Before hitting the road, I knew I’d be adding some vibrant new colors to my traveling palette. The Grand Canyon. Mount Rushmore. Vancouver.
Before hitting the road, I knew I’d also be reuniting with some old familiar colors. Sweet Seattle. Old Milwaukee. A Pennsylvanian Eden.
Among all the colorful locales on my #RunningTo itinerary, however, there probably wasn’t one as vibrant or as volatile as the one I revisited last week. A picturesque slice of paradise and strife all the same.
An old familiar altogether devastating place called Camp Ridgecrest.
It is a strange thing to return to a place so pivotal to your past — your present and your future. Earlier in my trip I experienced this eerie sensation walking around Wheaton College, site of the 2009 Exodus Freedom Conference. A place where this inane idea for a book of personal struggles first took root.
Wheaton killed me. I’d never stepped foot into such an environment where your deep dark secrets knew no hiding places. And yet by the end of that awful week, I experienced liberation and hope like never before. I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t adrift.
My story had some glory in store.
Driving down I-40, I eyed Exit 66 with a shudder — Ridgecrest. After five months and 16,000 miles on the road, it was finally coming: my first reunion with Camp since I exited her gates two years prior.
My heart raced down Yates Avenue. I think it even stopped beating a second or two as Camp’s giant sign materialized and towered over me. Breaking this gated threshold, I realized how bizarre this whole concept was.
It wasn’t just a coming back to Camp. It was more than that.
Weaving down a road littered with leaves dead and dying, I realized it was more of a coming back to life.
My only prior stay with Camp Ridgecrest involved a humid summer and throngs of kids. To return during a time void of youthful exuberance, both in nature and humanity, was a bit odd. Beautiful and breathtaking, but odd.
I walked the circumference of Lake Ridgecrest, remembering moments with every turn. Forgotten memories like fallen leaves.
The dock — the time I delivered a towel for a freezing camper after his swim test.
The zip line station — the many excited kids’ faces before I set them loose down the wire.
Lakeside Chapel — the “morning watch” message I delivered about pilgrims and wandering and home.
Memories at literally every bend around that lake. Climbing my old tribe’s hill, I rediscovered more forgotten leaves of yesteryear.
Walking to my old summer dwelling place, I saw a surprising sign on the wall. Cabin 11 is now Cabin 12, and it sounds odd to say. I peered inside the locked screen door, the bunks reconfigured in a foreign way.
I closed my eyes and remembered how the inside used to look: four separate sessions of kids scattered about the room, me in one corner and my Indian Mr. Miyagi of a co-counselor in the other.
I opened my eyes. Empty, silent.
I stepped over to the nearby bathhouse — the “Egypt,” they call it. I pulled the door against a pile of leaves and dirt, and I entered. Turned a corner and saw that all too familiar chamber.
The first bathroom stall. The big one. “Struggle Central,” I called it two years ago.
I stared for a minute. Thought about going inside. Thought about closing the door behind me and sliding the metal latch like old times. Times of desperate hideaways during Staff Week because I was so oblong and unfit for this place.
It’s one thing to reunite with your past. It is another to re-become the man you never want to again be.
I don’t pretend to be fully “healed” from the wounds opened and suffered that summer. Sometimes healing happens in a single moment. Ask Lazarus or countless lepers from New Testament times of old.
But sometimes healing is more than a moment. Sometimes redemption requires more of a climb than a vista view. Ask Adam or Abraham.
But every journey of healing must start somewhere. So much of mine was birthed in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In that magical place called Camp Ridgecrest.
It is a healing journey of hills I still climb two years later, and it is an altogether arduous journey I wouldn’t surrender for a thing in the world.
Hills and strength, my prayer was then.
Hills and strength, my prayer remains.