The sign read:

DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, especially May to September.

But that was for normal people. The Hermit Trail spanned only nine miles from the canyon’s rim down to the Colorado River. I could jog it in an hour and a half and be back up in another three. I snorted at the sign in contempt as I checked my daypack. Even though it was mid -June and Tonto Plateau would top out at a hundred and fifteen degrees by afternoon, my quart canteen would be enough. I could always bushwhack up a slot canyon and find a spring. The main thing I didn’t want to forget was my new Yashika Electro-AX. It was the hottest new 35mm on the market and I was determined to get some stellar shots of this remote section of the canyon. I threw in a light-weight sleeping bag, just in case, ignored the mandatory remote area registration station at the trailhead and began jogging down.

At an early age I found out that I had an uncanny sense of direction. Growing up in the wilderness of northern Minnesota, I cut my teeth navigating the waterways and dense forests of the north woods. It was like I had a built-in GPS. I could picture the terrain around me like an aerial view. No matter how the landscape twisted and turned I had an instinct for sorting out the big picture and always landed fairly close to where I was navigating.

After about ten minutes I hit my stride and was descending effortlessly, gliding down through the rocky switchbacks into the sweltering heat of Tonto plateau. Even at 10am the plateau was over a 100 degrees. It was like a giant flat island suspended halfway down into the Grand Canyon’s endless sea of mandarin and mauve crevasses. Here, on the brink of this inland tableland, you get your first glimpse of the gleaming emerald thread of the Colorado River snaking in and out of the palisades below.

I killed off my canteen, confident I could replenish it down lower where there would be springs seeping towards the river. As I rounded the first switchback below the plateau, I hit the barricade.


The trail vanished into an endless jumble of debris where the mountainside had buckled and boiled across the landscape as far as I could see. Without breaking stride, I launched off of a boulder and hurdled the sign. A thousand yards of leaping, scrambling, rollicking fun later, I was back on the trail descending at a breakneck pace.

The river was dangerously fast and breathtakingly cold. After napping and sunbathing a couple of hours, I ferreted up a slot canyon and filled my canteen. The shadows pooling under the western cliffs warned it was time to head back up before the sun disappeared.

It was late afternoon by the time I had leapfrogged back over the rockslide and was gazing down from Tonto plateau at the river gleaming like molten lead in the afternoon sun. “What a shot”, I thought, reaching into the daypack for the Yashika, my heart sank, the camera was gone. Then it hit me like a freight train… I pictured the boulder at the river’s edge where I had eaten lunch, the blazing sun had been so hot, I had secured the precious camera under a small overhang in the shade next to it.

I gauged the sun that was nearly kissing the canyons western rim, abandoning my new camera was the only wise course, but I hadn’t even developed the first roll of film yet.

Maybe I could make it if I really put the hammer down. I skittered wildly across the rockslide and galloped down the trail like a lunatic. My hands shook with fatigue as I nestled the camera into the daypack and threw it over my shoulder. I rattled my empty canteen and scanned the deepening shadows searching for the spring that flowed out of the slot canyon, but it was too dark.

By the time I reached the rockslide the third time, it was pitch-black and I was spent. My throat was so parched I could barely swallow and my equilibrium was dangerously off. After floundering and stumbling around for an hour or so, despair took hold. My small penlight was all but useless in this vast rock labyrinth. I was in a state of disoriented confusion like I had never experienced before. My internal compass was useless. I was hopelessly lost on a closed trail where I had failed to register my departure. I was fading fast and no one would even know I was missing. By morning I would be too weak to ascend in the heat. I was probably going to die!

In that moment of darkness my buried past was resurrected. All of the foolishness of my former exploits rose up before me. I saw how fortunate I had been not to suffer this kind of catastrophe in countless prior situations. As I reviewed those precarious moments I saw how I had arrogantly interpreted each providential outcome as further evidence of my superior skills as an outdoorsman. As each adventure rose before my mind’s eye so also did my sins of pride and vainglory. I had embellished my invincible self-image over and over again, until it abandoned me here, a castaway in the darkness, dying on an avalanche of stones.

