The path was marked at the trailhead. I saw the name of the trail: Acadia Mtn. The ascent and difficulty level were clearly marked, along with reminders to bring a map and a water bottle, and to tell someone where you were going. Check, check, check. I climbed the stairs. Already the sun had risen high enough to burn the haze from the sky. It was 7 a.m., and the world above was blue, and I had miles to go. I smiled and clambered up the first ascent, and only then did I realize that there was no trail, not here at least. There was a broad stretch of curving rock, broken by scrubby pines and huckleberry bushes. But that was all. To left and right, the rock curved away, losing itself in rising lines of dappled black and green.
Okay, I thought. I didn’t expect it to be this difficult from the outset, but I’m alright. The car is not far behind. I can always go back. Can’t I?
I turned, catching a glimpse of the road, listening for the drone of cars on 102. But I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to be brave. I just thought there’d be some kind of marker, the print of a shoe, a small cairn. I took a steadying breath and turned my face in the direction I was going when I lost sight of the trail. This way. I was heading this way. I walked on, climbing over granite boulders speckled with pink and gray and silver. And not far down, over the crest of this particular rise, I saw it. A blue blaze. It was perhaps five inches long and two wide, stretched into a long rectangle, like the lines in the middle of the road. The color was bright, a bit like the sky overhead. I sighed. This was the path. I was going the right way.
There were other precarious moments during my hike over Acadia Mountain. I didn’t think two and a half miles was much, even if the trek fell into the “strenuous” category. It was hard going, sure, but exhilarating, too, and the view from the top and the time I spent there, watching birds land on the high, high branches, unperturbed by the great fall down to Somes Sound, were worth sore feet and a bit of sweat. What made the hike truly strenuous, though, was not the tumbled slopes that required me to sit down and ease my legs to the next boulder before scrambling down another and yet another, until I reached a path with roots and soil. What made the journey difficult was the distance between the blazes.
The spacing was funny, seemingly arbitrary at times. I might come upon three bright, clear markers in the space of fifty yards. Then the road might fork or disappear, or branch simultaneously in several directions, and not a drop of blue paint could be found. Some of the blazes were worn almost beyond recognition. They faded into the gray-green lichen that spattered the stones.
And every time I came to one of these barren places (barren not in beauty, but in security, direction), I felt a tiny rush of panic. Where is the blaze? I need the blaze. I felt this tug of fear and urgency even when I was fairly sure of the correct path. I wanted the blazes to appear at nice, predictable intervals. A blue marker every ten feet would have been delightful. Heck, an unbroken blue line that wound up Acadia Mountain and over and down would have been ideal. Then I would never have had a moment’s doubt. I could have turned my full attention to my surroundings. I could have kept my eye on the long, blue line while I dawdled somewhere off the path, sitting on overhangs by copper-colored pools and savoring the scent of balsam in the air.
As I climbed, as I sat on the sunbaked stones at the summit, as I descended, I thought about that feeling of panic, that nagging urgency, and about the comfort of the blue blazes. The feelings were familiar.
There are people in my life who are powerful, people I admire, people whose opinions matter to me. And though I hate to admit it, I long for their approval. I want to create something or do or say something that causes them to turn and smile and applaud. I want them to tell me that I’m doing well, that I’m on the right path. Sometimes I let the panic rise, waiting for these words, and they never come. I think, Have I taken the wrong turning?Or, Am I such a child that I cannot progress ten steps without the nod of a head or a word of encouragement?
There are people I have not met, people whose qualities I have not explored, whose opinions I may not even value. I long for their approval, too. Perhaps their praise would be more powerful, since they are removed from my small circle. Perhaps from a distance, they can see me with greater clarity. Perhaps they know if I am on the right path. Perhaps they can tell me if I’m doing well. I think, Do any of you see me? Am I making a difference anywhere in the wide world?
It’s a shame, isn’t it? The real business of life, of faith, happens between the blue blazes, where the roads diverge and the face of the mountain curves away into shadow. In those places, I am forced to raise my eyes from my feet, to see the sun’s slow arc over the mountain, to watch for signs of another’s passing. In those places, I may have to forge a new path, one utterly bankrupt of blazes.
Of course, there’s no real power in the blaze. I will make it over the mountain, paint or no. But I suspect we’re all still searching for the markers. We comb our social media pages, our email inboxes, sifting for words of affirmation. Our “likes” and our “re-tweets” and our five-star reviews are so wonderful. They leap off the path in dazzling blue, and they shout in triumph: “You’re going the right way!” “Your work is good!” “You can see the fruits of your labor here and now!” “You’ve made the right choices!” “You have nothing to regret!” We search the faces of beloved family members and respected colleagues. Their smiles, their nods, fill us with confidence. So we rush forward a few more steps, momentary elation drowning out the nagging, panicky voice that will too soon make itself heard. And all our questions will rise up from their dank holes to haunt us again.
Don’t get me wrong. Encouragement is necessary and powerful. Don’t stop giving it. When you’ve got a little paint, use it. Dip your brush into the blue and make your mark on the path. Those who follow will be glad of it.
I don’t want to stop giving encouragement. I want to break my dependence on receiving it. I want to run on another fuel. I need to find my security elsewhere, because the blazes are never close enough. They never will be.
I get the idea that Paul didn’t spend much time pining over the blazes behind him. Neither do I imagine him grieving unmarked paths. We know he sought direction from God, and his requests were urgent and specific. But his chief desire was to press on, to reach forward. (Phil. 3) Perhaps there’s something to that. Preschool children could totter along an unbroken blue line. Eventually, they’d find their way over the mountain. But they’d take their time about it. When all the questions have been eliminated, so has the sense of urgency, so has the stirring of desire, so has the power of hope. My steps quicken, just a bit, when the blazes disappear. I have to lean in. I have to reach forward.
So, whether the little blue security blankets come slow and steady or wild and erratic or not at all, I will be alright. One, at least, has already walked this path. As far as I’m aware, He made no promises about blazes. He promised to walk beside me. He promised to wait for me at the end of the road. And when I’m unsure, and aching for a clear marker to affirm my steps, I’ll try prying my gaze from the ground, exchanging the fleeting brightness of the blue blazes for the broader, brighter blue of the sky.