To Tibet and So On and So Forth


Though the names were changed to protect the very real people in this tale, this tale is not make believe, and sadly, I had to suffer through some pretty horrible things to make some pretty amazing strides in my own life’s journey.  I am still not sure how I put myself in the situation I did with the man I named Tom, but to this day, I still have no respect for any man who would abuse their family, women, another culture, and their self the way he did that night.  I am in no means proud that this portion of the tale is a permanent part of my life’s story, but it is, and the only thing I can think to do with it all these years later is to share it.  Share it with you, with whomever, because, as horrible as it is at times, this is life.  It is full of good people, bad people, people who make horrible, stupid, terrible, very awful and unacceptable decisions, but through stories, through sharing, we learn, and hopefully, someone somewhere will read this story and when they are presented with a decision, they will remember this tale and make the right decision.  This is my hope.  This is my prayer.

To Tibet and So On and So Forth

           Our story has its beginnings buried in the West Virginia hills at a very small school called Bethany College (about 800 students), and this story’s roots are planted firmly in a time when winter is losing its cold grip on the world and spring is just being birthed into the lives of the hibernated universe that is my sophomore year in college.  A random day, a Tuesday of no significant importance, lights the spark that starts the forest fire that is the craziness of preparing for a trip overseas.  On this day, a fraternity brother, John, proposes a trip to Tibet to several of us in the fraternity house, a conversation with my family ensues, money is raised, bags packed, and seemingly suddenly, I find myself soaring above the clouds for the first time in my life en route to a world I have only briefly examined through travel brochures, a biographical novel or two, news stories, and a couple of rudimentary websites.  The plane lands, days were spent getting from one end of China to the other end, Tibet.  Culture shock was suffered, sickness was overcome (an ear infection that made it impossible to hear out of my left ear for a majority of my trip), and I, for the first time in my young life, understand what it was to truly be away from home.             

         All this being said, I had tried my best to enjoy my small band of misfits (fraternity brothers of mine and John’s father, who had made this trip several times before), I tried to enjoy my foreign travels, and I tried to realize the importance of our work while in Tibet (to help build housing for a school and families there).  Still, as anyone can tell you, the first time being away from home is a difficult but rewarding and often times awe-inspiring/life-changing process, and my experience seemingly was going to be no different than really anyone else’s.  That is, until our second to last night in Tibet.

         Zhongdian, Tibet, was a very small, very remote city in the midst of a very small, very remote section of a very big country.  At this point, very few Americans were allowed into Tibet, and when they were permitted in, their every move was monitored, inspected, questioned, and, like an old shampoo idiom, repeated.  We were no exception to that process.  Everywhere we went, we stood out like a person wearing a Halloween costume to Christmas dinner.  There was one American family living in Zhongdian, the Russell’s, Tom, the father, Jennifer, the mother, Anna, the oldest child, and then the three rapscallions, Jacob, Ezekiel, and Solomon.  We were tasked with working closely with this family who had moved there so Tom could teach English to the Tibetan children who boarded at the local school. 

            The family was kind, well travelled, and well mannered.  We immediately had our home country as our common ground, but we quickly developed a close friendship that was based on more than the colors of the flag we were born under. 

            Tom was a jovial man with a big personality and a seemingly bigger heart.  He oozed of martyrdom for sacrificing his life for the good of those less fortunate than him in a country he really had had no ties to before he accepted his current teaching position.

            Jennifer was and still is one of the loveliest women I have ever met.  Her hair and her smile always stick out in my mind.  Her hair like a lush field of wheat that moved rhythmically to the tune of the wind, and her smile, her smile was that warm, inviting, infectious smile that could light up a night where the stars are sleeping and the moon has went on a long vacation.  She was an oak, and she welcomed the roots of the saplings, which grew around her.  She was seemingly on this earth to foster who were planted around her, and we all loved her for that care.   

            Anna was no different than her mother, just younger.  Most teenage girls feel like they are an outsider in the world that surrounds them; Anna was an outsider, but she was one of those people who, even at this early point in her life, knew her place in the world and thrived in it.  She was the oldest child in the family, she was the leader of the Russell children, and she never flinched once at her many responsibilities to the flock of brothers she had nestled beneath her protective wing.  Like her mother, she cared for others without a second’s thought to her own state of being.  She knew the world was bigger than her own childish dilemmas, and therefore, she had no time for such nonsense.        

            As for the rapscallions, Jacob, Ezekiel, and Solomon, believe me, rapscallions was probably not the best word to describe these boys, but, like most people, it is tough to sum up the entirety of one human soul in a word, let alone three.  They were the definition of orneriness, and I truly believe Tibet was not ready for one of these boys, let alone three of them.  Heck, as I am writing this, I am not even sure that America itself would have been ready for these three.  They were smart, resourceful, and they had all of Zhongdian as their playground, and play they did. 

            I still remember going spelunking with the boys in a random cave on the outskirts of the city.  There were no questions of should we or shouldn’t we with them, it was let’s go for it and why not.  The cave ended up being some sort of a Buddhist monk burial site, which, when we discovered this, after a couple of hours of journeying, we childishly screamed in terror, and like a person standing at the bottom of an empty basement when the lights get shut off, we jettisoned back toward the protective light of the afternoon sun.

            The Russell family quickly became our family.  Our Tibetan/American family.  We made laughed with them, danced with them, helped them, and most of all, we loved them.  At least, we loved the them that we thought they were.     

            Tom spent more time with us than almost everyone else in the family.  I think he felt two obligations, 1) to show us a good time, and 2) to fit in with the “frat” boys and to show that side of us a good time.  Many times throughout our time with him, Tom had mentioned the need for us to all go out and have our hair washed.  He discussed the process with such ease and candor, that we all believed it was a cultural thing for people in Tibet to do, and, of course, after Tom gushed about how his school’s principal had taken Tom, himself, out as a welcome to Tibet gift when he had first arrived, we all decided it was a must to have this experience. 

