Life's lessons are handed to us in the most unusual ways. Thinking back I remember a grand adventure I had taken as a boy with my dear friends and cousins. We braved danger, harsh conditions, and learned a very valuable lesson. Watch where you step. This lesson has carried me through life and into adulthood. As I think of my lesson I have to shake my head and ask myself why, in all these years I keep needing to be reminded.
I lived in the most wonderful place as a boy, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. My family had lived in the Elk River and Yampa Valleys since the 1930's. My grandfather was a ranch hand, working as a cowboy and foreman for a ranch in the valley called Murphy Ranch. He was a tough man, a man of mystery, a man of few words. The valley he found himself and his family in would become the most amazing playground. It would be a place that would depart great wisdom on me. I still love it there even though I've not lived there in 25 years.
Growing up in the valley was a grand experience for me. My parents ran and owned a small hotel called "Rainbow Cottages". It was a hotel favored by guests who stayed longer than a night or two, made up of 10 units and two houses. We lived in the large of the two houses and my grandparents upon their retirement moved into the small house. With the business Mom and Dad were not terribly aware of what we kids were doing in our free time, especially during the short summers in the high mountains.
My partner during the majority of my childhood until I entered Junior High school was my cousin, Chester (see my blog post "Little Puffs of Dirt"). He was a year younger than I, and we were inseparable for the entirety of our growing up years. We explored the valley and surrounding mountains without end for days and nights on end. He was my "Bud" and we were the best of friends. Without him my childhood likely would have been rather bleak and lonely. We shared a passion for imagination and were always into some sort of trouble.
One summer day we were playing out by his house. We looked across the valley and spied on the hills just above the Elk River, north, a green field. It shone like an emerald in the hot summer sun. It was late in the summer, and by now the verdant green of the grasses had faded and the valley was mostly colored with sagebrush and browning scrub oak. Yet we could see, maybe 2 miles away, perched like a small garden of Eden this green field. We knew in our hearts that this perfect spot of green had been placed there just for us to find it. Looking at its location, it wouldn't be easy to climb through the brush, up the hills to the green field, but we knew we must.
We called for our sisters, Julie and Susan. Susan, Chester's sister, was my age, born only a couple of months later than I. Julie, my sister, was the youngest of us children. She was precocious, but always up for an adventure. We told the girls about our discovery, and Chester, in his resourcefulness pulled out a telescope. So there we four children stood, like Lewis and Clark surveying the land before us, planning our adventure to the verdant pasture that awaited us. We knew, as a group that this place was perfect for a picnic. We marveled that we hadn't ever noticed the shining emerald grass before, and thus we laid out our plan.
The western slope of Colorado is a safe place, spotted with the occasional black bear, the biggest danger was honestly the ticks that ran thick in the brush. It was late enough we knew that they shouldn't be so bad as the spring, but none-the-less, we didn't want ticks on us. We also knew that occasionally in the brush you could encounter a western rattlesnake. They weren't terribly common, but they were there all the same, and they always made our wanderings in the brush and country side a thrill. The valley had been formed with a combination of the rivers meandering through as well as a glacier that had centuries early pushed through. The glaciers had deposit all along the hills and valley floor large boulders that over time became dotted with growing fungus and moss, and these boulders, placed like little pieces of art were perfect spots to hide snakes, and we knew that we would have to pass over and around these stones and their guardians.
But looking through Chester's spyglass, we had to do it. We had to rest on the soothing grass that seemed to place amide this dry summer ground for our play. Our plan was simple, we'd pack a lunch, take our tin canteens filled with water, grab our walking sticks (and poking sticks to ensure that we were not attacked by the snake) and let Duke, Chester's Irish Setter lead the way. Duke was the main reason we were comfortable traversing the western wild. This dog loved us kids, and he protected us. He watched our every move, and when we got lost, turned around or trapped by brush or impassible obstacles, Duke would find a way to get us out. Plus Duke wouldn't let rattlesnakes, coyotes, or any other creature near us.
So that fine summer day, in the full heat, facing known and unknown dangers, we left the safety of the cemetery hillside and set out to rest in the beckoning cool green field placed no doubt by nature just for us kids. The hike was hot, dry, dangerous and very difficult. Being that we were all of us still only ages 6-8, we had little legs and the brush was thick and grew high all around us. There weren't trails we could see leading to the green pasture, so we made our own. We relied on Duke to find the small animal trails dotted around the boulders and brush, and we traipsed our way up slowly up the mountain, hoping we knew where we would end up. As we passed into the hills, our clear vision of the mountainside was lost, and we relied on our memory of the lay of the land, hoping that the taller landmark hills and mountains would guide us to the little green pasture.
We passed over and under various barbed wire fences (fences in that time for us were simply obstacles - not indicators of private land). We knew we were getting close though as we walked because we finally came to the hill that the pasture laid upon. We came atop a rise and there just before us we could see cotton wood trees and the green pasture! Throwing our canteens and lunch to the ground we each of us ran to the green field! The field was surround by a low wooden fence topped with barbed wire (we didn't see the wooden fence from our vantage back at the cemetery. We could hear lulling in the area cows and indeed, beside the cotton woods rested cows. We climbed over the fence and jumped into the green grass and realized why the area was so green in the midst of the faded brown of sage brush.
The green fenced area, near a small supply of water, surrounded by cows was green because of the bovines' very presence. From our vantage point, a mile or more away, even through the telescope, the grass just looked green, we didn't know that it was thick and sharp bladed crab grass. From our vantage so far away the other side of the fence teased us with it's emerald blades, and it wasn't until we jumped the fence and stepped in, well stepped in it, that we realized this was no garden of Eden this was no special place that called us from across the valley. This was a farmers feeding lot, used because of the water and shade for his cows. The cows dropped their dung, and the ground sprang to life with verdant green dung. Our disappoint was sure and it was harsh. Of course we were not dissuaded from further adventures as children, but this great adventure, through the brush, braving rattlesnakes, severe sun, ticks, set our imaginations on fire and we were wiser because of it. The lesson learned - the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, and if it is, maybe it's greener because its feed with manure.
My entire life I've taken this adventure over and over again. That lesson learned so literally nearly 35 years ago is still a lesson I have to go to and revisit frequently. In my journey from high school into college, from college into seminary, seminary into priesthood, priesthood into disbelief in the divine, I keep packing my lunch, sling on my canteen, and set off into the woods searching for the greener grass. I still make the mistake thinking the grass is greener, and often after jumping the fence I find myself stepping in manure. But here, as I rest quietly on my life's hill now, my spyglass pulled out and in my hand, I'm not afraid to walk towards that pasture. The lesson I took from the adventure wasn't the disappointment in finding a green field of cow paddies, it was the journey. The fear of the snakes, the pushing through the brush, the hot sun beating on my neck painted a grand picture of discovery. It was the laughter I shared with Chester, Susan and Julie. I am not disappointed that my adventure as a man of god ended up with me standing knee deep in dookie. I'm not disappointed with the lovers I've had and lost. Each one of these journeys, much like the one I took in childhood, have given me joy, laughter, disappointment. I have encountered venomous villains along the way, but I've also walked with the best friends the destiny of star matter colliding could provide. It's not resting the green pastures that have brought me the most joy, it's the getting to them.