“O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength: Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves” (Psalm 88, KJV).

This disturbing Psalm described my impasse perfectly. The Psalmist was also snared by his weakness and faced death with no hope of redemption.

Many in the Protestant tradition have coined such an experience, “the dark night of the soul”… a moment when the veil of our suppressed memories is lifted. Mental images that pronounce judgment on the picture of the self we cherish and also expose our departures from the ideals that lie crouching in the depths of our unconsciousness. This false self has forgotten and ignored much that seemed trivial, but nothing from our past is ever buried or completely forgotten, we carry its record hidden away deep in our souls.

This buried past is mighty; when the moment of spiritual awakening occurs it resurrects our betrayals, our denials and our sins out of our subconscious. In that revelatory moment our hearts are compelled to recall and confess what we shudder to remember.

As I crouched in the despair of my foolishness and folly, a light flashed across the tips of the rocks towering above me. I scrambled up out of the dark pit and waved my penlight back and forth overhead until the shaft of light swept over me again. I traced its beam to the distant orange glow of a campfire glimmering high above me on a jutting point of the Tonto plateau a couple of miles away. Some campers must have seen my penlight zigzagging across the rockslide and realized I was lost. For a second relief washed over me, but then, as my internal compass put everything in perspective, despair crushed me again. Even though that jutting point was only a mile or two away as a crow flies, they would have to hike a brutal ten or twelve miles of winding trail to get to me.

I waved my penlight forlornly, disheartened to see my salvation so close and yet still so impossibly far away. The camper flashed his light across the rocks in front of me again, and then again, and again. Were they drunk? Why did they keep swinging the light the same way in front of me again and again?

I climbed up over a few rocks in the direction they were motioning and the beam of light moved ahead of me motioning me forward again. “No way! It can’t be!” They were guiding me through the rockslide. From their distant perch, I realized they could see the starlit trail threading its way up to the rockslide’s edge and also where it reappeared again beyond the collapsed mountainside. In just a few minutes I was guided to where I could see the dark strip of the trail stretching out ahead beyond the rockslide’s debris. Hope and joy surged up in me and I howled like a crazed wolf waving my penlight back and forth in gratitude as my echoes rebounded through the canyon.

Our redemption works in much the same way, not with complete clarity to be sure, but “as in a glass darkly”. In order to navigate the disorienting despair and confusion caused by the unveiling of our hidden faults and sins we must be guided. As we read the accounts of the disciples, we are joined together with them in their struggles.

Through their stories we learn to understand what we are doing and what is being done to us! Just as the risen Christ helped them understand their broken dreams and disappointments, we understand what we remember, remember what we have forgotten and embrace much of what was alien to us. The haphazard unveiling of our transgressions and betrayals assumes a pattern and continuity as our history is connected with theirs. Our disordered recollections and internal schisms take on hitherto unguessed meaning while at the same time they are being forgiven.

Ellen White described this process when she analyzed Jesus confronting Peter demanding that the two-faced disciple declare his love to him three times, bringing to mind his three denials.

Three times after His resurrection, Christ tested Peter. “Simon, son of Jonas,” He said, “lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

“This heart-searching question was necessary in the case of Peter, and it is necessary in our case. The work of restoration can never be thorough unless the roots of evil are reached. Again and again the shoots have been clipped, while the root of bitterness has been left to spring up and defile many; but the very depth of the hidden evil must be reached, the moral senses must be judged, and judged again, in the light of the divine presence. The daily life will testify whether or not the work is genuine.

“When, the third time, Christ said to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” the probe reached the soul center. Self-judged, Peter fell upon the Rock, saying, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee” (SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1152).

On the other side of my ordeal I was a different person.  I never again ventured into the wilderness without a deep respect for its magnitude and my own mortality. The experience poked a permanent hole in my self-awareness, a breach that left me vulnerable and deeply aware of my spiritual myopia. Instead of my unique gifts and skills sending me head over heels into folly, the trial left me much like Jacob after his wrestling match with the Angel. Instead of running headlong, I tend now to drag one foot behind.

Doug Mielke

Doug writes from North Carolina and from a deep place of human reality.