Lessons on the Mountain

A journey with an unexpected twist.

by Debra Tash

I raised my children in the age of the “liberated woman.” Being a stay-at-home mommy in the early 80’s was considered a waste of female brain power. At least, that’s what I gathered from the talk shows of the time. There I was with a college degree staying at home with small children, wasting brain cells and feeling empty.

I’d been born into the Jewish faith, but our household was reformed. We went to temple once a year, and then only at the insistence of my mother, who believed in maintaining a spiritual insurance policy against my dad’s beliefs (he didn’t have any). My childhood home was a bit of a wasteland when it came to the true understanding of my purpose in life.

Young adult life

Like a good Jewish girl, I married a good Jewish boy. However, he had been searching for life’s meaning ever since he’d graduated from high school. Having grown up in my parents’ household, I’d no idea just what this guy could be looking for. After all, what could be missing?

Kids soon came into my life — a girl and a boy. I’d some vague idea that it was good to stay home with them. After all, if they developed any hang-ups, and were need of therapy in later life, they could easily trace their problems to me.

I’d never really been a joyful sort, but now in my young adult life I could finally pin my discontent to something. There were signals everywhere confirming that women would only be content if they were expressing themselves. I’d never been able to express myself, never found the meat of my talent nor the joy in just everyday life. If only I could I get some confirmation from the world that I had value: a paycheck!

Spiritual matters

My cousin, another nice Jewish boy, wasn’t Jewish anymore. He’d become a Christian. I never thought there was much credibility in his salvation: He made his peace with God after running off with a woman. How could I believe he found the truth reading a Gideon Bible in a motel room? My cousin had returned to his wife and kids and attended church, but I wasn’t about to cut him any slack. He’d cheated on his wife. Even with my minimal religious training, I knew this rated pretty high on the “sins hit parade.”

My cousin and his family were visiting us, and after a long talk he asked me if he could pray with me. It was easy enough for him to see the unrest in my soul. I didn’t think it could do any harm, nor did I really believe it could do much good. He did pray with me, taking my hand in his and then asking Jesus Christ to come into my life.

As I repeated the prayer, I felt something churning in my heart. I couldn’t name it exactly, and there wasn’t a lightning bolt striking me. It was one moment of incredible sorrow that vanished when the prayer finished.

New venture

My cousin and his family left, and nothing had really changed in my life — or so I thought. The next week my husband asked me to go with him to look at some land that a few of his friends were considering for an investment.

We lived in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, the ultimate bedroom community. Oat Mountain is part of the Santa Susanna Range, which defines the northern rim of the Valley. The mountain’s southern face spoons gently downward some four thousand feet to ground level. For most of the year it wears a coat of stubble, grizzled brown reminders that spring does come here, however briefly. The property my husband wanted to check out was on the opposite side of the mountain.

On the road

We took along the essentials for an afternoon hike: a of map the area, a camera, and a fried chicken lunch. We received permission to enter through the Aliso Cracking Plant, owned by the Southern California Gas Company. We drove our station wagon past the pale pink-orange-ish buildings with giant fans embedded in their walls and a myriad of tanks and piping.

We wound our way along the road up to the ridge itself. The opposite face of this mountain was different than the south face seen from the Valley. Bay laurel trees and California oaks graced meadows clothed with long, white grass. It was nearly noon when we finally parked the car on the side of the road.

Discovering the divine

My husband led the way with map in hand, across the meadow to a tangle of lush growth. The air tasted of the prior day’s late April shower, and the ground beneath our boots was still damp. Surprisingly, there were pathways through that suburban jungle, tunnels hollowed out through the low growing trees and thick undergrowth. These couldn’t have been made by a human being — even a short one.

The property lay northeasterly of where we stood. My husband chose the most promising track. The sunlight angled over the ridge to splash down on the trees, sending a shower of glittering jewels sparkling above our heads. I was utterly astonished by the beauty of this place.

Obstacles

We kept snaking our way downward through the brush. In an hour we’d found a small creek that ran in the direction of the property, so we began to follow its course. This wasn’t much of a creek: Its bed was narrow and cluttered with fallen tree trunks and rocks. Another hour or two went by, and I kept wondering when we’d reach a spot where we could eat our lunch.

My husband suddenly halted. That little creek dropped over a sheer 250-foot cliff.

We began to backtrack to find another way to the property. Retracing the creek, we came to a place that was relatively free of brush and swept upward toward the ridge. By now three hours or more had passed. With the day waning, it made sense to abandon our quest and make for the road. Our stomachs were rumbling, so we quickly wolfed down our chicken lunch as we trudged onward.

Here the ground had fissured and cracked, and the damp earth gave way to sandstone. My husband was still in the lead as we walked with a 100-foot drop to the side of us. The strong odor of sulfur had replaced the smell of rain, and yellow powder streaked the rocky ground. This place felt as if it had been left over from when the world was first made.

Dead end

My husband stopped and shouted back that there was no way we could go on. The land jutted nearly perpendicular just ahead. I turned around, my heart thudding. We couldn’t go back to the creek, not with the cliff there. But somehow we had to go back and find our way to the ridge or to the foot of the mountain.

As I walked ahead, my boot slipped on some decomposed sandstone. I struggled to regain my footing and slid toward that 100-foot drop. My husband quickly grabbed hold of me and saved me from going over the edge.

Lost

I couldn’t weep and couldn’t be afraid — not if I wanted to get out of there. We went on, getting even more lost as the day waned. We had to locate the way back to the ridge. There had to be a way to the bottom of the mountain where we’d find our friend waiting for us. But we weren’t in a safe suburban landscape. There were waterfalls we had to climb down, and three of them were in a row, splashing into pools of carved rock. I fell on the last one, sliding along the rough surface, scraping my arms, and soaking my clothes. Now I was bleeding and afraid.

Then it came: a darkness like none I’d seen before — complete, like black velvet. We huddled together with the earth beneath us angled downward. I don’t remember if there were any stars in the sky. I do recall being blind. I couldn’t even see my husband beside me. We tried to light a fire with the camera’s flash, tried to keep warm holding onto one another as the darkness filled with scuffling sounds. I’m certain even now something was moving out beyond that black curtain of night.

Heart change

It was then that I remembered my cousin’s prayer. He’d asked Jesus to come into my life. Jesus Christ, the Savior — my Savior, the one who had given His life for me. My children were beyond my reach as well as my mundane life and my petty concerns. It was freezing cold. My clothes were damp, and the scent of every living thing about me smelled green, almost as if all of life itself were sighing.

Then I knew life — Jesus’ life. He had given His for us, for everyone. I didn’t appreciate His gift to me: my own life. It became clear in that cold, dark night exactly what my cousin had asked me to do with that prayer. When the light grayed and I could actually see the face of my husband, I knew that Christ was in my heart. He had only been waiting for me to invite Him in.

We got to our feet and started along a grooved canyon. Then we heard the thwack, thwack of a Search and Rescue helicopter echoing over the earthen walls. I had learned a great lesson. I thanked God over and over. I was going home to my children with Jesus in my heart.

Right order

Nearly twenty years have gone by, and I have never once looked at that experience with regret. I have learned that it all comes in His time with the joy and the lessons we need to learn. It was a necessary experience, one of those that sets a person’s life in order. First things first: God, then family, and then anything else He chooses to give.

My cousin had held my hand and asked Christ to come into my life. I’m not sure I would have stood still long enough to let Him enter. My husband may have kept me from going over that cliff, but Jesus has kept me clear of danger since. Sometimes it takes a mountain — being lost and afraid and cold. Sometimes it takes that much to get us to pause and realize we are His children. That’s all the paycheck we need in life.