I grew up in a house on a hill on the west side of Calgary. Our picture window faced the mountains. Every chance he had Dad loaded the kids in the converted school bus and took us to Banff National Park. Calgary was where we worked and studied. Banff was where we lived.
Last week I was vacationing with family in an American city on the edge of the Rockies. My daughter suggested that for our girl’s night out we go to the Banff Film Festival showing in an auditorium nearby. I wondered what it would be like to see the familiar in an unfamiliar country. When we finally found the place my daughter sighed.
“Ahh… my people… my tribe,” she said.
I looked around. The dress code differed from other film festivals. Required elements seemed to include toques, down-filled vests, yoga pants and quality footwear that could cradle your feet to Banff and back. I qualified with Salomon hiking shoes but I was definitely in the alternative body shape category. I may have been the only one in the sold-out crowd displaying that diversity. Fortunately my daughter’s North Face and Mountain Equipment Co-op labels, my minimal footwear and two paid tickets got us seats. We settled in beside a couple of weathered guys of indeterminate age who leaned forward and uttered, “Dude!” every time a death-defying act brightened the screen.
Love of nature and mountains, rivers, and open spaces I understand. Testing the limits of athletic abilities and physical endurance I do not. I went for the photography but people wearing body cameras in several of the films kept me on the edge of vertigo and clinging to the one arm rest not claimed by the dude-mutterer every time they leapt off something. Some of the photographers hung from cables over waterfalls to film kayakers going over the edge. Yikes. Not my style.
I know many mountain adventurers. I went to school with a guy who became an Olympic and World Cup downhill ski champion. By the age of 13 he was already way out of the box. My brother became a climber of some renown who started the Upward Bound program in Canada. He told me the other day that his daughter and her partner are doing climbs he never would have attempted. Our circle of friends has included extreme skiers, boarders, mountain bikers, kayakers, runners, and rock and ice climbers. I love them, but I have never understood them. I was determined to take this opportunity to listen and observe both the audience and the people featured in the films – this “tribe.”
This is what I learned:
– They have an incredible need to break the bonds of constraint. They are driven by the search for freedom. The Great Outdoors represents the antithesis of structure. They break out of offices, shops and Emergency Rooms and head for the hills like they are Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Nature cannot be controlled. In fact they hold in disdain those who would try to tame nature with dams and golf courses. They prefer the wild.
– Many are deeply spiritual people. They form a spiritual link with something that is too big to be contained or manufactured and wax poetic about it. It is easy for a lot of folks to exchange worship of the Creator for worship of creation, but for many God is more likely to found on a mountaintop than in a pew. (This I understand.)
– They think out of the box. One segment featured a fellow who was one of the co-inventors of the mountain bike. Frustrated with the limitations of racing bikes that needed paved roads he rummaged through dumps and garage sales and any place he could scavenge parts to make something different. He essentially re-invented the wheel when he made a fat tire that would handle rough terrain. These guys are constantly inventing new sports and new equipment.
– When they get together it’s all about the gear. I’ve known guys who willingly sleep in a car and eat nothing but beans for weeks rather than skimp on equipment. They check and re-check, count and weigh, and plan and re-pack for months. They are courageous, but not fool-hardy. Equipping is essential.
– The goal is not to conquer the mountain, but to conquer fear. Even those who admit that the craving for adrenaline-induced highs is part of their DNA are stymied by physical and emotional reactions to fear. They prefer to confront fear rather run from it. (As one who is sensitive to emotional atmospheres, may I say this may have been one of the most fear-free atmospheres I have been in lately? It was certainly more peaceful than anything on TV or social media lately, death-defying activities, or no.)
– Living at altitude requires time. Adjusting to thinner oxygen levels means one has to simply be in a high place without drama for a while before attempting anything.
– Donning a toque in the morning is committing to a lifestyle for the rest of the day. I asked my daughter why so many people in the theatre were wearing over-sized droopy toques when the room was quite warm from the heat of so many bodies.
“Toque head,” she said. “You can’t just come home from a day on the mountain, pull the wool off your head and go out without your hair looking extremely out-of-place.”
– The lowliest creatures let us know how healthy our world is. A film about a rather homely salamander in the Appalachian streams became a symbol of observing how well we are caring for our environment. When the hidden and unnoticed among us are dying we are in trouble.
– Community is less about being in the same space at the same time as understanding each others hearts, passions, and helping another person on the trail. One film followed a guy who had done a demanding ridge run for many years. Now he mans a comfort and support station at altitude along the way. He encourages and mentors the young. He doesn’t compete with them. He gives so they might know the joy he has known. Another film featured an elderly former guide and climber. When asked if she missed her former life she said she didn’t, because those adventures are a part of who she is, not just who she was.
I went for a walk the next day and thought about this. I wondered if the Lord was showing me something through the experience. I believe so.
– Living a life at altitude, in the Presence of God, requires commitment. When you put on your toque (or helmet of salvation) it’s gonna mess with your head and you will never fit in with those to whom appearance is the highest priority. Thinking with the mind of Christ is going to make you look weird and bring critical looks. Best to keep your helmet on.
– It is for freedom that Christ set us free. The search for freedom drives those who seek the wider latitudes Christ gives his friends.
– Worship is about connecting with the Creator, about being in the center of God’s glory, however He chooses to express Himself.
– We need to be equipped and to learn to equip others. This requires thinking out of the box, taking old things out of the treasury and adding new revelation to do what has not been done before in a way that is original, yet honours the accomplishments of those who have gone before us. You can climb a mountain without helmets, ropes, harnesses and pitons, but you will get to climb more mountains if you use them. In the same way, it is more efficient to do things the way Jesus did if you use the tools and provisions Holy Spirit makes available. On the other hand, it is easy to become obsessed with acquiring new gear and spend more time showing it off than using it. It is easy to be side-tracked by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and spend more time impressing ourselves than using it for God’s purposes.
– Community is more about having a point of mutual spiritual experience and mutual relationship with the Eternal than uniformity of rules, or expressions. White water kayakers may have more in common with free-fallers than they do with other boaters. Unity is not sameness.
– True mentors take joy when their protegees exceed what they themselves have accomplished. They are not afraid of being replaced. They are willing to raise others up.
– The well-being of the hidden members of our society is a good indication of the health of our culture. The poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the voiceless – these speak to our collective conscience.
– Learning to live at altitude takes periods of rest with gradually increased activity. It’s about learning not only to breathe deeply but letting every molecule of oxygen affect us for good. We need Pneuma, the Holy Spirit – the breath of life infiltrating us completely.
– The challenge is not about who gets to the finish line first. The challenge is about the process and who you are becoming in the process.
– The goal is not to conquer this world anymore than it is a climber’s goal to conquer the mountain or a surfer’s goal to conquer the wave. The goal is to conquer the fear that keeps us from being fully alive in Christ. The goal is to abide in Him as He abides in us, to be creative as He is creative, to love as He loves, to become Christ-like. The goal is to truly know Him, follow Him, and know that in Him there are no limits.
I bought a bigger toque before I went home.