Natalie Ogbourne

A trail’s name hints at what lies beyond. Usually it’s the destination: Mallard Lake. Sometimes it’s that the trail won’t be level: Mount Washburn.  Occasionally it’s a warning: Seven Mile Hole.

Hikers need more than a hint. We need to understand the trail. We need to know how many miles we’ll be hiking, how long it will take, and how hard it will be. Trail guide books are the best place to get that information.

I’d like to say that I want to hike Seven Mile Hole, but I would be lying. I don’t. What I want is to be able to say, “I hiked Seven Mile Hole.” Straight down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and then straight back up, it would make me feel like a serious hiker.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone offers other options: the paved stroll to the brink of Upper Falls, the swithbacked trail to the brink of the Lower Falls, and Uncle Tom’s Trail to a viewing platform overlooking the Lower Falls. Uncle Tom’s Trail wasn’t carved out for the modern hiker. It was constructed in 1898 by “Uncle” Tom Richardson, a park guide who conducted tours of the park back when the women hiked in long dresses and unsuitable shoes. Based on attire alone, it would seem that Uncle Tom’s Trail would be easy. The trail guides tell a different story.

Difficulty level is a function of elevation gained over distance, and while I’ve seen it called moderate, difficult, and strenuous, none call it easy. Beyond its gently sloped threshold it makes an abrupt descent, dropping to a viewing area 500 feet below. Tourists from Uncle Tom’s day made the precarious journey over a series of  rickety wood and rope ladders. Today’s hikers are not only more appropriately outfitted, we have the security of 328 steel steps.

When we set out I knew the history, the dresses and the shoes, and the thrill-seeking nature of our hiking predecessors. I expected the stairs. What I didn’t expect was to see a sign like this, the only one of its kind that I’ve seen:

Uncle Tom's Trail Yellowstone National Park

Uncle Tom’s Trail
Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone abounds with areas of striking beauty, dangerous cliffs and unstable footing, and areas in need of protection from overuse. The sign seemed obvious and unnecessary, yet it gave me the uncomfortable feeling that even with all the information we gather and the food and gear we bring along, I miss something vital. I forget to prepare myself  to remember why we are setting foot on the trail in the first place. It’s beautiful. It’s fragile. It’s even a little dangerous.

I could use a variation of that sign every time I step onto the trail. And the road. Especially the road. 08-09 pictures 317 - Version 2

It would remind me  to walk gracefully through delays and the difficulties, to keep my eyes open for inevitable and unexpected beauty, and keep perspective on the journey.

Even with the details from the guidebook and the extra information from the sign, Uncle Tom’s Trail offered the unexpected. The sky was as tranquil as the trail had been gentle at the start. Neither lasted. The sky, while we descended the stairs, began to sprinkle. Occasional sprinkles became cold and steady rain. The hail held off until we were within a quarter-mile of the trailhead.

We were shocked and soaked when we made it to the van, but none of us wished we had skipped the hike. It was not only beautiful, it had been an adventure, and our need for rest, warmth, and shelter made us even more thankful for the van, for each other, and for the road.

My day rarely offers more than a hint at the destination and the nature of the trail. It might hint at a warning, but I don’t know how many miles I’ll be going, how long it will take or how hard it will be. The day’s difficulty level has no formula. When the day delivers delays and the to-do list badge bears an overwhelming number, when the day’s adventure leaves me shocked and soaked, when I need rest, warmth, and shelter, I need to remember the sign. I need to remember why I’m on the road. I need to remember to be thankful. The best way I’ve found:

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving. Colossians 4:2

Is there something you want to remember today?