It’s a snowball effect. As a blister formed on my left heel, first as a burning sensation so slight it was easy to dismiss and then as a lance impossible to ignore, my body responded by subtly changing its stance as it bipedaled up Kings Creek. I brought my foot down at a slight angle to alleviate the pressure point, which in turn forced the foot higher into the boot until the toes were crammed against the front. Extra stress was placed on the calf muscles, which then began to tighten. All the while I was thinking of moleskin, a simple remedy, and of how I had neglected to bring some along.
All the while I was thinking of a song.
The moleskin was actually less neglect than failure to locate any. The song was different. It had popped into my head a few miles back, no doubt in recognition as I watched water seeping from the hillside into a small ovoid pool.
The first stanza opened with “Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing from the throne of God?” Over and over, with the refrain following in an endless loop.
Its presence was intrusive. I’ve gone beyond the old hymns sung in church, left them behind in search of other forms of spirituality, and to have a remnant of my Baptist upbringing suddenly prattle endlessly in my head was most unwelcome. But it did get me thinking, which removed some of the concern over my foot.
Was it from, or by, the throne of God? I couldn’t recall. But somehow it made a huge difference. As Kings Creek narrowed into a grassy channel meandering upwards toward the rolling hills, I thought of the springs erupting from the desert sands in the Amargosa Valley of southern Nevada.
Ten thousand gallons per minute spew from the earth at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge—streams fully formed at birth. They snake in green ribbons for a quarter-mile or so before sinking beneath the sands just as quickly. From anywhere along their routes one can see their entire length. It’s an impressive sight, especially in such an arid wasteland, but it’s also slightly unsettling. Since they’re viewed in their entirety, gone is the chance to follow the path of waters around the next bend, to trace them back to their source.
Here on Konza Prairie, with the trees now behind us, our course was clearly etched in the folds of the land. One major channel wended southward through a broad valley, and another hooked around a hill toward the northeast. The latter would be our route, Chod said. And then, turning to look back, he grinned and added, “We’re above tree line now.”
The sun was falling from its zenith. In the absence of brushy thickets and narrow ravines we pushed on hard. Dominating the view was an old windmill disintegrating with time amid a lonely cluster of cottonwoods. We soon passed them and turned to follow the north branch. Each step brought into view a sliver of new country.
Each step brought a tiny stab of pain, a reiteration of stanzas. No crystal tides here, only a grassy indentation furrowed by water’s steady percolation; no angel feet, only those of two old sinners hurrying on.
By, I decided. The river flowed by the throne of God.
Our shadows preceded us. Kings Creek zigzagged between treeless knolls, rising steadily. Most of the elevation gain lay in the final half-mile, and as we labored around another bend we saw in the distance a shadow clinging to the hillside. It was the end, and the beginning. The birthplace of waters.
“I’d never be able to do another thirteener,” I joked. After shortening the trekking poles to compensate for the steepness, I leaned into them and used my upper body as much as my feet to propel me up the final slope. The valley fell away. We stood on the high ground, and everything within our purview was below us.
There’s a momentary lull after reaching your destination when time slows to a crawl. This is the self-congratulatory phase, when you realize you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. Then comes the second phase, where you calculate the miles back and gauge your physical shape.
It’s always something of a letdown. But even as I noted the blister and the sore calves and the tightness across my shoulders, even as I thought of the five or so miles that separated us from Chod’s truck, a part of me kept returning to the song. It was an insistent query, an accusatory jab: “Shall we gather by the river, the beautiful, the beautiful, river? Gather with the saints by the river that flows by the throne of God.” Now the song was faith’s interrogator. Shall I?
My lack of belief was a sudden black hole. It wasn’t just the loss of faith but of hearing and sight and physical shape, time’s steady whittling, and for a second I envied believers. And even as we turned to continue on, I thought of that river flowing by the throne of God. If I make it—if indeed it is true—then I picture myself on those banks looking upstream, past the saints gathered there, to where the river disappears around a bend. They can have their streets of gold; I’ll take the headwaters.
“Next time we work our way up to this,” Chod said.
“Amen, brother,” I said, and followed him toward home.