Broken Things

The other day my tent pole snapped and so did I.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

It had been a windy day. I had seen the forecast the day before—a red flag fire warning had been given for the entire area surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota—winds coming in with gusts between 25-35 miles an hour. No campfires or grilling allowed. When we set up the tent the day before, we placed it head on to the winds having learned earlier in our trip that the massive eight person tent we had acts like a sail. With the tent facing the winds, we could leave the windows open allowing the strong breeze to blow through.

Or so I thought.

We spent the morning touring the park, pulling off the road to do short hikes. On the highest accessible point in the park, Olivia almost got blown over by the winds. “I hope the tent’s okay,” I said to Melissa. “We’re at the highest point, it’ll be better down by the campground,” she replied.

We meandered all morning, passing a bison on the side of the road, watching a prairie dog town for a bit, walking along a couple of other trails. We went past our campsite to the visitor’s center and saw our tent in the distance—still standing, looking fine—and so stayed a bit, watching a film on the history of the park, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s original North Dakota cabin. We stopped on the way back for lunch at a shaded picnic spot, and then finally made our way to our camp.

Walking in to our site, we all could see something was off. Three tents near us all had been flattened. The front of our tent sickeningly sank in on the far side. The front right pole had snapped in two, broken pieces of aluminum poking through the now ripped rain fly.

It’s easy to pontificate about the wilderness when observing it from a distance—or perhaps even when you encounter a minor inconvenience—but this set me back. I lost it. There’s no other way to put it as all I could see was the flailing tent whipping in the wind and the need to get the tent down and to leave immediately.

Melissa tried to waylay my fears, but I shot her a look and issued forth with some words I’d rather forget. She let me be, and I could tell I stung her. So in the midst of the wind, we broke camp. Carting things back to the car, loading up, frantically trying to figure out where we’d stay down the road for the night.

The wilderness is relentless in its pursuit of uncovering the things we need to examine and repent of. You take who you are into the wild, and it magnifies it. I like thinking I’m in control. It’s a coping mechanism, of course, when things get out of control around me and I set about cleaning or organizing or cooking. In my work as a priest there aren’t many days when I leave the parish and I can say that the inbox is empty, all projects done. It’s not that kind of work. Growing up my family’s business was electrical and construction, and so there were many days when you did finish what you set out to do, and even days when the entire job was completed. But making disciples is not like making buildings. Life is inherently messy. Some days I long for the simplicity of pulling wire, but I know it’s not what I was called to do. And so there are times when I relish in living under the illusion of being in control.

Not so in the desert, when the wind is up and the fire warning is out and the tent pole snaps under a gust.

We made it to Bismark and found a hotel online and got a nice meal at a nearby restaurant. The pool helped wash away the grime.

The part I needed to fix the tent cost me five bucks, along with some duct tape. We got things righted out when we arrived at our next campsite in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But the bigger part in me that broke has needed more attention. I’ve had to ask for forgiveness and make amends with Melissa and our kids. I’ve realized that the part of me that needs to be put to death in this wilderness journey is the one that says I can—or more honestly, must—have everything in control all by myself.

But that’s not the way of a disciple. I follow someone who tells me the first shall be last. That the way to save a life is to lose it. That when we think we know it all, we need to hang out with kids to really understand how it all works. And so I bluster on in the wind. Letting go of the illusion—of the control—and allowing the love of the one who gave himself to be broken to rush over me.