Lessons From the Trail
I love winter. From the below zero temps to waist high drifts of the white stuff, I love it all. I know that raises the eyebrows of most other people – even here in the Snow Belt. While adults around me will openly lament the announcement of an impending storm, I’m like an eight year old with my face pressed against the window searching the skies in anticipation and delight at what’s to come. The words “winter storm warning” strike panic in the hearts of many but serve as music to my ears!
I will admit I harbor some of the same dislikes of winter that most people do. I’m usually cold, for one. I come from a long line of skinny hillbillies and although we’re a rugged lot, I’ve yet to meet many that think much of blowing snow and freezing temps. Growing up in the middle of Michigan farm country, I learned that driving in the winter includes the ever present possibility of ending up in a ditch large enough to swallow a tractor trailer. These are the kind of valleys you can disappear into and not be found until the spring thaw. Even if you are equipped with rope and grappling hook you probably couldn't manage to climb out much before then.
Lastly is the challenge of what to do in the winter, which - depending on how you define it - can extend from the end of November until the middle of May. One can only knit so many socks or play card games for so long. These winter time obstacles, cold, hazardous driving, and boredom cause half the state to abdicate for the duration and the other half to hole up and wait for it to be over. What then do I find so appealing? What affects my outlook so much that most of the red letter and vacation days appear on my calendar in the months of January and February when everyone else is longing for summer? Two words. Snow. Mobile.
Okay, technically it’s one word, but savvy enough to act as both noun and verb. Snowmobile . . . snowmachine . . . sled. Webster’s defines it as “an open vehicle with steerable skis on the front and an endless belt at the rear”. However you refer to them or riding them, they’re fun with a capital F and transform a winter of tribulation into one I embrace, enjoy, and even celebrate.
My first experience with snowmobiles was at the ripe old age of four when my dad took me for a spin on his friend’s Ski-Doo. When we returned from our little outing, I was missing four front teeth and my dad was forced to explain to my less-than-understanding mother that we had careened down an embankment, all the while yelling “wheeeeee!” no doubt, causing my head to fly forward and teeth to meet with the unforgiving metal of the handlebars. I still have memories of that ride and was more bummed about it being over than anything else. I’m not at all surprised that the impact caused so much damage because I know how big the smile on my face must have been as we bounded across the field.
That early love of snowmobiling was eventually rekindled in adulthood by my husband. Both of us have a tendency to make impulsive decisions, but his reached one of its higher points the day I caught him looking at snowmobiles on Ebay. “What do you think?” he said, “Look like fun?” I was immediately intrigued by the idea and at auction end we were the proud owners of a couple of “two-ups”. The night Bryan brought them home we found ourselves instantly enamored. We spent hours zipping through the fields and woods on our property. We didn't own helmets yet and rode without them not realizing that the number one benefit of wearing one is the warmth it provides. I remember pulling up next to Bryan and looking over at him aware that my face was frozen in a giant grin. “Ith iz tho thun!” I yelled, lips unmoving. Our first trip off property found me tipped over in a ditch and Bryan returning home to fetch the truck and pull me out. Even this experience failed to damper our love affair with this new-found hobby. Now “seasoned” riders we can hardly wait for snow to fly and provide the chance to suit up and hit the trails. It just never gets old.
We've learned things over the years. A major lesson was in communicating. It’s not exactly easy to speak to one another over the roar of a motor and we usually end up yelling one or two words and gesturing wildly. We developed understandable hand motions for conveying hunger, thirst, and a full bladder. After an experiment with radio headsets ended in failure, we learned deep conversation could wait until the end of the day. Most of the time on the trail is spent in isolation. Which isn’t all bad. I’ve grown accustomed to the alone time in my helmet. I can talk to myself without the threat of anyone thinking I’m crazy. I can also sing with wild abandon. Whether I’m belting out an old Journey classic or making my way through every hymn in the old Methodist hymnbook, the acoustics are great and no one complains if I can’t remember all the words. Mostly though, time on the trail provides me with the opportunity to just be still and think. I can ponder the world’s problems and have open conversations with God, because for me, I feel closest to Him when immersed in His creation. Even when I’m perched atop a screaming engine that belches carbon and will do zero to sixty in less than two seconds I’m in awe of all that’s around me.
