Two years ago we took the kids to hike Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks for a week. I love these weeks in the life of our family. It is time not just to connect without distraction in the goodness of God’s big and beautiful creation, to have long and meandering conversations as the earth crunches under foot. They also allow me to watch my children stretch themselves in new ways right before my eyes. To see them go from nestled in packs on our backs, to skilled navigators of switchbacks in just a few short years is a wonder. To watch them stretch themselves to five and six mile hikes, to know how to navigate three bears in the midst of a trail cutting through a meadow is a moving experience (to be honest, the bears were a surprise, one I never wish to repeat despite being the envy of the rest of the hikers on our trail).
One afternoon, as we were hiking in the shade of tall evergreens my oldest shared with us that she had learned that FDR had made Yellowstone. She had watched a video that explained he had made this park that we now enjoyed decades later when she paused. “But mom, how did he make this whole place? That’s a lot of work for one person.”
“Well honey,” I said, “he made the law, but the work, all these trails safely formed into the mountains and fields, each of the rocks placed for our safety and sure footing, lots and lots of workers did that. People whose names we will never know. People who may or may not have been paid fairly for their work. FDR got credit for it, but without all those workers we wouldn’t have this beautiful place to experience.” The conversation went on for a few more minutes as we hiked and wondered at the builders and keepers of such a beautiful place and wondered at the nameless creators and sustainers of all the other beautiful places we knew or hoped to visit.
I keep thinking about that small moment, the invitation to stretch not just our muscles but our stories and imagination. To consider who made the space that we stood on and who lived there before it was set aside in its current form. There is no plaque with the names of those who cut the trails, the ones who have tenderly and faithful maintained it. I think about how most of what we do in a day goes largely unnoticed, part of a larger story. It is a thought that if you sit with it long enough can make you feel hopeless. But when I get caught in hopelessness and smallness of things, I remember:
Most things of beauty are made by the small labor of many unnamed people.
We don’t have to do the one big thing. In fact things would be quite a disaster if we all went about trying to do one big thing, our world littered with the boulders of all our collective greatness, crushed under it. We only have to do the one small thing. We trust that the small thing was done before us and someone will come along behind us and do the next small thing. It is an act of faith to continue the work that one did not set into motion and may not see completed. The desert mothers and fathers, contemplatives of the faith understood the dynamic between reflection and action, being and doing, praying and working. One is incomplete without the other. One pours into the other, feeding the wisdom and spirit of each. When our work flows from the wellspring of contemplation, our work is grounded in our faithfulness, rather than in our production or our greatness. Action grounded in contemplation, in a deep understanding and appreciation for the work of the ancestors and the dreams of our great grandchildren yielded a different kind of fruit than work born out of the ego.
Some days I wish I possessed the magical thinking of my children. I wish it were as simple as a single person in power waving a wand to create something beautiful in the world. That the paths we want to travel towards wholeness and thriving and reconciliation could cut themselves into the rocky places. But that is simply not how it works.
We are the trail makers of a world future generations will tread upon with awe. We have a deep honor of walking the path others have carefully and tenderly cut into the world and we get to extend that path, choose the path forward, cut the rock and shape the path into something beautiful. We get to show up each in our small ways to make beautiful and holy what is unknown and unruly. We get to show up and build the world we want.
We are the trail makers.
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