[ Divine Signs ]
Against All Odds
Snoopy would have called it a "dark and stormy night." I would agree, only it wasn't just a night, but several months of darkness of the soul.
A year prior, I had committed to being an oarsman and part of the first-aid team for a several-week trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Such a long and grueling trip definitely fits into the "extreme" category of adventure travel. I had done the trip two times before, and this was to be my third and last.
But try as I might to look forward to it, I had been struggling with a depressed state for months and would have done anything to back out of it.
Cut to just past midnight some time later, as I began my solo eleven-mile walk down into the canyon to rendezvous with the boats on the river. I slipped over the edge of the canyon wall and was enveloped by complete darkness and silence. For the next five hours, I wended my way down about six thousand vertical feet to the river. During this odyssey, I stopped several times and began to climb back up. But each time I would decide I couldn't fail my friends, who also would not know if I was hurt on the trail, or, worse.
Fast-forward to after five days of rowing a 2,000-pound boat ten miles a day in 120-degree temperatures, with virtually no sleep and having had a serious episode of heart arrhythmia as a result of exhaustion. I was certain I had made a big mistake being here.
That night, the other fifteen people had a beach "party" (read completely drunk), during which I slipped downstream to try and sort out my thoughts. As I sat in the dark on the hot sand, I felt like God no longer knew me, where I was or what was happening in my life. This was in stark contrast to the joy and presence I had felt for most of my fifteen years of being saved. In my crushing loneliness on that beach, I did something I thought I would never do: I asked God, "Give me a sign that you are even out there. Don't fix me, just let me know you're awake and functioning."
The next morning was cool and crystal clear. We loaded up the thousands of pounds of gear on the supply boats before the rush of heat was upon us. As I was doing this, I made some tea in a plastic bottle that had joined me on every adventure for over twenty years. I then took the bottle and placed it under a rock in the river to cool.
When we were ready to go, I went to get the bottle and, to my sadness, realized it had washed away into the Colorado's countless rapids. Oh well.
Our plan that day was to row fifteen miles downstream and camp on the left side of the river. By midday, we had gone some nine miles and stopped for lunch. We then sent three kayaks ahead of us in order to secure the campsite for the night as they are first come, first served and located far apart -- so it's important to claim one early!
We rowed through the afternoon. The river averaged several hundred feet wide in most parts. By the time we realized we were at the 15-mile point, we had traveled through several major sets of large rapids and uncountable smaller ones. But there were no kayaks or fellow travelers on the left side of the river.
We scratched our heads, consulted with one another and agreed there was nothing else to do but continue downstream. Two miles later, we found our companions on the right side of the river on an irregular area of shoreline.
As I pulled the supply boat to the shore, a kayaker came up to me and said "Dr. Gary, I have your water bottle." I replied, "Thank you! Did you pick it up this morning before we left?"
Her reply made the hair stand up on my neck. Pointing behind her she said, "No, it was right over there behind that big rock in a little calm spot of water."
Because I found this almost impossible to believe, she took me exactly to where she found it. To further my disbelief, she said they first stopped at another campsite, decided they didn't like it and paddled right past where we were now standing. They then turned around and paddled back upstream a mile -- unknowingly to exactly where the bottle was quietly floating around and around in a little eddy.
Now, this may not seem like such a big deal, especially if you are not familiar with the Colorado River. But here's a fair analogy: Let's say you live on a hill and one morning, you place a ball in the street. Your goal is to let it roll downhill fifteen miles through hundreds of curves, heavy traffic, turns, streets, etc., to see if it will wind up in your assigned parking spot at work.
Pretty slim so far, huh? Well, let's increase the odds even further. On your way to work, you change your destination to somewhere else -- only to find the ball went THERE instead and was waiting for you! The odds of this happening are about the same as a completely disassembled 747 being put back together by a tornado.
In my situation, the bottle went to where I wasn't supposed to be, got there before me, stayed put (after traveling all day!) and managed to be in a place where the kayakers would find it.
What could I say or do about the "chances" of that happening? Not much. In all honesty, it made far more sense to realize and believe that God does indeed go before us in life, and will manage to be in a place to be found.
And oh, lest you think they had found just any old bottle bobbing in the river, consider this: That morning, after 20 years of using that bottle and just before I put it in the water, I finally took an indelible marker and wrote "Dr. Gary" on it. Those words were still legible after banging along seventeen miles of rocky rapids in the Colorado River.
Is God a personal God? Well, He is for me!
This story and others about Gary Polizzotto's "dives into the deep pool of life" (per one reviewer) appear in his book, Life: It's About Time, available from amazon.com and booksellers.
Gary has another story on this site: "On a wing and a prayer"