by Justin Elder
During the time my wife, Hannah, and I taught English in southern Japan, several colleagues and their wives took us on a weekend hiking trip. This was the second time we had all gone hiking together and Hannah and I kind of knew the routine: stay the night at a quaint mountain hut, go hiking the next morning, sightsee in the afternoon, then drive home.
We arrived at our hut late that Friday night and ate a hearty dinner of plants and mushrooms that grew wild in the region. The next day we had breakfast, went on a rain-logged hike and then piled into the car for the sightseeing. Our first stop was a pottery-making village hidden deep in the forested mountains that had preserved the same ancient production practices for thirteen generations. But this, apparently, was not the highlight of our trip.
After leaving the pottery workshop, we drove for hours and hours through circuitous mountain roads. Hannah and I were exhausted and ready to be home, but our colleagues promised that our next stop was more or less on the way. Finally, we stopped at what looked like a gift shop cum highway rest area. The rain that had dogged us all day had cleared and we could see that this gift shop was on the top of a high cliff, with views all the way to a large, semi-active volcano in the distance.
There was no obvious reason we were there, and I thought someone had to use the toilet or the driver needed some coffee, but it turned out that this gift shop was our destination. I asked the history teacher what we were here to see and he said, “the view.” So I looked. It was kind of hazy with brown hills, and in the distance was a brown volcano. It wasn’t a particularly impressive volcano, just brown rock. Nothing like Mt. St. Helens with it’s apocalyptic grandeur or the fiery show of Hawaiian volcanoes. Only some hills and brown rock. We had driven for three hours to look at some hills and some brown rock. I was unimpressed. Of course I was too polite to say so, but I was very disappointed. Our Japanese friends were oohing and aahing at the view, so I asked them in the politest Japanese I could muster, “what do you like best about this view?”
“Take a look, Justin. You can’t see any towns. You can’t see any roads. You can’t see any people,” said the gym teacher’s wife.
“This is very rare in our country and this spot is one of the few places in Japan where you can see such an expansive view and see no evidence of humanity,” added the history teacher.
And then I understood. We had driven this far to leave civilization. To enter into a precious wild place. A place made all the more special by its singularity on a crowded island. Having grown up taking annual family vacations to the Black Hills, Ozarks and Rockies, I had acquired a deep love for remote places, but true wilderness had evaded me in Japan until then. I had forgotten how much my soul craved it.
My own relationship with the wilderness is hard to define. I know, simply, that I need it. Being alone in the wild is a form of prayer to which I do not know the words, but my spirit knows the rhythm. This need to be in a wild place does not go away just because of the absence of those places; it must be satisfied.
Even if we do it with our backs to a gift shop.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist