• Caroline Penfield

Walk Down This Mountain

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

During the first weekend of November two of my close friends and I were visiting part of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina. We had decided to take a camping trip that weekend as a little escape from the stress of campus and the presidential election that had taken place the Tuesday before. We knew when we planned the trip it would be unlikely we would know the result before we left.

Despite our goal of disconnecting for a bit, we began to realize that the election was close to being called and started to obsessively refresh our newsfeeds whenever we had any service. While driving from our campsite to a hike on Saturday morning, we got the notification that enough Electoral College votes had been secured for Joe Biden to be announced as the winner. We rolled down the car windows, turned up the music, and shared our shouts of joy and relief with the passing landscape. Each exhale during the hike felt like a sigh of relief, and we walked with a little extra energy in our steps. When we arrived at the top of the mountain we were hiking, we sat and reflected on the hurt of the past four years, then danced and froliked for new beginnings.

Before you get upset with me for being political, I ask you to remember that existence is political and the past four years have moved our country further from everything I believe to be just. I have no illusions that a new president will solve America’s problems, or that Joe Biden is perfect in any way. However, the hope of something new, something that has promised to be better, is worth celebrating to me. As historian and activist Blair Imani shared on that day on instagram, “Happiness and celebration are not the enemies of progress.” As I stood on top of that mountain, looking over the invisible border between North Carolina and Tennessee, stitched together with blues and greens, I felt that hope fill me up.

Frolicking; very important

I’ve always found the mountains to be a place of reflection and peace. There is something calming about feeling the sturdiness of something so much larger than me. I love the way the sun curves around their rough edges, making them glimmer, and that the growth of the tree lines can make the harsh edges disappear altogether. I like watching them disappear into the horizon, knowing I will never be able to reach that far. And, I find comfort in thinking about how even these huge, seemingly unmoveable structures have not always been here, but are created from cracking and shifting, the trauma of the Earth, and one day they will be dust again.

While I love the perspective mountains give me, I’ve often been warned about “mountain top experiences.” It’s a Christian cliche, often used to describe the high of an experience like a retreat or week of camp. If you know me, you know I talk about camp all the time. My summer camp has provided me with incredible friends and spiritual experiences and it’s where I first fell in love with the view from a mountain. Our mountain is called Chandler Mountain, and I have spent many hours of my life running, dancing, praying, and laughing on its red dirt paths and grassy landings. At the top sits a little stone chapel with a view of the lake and the mirroring hills. A week of camp is always hard to leave, and there are many times I have hoped and prayed for days to repeat themselves endlessly for more time there. But mountaintop experiences, while sacred, can keep us separated from what I believe to be the work of my faith.

One of my favorite songs, Walk Down This Mountain by Bebo Norman, is a song about God leaving the mountaintop.

“Look around and you'll find
The very face of God
He's walking down into the distance
He's walking down to where the masses are.

So walk down this mountain
With your heart held high
Follow in the footsteps of your Maker
With this love that's gone before you
And these people at your side”

I didn’t know it until I heard it, but the image of God walking down to where God’s people are is what I think it most looks like to follow God, being in relationship with a God who wants to be with me. Mountaintop experiences, holy moments where the light is shining onto your face and you feel how small you are because you know you are smaller than the trees that are mere specks below you, are important. They give us hope and space to frolick, to feel everything good in abundance. But, they are not where the work of our faith is done. When you can’t see what’s taking place around you, you can’t see the hurts or needs of God’s people.

While moments of peace restore us, and they are important to help us go on; it is not enough to stand at the top, thinking we can see and know everything because we have certain titles or read certain books. Real life is found when the mountain’s rough edges are no longer softened by the sun’s warm light and borders become marked with road signs and zip codes. I am so thankful for that weekend in the mountains where my friends and I celebrated the hope of a new era. But, just like a new president will not solve all of America’s problems on their own, tucking myself away in the memory of mountaintop experiences can blind me to the perspectives of the valleys. Walking down the mountain is praying, “God, break my heart for what breaks yours.” It is planting the seeds to recover the earth I may have trampled in my reckless frolicking. Walking down the mountain means not feeling as small, and taking responsibility for what can be seen from eye level. Valleys are where we are urged to share what we felt in sacred moments while arriving at the ordinary once again.

I took this picture on the way to our hike

As we drove back to the campsite on the same road where we had learned Biden won, my friends and I searched for the exact spot where we had been when we received the notification. We wanted to mark it in our minds, take a mental picture of the place where hope had seemed to swing open the windows, letting the light in. But it was gone. There was nothing remarkable enough about the place that allowed us to find it again. It blended into the curves of the road and the autumn trees. That didn’t stop us from leaving with the full hearted feelings of relief and hope, and going to share it with the world we had tried and failed to escape from.

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