Recently during one of these times, cruising along and noodling to myself, I was thinking about snowmobiling and realized how much it serves as a metaphor for life. That led me to formulate some Lessons from the Trail I’d like to share.
First, you can never anticipate what you’ll experience on the ride. Unlike driving, it’s almost impossible to calculate an ETA or even know much about the path you map out at the beginning of the day. There are just too many variables. Trail conditions, weather conditions, how many other sleds you’ll encounter, how well your sled will run, are all unknowns. The best you can do is to prepare for what you’ll potentially encounter. Pack extra clothes, make sure you carry a map and fire making materials, flashlight, tow strap, etc., because you just never know what’s going to come your way that day. As in life, the trail may be bumpy or smooth. You may get from here to your goal in record time or experience any untold number of obstacles. You can never be totally sure what’s around the next corner, so plan and prepare, but be ready for the unexpected.
Next, pick good companions. Having others you can rely on and trust on the trail contributes to peace of mind. You know if you have engine issues or run off the trail and get stuck, there’s someone there to render help. Of course I suggest Jesus as a wing-man when navigating life, but earthly buddies are a good idea too. I've seen friends contribute know-how, extra parts, a tow, or a ride when others are in trouble.
In a good group of riders there’s a way to ride together properly. There’s a designated leader and someone bringing up the rear that set the pace and shepherd the group. There’s official sign language that’s used to signal between sleds and check on each other. Each rider has a responsibility to keep track of the rider behind him or her so the group stays together and is quickly alerted if there’s a problem. It’s a good blueprint for friendship and accountability in our Christian lives as well.
Maintain your equipment. An improperly tuned sled can result in a catastrophe whether it’s a breakdown that strands you in the middle of nowhere or something more serious that results in an injurious accident. Just like in life, you need to take care of yourself – physically and spiritually, so you can weather whatever comes your way.
Stay alert and persevere. There’s something to be learned from every trail. If the conditions are bad there’s really no choice but to keep riding. There’s no calling a tow truck or giving up and walking home. Use the bumps and difficult terrain to build up your skills and become a better rider. Weather the storm but look around while you’re engulfed in it. You never know who or what you’ll find.
Be passionate! Regardless of the trail conditions, get out there and ride them like it’s the last day of the season.
Lastly, appreciate the groomer. Sections of trail are usually overseen by a Trail Association or Club. They maintain the trails in their area for riders passing through. The actual grooming equipment consists of a large tractor that pulls a specialized implement to grind up and then smooth the top of the snow in a process called “panning”. Volunteers operate these rigs to keep the trails in the best shape to provide the best ride. Riding on a freshly groomed trail is like gliding on a magic carpet. Pure heaven! When you’re on the trails it’s not uncommon to encounter the groomer on the trail. You can see its flashing yellow lights in the distance or maybe you notice the trail in front of you has suddenly become free of bumps. You know the groomer is up the trail and you savor every minute of that smooth ride until you catch up to it. Other times you’ll meet the groomer coming at you. When you go around it from the front you know there’s level, freshly panned, good riding snow on the other side and you know the goodness will probably last for several miles. Either way, sledding in its wake is the best sledding of all.
Much like the groomer, our Heavenly Father has paved the way for us through His son Jesus Christ. Whatever the reason we find ourselves on a bumpy trail, if we allow Him, Christ will make old things new again by grinding up the bad and smoothing it into something awesome. He is the ultimate provider of reprieve and renewal. It just doesn't get any better than that!
So if you ever get the opportunity to try snowmobiling, I would highly recommend it. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys. As you’re cruising down the trail, take some time to think about it as a parallel for life and I think you’ll see a lot of similarities. It’s a crazy unpredictable ride with some amazing scenery. Get out there and enjoy!
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