In early July, the one-hour northeasterly drive on Route 198 from Visalia, California transports you from searing triple-digit heat to the mild alpine climate of Sequoia National Park. When I planned a solo retreat in the summer of 2002, there was nowhere to go but Sequoia. I visited once before in a different life, and the spongy reddish-brown giants called me back to reflect on new possibilities and choices.
I came to California fifteen years earlier, packing my young family, dreams of business success, and visions of idyllic living. Los Angeles was a new beginning, away from the narrow thinking, family turmoil, and lost potential of life in Detroit. I wanted to remake the person with whom I became disillusioned, but the California promise vanished into the same mire of lost dreams and broken lives, three children smothered in the ashes of selfish ambition and failed marriage.
As I began the drive north, I believed life could be different, yet didn’t really know. The previous two and a half years were a slow shedding of condemnation and regret over a well-intentioned life gone wrong. I met Forgiveness, an unexplainable, undeserved love I never knew that reached down, touched my beaten soul, and said “It’s not over! I gave My life so that yours could begin again.”
When I reached Visalia I went out for a quick dinner, alone with my excitement and doubts, setting aside daily concerns as the mushroom burger, fries, and cold Sam Adams satisfied.
My ascent up Highway 198 began at 9 o’clock the next morning, carrying my Bible, notebook and pen, two bottles of water, and a 35 mm camera. I entered the park’s south gate at the base of Ash Mountain, elevation 1,700 feet. The road’s name changed to The General’s Highway, the grade steepened immediately and the foothills quickly turned rugged, laden with blue oak, dense chaparral, and grasslands peppered with spiny yucca. About ten minutes into the park, a steep, verdant river valley appeared on my right, its gentle flow occasionally interrupted by mild rapids.
As I approached 5,000 feet the landscape and fragrance transformed as rugged Ponderosa pines blended with redolent Sugars and slender-trunked Lodgepoles. My anticipation for renewing acquaintances with the majestic Sequoias palpated. As I neared 7,000 feet, a brown sign with white lettering announced the boundary of the Giant Forest, locus of the Sequoia population. After two quick switchbacks, the visual transition was sudden and stunning. The visage of thick, spongy bark, deep vertical furrows and massive trunks was beyond breathtaking. I spotted a turnout, got out of my car, and said hello to my stately companions.
About a mile later I encountered the first of many forks in the road. I decided to follow the path leading to the most massive living thing on the planet, the General Sherman tree, for whom the approach highway is named. The General stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base, wider than a city street. As I approached the cordoned-off enclave, a placard informed me that the ages of the General Sherman and other large sequoias are unknown, but estimates ranged between 1,800 and 2,700 years old. Oohh my … this tree was alive when Jesus walked the earth. My gaze fixed on a connection with history, a contemporary of the Savior. I marveled at how this tree and its surroundings were a constant, unshakable, unmovable presence. A solidity and surety we all long for, yet eludes our temporal grasp.
I continued driving through the core of the Giant Forest and soon spotted a trailhead. I parked, grabbed my backpack, and went to see what I would see. I quickly reached another fork and the choice of Dead General Trail to the left or Crescent Meadow Trail to the right. Meadow sounded better than Dead. Minutes later, I entered a pristine and lush expanse of tall grass, deep green and surrounded by pines and Sequoias. I quickly discerned a crescent shape about six times longer than wide. The contrast of the meadow with its surround of rocky, sandy forest was arresting. And it was July; though the temperatures are cooler at this elevation, few if any places in California’s arid climate are so green and lush that time of year.
As I strolled the circumference I began to be impressed by nature’s obedience to its Designer. Every tree and blade of grass lay in place exactly and only where intended, faithfully and perfectly over millennia. As I stopped to write I realized that I, too, was placed on earth with intent, but unlike nature I had to choose to function as designed. I pictured my choices affecting others the way one Sequoia could change this scene if it could fling its cones into the meadow’s center and convince its neighbors to do likewise.
I sat back on my bench and reflected on choices and what drives them. I pondered the words that opened my heart thirty months ago. Slowly, the questions came. Does it last? Can I lose it? Is it possible to throw it away, or do I keep it no matter what?
I reached into my backpack, pulled out my Bible, and found the words again… he made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. I remembered the Max Lucado book my friend Sherry from church gave me … “look at what God has accomplished … he called sin what it is … he didn’t condone it, didn’t dismiss it … he took it on Himself … he sentenced Himself. He’s still holy, and sin is still sin. But we are redeemed.”
Amidst natural splendor, I met Grace. The unstoppable, inexhaustible Love I never knew reached down, touched my doubts and fears, and embedded truth in my heart: I could never fall from His grasp, and obeying His design for my life, like the trees and meadow obey theirs, is life.
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