Tuesday, 15 October 2013

High Country Reality Check!

Life encapsulated at ten thousand feet in the Andean Mountains of Ecuador was breathtaking...quite literally...the crisp mountain air only contained approximately thirty percent of the oxygen found at sea level.  

Gleaming in every direction stood some of the worlds tallest mountains such as Cayambe, Antisana and Cotapaxi. Chimborazo the giant, rises dramatically to the south with stature similar to Everest’s height, it’s monumental cousin far to the east!

Quito, that high magical old world city, lies enfolded high in the palmed hands of an extinct volcano. It was here, additionally to my day job of designing  literature for an international missionary radio station, I painted wildlife each evening. Before this particular Latin American adventure, I had been involved in showing my work in a well known wildlife festival and continued this endeavor, even though I now found myself thousands of miles to the South. 

Many artists find it fulfilling to paint their experiences first hand in the environment of the story they are describing. ‘PleinAir’ or ‘on location’ painting gives the artist the thrill of doing quick ‘live and on stage’ studies at the place and time they are experiencing the wonder. This is a substantially different experience than studio work which avoids contending with the many natural elements. 

Having heard from colleagues in the engineering staff at the radio stations hydroelectric plant located even higher in the Andes, that Pumas or otherwise described mountain lions wandered near the area above the plant, my adventurous senses were aroused. My hope was that I would hike and photograph this proud elusive cat in the wild, and then paint her as part of my inclusion in an upcoming show to the North.  

Thus began one simple day’s journey that would change the entire sweep of my life! 

We were dropped off at the continental divide at the giddy height of 14,000 feet. I have stood in the Rockies at the continental divide, but that was nothing close to this awesome altitude. The Canadian Rockies loftiest peak, Mount Robson, is the highest in that range at 12, 972 feet. This was exactly as if I had arrived at that spectacularly high peak, added another one thousand feet and then began my ‘afternoon stroll.’ At this altitude there is less than forty percent oxygen than at sea level. 

Now that idea was completely nuts, and yet that is what I did!  

We began to hike toward the dam which lies above the hydro plant approximately ten miles away. The first leg of the journey was into Lake Loreto, after which we needed to veer right, following the valley to Papallacta, our final destination.  

Many years working as an artist had exercised my right arm, brain and fingers but had ill prepared me for the physical challenges of traversing this version of the high country. Previous high altitude hikes in younger days subconsciously warned me there would be challenges, but my mind tended to give foundation to the delusion that I was in ‘fine shape,’ certainly capable within myself to accomplish whatever I chose. I should just get out there and go for it. So off we went! 

A recent meal for the giant Andean Condor, the remains of a large jack rabbit raised a sense of premonition. 

The vistas spread colossal!  

Mini lakes necklaced like fine diamonds laid soft across the nape of the valley’s deep neck. Waving grasses caught soft in ecuatorial magic morning light, bent low in the vast sweep of the highland Páramo. The Páramo, made up of lakes, peat bogs and wet grasslands is found at high elevations of between 10,000 feet and 17,000 feet in the Andes.

My ‘companion guides’ were two Quechua Indians. These mountain men had extraordinary lung capacity adapted over years of living with severe oxygen depravation. The Quechua’s are the indigenous Andean people that are the direct descendants of the ancient Incas. 

It wasn’t long before they were pin dots in the distance, rushing ahead to enjoy the excellent trout fishing that surrounded us on every side. 

I should have known that any endeavor of value should be considered and prepared for thoughtfully. The implications of not being in the position to complete it well would be disastrous. It became obvious quickly, that careful planning and preparation hadn’t gone into this days endeavor.

Legs jello’d instantly...light headed...dizzy, I recognized that I was quickly in serious trouble. It was impossible to turn back! Only wilderness lay behind and ahead, our ride having long since left. 

Several arduous hours later I arrived at Lake Loreto meeting up with my ‘guides.’ I recall that they left just as I arrived. I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion in the small shelter at the dam. I’m not certain how long I remained sleeping there, but I recall waking with a start, knowing I was alone in the wild with several miles still to hike and late afternoon shadows casting long, cold dark fingers toward me.

Rubber stilts wobbled unsteadily under me as I began to follow the valley downward.  

Almost immediately fifteen-foot high reeds completely enshrouded me in murky darkness. There was little chance now for seeing a Puma. If one had noticed me and had any inclination whatsoever, I was easy prey. 

Breaking out of the reeds, I ran into a bog-like area. The quicksand like mud sucked at my legs, occasionally above my knees. I used my hands to pull one leg after another out of the bog. A cold high mountain squall barreled down the valley lacing me with snow and ice. Again, thoughtlessly ill prepared for this harsh environment, I found myself dressed lightly. During those next hours, numbing cold, and hypothermia began its work bringing physical and mental exhaustion. Numerous times I considered laying down and quitting. The only thing driving me to persevere was the knowledge of my wife and son at home and my need to get back to them! 

In utter darkness I staggered into the camp at Papallacta...hypothermia’s toll was complete...my thigh muscles were irretrievably damaged having been robbed of oxygen’s life.  

