Nestled amongst the forested hills of north Georgia rests a train bridge known as the North Broad Trestle. Originally dubbed the Wells Viaduct, its construction was completed in 1919, and it remains to this day the highest bridge on the Norfolk Southern Railroad, connecting Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. Although it has been over a decade since my last visit, the area was once a frequent retreat. As a young, troubled college student, I often wandered out the backside of the Toccoa Falls campus and deep into the Chattahoochee woods. I would follow footpaths out to the ATV trail and then wander aimlessly. Beyond the beaten path was a world void of humanity, peaceful and uncomplicated. Up on a hillside, overlooking the trestle, the view was panoramic, and only a landscape so large seemed suitable as a focus point for my open-eyed prayers to a faceless God.
Most of my excursions were companionless, although I occasionally convinced a friend or two to tag along. On one such jaunt, I managed to corral four of my dorm mates into following me. Our first adventure of the day began by the riverbank beneath the towering trestle. Feeling inspired, we hustled our way up the embankment to where the track once again had dirt beneath it. Even before we had all conquered the “summit”, Jon began making his way out onto the bridge. The usual masculine banter ensued, as we accused him of being insane and he dared us to join him. My memory probably places him farther out than he really was, but Jon seemed uncomfortably far away as the train suddenly thundered around the corner, barreling onto the far side of the bridge. Bodies flew through the air, as Jon, Craig, Howey and I dove for safety; Lee was still clawing his way up the hill, barely five feet beneath the tracks, as the train roared overhead. It was a classic scene of comedic stupidity.
That freshman year was my only year at Toccoa Falls as a student. I would return only on occasion to visit friends and seek out my old stoop. After a year or so I returned with some new friends, eager for a good hike. Regret over my failure to cross taunted me back to the edge, where the ground beneath the tracks began to fall away. Ignoring the possibility of a train, Brad and I stepped out onto the track. What I had not anticipated, however, was my reaction to the staggering height. The bridge spanned 1500 feet and towered approximately 200 feet at its highest point, and there was no barrier of any sort between the edge and us. The space between each railroad tie was open air, so as I looked down for each foot placement, I could see straight through to the ground far below. About a quarter of the way across, my enthusiasm gave way to intense fear. I was paralyzed. As absolute terror consumed me I became so shaky that each little movement scared me further. I could not even turn my head to glance back.
So often the trials of living can be just as paralyzing. Real life trestles come in the form of divorce or depression or job loss. Sometimes we suffer from a trauma in our past or an uncertain future. Painful, frustrating and terrifying circumstances become a reality for all of us at some point or another. We grieve because we cannot turn back and undo the events that landed us in our mess, and we panic for fear that any action will only make things worse. The great tragedy, however, is that it is truly our own fear and lack of perspective that bring about our demise. We blame the circumstances, of course, but it’s really our own lack of resolve to rise above that restricts us.
If Brad was ever scared he never let on, and he never harassed me for being scared. Rather, he confidently grabbed my hand and coaxed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. My fear did not instantly dissipate, but Brad’s calm strength gave me the motivation to continue. Once we reached the halfway point, I gained confidence with each step. I realized that we were moving closer and closer to safety and to achieving our goal. By the time we stepped back onto solid ground, my fear was barely a memory.
In perhaps his most famous psalm, David wrote, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.” (Psalm 23:4/NLT) His prayerful confession was essentially declaring, “I will not be afraid, because you, God, are bigger than what I am up against, and you will never abandon me.” I think that this is the perspective we are often lacking. Does that make the pain stop? No. Does that make the healing process any less dreadful? No. What it does, though, is offer hope . . . hope that there will be an end to suffering; hope that the pain can refine us; and hope that while we were never meant to go through life alone, we do not have to.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. – Psalm 46:1 (NIV)