Walking without shoes: an annual pilgrimage to Big Bend National Park
This past June, my family and I embarked on our annual trip to Big Bend National Park, located deep in the trans-Pecos region of Texas. Aside from the greater DFW area, this is the place in which I have spent the greatest portion of my life, having visited at least every year for all 22 years of my journey on this Earth. Calling it simply a vacation doesn’t feel right at this point. As I look back on all of the time spent, memories made, and profound experiences I have had in the Big Bend, it would be more accurate to refer to my weeks spent there as a sort of religious pilgrimage.
Out there, in a place that couldn’t more perfectly embody the word “yonder,” you are forced to confront distance. It stares you down from every possible direction, standing in aloof challenge to man’s inborn need to reach for the horizon. In the Big Bend of Texas, the pocket of beautiful chaos so named for the abrupt northward bend of the Rio Grande, the primacy of the land is self-evident. Its stark and scarred landscapes are enrapturing to the observant, but deadly to the distracted. It has been and continues to be said (correctly) by those who have encountered this place that it allows for no winners, only survivors. The land only concedes so much, and even that reluctantly.
This maxim holds true not only for the human inhabitants of the Big Bend desert, but for all living things there. A small fernlike plant exists here which, looking as though long dead from lack of water, will spring back to life at the first drop of blessed rain. It is known as the resurrection plant, so named for the resemblance of its seemingly miraculous mode of life to that truly miraculous event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Deserts hold a special place in the history of our faith. Moses guided the Israelites through the desert in search of the Promised Land. The man who would go on to baptize Christ, Saint John the Baptist, lived as a hermit in the desert. The Bible tells us that Christ Himself spent forty days and forty nights in the desert (biblical parlance for a very long time), wherein He was tempted by Satan. What these stories, passed down from generation to generation, seem to be telling us is that deserts have loomed in the background of human consciousness for much of history as strange, forbidding, and harsh places, which paradoxically offer the potential for spiritual healing and enlightenment; they are places which shrink the ego and the potency of the individual to the point where the power of God becomes undeniable, and His presence unmistakable.
In our modern towns and cities, we humans enjoy an outsized notion of our own power in the face of nature. Smooth, monochrome concrete surfaces convey our air-conditioned vehicles to our destinations, which usually aren’t that far away. We obsess over our lawns, squirming with anxiety over whether our grass is a half-inch higher than that of our neighbors’. If a weed (rather, a plant whose existence we have deemed conditional upon the present strength of our will to remove it), dares to assert its presence, we simply spray some arcane concoction of chemicals on it and walk away. We sometimes trim trees and other vegetation into fantastical shapes and make living art in the form of landscaping. We have even supplanted the rainstorm through our use of automatic sprinkler systems which, without the messy irregularity of natural weather patterns, conform to a nice and tidy schedule. I am not here to crusade against all our modern conveniences or notions surrounding most people’s everyday experiences of nature. I would simply like to point out that, while going for a walk in your city park or even mowing the lawn on Sunday can be ways to interact with the “outdoors,” what you’re experiencing is perhaps something tightly curated, something manicured.
In the desert, the tables are turned. Thunderstorms spring up seemingly out of nowhere, drop buckets of rain and then vanish as quickly as they came. Flash floods race through arroyos and washes, sweeping up anything in their path. A well-camouflaged rattlesnake might be sunning itself on the trail you’re walking down, and it may or may not decide to be gracious enough to warn you of its presence. Oftentimes there is no air-conditioned space to which you can retreat for quick refreshment; it can seem as though the sun itself has put on a new, sinister face.
Yet, mingling seamlessly with all of this danger and discomfort is humbling beauty. One truly feels isolated in the Big Bend, in the most positive sense of the word. The landscape makes you feel emotions and enter intellectual realms that I believe are just not reachable from a cubicle in a downtown office building. Going to a place like the Big Bend is in some ways akin to walking in the grass without shoes on, the shoes in this metaphor being all of the accoutrements and padding of modern society.
If you’ve ever walked shoeless on a natural surface, you may have noticed that the manner in which you walk starts to change. Although I balk slightly at attributing specific intentions to God, for the sake of my point I will say that shoes were not part of the original design plan for humans. We made them for ourselves, and they have certainly proven their worth. However, there was a time when shoes didn’t exist. There was a time when the only toolkit humans had to work with was what God had built into us. And, as it turns out, it’s some pretty good hardware.
Now, you may be asking, “Where is he going with all this?” Well, truth be told, I’m not entirely sure myself. Trying to encapsulate the totality of my impressions and convictions attached to this place I love so much feels a bit like trying to grasp handfuls of a cloud, something I have actually tried to do in Big Bend as a child, my hand reaching out the window of the car as we drove down and out of the Chisos Mountains.
I suppose this is what I want you to take away: God is everywhere, all the time. Even though this is true, most of our current life situations make this reality harder and harder to see. Removing yourself to a place far from many everyday comforts and distractions is a great way to dust off the mirror of the world, a mirror that is meant to reflect the glory of the One who created it. So, go to the Big Bend, or any place where human footprints are few and far between. Take off your shoes (literally and metaphorically) while you’re there and walk (with caution) through the grass if there be any. And maybe, like the resurrection plant, you’ll begin to appreciate anew the taste of water.