            Well, it so happened that it fell on the night before our last full day in Tibet that Tom wanted to treat us by taking us out on the town as a reward for our hard work during our stay.  After an elongated stay at the first discothèque I had ever visited, John’s father decided to call it a night and hitched a ride back to our hotel.  As John’s father left, the first thing an increasingly drunk Tom Russell insisted was that it was time for us to experience a Tibetan hair washing.        

            The next thing I knew, we were all piled into his Land Rover and sent bouncing up and down the pothole laden primitive roads of Zhongdian.  As we journeyed to our destination, my stomach began to sink.  I imagine now that my topsy-turvy stomach would have paralleled the tires of the Land Rover quite accurately, sinking into a trap of a three-foot road divot here, level out, and then fall into a two-and-a-half foot suicide dive hole in the road.   

            As we pulled down the obviously dead end street, which we were venturing to, I quickly began to realize that no reputable establishment would come in the form of a long, dark back alley.  The street’s complexity was only confused when the first rays of light came from the source of one neon pink lamp, which hung above what I would soon discover to be our destination.  It was very quickly hereafter that I realized that this was no mere sickness I felt growing in my gut, but t’was the unfortunate realization of the fact that I, little Christian, goody-two-shoes who has never drank alcohol, smoked, or done anything remotely scandalous in his lifetime, was standing outside of a Tibetan brothel. 

            Anger quelled up inside of me, more anger than I thought I had.  Not only was I someplace I had no desire to be, but much, much worse, I had been deceived.  I had trusted Tom.  I trusted my fraternity “brothers”, which I was quickly discovering is nothing like real brotherhood at all.  I didn’t believe this kind of stuff happened outside of the characters in Law and Order: SVU.  Here I stood, a young man, a confused man, a very disenchanted man who was getting a hard lesson on the sad reality of the human condition. 

            “I’m not going in there,” I finally chirped up, having a difficult time standing up for myself in fear of being ostracized from not only my travel group but my source of collegiate friendship.

            To which a chorus of “Why not?”, “What’s wrong with you?”, and “Who cares?” rose from the crowd of people I had considered my close friends mere seconds ago. 

            “I’m not going in there,” I stammered a little more confidentially. 

            Disgusted looks shone on me like prison spotlights who have just locked on to the escaped convict.  Finally, the seemingly years of disapproving silence burst apart. 

            “You can stay out here if you want,” Tom’s commanding drunken voice cracked as if he were a man who seemingly had just been forced to watch his own lofty image shatter before his own eyes.

            Tom glared at me for another moment longer, the last time his eyes ever met mine, and he turned to the door.  As if it were a scene from the Pied Piper, the rest of our band of travelers drunkenly staggered after their leader.  

            “Stay?” my mind raced.  “What does it mean to stay when one’s mind is so jumbled.  It feels as if I am living a million different scenarios all at once when in reality I am only living one.  One very disgusting, very real one.”

            I wanted to run to the moral confines of home.  I wanted to burn the brothel to the ground.  I wanted to stop five drunken men from their dance with the devil.  I wanted, but I didn’t.  I collapsed to the ground in helplessness.  I wanted to cry, but that too didn’t happen.  I was in shock.  I fumed in hate.   

            The front of the whore house was all windows, which made it even easier for my mind to realize the horror of what I was facing.  I tried not to look at the reality that was having a staring contest with my forlorn demeanor.

            In they went.  To my surprise hair washing was actually a task these women performed.  Laughingly, they all sat side-by-side in chairs.  Back they went, hair into a bucket of water.  Soap was lathered atop their scalp.  Hope began to whelm up inside me.   

            “Maybe that is really all that will happen,” my mind soothed itself.  “Maybe all this was me overreacting to something?  Maybe, I am the dumb one here.  Really, Tom has a wonderful, beautiful wife, and he said so himself, his own principal brought him here.  A principal would never…”

            Then it happened.  The thing I had feared the most.  Tom rose from his chair, and, by himself, departed almost symbolically into the darkness of the back of the brothel.

            “Maybe, he just has to use the restroom,” my mind begged the world to comply.  It didn’t.     

            The darkness of the backroom that had devoured Tom moments ago claimed another victim, one of the hair-washing girls, who willingly sacrificed herself to follow. 

            The Tibetan dirt suddenly seemed rougher.  The alley became the darkest alley in the blackest part of the universe, a world away from everything that I knew as normal.  The pink lights cascaded mockingly across my face.  This is the moment my childhood officially died.  I held the services in my head.  My body moved like my soul had put up the Be Back in Five Minutes sign for the rest of the evening. 

            Later that night, I collapsed on my bed at the hotel.  The Tibetan air carried through my open window the whiskey induced words of two of those who had been masquerading as my brothers.  The mask was off.  These people were barely acquaintances, which made their hate filled words easier to stomach.

            “I’m sick of his holier than thou attitude.”

            “Who does he think he is treating Tom that way?”

            “Does he think he is perfect?” 

            “No one is perfect, especially him.”

            “I can’t believe he embarrassed Tom like that.”

            “Us like that.”

            I fell asleep that night with the stars waving hello from the sky.  They were familiar.  I breathed a deep breath.  Their insults faded into white noise. 

            The next morning began with doors opening, lights suddenly coming on, hung over voices groggily exchanges small bits of sentences, talks of going camping with Tom and the Russell family, me declining all invitations that had anything to do with Tom, somewhere the disdain laced words, “Fine!” and “Be that way!”, doors slamming, more mummers, and then a jeep pulling away.

            Alone.  Truthfully, I had felt alone since last night, but for the first time in weeks, I was actually alone.  Alone to my thoughts.  Alone to the world.  Alone to make this day, this trip my own. 

            “What had you wanted when you had signed-up for this trip?” I kept asking myself in my head.  “Not this I imagine.” 

            “Adventure,” I answered to the ceiling of my room.  “I wanted to have an adventure.”

            “What is keeping you from this adventure?” my mind retorted back.

