I had never before experienced such a dense forest. At midafternoon it was dark with only rare glimpses of sunshine glinting on the ferny forest floor. There was no trail. We (I had about five children in my care for this hike) were not far from the Willis’s house. But which way was it? The great firs and spruces I’d been so excited to see now seemed like towering monsters, every one of them looking so similar to others they weren’t good landmarks. The children were still in picnic spirits. They had no idea we were lost. I wanted to keep it that way.
Living for two weeks at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Rainier in 1964 was an experience never to be forgotten. Even now I can feel the ever cool, moist air, smell the lush ferns and other foliage, and hear the sound of children’s laughter. And I can so well picture that awe-inspiring mountain, iced with snow even in June. As a summer student missionary in Washington state under the then Baptist Home Mission Board, I was moved from assignment to assignment every two weeks. The two weeks in Packwood was a watermark time in maturing (a little bit!) this naiive girl who thought she had things under control.
Usually assigned to a church or mission, in Packwood I was assigned to help one woman put on a Vacation Bible School in a small church building no longer occupied by a church. I was told the church had disbanded because of an argument over whether or not to purchase a new pulpit, or something minor like that.
Nova Willis, a new Christian herself, felt compassion on the children growing up with no Bible teaching and responded to a Southern Baptist offer of summer help. I arrived on a Sunday evening to learn that she needed me to start the next day directing the school of all ages children, teaching the youth, leading the music, and whatever else was needed. She would teach the younger children and provide cookies and Koolade.
Quickly I learned that Nova’s husband, a nonbeliever, was only grudgingly tolerant of her zeal for teaching the children. My bed was a couch in their small living room. If I didn’t turn the light out by 9:00 I could hear Mr. Willis on the other side of a thin wall complaining to Nova about that he couldn’t sleep with a light on and what did I think I was doing up so late. He was a logger and left the house at 4:00 every morning.
In addition to Nova and her husband a lively occupant of the house was their four-year-old daughter who loved to play with me as long as she was awake. I was glad I hadn’t taken her with us on this hike. No one was under eight years old and could walk on their own quite well. But, apparently, none of these children, though they lived nearby, knew the forest very well. My subtle attempts to get a sense of direction from them proved totally ineffective.
I directed the children to sit down amongst the tall sweet smelling ferns. We’d learn a Bible verse, sing a song, and just talk about things they liked to do. And maybe I would figure out which way was home!
Two or three of the children told me their fathers “broke brush” for a living. I had already become familiar with this term that meant picking ferns like these to ship to florists all over the nation. I learned other things as well. It turned out that the troublemaker boy who was prone to pick on whomever sat near him and had a filthy mouth lived with his grandma and hadn’t seen his parents in months. A quiet little girl confided in a whisper that she was planning to write a book.
Even the little bit of sunlight that had filtered down on us now disappeared. Was a storm coming or was it getting that late? Lord, please help me get these children safely home.
I had actually written my mother soon after my arrival in Packwood that I thought it would be fascinating to be lost in the beautiful forest. She, knowing I didn’t always exercise good judgement, wrote me by return mail: DO NOT GET LOST IN THE FOREST!
Now, here I was and the description of “fascinating” did not exactly fit my plight.
We all stood up and I led the way seeking light, seeking the edge of this vast thick woods, breathing another prayer as I walked. To keep our spirits light, I started singing “I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track…” and then, abruptly, I held up a hand for everyone to get very quiet. Ahead of us I saw a deer walking very purposefully. That was not just any deer. I had seen it evening after evening come to the Willis’s little barn to eat sweet feed with their cow. My heart thumped. We’d follow that deer and hope he was going to the Willis’s now.
I’ve never been any more thankful to the Lord than when we stepped into the light, the clearing, with the Willis house in plain sight.
There were many other experiences that two weeks to remember the rest of my life. But being lost in the wilderness taught me to understand better the pressing sense of lostness which an unbeliever experiences. Having made a commitment to Jesus when I was six years old, I had no concept of what it would be like to grow up without Him in my life. It would be worse by far than simply to be lost in the forest.
A happy ending to my two weeks in Packwood was that three little girls came to know Jesus. I pray for them even today as I do for Nova Willis and her husband. I remember his incredible kindness as he insisted I call home. He couldn’t imagine why I had gone so far away on what he considered a whimsical idea. That three-minute long-distance call to Georgia took a bite out of their budget, I know, but I was very grateful to hear my mother’s voice. I did not tell her I’d gotten lost in the forest.