The Bargain

Mount Rogers


July 2014

We take a short rest at the junction where the Appalachian Trail meets the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.  We get to chatting with another couple of hikers.  These two are checking their maps, looking around, squinting, scratching their respective heads.  They are trying to decide how strenuous the hike will be up Wilburn Ridge, whether they will continue to hike today or turn back.

She is handsomely made up, and clearly uses some kind of very pleasant-smelling fragrance.  She is wearing her American flag sweater.  It is the 4th of July weekend, you know.

Lisa has her favorite Pittsburgh Steelers bandana hanging on her pack strap.  He notices this and tells us he is employed by the Indianapolis Colts football team.  Through his job, he flies first class a lot.  He goes on about this and that and clearly, he is an experienced person.  Exactly what his experience has been though remains a mystery.  Talking it over later, Lisa and I agree that we can’t tell what he did for the Colts, why he flew so much, or, because the details of his oration were so difficult to pin down, whether we actually believed that he was currently employed by the Colts.  He said many words, but not a lot of them, once strung together, yielded any kind of cogent message.  Nonetheless…

Here’s a story.  There was this time, oh, twenty years ago, he tells us, when he and his friend were backpacking the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.  On the third day of the trip, his friend had a heart attack.  Our guy dropped his pack and ran up to the nearby road to get help.  While running, he bargained with God:  “Please God, keep my friend alive.  Don’t let him die.  If you save my friend, I will never set foot on the A T again.”

That’s some sacrifice for a backpacker, especially one who lives and plays in the eastern part of this country, which maybe he did, we’re not entirely sure.

“Did he live?  Did your prayer work?” I asked.

“Thanks to God, he pulled through.  And true to my bargain, I’ve never stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail again.”

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously.  Upon the first thought, I tried to keep my mouth shut.  But after hearing of his desperate bargain, I couldn’t resist.  “I’ve got bad news for you, my friend.”  I tried to be gentle.  “You’re standing on the Appalachian Trail right now.”

The second thing that caught me — and this is what I don’t understand about bargaining with God — is why, in exchange for one little favor, he promised God that he would give up the A T.  I’m missing the connection.  How is one guy not backpacking connected to the other guy surviving a heart attack?

Perhaps our hiker believes in the Theory of Universal Compensation.  This pseudoscientific, quasi-spiritual theory which I made up, is the idea that the Universe keeps track of good things and bad things, and always strives to keep them in balance.  It’s the idea that if you get too much of a bad thing, your fortune will change and you will get a reward.  If you get too much of a good thing, your “luck” is bound to tank and bad things will come your way.  Apparently Mr Colts believed that if he were to give up the Appalachian Trail — his punishment — God, or the Universe, would compensate by keeping his friend alive — the reward.

His friend lived.  But now what happens?  A cosmic dilemma.  Our guy is undeniably standing on the fateful Appalachian Trail.  Does that mean the deal is off?  When our buddy returns home, will he be recruited as a pall bearer?  I’ve heard that God works in mysterious ways.  I think we humans work more mysteriously.

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