As we left the parking lot at the trailhead, there was a sign that said, "Strenuous trail: Be sure to take food and water. Plan on six hours to complete the loop. Stay on the trail. Hikers have been lost in these woods by leaving the trail." We went back to the car and put a lunch in the day pack. I already had three liters of water in the pack.
I didn't plan to leave the trail when we set out--it just sort of happened. And, to paraphrase the famous Daniel Boone quote: "I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for a while."
It was a 4.5 mile hike from the trailhead to Virgin Falls. For about a mile, the trail was on level ground. Soon we began to descend into a ravine. We crossed a stream by stepping from rock to rock. There wasn't a lot of water in that creek, so when we came to Big Branch Falls there was no water falling. A fairly steep descent along the ravine for a half mile brought us to Big Laurel Falls and this one actually had some water. Judging by the position of the sun, the trail had gone in a fairly straight line from the parking lot, though it did cross my mind that we were going downhill the whole time, which meant we would be going uphill for a long time to get back to the car. Moving on from Big Laurel Falls the trail soon took a hard right, followed a level, straight line below several ridges for about a mile, took another hard right and brought us to Virgin Falls. I've never seen a waterfall like it. Usually, waterfalls require a stream above the falls and ravine with a creek below the falls. This waterfall was different. Water poured from a cave near the top of a ridge, traveled maybe 30 yeards, fell over 100 feet, and disappeared into another cave--no stream, no valley. The whole thing was in a deep depression in the ridge, like someone had dug a 130 foot hole in the mountain. It was worth the hike to be able to see that.
There was one more waterfall and cave we could see, so instead of taking the main trail back to the parking lot, we followed a side trail for about a half mile to Sheep Cave. From there, we followed a smaller trail that started us back in the direction of the parking lot. Before long, the trail disappeared: there were no more white blazes on trees and the footpath just ended on the side of a ridge.
I pulled out my iPhone and checked the direction to the parking lot. It was a three mile straight line to the car. By this time, we had climbed back uphill for a while, so turning around and going back to Virgin Falls to pick up the trail would have meant adding another mile to the hike. I voted for following the GPS heading. Margaret wasn't so sure. She reminded me about the notice at the trailhead: "Don't leave the trail. Hikers have been lost..." But my name is Daniel--not Daniel Boone, but close enough. I didn't feel lost. We had walked a big "J" from the trailhead. All we had to do was follow the GPS heading and angle a bit to the right and we would find the trail again.
So we set off. Margaret kept saying, "I trust you." But I noticed that she also started praying, "Lord, please let us find the trail." I encouraged her praying and even joined her in that prayer because I noticed after a while that the distance bearing on my iPhone GPS didn't change--even after we had walked about a mile over the ridge, it still said we were three miles in a straight line from the parking lot. Obviously, my 3G network wasn't getting reception. But the compass worked and the sun was still where I thought it should be. I could still see the large "J" of the trail in my mind. So we kept going, and Margaret kept praying and reminding me that we probably shouldn't have left the trail. She also kept telling me she trusted me, but I detected a growing note of uncertainty in her voice.
I knew we could always go back to Sheep Cave and pick up the trail, but by now, that meant a really long hike out. So we pushed on. Finally, as we crossed over a ridge, I heard a waterfall. There was only one waterfall we had passed on the trail in that could be making that sound, and the ground dropped steeply into a ravine, so we went down and found the trail just below Big Laurel Falls. Talk about some happy hikers! We still had a long climb uphill, but at least we knew we wouldn't be spending the night in the woods!
Here's the question: would we have found the trail if we had not prayed? Should we attribute the good outcome of this adventure to God answering our prayers?
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: "The human ego assumes its self-sufficiency and self-mastery and imagines itself secure...It does not recognize the contingent and dependent character of its life and believes itself to be the author of its own existence" (Quoted by Paul Miller in A Praying Life, p. 125).
Prayer is an admission of dependence and need. We don't have to figure out whether or not we would have found the trail without praying. We were in God's hands the whole time! We are absolutely dependent on God every moment of every day. We didn't create ourselves and we don't sustain our own lives. Praying is an acknowledgment of these truths and a reminder that we live in the presence of our heavenly Father all the time.
I can tell you that we both thanked God when we were back on the trail. Having spent some time in the woods backpacking when I was younger and having done a good bit of hunting through the years, I've developed a pretty good sense of direction in the woods. I also had an iPhone in my pocket that had a compass. No clouds obscured the sun that day, which helped with orientation to the terrain. I could say God used all these things to answer our prayers. It would have been arrogant and foolish for me to think I could handle the situation on my own, that I didn't need God. I need him all the time! Any ability I have to find my way is a gift from God in the first place.
So we praised God for His goodness and thanked Him for his providential care. How good of God to let us know Him as a loving Father who cares about us and provides what we need every moment of every day. How good of God to remind us of our dependency through a short time of being confused, if not exactly lost.