            Daily, I had seen the Himalaya Mountains looming of Zhongdian.  I had remarked several times how I wanted to hike to the top of them.  I thought it would be a cool experience, being this close to them and all.

            “That’s too far away.  No one wants to do that,” John had quickly shot down.

            “John is keeping me from my adventure,” I finally responded to my questioning mind.  “John’s dad is keeping me from my adventure. Tom is keeping me from my adventure.”

            I paused.  Who were these people to keep me from this.  They were no great deity.  They had no physical control of me.  I was not their indentured servant.  I was not their errand boy.  I had legs.  I had an able mine.  I had my youth, and for the first time in seemingly forever, I had the will.  

            “No.  It’s not them.  It’s not them that is keeping me from my adventure.  I, I am keeping myself from my adventure.”  

            I shot out of bed, threw on a pair of shorts, researched the inventory left behind by our John’s dad (being the group leader, he had demanded that he be in control of all our money and supplies).  A granola bar from home that I hadn’t told anyone about, a half a bottle of water, no qián (money), and no means to get in contact with anyone.  Honestly, I didn’t even leave a note telling those I was leaving behind where I was setting off to.  Looking back, these were all very bad ideas, and not ones that I recommend anyone follow, but I was determined to not let self-doubt deter my adventure any longer.  So, I gathered what I had, threw them in my backpack with my old high school football wind breaker jacket, and I set off out my door and into one of the most important adventures of my life.    

            As I stood in front of my hotel gazing at my prize, the Himalayas, I determined that they were seemingly a couple hours walk away from me.  How many times does a guy from West Virginia get to utter such words? Then I began that journey as each and every journey of every adventurer (Ferdinand MagellanVasco da GamaMeriwether Lewis and William Clark, you?) before me had begun his or hers.  I put one foot in front of the other, and I started to explore.    

            One of the first things I was quick to discover on my own, is that there are probably as many strange things about a white American passing through a Tibetan’s soy field to a Tibetan as there are to a white American.  Still, like a parade slowly moving through town, the locals did not stop me or ask me what I was doing.  They merely looked up confusedly, as if they were wondering why this parade had not tossed candy in their direction yet.

            As I marched forward, I realized how surreal everything had suddenly become.  Moments ago, I had been physically in Tibet, but for all intents and purposes, I had been stuck in a cocooned extension of my life back in America.  Now, I was journeying through soy fields with the stereotypical Tibetan worker in their conical straw hat tending to the fields all around me. 

            Each step I took seemed to bring a bigger smile to my face.  Yes, technically I was still alone, but in reality, I was not.  I was surrounded by so many people and places, and even though all of these were foreign to me, I was living.  I was enjoying.  I was on my adventure. 

            One of the more interesting facts about this particular region of Tibet, that I happened to be fortunate enough to explore, was that no one there has a home like you and I have a home.  Most homes are loose boards stacked on top of each other in some shoddy manner, or in the case of the outside of the main town, rounded huts (kind of like a half tennis ball) made solely out of dirt.  Along with these dirt homes, comes a dirt walled fence surrounding the small communities of huts.   

            As I approached one such cluster of homes, I thought in my head about pictures I had seen in National Geographic magazine where some American traveler goes to a much less financially affluent part of our world and there they run into pot-bellied indigenous children to which they give pieces of candy to and are revered as a god.  With these dreams bouncing around my head, I reached my hand into the side pocket of my book bag and pulled out half a dozen or so candies which I had forgotten to remove from one of my days around campus.  Strangely, I pined sympathetically for these cadies as I shuffled the candies between my fingers. 

            “These candies sure travelled along way to end up in someone’s stomach,” I thought half-expecting that this National Geographic dream o’ mine was a dream that seconds away from becoming a reality.

            As I crossed between an opening in one of the dirt fences, my wondering thoughts were abruptly interrupted, not by a sound, but by red eyes glowing from the darkness of the only entrance into one of the dirt huts.  Like the minute before high noon in Tombstone, Arizona, the summer of the world around me immediately froze.  Panic swept over me.  I didn’t, couldn’t be the first to draw.  I waited, hoped that time would pass and my trespass would be forgotten.  The world waited.  A tumbleweed blew across the stillness of my being.  Then, seemingly all at once, high noon struck, the Tombstone clock tower rang out its death knell, jaws glistened through the darkness, and the hungriest, man-eatingest bark you have ever heard was released into the universe.

            My life instantaneously became a slow motion rewind of the present.  Sharpened teeth that had been cut on bones chomped together as four legs churned like a locomotive whose coal furnace had been stoked to full bore.  The death dealer lumbered towards my nonexpectant frame.  The dirt piled fence, that separated farmland from what was the village, screamed salvation.  I bounded to the top of the dividers and stood atop them like a beginning gymnast atop a balancing beam.  Quickly, I composed my shaky balance, the Tibetan Mastiff, the sadistic beast which been chasing me, was still ripping at the wall hungry for my throat. 

            Obviously, at that point, I realized that this side of the wall was off limits.  Thinking it was safe to jump off to the other side, my eyes were met by the bloated corpse of a wild boar, which had a hole in its side that was either created by a submarine’s missile or that of another wild predator, one I had no desire to mess with.  Being that we were not close to the ocean, and no submarines were in sight, I guessed the second of the two and decided that it was better if I just moseyed a little of my journey striding atop the wall. 

            By the time I decided it was safe to leave the friendly confines of the top of my dirt wall guardian angel, I was well beyond the seemingly all-seeing eye of a murderous pooch I had affectionately deemed Annoying.  It was at this point that I was beside the base of the descent into the Himalayas.  Here, yaks roamed freely, and I had started to become comfortable in my present setting.  So comfortable, in fact, that I had begun to wave to the farmers I passed.  None responded, but it made me feel like I was back on the farms of my youth where everyone waves to everyone, stranger or no stranger, when they see them.  I felt as if I was acting as an ambassador of goodwill from the farms of West Virginia to the yak fields of Tibet.

