Friday, February 21, 2014


We landed in wind-swept Skagway.
     We joined the weltering mass,
Clamoring over their outfits,
     waiting to climb the pass.
We tightened our girths and our pack-straps;
     we linked on the Human Chain,
Struggling up to the summit,
     where every step was a pain.
                              ~The Trail of 'Ninety-Eight ,
                              by Robert Service, "The Poet of the Yukon"
Up the Chilkoot Pass, Winter, 1898

I am oddly proud of the fact that I have hiked the Chilkoot Trail—and traversed the Alaska-to-Canada Chilkoot Pass—four times. I say “oddly” because “proud” really isn’t the right word. I mean it in the modestly boastful sense that “Not many people can say this!”

Looking back, my memory produces dozens of Chilkoot vignettes. (I just might share many of them with you, dear reader.) Here’s one:

The last time I made this trip, our daughter Beret (then a fifteen-year-old member of the youth group I was guiding) and my wife Caryl came along. We boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Prince Rupert, B.C., for the two day voyage to Skagway, now a tourist town but a wonderful relic of the 1898 gold rush, and—then and now—the jumping off point for the Chilkoot Trail.

The ferry journey—through the normally spectacular glacier-studded Inside Passage, with stops at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau—was two days of fog and rain. We disembarked at Skagway, in the rain, and hitched a ride to Dyea (“rural Skagway”), the first of the many multi-thousand-population Gold Rush town sites—now barely discernible as clearings in the forest—that we would pass through or camp in. In Dyea we set up our tents in the rain, we slept, fitfully, through the night in the rain, we packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain—and had a hurried, damp breakfast. Then we set off on the Trail, and hiked all day in the rain. We made camp the second night in the rain, slept all night through the rain, and packed up our tents the next morning—in the rain. (By this time Caryl had developed a migraine, a malady that had plagued her from six weeks into our marriage [hmmm…] until the development of the miraculous Imatrix.)

Now the trail, already rugged, became… really rugged, and an uphill trudge (in the rain). We ascended quite steeply, and suddenly, on the third day out, the rain turned to white-out snow. We were at the base of the famous Chilkoot Pass. This is the one illustrated by the iconic black-and-white photo of the long line of single-file gold-rushers trudging steeply upward through the snow.  We were there in August, so, instead of snow-pack, we looked up—through a white haze—
Chilkoot Pass, Summer, today
at a seemingly endless ascent of Volkswagen-sized 
boulders.  (I had discovered in my earlier adventures that what appeared to be the summit of the Pass was a “false summit,” and the trail continued up toward another false summit until reaching the top.)

At this point Caryl began to tremble with what might have been the beginnings of hypothermia. (As will be seen, this is no indictment of Caryl’s abilities as a hiker—but she was wet through. Every time I’ve done this hike, we've had to stop at about this point to warm someone up.) We halted, ignited our Primus stove, and made a pot of hot Tang. Caryl (and
One of many glacial streams on the trail
others) drank it gratefully, and it seemed to do the trick. We put our backpacks back on and started up the pass, at which point Caryl slipped on a wet rock and fell into a glacial creek.

The salvific North Face Polar Fleece pants

My memory is fuzzy here (I recall that Beret was near tears with concern for her mother), but the situation was well-in-hand enough that I sent the rest of the party (with leaders) on ahead and said that Caryl and I would bring up the rear. We probably did this so that Caryl could get out of her wet clothes. In my backpack I had a pair of North Face Polar Fleece pants (then a fairly recent invention). She put these on, along with a dry sweatshirt under her mostly-dry parka, and we started up again. (I still have these pants; they are still the height of comfort and we think of them as a holy object.)

We did indeed bring up the rear. The crisis had passed, but those boulders—and that false summit—presented obstacle after obstacle, and we were dragging. (I think the indefatigable Chad Winsell dropped back to lend us moral and physical support.) Our group up ahead was almost out of foggy sight when we heard a bright voice behind us: “The sun’s a-coming!” I recall that I turned slowly around and, slack-jawed, actually uttered a weak, “Whaaa…?”  We heard again the announcement, “The sun’s a coming,” as we saw, emerging into view, a lone hiker, a man of about fifty-five, stepping along quite jauntily and carrying (compared to our 25-50 pound backpacks) a small teardrop-shaped rucksack. More to the point, we looked beyond him, back down into the valley we had been climbing out of for the last two days, to see that… the sun was coming! My descriptive abilities fail me here, but the sunlight was almost racing up the valley—a wide and deep expanse bounded by rocks and glaciers 
The valley behind us. "The sun's a-coming!"
—racing up and chasing the snowy haze and gloomy fog out of its way. We watched its approach until it overtook us and bathed us in light.

