BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

“Every time you ride the pass you have to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C, and be ready to execute either one of them at any moment,” said my new friend and guide, Associate Pastor Rob Griggs of Word of Life church in Billings, Montana.

I soon had reason to appreciate his humility and respect for nature.

Rob grew up riding the Beartooth Highway, sixty-nine miles of winding road, stunning views and terrifying terrain that tops out at 10,947 feet between touristy Red Lodge, Montana, and the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. It opens Memorial Day weekend, or as soon as they can get the snow off, and can close any day of the year for weather.

Rob’s words became prophetic as we rode out of the sunlit lowlands and into the pass. The sky grew dark and menacing, wind buffeted, rain threatened and the treeless, rock-strewn landscape felt more and more forbidding. Miss your footing or worse, overcook a turn on that road, and you are in for a thousand foot plunge on rock-strewn slopes.

But it was more than that. The power and proximity of the weather, thousands of feet up into the atmosphere and exposed as we were with no trees or buildings for shelter, the barren, austere peaks and fields of granite took on spiritual significance. Psalm 104:3 kept playing in the back of my mind:

He makes the clouds his chariot

and rides on the wings of the wind.

4        He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants. [1]

“I’m for plan B!” I said as we took a photo break near the summit. I was wearing summer riding gear: mesh jacket and fingerless gloves, and was already cold. The churning mass of dark cloud and rain pounding the peaks a half mile to our west made it clear we were also about to be wet.

He grinned and said, “I agree! Here, you might want these on the way down,” and handed me a spare pair of gloves. We beat a hasty retreat to some welcome shelter and hot food back in Red Lodge.

Fast forward a few days and the pass was a completely different experience as our family drove in a borrowed Suburban from the Cody, Wyoming side, up the Chief Joseph Highway, and northeast into Montana along the Beartooth. Bright blue skies, puffy white clouds, and gentle breezes brought out all the majesty and beauty of the peaks. The big SUV made the road less intimidating, the chill air less penetrating. Yet still, these mountains have a presence, a personality, a power that will not be taken for granted, that demands respect and not a little humility from the people that play on their slopes. “Enjoy me,” they seem to say, “But do not take me for granted.”

Beartooth Pass teaches me spiritual lessons. It makes me think about the maker of heaven and earth, who rides upon the wings of the wind. It reminds me to enjoy him, but not take him for granted. And it makes me want to take my friends to see him in all his terror, glory, majesty and beauty.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ps 104:3–4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

FOG ON THE MOUNTAIN: Staying Upright in Zero Visibility

“Uh oh,” I said out loud inside my helmet, “not good.”

Post rainstorm fog had descended on Route 8 south of Floyd, Virginia, skirting the edge of the Rocky Knob Recreation area through which we now rode, some three thousand feet above sea level. We had avoided most of the wet that day, the return leg of our two-day spring motorcycle ride, and prospects were good for a fairly dry trip home, but visibility was fading fast.

Fifty feet, I thought, now thirty, now twenty, now … who cares! I can’t see! Get the face-shield up! Forget the distance, just stay on that white line!

I was experiencing, or right on the edge of experiencing, spatial disorientation–that unnerving feeling that happens to pilots, divers, and sometimes motorcyclists in fog, when the visual cues don’t match up with the little motion detectors in your head and body–making up seem like down, and down seem like up.

Those God-given motion detectors, called kinesthetic sensory receptors, are one of the reasons I love to ride, especially in the mountains. Carving the climbing curves with my old Beemer, swooping down switchbacks, soaring up the slopes, beveling my boot heels on the asphalt just before the foot pegs scrrrape! Pushing opposite bar, weight-shifting to the inside of the curve, down-shifting, grabbing some brake to preload the suspension, focusing everything on nailing the next apex. Then throttle on coming out, letting the physics of acceleration on uncoiling springs stand you up, ready now to fling it into the next turn going the other way.

If you can identify with that, you can understand why my friend Jamie and I love motorcycling so much. The wind in your face and bugs in your teeth are fun, too, but not nearly so much as the sensation of flying. I thank God every time I ride for the sheer joy of it.

Except when I run into fog; then I pray for deliverance, I slow down, and I concentrate on one critical thing: that bright white line along the edge of the road. Visibility may be ten feet. It may be less, but I know that line will lead me out of the fog.

Remember what the Psalmist said? “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”[1]

Life is like a long ride through the mountains and valleys, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in rain and fog. It is easy to stay upright when the sky is clear and the roads are dry. But some days the visibility will drop to almost zero and spiritual disorientation will make you wonder which way is up. That’s when you need to slow down, keep your eyes fixed on the bright white line of God’s word, and follow it out of the fog.

[1] Psalm 119:104-106, NIV.