            As I started to ascend the mountain, I grabbed for my water bottle, which I had drained hours ago, hoping that there might be even a morsel of a drop of water that I could squeeze from the dry plastic container.  There wasn’t, and as much as I willed it, there wasn’t going to be.  I started my Himalaya Mountain ascent feeling semi-victorious for having at least made it to this range of the Himalayas, but, also, semi-defeated because not only was I thirsty, hungry, and exhausted, I was now competing with the sun who seemed like it was teasingly humming, “Now I’m free.  Free falling,” as it sank from the sky.  Still, I was determined to accomplish this goal of mine.  I must make it to the top of these mountains.

            One-third of the way up the mountain, I had a relapse of thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.  I collapsed on a rock and the self-doubt rose up in me like a flood seeking to destroy a town after the dam, which had mediated peace between the two opposing forces for so many years, was broken. 

            “I can’t go on,” words which echoed from one side of my physique to the next.

            “Go back, “ one-side of my conscience contested.  “You have made it further than anyone else you know.  It’s getting dark anyhow.  You will never make it back to the hotel in time.”

            “There are camper’s in the valley there.  I can see their fire.  They must be Americans,” the other part of my conscience foolishly associated the homelike image with my current geographical location.  If I hadn’t been so mentally frail, I might have realized that, at that time, I was one of a handful of Americans in Tibet, and the odds that these campers were American was astronomical. 

            “Give up.  They were right,” the battling consciences continued to taunt me.  “You have no clue what you are doing out here.  You are a…”

            “Hruuuug!” a great guttural grunt let loose from the distance, ripping my quarrelling psyche apart like feuding school children.   

            I was now wide-awake from my stupor.  I looked around for its source.  Later, I found out that there are bears in the woods of Tibet, but in this moment, ignorance was bliss. 

         “Hruuuug!” the noise rang out again.

            This time I quickly spotted its origin.  An ever-growing mound of straw rose from path leading towards the base of the mountain.  At the bottom of this mound, a lady, which couldn’t have been younger than eighty-eight, who was wearing a ten-foot tall stack of hay like book bag on her L-shaped, wrinkled exterior. 

            In amazement, I took in the sight before me.  She stopped at the top of the hill to catch her breath.  I was taught, growing up, to always help the elderly, so naturally, in this moment, I was at a loss.  Should I say something?  What would I say?  I felt stupefied, cemented in indecision.  I never did ask if this ancient women if she needed help.  One, I figured, she wouldn’t have been able to understand me if I tried.  Two, to me, it was like asking the Incredible Hulk if he needed some help lifting that car.     

            Finally, her breaths slowed, and she realized she was not alone atop this hill.  It was at that moment, her eyes caught mine.  Stopping, staring nothing happened but our eyes sizing up their targets like the Terminator looking for his next mission. 

            She broke the confusion by saying something in Chinese to me, which sounded like… like… well, like Chinese to me…  After a long pause of confusion, she squinted her eyes tighter, and she flicked her long boney hand at me as if to say, “Get up.”  Then, she flickered her wrist again seemingly saying, “Go on!” 

            My too often defeated young mind suddenly filled with optimism.  If this elderly women can climb this mountain with a giant stack of straw atop her back then I can certainly climb this mountain without water.  Even to this day, it is funny to me that one simple encouraging gesture could send my defeated spirits from ashes to soaring like the phoenix let free in the Tibetan sky.  I thanked the old woman, “Shi-shi.” Then I set off to complete my original mission.

            It would be nice to say that this was the last of the hurdles I had to climb that day, but thirst can do crazy things to people, and I am no different.  As I soon, unfortunately, discovered, a parched mouth and an eager soul are not the best of friends, and it was a lot harder to be optimistic when you can’t hardly swallow.  Each step I took, my mouth seemed to get dryer and dryer, and steps got harder and harder to accomplish.  I was like a human version of the Tin Man, and I was rusting rapidly.  Water was my oil, and without it not only would my adventure be cut short, but I was extremely far from my hotel with the sun increasing its decent back into the earth.  What would become of me in the Tibetan wild at night?  Would I survive? 

            When you’re not expecting something in life, everything about that something, that surprise becomes highly memorable. On this occasion, when the first raindrop exploded upon my cheek, I truthfully believe that, at that moment, I could feel this one raindrop absorbing into my skin as it rolled down onto my cracked lips.  My body welcomed the water like the father welcomes the Prodigal Son.  I walked further, more raindrops drummed off my skin.  With each step, the orchestra of rain increased its symphony.  I had ascended so high into the Himalayas that I was actually passing through a cloud of rain!

            I dropped to my knees, removed my jacket, soaked it like a sponge, and drank bountifully from it.  The refreshment soothed my throat, my body, my mind.  The downpour had soaked my being more than a day at the water park, but I was happy to be able to move with ease again.  I felt years younger, and as I looked to the peak of the mountain, I had a bounce to my step and a goal directly in my sight.  I had come too far, experienced too much to not finish the rest of this adventure.  Sure, even as I am writing these things to you this day, they feel like a dream, but they aren’t, they weren’t.  This was a path I chose to journey down, and that has made all the difference.    

            The next thing I remember is a very small dirt way that led through the bushes.  I shimmied between them, and, at last, I was there.  I had made it to the top of the Himalayas!  I looked out across Zhongdian, across Tibet.  Prayer flags and prayer mosques dotted the hilltops.  Below, the birds soared, and with them, my heart.  My depressive, confused state was gone.  Here I stood, a man and a mountaintop.  I had finally began living in a manner to be proud of.  Exhilaration moved me.

            “Finally!” I screamed.  “Finally.”

            Emotions, memories began to overtake me.  I thought about my last two years in college, and how lost I had become.  I remembered a time when I cared not about what others thought of my life.

            “I can’t believe there is no one here to share this sight with,” I stammered to myself.  “In all the world, there isn’t one person here with me right now.”

