On June 1, 2022, I started driving to Lander, Wyoming, to be the chaplain on a COR Expeditions Leadership trip. COR, an acronym for Catholic Outdoor Renewal (as well as the Latin word for heart), brings people into the backcountry to experience the beauty of creation and experience the grandeur of God. This was my fourth time serving as chaplain with them, and I was looking forward to working again with Zach and Betz, the trip leaders and guides.
The main area COR goes is to the Wind River Range (often referred to as the Winds), a 2.25-million-acre wilderness that is part of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been there before and was very much looking forward to the snow-capped mountains, cold water streams and lakes, rolling terrain, and wide-open plains. The Winds are certainly a special place and I have experienced the grandeur of God there in many ways.
It’s also a harsh place. One time while camping between some mountain peaks around 12,000 ft, I experienced a storm full of thunder, lightning, wind, rain – certainly the most powerful lightning and thunder I’ve ever experienced. Mountains can be a place of extremes, and I’ve certainly felt it in the Winds. So as excited as I was to work with COR again, I was also moderately apprehensive of the possible conditions in the Winds.
It was early June, so the forecast was for melting snow, highs just above freezing, and a bit of rain. Not pleasant but part of the deal when backpacking. When I met up with Zach, we caught up for a minute, but he had a stressed look on his face. “Father, we gotta make some changes.” In backpacking (and the spiritual life) things don’t always go as planned. “The forecast is for 7 days of freezing rain, that’s not going to work for our program.”
Zach and the people of COR certainly could handle this weather, as unpleasant as it was, but this was a trip leader training course, and we wanted time to pray, share the faith, and learn from each other, not just try to survive the elements. He went on, “We’re changing the trip from the Winds to the desert and canyons in Utah.” Whoa, that’s a big change! I brought a zero-degree sleeping bag, serious boots, and all the other things necessary for late-Spring mountain hiking. Instead, I would be in canyons, where water can be scarce, it gets really hot, and there’s a lot more hazardous snakes, spiders, and scorpions to deal with.
The mountains have always been a place I’ve felt comfortable. The challenge of hiking up the slopes, the views they provide, often not secluded, and generally not a place that’s easy to get to. Throughout the Bible many important events happen on top of mountains. These stories speak to me, they are comfortable and known. One of my first thoughts on the drive from Wyoming to Utah was: Did anything in the Bible important happen in the desert? It was a ridiculous question after I thought about it for a second, but being from the East Coast I don’t cross deserts all that often. It was good for me to be out of my element.
Over the next 10 days of the trip, with the challenges of finding water, dealing with the heat, and avoiding fire ants, I reflected on the desert and the spiritual life. The two major takeaways I had were about the desert in general, and then a specific Biblical account.
– friar Nick Rokitka OFM Conv.