Genie and I just returned from a fall tour of Vermont. We spent a week up there celebrating my 60th birthday. While we were there, we revisited West Rupert, the little village on the New York border where we spent the winter of 1973-74. Here's a picture of me from from our winter in Vermont.
Since then, someone built a home on the property, and rebuilt the old cabin as a barn. The stovepipe still comes through the roof where the wood-burner sits. The driveway and rock wall behind the house are the same. We still remember breaking through the ice in the stream across the road to bring water to the cabin. Revisiting this place brought up quite a visceral response as we remembered how we struggled to find the path that winter.
In the fall of 1972, two weeks after Genie and I were married, a fire destroyed our apartment, burning up most of our wedding gifts. We took it as a sign from God (whom I did not even claim at that point) that we were too attached to possessions. So we took the insurance money, bought camping gear and took off for a three-month road trip to the mountains out West. I had been learning about Native American spirituality through the writings of Carlos Castaneda. In his book The Teachings of Don Juan, he introduced me to the idea of a Path with a Heart.
I would translate that today as, "There is a plan and a purpose for your life, a certain path for you to follow." We took off out West seeking that Path. This was the first indication I had that there might be a specific purpose for my life, and that I might find it. God revealed Himself to me in those mountains, and we began a lifelong spiritual journey seeking His path. We returned to Atlanta, worked and saved for six months, planning our next trip.
We were disgusted with the state of our country, appalled by Watergate and Vietnam. We felt God nudging us to a simpler life. We wished we had lived in a simpler time 100 years before. We resolved to move to Alaska to make our way in the wilderness, far from the broken society that repelled us. We decided on a foray, a winter in Vermont, to test ourselves and this path we were intent to follow.
The next fall, we took off and followed the Appalachian Trail, driving north, stopping to hike each day. We went up the East Coast into Maine and onward to Nova Scotia, spending a month on the road camping. After visiting friends, we drove back through Vermont, fell in love with the countryside, and rented a two-room hunting camp for the winter. We were two miles up a dirt road from the booming metropolis of West Rupert in a cabin with no running water, an outhouse, a wood-burning stove for heat and a propane camping stove for cooking. Picture of the cabin in 1973.
We were oddballs in West Rupert. We went into the local store and saw this sign:
The sign is still up today. I remarked on it, saying, “I remember this sign from when we were here in 1973, and they really meant it then. The proprietor responded, “We’re a little more laid back now.” But, the sign remains. Here is the store.
We went to the local church to worship on Sunday morning. They really looked at us like we were wierdos. Everyone knows everyone in small towns, and they had heard about these hippies staying in the cabin up the hollow.
We found the people of Vermont to be somewhat standoffish, but always willing to lend a hand. It became clear that everyone understood that it was a hard place to live, so you help each other out. But, it was also clear that it was too hard a place to live to let anyone else pull you under. You have to be strong enough to make it. You kind of had to prove yourselves. People were very helpful, to a point.
Through the long winter in Vermont, we found ourselves hitting a wall like a slow motion train wreck. It was the winter of the oil embargo. No one could get gas, no one was coming to ski in Vermont. There were no jobs. Our money was running out. Nothing went according to plan. We wrecked our truck, couldn't find work, fell ill. I had begun to read the Bible, starting with the Old Testament, probably not the best place to start. I bogged down after a couple of books.
By the end of the winter, we concluded that God's path did not lead toward a life in Alaska. I thought, "I don't know where you're leading me, God, but it's obvious Alaska is not it. So, we're going to go back home to Atlanta until we figure it out." We returned to Atlanta in the spring with our tails between our legs, feeling defeated.
Returning to Vermont almost forty years later, I can see how we were on the path then, even as we hit a dead end and left dazed and confused. I saw my daughter when I got home, and said to her, “It is a good thing that we were so bad at living in Vermont. Otherwise, you would have grown up in Alaska.” We both had a good laugh. I had felt the touch of the Spirit, in those early days, long before I was baptized into the Christian faith. I knew I heard something, and failed miserably in my first efforts to find and follow the path with a heart.
I’ve come to see that God honors our desire to follow him, even when we have no idea how or where to follow. Seeds had been planted. But, God had in mind that we return to Atlanta for long seasons of watering and growing, before we embarked once again on a very different path. Thomas Merton said it this profound way:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road,
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils
Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude
I pray that those struggling with faith, trying to find the faint path, might find solace in these struggles. Even in the darkest days in Vermont, God was with us. He has walked with us through 39 years of marriage. God’s faint path has met us at every turn. In Jeremiah, God says, "If you seek me with all your heart, you will find me." May it be so with you. Amen.