            Then I remembered a relationship I had been neglecting.  One that I had lost under piles of popularity, fame, narcissism, desire, envy, pettiness, self-doubt, anger, loneliness, fear.  A relationship that I had once held as the most important in my life, but, like a used car salesman, I had traded it in for worthless relationships with people who could care less about where I was standing at this very moment or what it had taken for me to get here.     Finally, I remembered God here, atop this mountain.  For the first time in my life, I fully understood that he was watching me at that moment, that he was standing right beside me right at that moment, and that I was not alone at that moment or ever.  I was never alone and never had been alone.  If anyone had abandoned anyone else, it was I who had abandoned God.   

            Tears began to run the course of my face.  I dropped to my knees, bowed my head to the dirt, and prayed harder and more fervently than I had ever done, and for the first time in my life, I truly realized what it meant to be a Christian.  To give reverence to God.  I had reached a peak so high above this life, but I was still so far below my Lord. 

            Before I left that day, I envisioned God having the exact same view as I did but from Heaven, and he was looking down at me.  I wished to leave a bit of me behind on that mountaintop.  I thought about my backpack, a note written in the dirt, I even went as far as tying my jacket to a tree branch before I realized that I didn’t need to leave anything physical atop these mountains to let others know I was there.  I have been there, I was there, and I have left a part of me there.  A part of me that I didn’t want to return, then or ever again. 

            To this day, I am proud to say that the part of me filled with vanity, foolishness, pride, that part that creeps up on us all in our youth, I left it halfway around the world in the most remote of locations, on top of a mountain, and if fate should ever decide that I actually should go back to that exact location, I am happy to know that I won’t find it there.  No, I know that, that mountaintop was its grave, its burial, and I know that no one, especially not me, is mourning its death.

            As for how I got home?  Well, at this point the sun was as old in the day as that lady who had been carrying the straw but way less strong, and the sky was filling with darkness faster than ink spilled on parchment.  I made my way down the mountain, visited the campsite I had mentioned before still half expecting them to be Americans.  I was wrong.  They were Tibetan, of course, and thankfully they were fairly kind. 

            My broken Chinese got me a bowl of chicken soup (bones still included, which they encouraged me to eat, and I did from fear of making my ride mad), a warm fire, and a one-way ticket back to the main town of Zhongdian. 

            The crazy part about that trip back is that the only place they had for me to sit was in the back of one of their small trucks in a cage.  Yes, a real cage.  I didn’t even think twice about it.  Looking back, I definitely should have.  Still, there I was, tired, still wet from the rain cloud, shell of my former self riding in a cage in the back of a Tibetan’s truck zooming past the last remaining confused on-looking eyes of the locals. 

            When I returned that evening, my roommate, a fraternity brother of mine named Mel, excitedly retold the stories of the days events from their camping trip with Tom, the rest of the Russell’s, our other fraternity brothers, John’s dad, and the rest of our traveling crew.  Yes, Mel had participated in the events of the night before, and yes, he had stood silently there as our mutual acquaintances berated my character and my morals numerous times, and yes, Mel had even reached a point in twenty-four hours that any dislike or disagreeance he had had for Tom’s deeds the previous night were long forgotten.  Tom had fully won him to his side with a camping trip.

            “What did you do today?” he finally asked me as darkness now tucked us into our beds.

            For a brief moment, I thought about recounting all the day’s occurrences to him, as I did for you today, but that day, that adventure, it was my adventure, and that day, it needed to stay just that, my adventure.

            “Oh, nothing much,” I responded as I turned over to dream about the day I had just lived.



A Lesson Learned from the Janitor

I truly believe that you can and do learn from most every instance of this life that you actually pay attention to.  My learning experience takes place in the spring semester of my last year of teaching in Maryland.  During this time, I was acquaintances with an old janitor named Mr. Beachy.  Mr. Beachy was a very small, bald man with a slight speech impediment and a knack for dropping by to talk about life whenever he could.  However, in the winter of that same school year, Mr. Beachy was admitted to the hospital and almost died of undisclosed complications with old age.  It was after this period of time that he returned and told me very conversationally that since his near death experience, that he now could see angels. The first of these angels, he said, came into his room right after the surgery and she was dressed in a white coat…  I told him it was probably just his nurse.  He didn’t seem to agree with me.  So, it was at this point, that I thought Mr. Beachy had basically reached the spot in his life that had morphed him into a sort of loveable nutcase.  Still, at that moment, little did I know that this crazy man who had pushed a broom down those hallways for years, without anyone paying attention, was just about to teach me a lesson about life that would stick with me forever.     

However, to understand the full scope of this tale, you first have to realize what was happening in my life.  Therefore, I have appropriately entitled the next section the Back Story, aka It Sure is Lonely Atop Negro Mountain.  This title is fitting for a couple of reasons: 1) this is the back story, 2) the place I was teaching in was a remote, Podunk town called Accident, MD, and 3) I was living in Grantsville, MD a place located at the top of a mountain actually named Negro Mountain.  I am also fully aware that this title is probably both humorous to you, mildly offensive, and completely politically incorrect, but if you keep these three things in mind, you will be mentally prepared to journey inside my time at Northern Garrett High School. 

In my tenure at NHS, it seemed that as much as Mr. Beachy was ignored by the resident population, I was not.  I was sort of a Garrett County anomaly, to wrap a huge story into a few concise words.  They did not understand me, nor did they try.  I wore different clothes, talked differently, I was a man who taught Theatre and I was straight (gasp!), and my students referred to me as their family, not their teacher.  I had invested everything I had into teaching, and I was awarded with a dynamic relationship with my students and their parents, but for my good dead, I was hated and reprimanded every step of the way by administration.  For the first time in my life, I had become a patriot, fighting for a just cause, and all the while being fully convinced that my enemies would eventually see my sincere intensions and come over to my side.  

