For about the last four months Wendy and I have been going out to the west desert with our fat bikes—usually my Surly Moonlander with its 5″ wide tires and Wendy’s Surly Pugsley with its 4″ wide tires—and dogs. We’ve gone to multiple places, but have settled down on going to the Grassy Mountains overlooking the Great Salt Lake Salt Flats and in the far distance the Deep Creek Mountains and the Pilot Mountains. We try to wear the dogs out early so that the placidly trot along our bikes, well aware that we are the only source of water that they have.
For the most part, the dogs run along with us, occasionally chasing rabbits or kangaroo mice. But a week ago when Wendy, Jeremiah, and I were in the desert with the dogs things went differently. We were were well equipped with water and head lights and were enjoying the ride despite having arrived too late to see the sunset. About twenty minutes into the ride, Jeremiah decided it was time to turn around and so we decided that he and Wendy would ride back to the car and I would keep riding north with the dogs towards the mountain pass.
Just a few minutes after Wendy and Jeremiah turned around, our dogs spotted a pronghorn and without a moments hesitation started on the chase. I didn’t think anything of this. After all for the past months the dogs had chased rabbits, mice, cattle—even a badger—but had always quickly returned. After a few minutes Helios, the slower of the two dogs, returned and the two of us waited for Argos’ return. But as the waiting extended from minutes to tens of minutes, I started to get nervous. I could see Wendy and Jeremiah’s lights off to the south and I wondered if Argos ended up chasing after them. I tried calling them, but couldn’t get a signal. I tried texting, but the text wouldn’t go through, even after multiple tries. I decided to turn back to the car, hoping that I would find Argos cheerfully running along with them. As I rode, I kept calling, hoping that some combination of our positions would result in a sufficient signal connection.
It was 15 minutes after my first attempt to call her before I was actually able to connect with Wendy.
“Wendy, is Argos with you?” I asked urgently as I continued to ride up hill towards the car, the wind howling around me.
“No. Where is he?”
“He took off after a pronghorn about twenty-five minutes ago. I thought he might have followed your lights.”
“Oh boy. Jeremiah’s going to be very upset.”
Wendy and I made a plan. They would drive along the rode and I would go off road, following the path I presume Argos took.
I hollered for Helios to follow me and turned around.
I had marked on my GPS about where Argos had started the chase, so when we were about there I again hollered for Helios to follow me and I rode up the sand embankment and started riding east towards the mountain. I was hollering and Helios was sniffing for Argos. Although there was nothing in the terrain my Moonlander couldn’t handle, the riding was relatively slow and bumpy. I eventually spotted the pronghorn that I presume Argos had been chasing, there was no sign of our dog around. For about two hours I rode around the desert hollering for Argos, scanning my headlight around the desert hoping to catch the red reflection of his eyes or or to serve as a beacon for him.
Not too long into my search, my mind started racing with questions. How long should we stay out here? Should we go home and came back early in the morning with water, food, and sun screen? Should we replace Argos or become a one dog family? What am I going to tell our kids? Jeremiah was there and was upset. How would I comfort him. Clare would be pissed when she found out. What do I say to her? To these last two questions I had an almost immediate answer.
A little over sixteen years early, the first Sunday we had attended the Garden Heights Ward, I had heard Kent Linebaugh quote Edith Hamilton describing the philosophy of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus: “Men [and women] were not meant for safe harbors; the fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” This saying had become an almost daily mantra to me.
I would recite it to myself when our daughter Clare would compete on the balance beam in gymnastics—a terrifying event for a parent to watch. I said it to myself when I dropped our oldest son off for a trip to Europe when he was thirteen and when our youngest son started riding bikes and hiking in the rattlesnake filled canyons of San Diego. And I knew that it described our dogs here in the desert.
This running wild in the desert with us was the fullness of life for our dogs. Their excitement becomes almost uncontrollable as we drive into the desert, and when we are home packing our bikes onto our car, the leap around in excited anticipation. If we had completely kept Argos from the hazards of the desert, he would not have been having a fullness of life.
Now engaging in the hazards of life does not mean you’re reckless or careless. When Clare was on the balance beam, the floor was covered with pads and a trained coach was there to spot her. When Alec went to Europe he was with a group that had been taking students to Europe for over fifty years, and when Jeremiah started biking and hiking in San Diego he wore a helmet, went with friends and had a cell phone. With our dogs we had trained them during the day, had taught them to stay close to us with water and treats. Now that we’ve had more experience, the dogs now wear flashing LED collars.
The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. This is true of our dogs, our selves, and I would surmise our Church. Our stake is currently engaging in a variety of initiatives which our in some ways daring, certainly capable of failing. The Avenues Athletic Association and the merging of youth programs across wards are certainly programs that could fail, but to not attempt them to keep with our status quo, to live safely within the programs that we are all familiar with is to deny ourselves the opportunity of the fullness of neighborhood and religious life. More generally, if Church always feels safe and comfortable, I wonder if we are truly experiencing the fullness of religion.
We have a friend in Pittsburgh who has probably always considered himself to be a marginal Mormon, perhaps a black sheep in the fold. Some six years ago we asked him to be a Sunday school teacher. For years he was a phenomenal teacher for many but not all ward members. I believe his years as a Sunday school teacher made him feel more a part of the Church than he did previously. Unfortunately, when there was a bishopric change, zealous people interested in “cleansing” the Sunday School program released Lars over the pulpit without even talking to him first. (It was, I believe, part of a larger purge.) Now a friend tells me, Lars does not attend Church and I have to ask, “What was accomplished?”
I have no doubt that there is something hazardous about having Lars as a Sunday school teacher, just as there is something hazardous about having me as a high priest group instructor, but without engaging in the hazards of life we have no hope of experiencing the fullness of life. Our church experience runs the risk—oh so often realized—of being bland and meaningless without our willingness to face hazards. Surely sometimes our Church needs to be a safe harbor sometimes, but if we never venture out of our religious harbor I doubt we are truly being religious.
The Church is adept at urging us on to the hazards of missionary work. However, we are not always so attuned to the internal hazards of our religion. Sometimes the hazards of life we need to face our nothing more than the discomfort of welcoming the black sheep back into the fold, worshiping in the presence of the smell of alcohol or more flesh than we are accustomed to.
Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to expose our true beliefs to our Mormon Sunday school class mate. Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to agitate for change, to envision what the Church could be and act towards that, even if it requires adopting Jude as our patron saint. Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to persevere through narrow minded and bigoted leaders and teachers who prefer the safety of the life-less harbor to the life-full hazards of the open sea.
Our dogs are anxious to get back to the desert. We’ve taken them back once since our ordeal with Argos. Their LED collars greatly aid their visibility at night and it is not quite so hazardous to venture out in the dark as it was before. But I know hazards remain, whether they be badgers, rattlesnakes or something not yet imagined. Yet when I’ll see them so anxious to jump from our car that they can hardly contain themselves, I’ll be reassured that I’m helping them to achieve the fullness of their lives.