and clarity. A short hike along a Forest Service trail turned into an ordeal. It had rained, so he expected muddy trails. But in several places, the path had washed away, leaving patches of rough, “finger-and-toe” crossings over rockslides.
Three hours into a one-hour walk, he came to a total washout. His hands and feet cramped; his arms shook from exhaustion. He was soaking wet and cold. The sun was going down, the temperature dropping.
Turn back? No, he didn’t have the energy—he would die. Give up and hope someone found him? No—he’d read news reports about people alone in the woods at night, falling into some canyon and perishing only to be discovered days later.
Keep going? What were his chances? Would he make it, crossing over house-sized, jagged boulders? Yes, but on the other side of the washout, there was still no sign of the trail.
The forest spirits beaconed him to give up. Jump off the cliff, they said, your troubles will be over in an instant. He panicked then remembered the tricksters.
He took a deep breath and heard a voice in his head say, “Trust the path.” There is no path, he scoffed; that’s the problem. I’ve lost my way.
“Trust the path,” the voice said again. He looked down and saw an ant trail. It led to a small creature trail then a deer trail then a sunny meadow—and the well-travelled Forest Service trail. A half-hour later, he was back in his car on the highway.
Trust the Path—that’s the advice he passed onto those on the writer’s journey.
On that icy morning last month, the Subaru slid dangerously close to the cliff. I breathed deeply and prayed. The left front tire found a patch of gravel and jerked back onto the road.
Past the curve sunlight warmed the landscape. The road down to the bottom of the mountain road showed more gravel patches than snow-packed ice. A minute later, I was on bone-dry highway 151.
The picture I shot today while walking the mountain road is a vast contrast to a month ago. Yet when I drive down the mountain later this afternoon on my way to church and back up tonight, I’ll be on the lookout for those tricksters.
And trusting the path.