Chad matched our new companion hearty step-for hearty step, conversing as if they were strolling along a city sidewalk. And Caryl and I, too, began to walk with refreshed spirits, up and up, until we were met with another wonder. At what appeared to be (and, as it turned out, actually was) the summit of the pass we saw a golden-haired woman—an angel—beckoning to us. We followed her to a simple but well-built hut. Upon entering, we found the rest of our party, wet socks hanging from the rafters, a wood stove with the largest teapot I’ve ever seen—filled with hot
The Canadian Ranger's hut appearing in
the fog. (You have to imagine the angel
in a ranger's uniform beckoning to us.)

lemonade—bubbling upon it, and steam, and laughter, and relief. Our angel was a Canadian Ranger, the hut was a travelers’ wayside that had only recently been constructed (it wasn’t there for my first three hikes). In the raucous conversation we learned that our other new friend was John, an experienced hiker and, in fact, veteran Himalayan climber. He hiked with us for the next day or so; he regaled us with tales of Everest, and we introduced him to hot Tang, which he’d never experienced.

In addition to the steaming lemonade, the Ranger handed out plastic gaiters to put inside our boots against the watery hike ahead. Now over the summit and above the tree-line, the trail was indeed a watery maze, but it was sunny, and (mostly) downhill. We still had three days to Lake Bennet and the end of the trail, but, emerging from the respite of that friendly hut, Caryl was a new woman. I couldn’t keep up with her.
Caryl's boots, Raichle "Bambinos,"
at the end of  the trail.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


In 1958, my sixth grade Sunday School class at American Lutheran Church in Huron, South Dakota was comprised of an unfortunate number of cutups—me among them. One fateful Sunday morning we were in the process of achieving new levels of hilarious misbehavior when our teacher stood up and walked out. And never came back. Ever.

In the immediate aftermath of her departure we got quiet, and, stifling giggles, stared ominously across the teacherless table at one another. And then the door opened, and in walked Thordis Bultena—the Sunday School Superintendent. Our heads bowed in repentant expectation; the giggling stopped. Mrs. Bultena was one of those teachers who actually seemed to deserve—not demand—our respect. She was kind of a combination of Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady” and the mom in “Leave It To Beaver.” She was no nonsense, but she was so darn loving. And the main reason for the bowing of one of those heads that morning was that she was my mom’s best friend. Uh-oh.

I don’t remember if Thordis (who remained with our class for the rest of the year) told my mom about the incident; I don’t think she did. I do however, trace my growing admiration for Thordis as a woman of faith and of the church from that time on, no doubt because I also came to an understated but deep realization that she cared about me. My baptism had been a quasi-emegency, and I never got to know the neighbors my parents had recruited to be my on-the-spot godparents. Thordis and John, I now realize, were my real godparents.

Mom and Dad and Thordis and John (about whom I’ve written here) were often together in those casual church potluck and backyard picnic table sort of events; they had the kind of friendship that could be measured in gallons of coffee (and—for John and my dad—the very occasional Hamms beer). And in what was a coincidence of employment-triggered mobility, both of our families moved from Huron to Rapid City within a year or so of each other, and became, as before, members of the same church. Often, on my visits home from college, and, later, seminary, Mom would say, “You should go over and say hi to John and Thordis.” Which I was happy to do. Of course we had coffee.

Then came the day, not long after my dad had died, I was visiting my mom—now alone in that Rapid City house, just down the hill from South Canyon Lutheran Church where my dad’s funeral had been held. I asked her how she was doing, and my mom—a lifelong woman of the church—said, a bit downcast, “I’m not sure how much faith I have right now.” And then she brightened just a bit and said, “But Thordis has enough faith for both of us.”

That’s the Church. Thordis and Vi: The Church.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


 I have come that you might have life – and have it in all abundance. ~Jesus, in John 10:10

C.S. Lewis
In preparation for a community ed class that I presented recently, I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks with C.S. Lewis* and his chums – a group who playfully dubbed themselves “The Inklings.” I intend to mine a lot of blog gold (or at least ore) out of the riches I have been exposed to in their
fascinating company (and writings),
J.R.R. Tolkien
but for now I want to make this observation: These men had a good and simple life; perhaps good in large part to the degree that it was simple.

By “good” I certainly don’t mean that their lives--or their life together--were free of pain or discord. Both Lewis and his closest friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, saw action in World War I, Lewis being badly wounded; and their friendship—intimate for decades—cooled in later years (although they remained mutually admiring and respectful of one another).