Like so many people in this world, work had become my life and work was not pleasant, therefore, life became less pleasant.  Then Snowmageddon happened, and trapped the mountainous Garrett County in with so much snow that we were jumping off our rooftops into snow banks taller than a house.  For three weeks straight we had no school, I sat in my apartment, I grew a beard, I started watching lots and lots of Netflix, and for the first time ever in my life, I paralleled the Unabomber, and it was not pretty.  I became defeated, depressed, and trapped.  Eventually, the snow did melt (We still had snow flurries all the way through the end of May), and we did get back to work, and I still had to put on one last grand finale of a spring musical before I closed this chapter of my life.   

It was during one of these many late night practices for the spring musical that I was returning to my classroom alone, exhausted.  It had been another day in which I was so busy I didn’t even look around to notice or talk about much other than the many tasks I had at hand.  That is when I ran into Mr. Beachy, sweeping the hallway, by himself, as usual.  I simply gave him a generic, “Hey there, Mr. Beachy,” and followed it up with some stock conversation reel that I had played out a million pointless times before.  As I turned, tired and ready to my classroom, to my home, Mr. Beachy stopped me in my tracks by making the comment, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you have an uncle or someone who was a little Jewy?”  Being as that I had already agreed to let Mr. Beachy in my life a the lovable nutcase and being that I was in the Mecca of politically incorrect banter, see previous comments about Negro Mountain, I probably wasn’t as thrown off by this comment as I should have been.  I simply took it in stride and turned laughing to say, “No, why?”

“Oh, just wonderin’, because that is what your angel looks like, and he is standing behind you right now,” he continued.

To say the rest of this conversation didn’t and doesn’t still give me cold chills would be a lie.  I am not sure if it was the lack of sleep, the overload of work, or just being the only people in a school hallway talking about the afterlifethat made my hair stand on end, but it did.  Still, I quickly tried to ignore the off kilter comment and began retreating to my cocoon of daily pattern.  I simply chuckled again, said thank you, and started back towards my classroom again.  It was then that I heard something that dumbfounded me that day and is still on the tip of my brain today.  Mr. Beachy simply concluded with, “I just wanted you to know that, because the next time you feel alone in this world, just remember, you are not alone.”

I turned just in time to look him dead in his very sincere eyes.  Here he was, this little crazy old janitor with a broom in his hand and a song on his lips before I even realized how much I needed to hear something like that in my life.  He smiled at me and said, “You have a good night, my friend,” and he went sweeping down the stairwell. 

The last time I checked, Mr. Beachy was still sweeping the halls of Northern Garrett High School, and, as he was that day, I can’t help but assume that he smiling with that same boyish, wide eyed optimism he always gave those who paid attention to him.  Whether or not there was actually an angel behind me that day, watching me, helping me accomplish more than I ever thought I could have, I am not sure, but it is my belief that that was not what I learned from that moment.  As I sank into my classroom’s swivel chair that evening, I took a deep breath, gazed off into the blackness that filled the world outside my window, and for the first time in a long time, I realized that there was more to this life than just me. 

As I walked through the parking lot that evening, the stars danced on the canvas of the sky and the wind was warm.  Soon it would be summer, and the page had begun to turn.



What Inspired Me to be Baptized?

     I was baptized on July 24th, 1999, but as to how I got to that point?  It is never just as simple as I read my Bible, I understood, and therefore, I became a Christian.  You can say it is, but even the Ethiopian eunuch had more to his story than that.

     The inspiration for my baptism began with attending church my whole life, literally since the week I was born.  I grew-up with parents who were learning what it was like to be a Christian their self.  I witnessed their struggles, their successes.  I saw them research their Bible in times of trouble, as opposed to seeking out their own solutions.  I still remember my parents deciding to leave the Waverly church of Christ, a church that was transitioning from conservative to liberal, because of the leadership it had received from the preacher at the time.  I remember it being like any other Sunday morning, running around the parking lot after church with Trenton Hall, who is a cherished friend and brother-in-Christ to this day, but at this time, he was a curly headed child running around in diapers.  There are moments in life when no matter how normal it all seems, something just seems to be amiss.  That was this Sunday morning.  It was if the air itself had even morphed into this other worldly state.  I remember my father and the preacher having a very serious discussion, and the next thing I knew, we were in our old station wagon driving home.  My father said, “We aren’t coming back here again.”  Endings tend to leave a lasting mark on a child.  I don’t care how old they are.  They realize when something is changing in their lives, and for me, that day I learned that the preacher is not always right, every church member can be fallible if they don’t go by the Bible, and I learned what it was like to miss my Christian friends and family for the first time.  I was separated from people that I had learned an invaluable amount from, my family, my home.  I will never be able to repay the great ladies who had taught me about the Bible there.  Sometimes we forget that, if they are fortunate enough to, our little ones grow-up to be adults, and they taught me from the ground up like they knew that all along.  They provided me with building blocks that I am unbelievably grateful for to this day, ones that began to build my faith and love for God.

     We attended Winding Road church of Christ in Parkersburg, WV that Sunday night and after that, until we moved.  There, church became an extension of the family based community I was a part of on a daily basis.  You see my childhood was spent living on the family farm.  We raised cows, sheep, had horses, dogs, barn cats.  The earth was our playground.  We caught salamanders, got way too dirty too many times, and had way more freedom than kids do today.  From that freedom, we got bumps, scars (one under my chin if you would like to see it), and we made good and bad mistakes.  We saw birth.  We learned death.  We saw the world working in perfect order without any man controlling it.  My Grandma Sams’ and Great-Grandma O’Dell’s houses sat atop our hill and there we were exposed to an older woman (Grandma Sams) doing everything she could follow God’s will and an old woman (Great-Grandma O’Dell) who really studied her Bible or went to church.  I saw a woman in my Grandma, though she had lost her husband and her son at a very early age, who was always happy and worked for others without giving a second thought, and I saw another woman in my Great-Grandma, though she was always kind to me because I was born on her birthday, was living an unsatisfied and remorseful life.  Great-Grandma couldn’t move very well at this time, and she had a lot of time to sit and think about her life, and even as a child, you could tell their was a lot of pain in her memories, a lot of regret.  I learned from everyone, be they a member of church or not.  The people who surround us impact us more than we ever know.  In my Grandma I saw a woman who I wanted my life to emulate, and in my Great-Grandma, I saw a woman whose life I did not want mine to become, even if she did live to be well over 100.  I knew I would rather have as many good years as God was going to grant me then to live 100 years not appreciate the daily blessings God provided me.     

