Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Song of the Shenandoah

The bear appeared an hour before sunset. When I first saw her she was more than one hundred yards away padding quietly through the deep mountain forest. She was a regal creature – a magnificent beast. I estimated her to be at least twice my two hundred pounds. Her twin cubs, less than a quarter her size, bumbled along behind like a pair of frisky puppies. After hiking almost one thousand miles solo along the Appalachian Trail, this black bear in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park was the first I had encountered.

The bruin walked self-assuredly, directly toward the log upon which I was sitting. My open backpack lay beside me. I stood to make sure she saw that a human was present. I had heard that a black bear would never make an unprovoked attack upon a human. I thought she would be frightened away upon sighting me. I was wrong on both counts.

She continued in my direction until not more than thirty feet away she stopped and sniffed the air. Her massive head bobbed slowly as she now paced deliberately back and forth in front of me. I nervously focused my camera and snapped a quick shot. Until that moment it did not occur to me that the brute might charge.

It happened with breathtaking suddenness. The powerful beast lowered her head, gave a deep “woof,” and hurled herself toward me like frightful black lightning. My mind screamed “Run!” but my body didn’t respond. I froze in horror.

As quickly as she had charged the bear skidded to an abrupt halt with only inches of empty space and my now-forgotten camera between us. Her wild ebony eyes fixed on mine and the stench of her breath was almost overpowering. She emitted a low grumbling sound so deep that it was more nearly felt than heard. The thought of what her knife-blade claws and dagger teeth could do sent a shudder through me and I felt the blood drain from my face. Every nerve ending of my body seemed charged as if by electricity.

Unwilling to accept the dark demon’s challenge, I slowly backed away. I dared not run for fear that any quick movement might provoke her. Silently I prayed that I would safely reach the nearest climbable tree some twenty yards distant.

From my perch I watched in semi-shock as the bruin buried her entire head into my open pack, lifted it, and snorted as she shook it violently. In a moment she emerged with a plastic bag of gorp (trail food) between her teeth and retreated to the base of a giant poplar nearby where she lay down, ripped the bag open with her sharp incisors, and began to eat. The cubs had disappeared either into the forest or up a tree. I did not see them again. The mama bear had my undivided attention.

As she lapped up the gorp, I cautiously returned to my pack. I didn’t want to be around if she came back for seconds. A hungry park bear who has lost all fear of humans, especially a mother with cubs, can be an extremely dangerous animal. With a watchful eye on the beast I threw my things together and hastily departed.

My original plan had been to spend the night in that spot, where I had met the bear. Now I thought it wise to hike another mile or two before setting up camp.

A light steady rain began as I trudged uphill for the final mile of what had become a very long day. In the gathering dusk this was a particularly good mile for wildlife viewing. I delighted in the sight of eight whitetail deer, including two spotted fawns and two young bucks, proudly sporting new velvet racks. Also, there was a striped skunk near the Elkwallow Wayside where the trail intersected the famous Skyline Drive. A fat raccoon crossed my path at one spot, and a wood thrush eyed me intently from her nest on a low-hanging branch not more than five feet from the trail. However, the preoccupation of my mind was the hungry bear which might be following my scent. After dozens of peaceful nights alone on the trail – this night I was afraid.

My trail guidebook indicated that the Range View Cabin should be just ahead of me. The cabin would be locked, unless it was occupied, but I hoped that the overhanging front porch might at least give me refuge from the rain.

Twilight had come in earnest when I broke into the clearing. Three brightly colored tents decorated the grassy area in front of the cabin. Six young men and women sat Indian fashion in a circle under the shelter provided by the cabin overhang. I noticed that in each of their laps was an opened book. They had not yet seen me. I paused at the edge of the clearing and listened.

Above the gentle whisper of the rain a beautiful melody floated from their lips. It sounded to me at the time like a choir of guardian angels. The words came from the Bibles in their laps, which were turned to Psalm 34:

“O magnify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt his name together.”

I joined in, adding a seventh voice to the chorus:

“I sought the Lord, and he heard me,
And delivered me from all my fears.”

God had provided me a safe refuge for the evening. And six members of my spiritual family were on hand to welcome me.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Night the Angels Sang

When the doctor entered my sister’s hospital room we suddenly knew from the expression on his face that something was terribly wrong. My wife, mother, and brother-in-law, Sarah’s husband, listened in disbelief as he informed us that her cancer was in the last stages. My sister was only 26; she had three adorable children; she was beautiful, bright and talented; and in a few weeks at most, she was going to die.

Sarah was dismissed from the hospital just in time to prepare for a last Christmas with her family. She went to the shop which sold her artwork near her home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and bought back enough of her paintings to give one to each member of her family. Contrary to her doctor’s expectations, she stayed strong for the Holiday by sheer grit and determination.

Sarah’s boys, Charles and Mike, were delighted when they found new sleds under our tree on Christmas morning. Her baby daughter, Debbie, loved her new doll. As we sat around the breakfast table on that happy/sad day, Sarah gazed wistfully out the window and said, “This has been the perfect Christmas. The only thing that could make it better is if it would snow.”

As if the heavens were awaiting their cue, the snow began at that precise moment. Six inches covered the ground by the time the table was set for Christmas dinner.

As the New Year began, Sarah’s condition deteriorated rapidly. By mid-January she was re-admitted to the hospital. I did not know it would be her final evening when I took my turn at staying with her for the night.

Early in the evening Sarah asked if I would sing with her. Over and over throughout the night she would awaken and begin singing again a song which had been a favorite of hers since childhood,

Oh love of God, how rich and pure,
How measureless and strong,
It shall forevermore endure
The saints and angel’s song.

Interspersed with her singing, Sarah prayed. There was no petition – just a stream of praise flowed from her lips to the God she loved. Throughout the night nurses would stand silently in the doorway and listen. It was an unusual worship experience. A warm, strangely wonderful presence I had never sensed before seemed to fill the room.

The next day was more of the same. Between short naps, Sarah would sing and pray. At her request, the whole family came over, a few at a time, to sing with her.

Late that afternoon, Sarah called her husband down to her bedside and told him of her love. She smiled at me with a mischievous grin that spoke volumes without words. Then her eyes darted around the room and she gasped with excitement, “Listen! The angels are singing.”

I heard nothing, but a chill shot up my spine. Sarah sang a few exuberant notes, then stopped and chided, “Come on; can’t you hear the angels? Let’s sing with them.”

What happened during the next hour was not to be described. I felt as if I had been privileged to hold the hand of one who was already living in the supernatural realm beyond.

I thought the air could not be any more spiritually charged. That was before Sarah squealed, “There He is! There’s Jesus!” I looked in the direction toward which Sarah’s eyes were fixed and saw only an empty corner.

And now Sarah seemed to forget everyone and everything else around her, as she beheld her Lord. She weakly reached her arms upward and cried and laughed at once, “Oh Jesus. I love You, Jesus. I want to be with You, Jesus.”

Something rumbled deep down inside Sarah and she expelled her final breath. Her arms dropped; her eyes rolled back. All was silent. She had entered her rest.

I leaned my head against the wall and wept uncontrollably. I’m still not sure exactly why.

Sarah always loved the snow, and a fresh blanket covered the ground the day we buried her. As family and friends watched her casket being lowered into an East Tennessee hillside, I sensed that Sarah was standing there beside us, wearing her mischievous grin.