This day’s journey would lead me through decades of physical and emotional trauma. During ensuing days, I found myself collapsing as my legs gave out randomly and I began to experience what would be a regular occurrence of complete blackouts. 

The logical first order of business was to get to a doctor to identify the reason for this regular loss to semiconsciousness. The doctor I saw, who was working at our organizations hospital expressed to me that his primary obligation was ‘ministering to nationals’ and so, rather than investigating my situation fully, he sent me to a local national doctor who was apparently a ‘specialist.’ The specialist, almost in an off hand manner, incorrectly diagnosed me as experiencing epileptic episodes and put me on a long term regimen of ‘Tegretol,' a strong drug used in helping patients who were having grand mal epileptic seizures.  

By trusting in the ‘care’ of those doctors, I spent the next approximately two years, staggering in a drunken stupor experiencing double and triple vision. With a highly increased heart beat, constant nausea, muscle weakness and various other symptoms, I very slowly made my way each day to my little office, functioned as best as I could, stumbled home, spending a brief time playing with my son after trying to eat and then crashed until the next day. Due to this physical impairment, I withdrew from community, spending all my time sleeping when not at work. I was physically and emotionally undone...crushed and completely desolate! 

In a relatively small community made up of expatriate missionaries, people began to comment about my ‘attitude’, which know doubt resembled someone in severe burnout, which indeed was the case. I fell into an emotional tailspin that led to deep depression, despair and a spiritual quagmire lasting many years.  

During this time I recall throwing my Bible against the wall and complaining bitterly to God that I felt totally abandoned by him. Why, after leaving a lucrative career in advertising, spending two years raising financial support, a year of language school, was I to find within a few short years this dream crumbling around me? I was devastated and the withdrawal continued to envelope me. My intentions of serving God had been admirable and in this case well thought out and planned for many years. 

In her desperation my wife arranged for me to fly home to Canada for further evaluation. A doctor who ironically had founded the same mission hospital in Ecuador years earlier, evaluated me and immediately sent me to the Chief of Neurology at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital for a battery of tests. Within a short time their diagnosis came back that I had done serious irretrievable damage to my muscles from the hypothermia and that many of the symptoms were caused by the two years of taking a very strong incorrect medication...returning to the high altitude to live was not going to be an option as the thin air would exacerbate the symptoms. 

My career in missions was over! I felt washed up and alone! 

My single day’s ‘fun’ excursion...a seemingly small indiscretion of hiking in the Andes had led to the loss one of the most important dreams of my entire life! One little fork in the road...one seeming insignificant act of play changed my life direction forever. 

A long trail of dry desert years followed as I struggled to break out of the crusty soil of disillusionment, shame and deep disappointment. Life’s disappointments can throw their full weight at us from time to time and often demand more than we can handle, certainly by ourselves. As a result, we often revert to our natural instincts for survival, and pull deep into our shells of numbing and distancing. 

We all make daily decisions that we don’t consider life altering in any way...taking a swim, jumping on a horse, or crossing the street. Life is risk whether we stay in bed each day or go out to face the world. Each decision brings consequence. Most of them are not given a second thought, until our fragility shows up! 

The deeper questions came to me as conundra.  

Thoughts of doubt about the reality of a sovereign loving God. Is he a God who is there? Is he ultimately interested in my personal wellbeing? Is he, as He claims, genuinely good? Does he care for me as much or more than the sparrow that falls? Is his desire really to redeem beauty from ashes? Is he interested more in what I want to accomplish for him versus how deeply he wants to interact with me as his child in intimate relationship as a giving loving father? Just maybe ‘my’ plans of serving him are not the ultimate end game but a step toward something else. Personal disappointment of losing whatever I hold dear and important, can possibly bring me to more sensitively engage in binding up the poor and brokenhearted that are sent my way.  

His purposes often seem only to come clear once we have been sent through a crucible of fire, leaving maybe one or two useable nuggets of beauty. To encourage others from darkness toward light we need to know where the rim is around the clouds. Light is often seen more dramatically when in contrast to the darkness. To extend comfort, we need to have faced mourning deeply. To extend a crown of beauty beyond ourselves, we need to humbly accept the gracious blessing of others who, warmly choose sacrificially to place in our hearts the gift of restorative love care and grace.  

So be encouraged fellow traveller. All is not lost in your personal pain today. All is not forgotten. Our Father allows each of us to travel through some version of dark valleys and wild storms to bring us to a place of fuller participation with him in helping to bind up others in their confusion and pain. 

In James chapter 1 we are encouraged toward endurance...to keep on going despite the challenges life throws our way. 

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything…blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1: 2-4, 12 NIV 

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5: 3, 4 NIV 

So, keep on keeping on...‘joy comes in the morning if we faint not’...I know, I know...sometimes the morning seems like it’s never going to arrive...but as surely as spring and new life follows the cold of winters desolation...it does. 

J.Douglas Thompson...SDG...Copyright 2013