     At Winding Road, I got to worship with not only my mom and dad, sisters, and Grandma, but I was also fortunate enough to worship with my cousins and my aunt and uncle, which I thought was so great.  To this day, I can see why it is hard for people who were not raised in the church to leave their family’s belief, even when the scriptures clearly state a practice contrary to God’s will that their family’s congregation is practicing.  I am not saying that it is right.  I am just saying it is harder than people give it credit for.  I could see that if I attended a church surrounded with a large part of my family for my entire life why it would be so difficult to see an error if they taught it, because as children, we don’t think our families can do wrong, and sadly, that sometimes bleeds into adulthood.  The examples I got from my limited time spent at Winding Road weren’t innumerable, because they were things and people I had been learning from my whole life.  It is easy to take advantage of something you have always had in your life and you believe you will always have.  The lessons I learned there I am still learning as I grow older.  Never take people for granted, and never take the time you have with them for granted either.  One thing you can’t replicate in life is moments, so why throw them away so carelessly?

     We moved shortly after we started attending the Winding Road church of Christ, an hour up the river to Sistersville, WV.  While we were there, I remember I tried to be baptized once when I was in the sixth grade.  I say tried because it didn’t really work out.  We were attending the Elk Fork church of Christ at that time, and I remember I would sit-up at night in a cold sweat fearing that I might die and be found less than favorable to God.  Some people might have you believe that it isn’t healthy for little children to sit-up at night in their beds and fear for the afterlife.  Contrary to what their 21st century Americana brainwashed minds might tell them, a healthy fear is a good thing to have.  I have learned more from moments when I have been afraid then moments where I coast through things.  Just like a child shouldn’t rule their parents, a person shouldn’t attempt to rule God.  I only feared God because I loved Him and respected Him enough to not want to let Him down, and truthfully, that mindset has been one of the greatest blessings of my entire life.  This is what I believe is meant by the term reaching the age of accountability.  I had reached it because I knew what was right, but for any young person, doing what is right is sometimes way more difficult than it should be.  The night I “attempted” to be baptized was one of moments where it was difficult. 

     It was about 2am on a Monday night that I finally got tired of sitting-up at night in a cold sweat, and I finally got the gumption to go to my parent’s bedroom, lightly tap on their bedroom door, and very nervously declare I wanted to be baptized.  Well, my parents, groggily (so groggily in fact that to this day, I don’t know if they even remember this happening) advised me to make sure that this is something I was ready to take on, and if so, that I should go forward on Wednesday night.  Well, as soon as those words came out of their mouth, I pacified my fears because little to their knowledge, from our move and reaching an awkward age, I had cocooned myself in a place where I was nervous to put myself “out there” in front of people (mostly adults).  So, I told myself, “You must still be too young, Nathan.”  That made me feel better for a time, and I let Wednesday night come and go without doing what I knew was right.  Even sadder, from this moment, I carried this “your not old enough” rational in my mind for many years, and it was further justified by the fact that I was not seeing others my age being baptized their self, and I thought, “If it is so important, why aren’t they doing it?”  So, Wednesday after Sunday after weekday after weekend passed, and I continued to attend church and occasionally, I would have a night where I felt so very alone in this world and I would think about my days on the farm, and the animals that had so quickly come and gone and how my fate was no different than theirs.  Then fear would dot my brow with perspiration, and I would calm my thoughts by praying to God, but, as so many of us do, forgetting to do His will completely.     

     Life went on.  I grew from a little boy to a young man.  We moved again and were now attending the Wellsburg church of Christ.  The people who surrounded me in the church, at that time, were the worst group of “church friends” I had ever had.  They were not the best examples and didn’t seem to put God first, second, or one hundredth on their priority list, and so, I got even more comfortable in my place in life.  I thought, “Well, you surely aren’t as bad as they are.  So, you are good.”  This is the danger in comparing yourself to others, something the Bible has never commanded, but no doubt, a trick the Devil uses to his advantage.  I was now mentally being dragged to church.  I had become a teenager, and I had too many other things on my mind: girls, being the “popular” kid for the first time, girls, sports, and did I say, “Girls?”  Notice, I left out school, because like God, it was something I always assumed I would get to eventual.  Assumptions, another great trick of the Devil.  I gradually stopped caring about death.  The world told me this was my time and I needed to focus on living, because no moment in life would be as good as it was to be young.  What lies.  Still, I bought them hook, line, and sinker…

     This continued from eighth grade till the summer before my senior year.  It was like a mirage, it seemed to be continuing the same way it always had, but again, that all to familiar word “finality” gradually began to creep back into my world.  I tried to focus my attentions on keeping life the same as it had seemingly been every year leading up to this one, enjoy time off from school and prepare for football season.  I wasn’t worried about life after school, that’s all I had ever known, and as we all do, I had fooled myself into believing that this was life.  For forever and always, this was the way life would be.  However, as my mom often told me while I was bemoaning the fact that I was growing older, “Well, you can’t stay the same age, Nathan.  You have two options in life, you can either get older or die.”  As morbid as that looks on paper, believe me, it was even more morbid to hear out loud.  Still, she was right, and sometimes little conversations like that pay big dividends down the road, be it later that day or later that lifetime.  Thankfully, God was patient enough with me throughout all of this that He would spare my life until I made the decision to be baptized.  A decision I should have made many years before my trip to a summer camp on the other side of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere Ohio.

