Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shortcuts

This weekend the Pilot and I took a much-needed vacation up in the mountains, to Prescott, our favorite Arizonan discovery. Prescott is a small town nestled in among the mountains and foothills in northern Arizona, where the breezes sweep down from the peaks and keep the air fresh and cool, and the streets are hilly, and there is always something going on in the square in front of the courthouse where the great trees shade the gazebo and the statues and the walkways. We have fallen in love with Prescott and were sad to say goodbye (and cherish half-formed dreams of someday living there). But first we had to get there.

It seemed that half of Phoenix was fleeing the heat up into the mountains this Memorial Day weekend, and we had scarcely started the climb up out of the desert before we ran into traffic backed up along the interstate because of a bad accident. Victoria, my trusty Mitsubishi Galant, was going about 25 mph, and we could see the unbroken line of cars and trucks twisting up hills on the interstate in front of us like trimming on a hemline. But in this day and age of smart phones and GPS, we were undismayed. As official navigator of our expedition, I was already searching Google Maps for an alternate route, and soon, I announced that we should take the next exit, since I had found way that would take us far enough to get around the accident and then back to the interstate where the traffic should be moving more quickly. At Black Canyon City, we took the exit, smiling smugly at our cleverness. The Pilot pulled over momentarily so I could show him the route on my phone, and then off Victoria glided, free from traffic, her two occupants happily convinced that the shortcut around the back-up would have us heading towards our destination at full speed.

When, after about a mile, the gray ribbon of the asphalt road was abruptly snipped off and a brown ribbon of dirt begun in its place, we were unperturbed. For a dirt road it was quite smooth, and we charged on ahead, winding around and down a few hills. The road began to get a bit rocky, but the Pilot skillfully guided Victoria around the worst bumps, and we spoke cheerily about how adventurous we were and how it was worth it to get around the traffic. We could still see the interstate off to our right, and pretty soon we would get to the connector road which would take us back over. I couldn't exactly verify this, since we were in a dead zone for cell phone service, but the road had not looked too long on Google Maps before we set off.

After about five or six minutes, not only did our shortcut lead us out of sight of the interstate, the ratio of dirt-to-rocks on the road took a dramatic downswing. Remember the Rocky Road ice cream flavor? Clearly whoever named that mixture of velvety smooth chocolate ice cream interrupted only occasionally by the stray nut or marshmallow had no idea what he was referring to. Picture, instead, a bucket full of granite-hard walnuts (you can forget the marshmallows) cemented together with the most freezer-burned chocolate ice you can imagine, and call that Rocky Road. That is what the Pilot was trying to maneuver my poor car (who has neither the tires, the suspension, or the build for off-roading) over. It was after he had snaked us down a particularly steep road where the rocks gaped like teeth just waiting for us to stumble into their bite, that we realized that not only was this shortcut the dumbest joint decision we had made in the whole course of our marriage, it was also now too late to turn back, because we doubted our ability to get back up the hill we had just maneuvered down.

Grimly, now, with all mirth silenced and cheer forgotten, we crawled forward. The Pilot was intent on avoiding the worst of the rocks, while I, a navigator rendered useless by a phone with no service (and thus no capability of seeing just how far along we were in this fiasco), clung to the arm rest and prayed that Victoria would not get a flat tire, that we would reach the interstate soon, that God would have mercy on our thwarting of our own intelligence, forgive us for our impatience that led us to such rash stupidity, and deliver us from getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. The whole idea of "praying without ceasing" becomes so much more understandable when you've been extraordinarily dumb. Our one comfort was that there was a car in front of us and one behind us who had, apparently, had exactly the same idea as we did, and we were jouncing and bouncing up and down those hills flanked by two other cars whose occupants were just as dumb as we were.

God was merciful– we didn't get a flat tire. Loud rang the hallelujahs when finally we sighted the paved road that would end poor Victoria's ordeal and get us back to the interstate. Humbled, chastened, we swore off all shortcuts forevermore as the Pilot coaxed Victoria through the last reef of rocks and rolled her out onto the asphalt road. A guy in a big pick-up truck, waiting patiently for us to pass so he could go off-roading with his dog, gave us a grin and a curious look as Victoria limped by. "Yes," I said, though the windows were closed and we were already past him, "yes, we are just as dumb as you suspect."

It was an adventure, of course, and one that, a couple hours later when we were fairly certain that the only long-term damage that had been sustained was to our egos and not to Victoria's tires or suspension, we were able to laugh at. And though it is a tiresome thing to be always pulling morals from the stories, (and perhaps really the best moral of this story is that God has grace for our moments of nitwitery and featherbrainedness) it seems natural to point out that shortcuts tempt us not just on road-trips, but on all sorts of roads in life. When circumstances appear to grind our lives to a halt, when things aren't progressing as we think they ought to be, it's easy to assume that we know how to "fix it" and careen off onto the shortcut that we think will get us what we want or where we want to be. Most of the time, though, what appeared to be a quick and easy shortcut can batter and bruise us– and humble us (which isn't such a bad thing. There is grace and purpose even in the battering and bruising.) Wisdom lies in sticking with the slow, quiet, patient path, in being content with the story as it is now and not trying to skip several chapters ahead. I know how difficult this is– I am a dreamer, an idealist, and I struggle with taking the journey step-by-step, the story page-by-page. I want to take the shortcut, I want to skip ahead in the book. Staying patient, staying content, living the present life, in the present day with the present struggles may feel, at times, dreary and tedious, as tedious as a slow crawl on a backed-up interstate. But the present life is also where I experience the real joy of today's grace. Because I can never experience anything in the future but only in the present moment, if I am so caught up in the shortcut towards tomorrow I am too distracted to see that today brings real grace– present peace– and true joy.


This isn't a picture of the actual road we were on, since while we were on it I was too busy praying for mercy and repenting of stupidity to think about taking a picture. But it gives you an idea– just think rockier. And steeper. And three or four miles long.


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