And, although they were all Christians, I am not speaking of a narrowly pious approach to being “good.” They loved their beer, and one of them, Lewis’s brother, Warnie, was probably an alcoholic. Lewis’s affection for the pipe and pint gave many American evangelical Christians—now among his most devoted fans—cause for some skepticism about the genuineness of the faith of this eccentric disciple from across the Atlantic. (And it was Tolkien’s conservative Roman Catholicism—and a doctrinaire opposition to divorce—that challenged his friendship with C.S. Lewis upon Lewis’s late-in-life marriage to an American divorcee.)

I have listed what I don’t mean – let me suggest what I do mean: That sense of a life of fulfillment and abundance that is the product of loving relationships, meaningful purpose, and mental challenge (perhaps even in that order). “The good life.”

Dozens of colleagues and participants came and went to and from meetings of the Inklings over the years – it was not an exclusive circle. The chief and most lasting among them, however, were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Warnie Lewis. Our mind’s eye can see them--all together, or a couple of them over pints of ale or cups of tea--deep in conversation or light-hearted in laughter. In one way or another, their friendship(s) had come about as a result of the kind of epiphany that C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself...."** Friendship for Lewis is very much a meeting of the heart and the mind in equal proportion.  “We need friends to know anything,” says Lewis, “even ourselves.”

Heart, yes – and mind. Something to talk about. Something that means something. Ideas. The heart and the mind come together in Lewis’s joyous description of an Inklings meeting: “When Warnie, Tollers (Tolkien), Williams and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking theology!”

These men were, of course, “intellectuals.” I have sometimes puzzled over the definition of that term, and have come to the conclusion that an intellectual is anyone who cares about ideas and the words or images that carry them. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. for that, and neither does it mean that an intellectual is pigeonholed as a dour academic. The Inklings certainly breathed the rarified air of Oxford (although Warnie Lewis was a professional soldier who became, on his own, an expert in matters of French royal history, and Charles Williams was educated at what amounts to a community college and was largely self-taught – before landing an Oxford lectureship), but they weren’t parsing the fine-points of the present participle over pints at the Lamb & Flag (not that there would have been anything wrong with that)—they were talking, and laughing, and interrupting one another over what matters in life; how could one believe this or that to be true, and occasionally listening to Tollers read out a few of the new pages from his latest “hobbit book” (The Lord of the Rings). Until one of them would say, “All right, enough – enough hobbits for now. Landlord, another round!”

(I am reminded of a comment once made by someone regarding a weekly discussion group I attend: “Whoever takes a breath is the listener.”)

I used the word “simple” in the first paragraph, and I suppose I mean that in a comparative sense. What I mean is that they had their books and pens and pipes and the round table and their cups of tea and pints of ale and walks along the banks of the Thames and one another. What they didn’t have (here’s the comparative part) is cars (for the most part), television, the internet, smartphones, screens, and other iDevices. This is not an anti-device rant. I like—maybe even love—my techno-things, and value what they do for me. But perhaps a part of me is just a little envious of an environment that was a bit simpler even though these were far from “simple” people. (One might consider the list of gadgets, above, another way: What contribution do these things make to “the good life?”)

I mentioned in passing that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings were all Christian (even then, a kind of dying breed in academic Oxford). This fact—perhaps ironically—was not a part of my inspiration for this essay. However, it would now (it seems) be disingenuous of me to imply that their shared faith had no part to play in their friendship or the fullness of life they discovered in their relationships and their conversation and their life together. Oxford may have been the air they breathed, but Christianity was the atmosphere in which they breathed it. The richness of life they found in the community of one another was an extension of each of them—in Lewis’s phrase—having “handed over your whole self to Christ.” As he concludes in Mere Christianity, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.”
* For those who say, "C.S. Who???" A primer: C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, born in Belfast in 1898, entered his adult life as a confirmed atheist. By the time he died in 1963—a highly revered professor of English Literature at Oxford and Cambridge and an internationally acclaimed author of Mere Christianity and the classic Narnia children’s series—he had become one of the most influential proponents of Christianity of the twentieth century. Fellow-professor J.R.R. Tolkien was a significant light in Lewis’s journey from atheism to faith. 

**Yes, "Man." Although Lewis can be excused for being a product of his times, his writings do reveal, it must be acknowledged, a streak of masculine-centered sexism.

Good Books: C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath; The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter

The Lamb & Flag and The Eagle and Child (The Bird and Baby), two of the Inklings' favorite pubs. They stand across from each other on St. Giles Street, Oxford.