     It sounds weird, but the push that finally sent me off the cliff and soaring into the skies of doing the Lord’s will was the peer pressure I received from the great Christian friends I got at Camp Noah.  As a young man, I was fortunate enough to attend Camp Noah, a weeklong summer camp that former Wellsburg church of Christ minister Bill Carroll ran based on principles of the Bible.  That fateful summer, I had decided that I had no desire to go to some “baby, Christian based” camp.  I had determined that I was too grown-up for that.  I was too cool.  You know how we all think we are too “mature” for so much during that time in our life.  Well, I had decided that I was not only too cool for the camp, but somewhere along the line, I had begun to believe that I was too cool for God.  I saw it as something only hypocritical people in outdated dress clothes cared about on Sundays and Wednesdays.  Even then, I had seen members of the church, people who were supposed to be an example, do nothing more than reinforce my being okay with not fully serving God.  They talked about each other, got insanely angry and jealous of each other, and they tried to beat the Word of God into your head instead of being patient and kind.  Church became a burden to attend.  It drained me more than the world did, and there were times when I sincerely hated it.  What had become of me?  I needed to open my Bible for the answers, but I looked to the “successes” of people in the world as a measuring point as to what kind of a man I was to become.    

     The year Camp Noah changed my life, very nearly didn’t happen.  All this animosity toward “boring, old” church had bled into my day-to-day life, and I hadn’t even realized.  This was actually the second year I was attending Camp Noah, and I figured I had been there once and seen it all, and what I had seen, I didn’t desire to be apart of again.  It was “too corny” for me.  In fact, I so completely disinterested in attending that I literally was on the floor of our van begging my parents not to make me go the entire way to camp.  Again, my mindset was worried about other things, like the phone number I had just got from the girl I had a huge high school sized crush on.  “She can’t wait a WEEK to talk to me,” I had thought.  “This is literally going to be the longest and worst week of my life.”

     Still, my parents made me go, because I had signed-up months before.  Little did I know how much this would impact me for forever.  That year at camp, I was in the oldest boy dorm.  It was an eclectic mix of ornery kids from all over Ohio.  I soon found out that I was the only one in the cabin who wasn’t a Christian.  Our counselor wasn’t some stuck-up, terrible dictator as I had assumed he would be.  He was one of the best Christian examples I could have had at that time.  He was a Christian man by the name of Gary Lucas who attended the Barnesville church of Christ in Barnesville, Ohio, and he was as ornery as the rest of us in the cabin.  He was not stuffy, pretentious, and self-righteous, as I had seen so many people in the church become.  He was the opposite.  He was humble, kind, obedient.  He was flawed but perfect.  To this day, he is still one of my examples of what the definition of a Christian man is to be.  He challenged us to grow-up in Christ and to be more responsible for our actions.  It wasn’t anyone else’s fault but ours if we weren’t serving God correctly.  This cut me deep, because I knew I wasn’t.  I had developed an excuse for every occasion when it came to Christianity, and he showed me with his Bible why those excuses were no good.  At night, he would lead us in devotion, turn out the lights, and leave us alone in our cabins.  This gave us time to talk about love, life, and the pursuit of eternal salvation.  Us campers, we stayed up every night, way too late, talking, philosophizing, learning from each other.  For the first time in my young life, when the lights went off, it wasn’t just God and I having a discussion with, it was many other voices, and thankfully, they were Christian voices.  They would ask me things like, “How are you not baptized?”  Things that I did not have answers for.    

     By the end of that week, I had grown more in my beliefs in Christianity than I had in five years.  I learned more than how shoot a bow, how to secretly smuggle a pizza into camp from a local pizzeria, and how to beat our counselors at softball.  I learned how to be a better man, a Christian man.

     I still remember our last night there, another moment of finality.  I remember Rob, one of my closest friends out there, sharing with us his fears of returning home.  “Why would you have fears of returning home,” I asked?  I’ll never forget this young Christian man with tears in his eyes and fear in his heart, telling us how he didn’t want to return home because he knew that he was going to let God down.  Like me, he had set-up a world around him that was destining him to fail as a Christian rather than to succeed.  He told us he had already been failing in his Christian walk in life, and that the people he had chose to surround himself with at home were ones he knew would easily lead him astray again.  My heart went out to this young man, because he was saying the things I was feeling inside my heart.  Like me, like us all, he was struggling.  He was looking for a hand to lift him up, not shove him down.  From moments like this one I shared with Rob and my other cabin mates, I realized that no matter what part of life you are at, you are going to deal with circumstances that try to drive you from God, and you have two choices, whether to obey these things or to not obey them.  I had finally matured enough to realize it was way past time for me to obey the Lord.   

     As I left my friends, my new family that week, I didn’t speak too much on the way home.  That week, I had witnessed friendships, baptisms, and a sense of pride in being a Christian that I had never fully experienced before.  To this day, I still love singing “As the Deer” in our hymnals, because every time we sing it, it takes me back.  Back to a little camp on the other side of a corn field in middle of nowhere Ohio, and for a moment, I hear not only the congregation surrounding me sing it, but the voices of Rob and Gary and my friends at Camp Noah and Bill Carroll and my Grandma Sams and the many, many Christian men and women who had patience with me, who loved me, who inspired me to be better than just another man.  I hear them sing, ”You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you,” and I yearn to hear them again.  Daily, I fight to hear those voices again, and I imagine that on the day I breathe my last, before I go, I will hear those voices singing, welcoming, “You alone are my strength my shield, to you alone may my spirit yield.  You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you.”  I can’t wait to join that chorus.  A chorus of all the voices that have led me home.  Won’t that be a beautiful day?

     As far as when I was baptized?  It was the day I returned, July 24th, 1999.  I was working in the attic of our house with my father.  We were putting insulation in the top of our house.  It had to be 100 degrees in that attic working then.  I had been thinking about baptism all day, and in the middle of placing insulation, I finally had enough of the countless moments of contemplating.  I told my father, “I want to be baptized, and I would like to do so now.”  At that point, I had no clue what an amazing journey I was about to embark upon.  I just knew I wanted to be a part of my Lord’s church, my Lord’s army, and that I wanted to dedicate my life to Him.  So, that day, I was finally buried in baptism and rose a Christian.  Never again would life be the same, and for the first time in my life, that was more than alright with me.