Surrounded by God’s Presence

Monongahela: many landslides, high bluffs that break off and fall, place of caving banks. Monongahela River is the river of falling banks.

Even the trails themselves look like hollow bones of a creek, rocks cast and jutting from sand in the highlands and mud in the lowlands. Trails ten inches wide, so narrow only one boot will fit the path at a time—a channel of constant steps, river water that never stops.

The Monongahela River Basin contains 17,371 acres that have been scouted and traced and given the name of Dolly Sods, a designated wilderness within the state of West Virginia.

Can wilderness stand to be designated?

I’m backpacking for the first time in five years and my body feels stronger in this moment than it felt that whole time.

At the end of Blackbird Knob trail, we set up camp along the creek. We drop our packs and assemble tent poles and stir couscous over a tiny gas flame. We build a fire as darkness falls early in the pines. There are burning bushes everywhere, huckleberries and blueberries lit ablaze and catching the light of the setting sun. We drag the tarp out again that night, beneath the bowl of sky and the milky way strewn across the black. The creek babbles quietly beneath.

The next morning I sit in solitude—I’ve found a spot at the base of a spruce and nestle between its roots, where the red pine needles have gathered.

I hold still and small in my sleeping bag in an attempt to stay warm.

The wind blows incessant and cold across my cheeks and slips into the free space between my sweatshirt and my collarbone. I squint against it, slowly realizing that even the wind, relentless and overwhelming, demonstrates something holy and wild and altogether good. It touches every surface of my skin and I can feel its cleansing breath within my chest as I inhale.

We follow Dobbin Grade trail to the lower Red Creek. And after a slow and giddy dinner, we’re around the fire and falling asleep again. We talk of our time in solitude the previous morning; beyond the fire, the night feels like it’s holding on to me.

Someone says, “I realized something yesterday.”
I look around to see everyone has averted their eyes, picking at the rims of their mugs, blinking against the smoke.

I look back at her. “I’ve never heard that huge voice people tell me about,” she says, staring steadily into the flames. “God’s voice,” she explains with a small nod, keeping her voice light. “I’ve never heard it.” I don’t know if it’s smoke or relief that washes over her eyes, or both. The firelight gleams on her cheeks, a hand of fire laid on her forehead, tenderly. “So I just assumed he didn’t want me or something.”

Earlier that day, I saw her run towards the setting sun, her arms wide, her steps high, the wind chasing her from every direction. She veered from the throw of light and began making circles in the oat grass and laurel, twirling her arms slow like the white windmills we saw along the valley. She was trying to carve circles in the wind, trying to restrain it in her arms, trying to evade it without realizing she was being held by it. And the witnesses, the red spruce black as ink by the shadows, the slender trunk of the birch adorned with golden leaves, and the endless, endless barrens, all testified to her rejoining.

We struggle to connect to a God who has infinitely, irrevocably connected our hearts to his; in the middle of the wilderness, we grapple against the wind and don’t realize until we’re drowsy around a fire that we’ve been wrestling with God himself.

The Red Creek will eventually drain into the Monongahela with its collapsing banks, the water incapable of restraint. My clothes hang on the line, frozen and drying, because the night before I slipped into the river to say that I could and didthe desire to be fully submerged by the water we’d been drinking from and sleeping by and following the past three days.

In the quiet light of morning sun, I sit on the bank and sing a wordless song; I hope no one comes down the bank to catch me harmonizing with a creek. I can’t always hear it but I know it sings all the same.

—Billie Paulus graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in May 2016 with a double major in Creative Non-Fiction and Applied Music. The fall break of her senior year, she was craving time with the Lord within his landscape, and the chance to backpack in the Monongahela National Forest provided just that.