There is something special about a morning sunrise. In the quietness of the morning dew, the sun silently places its arms around the landscape; drawing rays of light between the pines and warming the crisp autumn air. The quick change in temperature causes small eddies to form on Sylvan Lake and the clear reflection dissipates into a flurry of activity. A small trout jumps in the water and causes a ripple to float outward towards the shore. A small deer walks along the shoreline, periodically disappearing in several large bushes which are beginning their transition to winter. I take a deep breath of mountain air and the smell of Ponderosa Pine enters every reach of my lung. A soft breeze chills my back as I begin to take my morning walk along the west shoreline of the lake. I think about what a wonderful morning it is.
“The Joy of the Lord is your Strength” Nehemiah 8:10
I am at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota; a small recreational lake at the base of Harney’s Peak. At times during the summer, this lake is filled with hundreds of people enjoying the outdoors. Yet, as the season turns to fall, there are just a few early morning fisherman and the occasional photographer. Many of the tourist shops are closed for the season and the parking lots are empty. Yet, nature still abounds.
As I walk around the perimeter of the lake, I have joy in the fact that I do not have any plans for the day. Should I set up my camera and take some photos of the lake? Should I climb up Harney’s Peak?; the tallest mountain between the Rockies and the Alps. Or perhaps hike down Sunday Gulch; a trail which traverses giant boulders through a narrow canyon. As I walk and breathe in the sweet smell of pine, I begin to think about how wonderful having no set plan really is. Throughout many of my trips, I plan the routing maticuliously on how to get to a certain place, but then leave open the entire experience at a place. In this way, I become very open to the experience and have the option to see where the pines take me. It is pure joy.
Psalm 118:24 has the well-known verse; “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
This celebration of life occurs every day when the sun rises. How often do we put off the joy of the moment? Our mind tends to think like this; “If we finish all this work this week, then I can enjoy Saturday doing the things I love.” Then Saturday comes and we find ourselves doing laundry, going grocery shopping or getting everything in place in order to have a few hours of “joy.” There always seems to be the sense that joy is something we must prepare for or order our life in order to make a place for it. Yet, joy is not something we must aspire too. Rather it is it the everyday experience of living. Finding joy allows us to recognize that every day is a gift from God and every day is a unique memory in the fabric of our lives. True authentic joy occurs in moment. It is recognizing the simplicity of beauty.
I stop for a moment and watch the sunlight cast shadows over the northern side of the lake. A few popcorn Cumulus clouds cross the horizon and I decide today is a great day to slow the pace down and take a hike down Sunday Gulch into the pine forest. The temperature outside is a crisp 54 degrees-my favorite temperature for hiking. Many people laugh when I say my favorite temperature is 54 because it seems like such an arbitrary number. Why not 60 or 55? 54 is cool enough for a light sweatshirt, but perfect for hiking because it is rare to work up a sweat. 54 in complete sun feels warm enough to even take off the sweatshirt and leave on a simple long sleeve ¼ inch ziptop. In the shade, it feels cool and refreshing and in the sun, 54 degrees feels vibrantly crisp. It is the perfect outdoorsman temperature.
The trail begins through a steep section of boulder scrambling; perhaps the steepest on the entire hike. The morning sun disappears and I notice ice on the edges of the river which follows the trails descent to the bottom of the canyon. 54 degrees feels suddenly very mild. Looking at how thick the ice is on the edges of the flowing stream, it likely must have fallen at least 10 degrees below freezing last night. A 30 degree rise in temperature in merely a few hours seems unbelievable in a way but the presence of the ice verifies that this is indeed the case. The rise in my spiritual contentment is very similar.
It is hard to describe how much the senses come alive in a pine forest. The chilled autumn air comes in contact with the branches of the pines to create an aroma of pure joy. It is beyond the smell of a fresh cut Christmas tree or air freshener. The smell makes you want to walk slower, breathe deeper, and experience the moment ever so more intently. It is what John Muir so aptly described as the path to a new world lying in a pine forest. It reinvigorates the gift of life.
I reach the bottom of the canyon and the trail narrows into a mix of pine forest and aspen. It is noticeably cooler and darker and the bushes along the side of the trail periodically drape a coating of light dew on my arms and legs. The trail crosses a few small streams which are dotted with thin little yellow leaves of the aspen trees above. The water level is relatively high, even for the dry season, and I hop and skip over a few small rocks crossing each stream. In the midst of looking at scenery I miss one of the rocks and step into a cold puddle of spring water. My socks quickly soak up this new refreshment and my feet sudden feel like they are in an ice chest. But it is ok. I feel nature now has come to me.
Not long after my baptism into the river, I reach a field of wildflowers, somehow still intently growing despite the recent frosts. Dancing between the wildflowers are hundreds and hundreds of butterflies. Green, blue, yellow…almost every color combination of a butterfly is flying between the wildflowers. As I walk, the trail sinks down into a ravine low enough to see the flowers and butterflies at eye level; about 6 feet up. The butterflies are happily dancing amongst the flowers and basking in the sunlight which has now revealed itself even more from behind a few cumulus clouds. These butterflies appear so content with life. Biology tells us that the average butterfly will live only a month and the smaller ones often only live a week or so. But in this field, the butterflies are in pure joy.
I continue to walk taking in the joy of the present moment. The trail crosses another field and then rises again into a small canyon where the sun disappears and the icy river edges return. I walk up and down for several miles and then begin to slow down when I reach the last mile knowing that I want to experience as much joy in the moment as possible. As I slow down I begin to hear a new noise other than the constant flutter of the water in the river; birds! As I listen more intently I hear screeches and cawing and almost every known sound of a bird known to man. It is mid-September and many birds are in the process of migration so there is a plethora of new sounds. Out of the corner of my eye I see a large raptor gliding through the canyon-likely a red tail hawk. The sights and sounds of life in the forest give my spirit needed replenishment and rest.
In our spiritual journey, we must take the time to build joy amongst the pines. Every morning the sun rises so silently, but the day is a gift from God. Life abounds around us and a walk in the woods encourages us to build joy in the moment. As I hiked this trail, the scene unfolding in front of me always changed. At times, I had a river to my side with bits of ice on the water’s edge. At times I walked through dense cold forest with little sunlight. I walked through two distinct meadows, each with different wildflowers and different kinds of butterflies. Even with all this joy while hiking, the trail did end after 5.5 miles. James 4:14 tells us “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” Our lives are but a mist. We must redeem every minute in joy. We are delicate like the butterfly and every minute, every decision and every walk counts. When we walk out the mist, the moments where we had joy in the pines will matter most. So go ahead and do not be afraid to put away the schedules and the watches. Joy awaits your next sunrise.