The pickup slid down the ice covered road toward a disused stone bridge for an uncomfortable amount of time before finally coming to rest on a patch of crunchy snow. My knuckles were still white, gripped securely to the passenger door’s armrest. I looked over at Bill behind the steering wheel, grinning mischievously and Mary next to him expressing an emotion somewhere between Bill’s mad glee and my own masked terror. Bill was a man’s man. A guide and woodsman, suited to living most of his hours outdoors. He was was the kind of guy you wanted with you if you were miles down an abandoned woodland road in the dead of winter; which happened to be exactly where he had taken us. Mary was the kind of girl you could find yourself driving 5 hours north, through a blizzard, between logging trucks and into Canada, where they made you wait for an hour to do a background check on you, just for a weekend visit.
Mary and I had been pen-pals since we met through my cousin a year ago. She was smart and silly, loved to laugh and could find a silver lining in a black hole. We emailed each other every day discussing everything from her new teaching gig to wondrous things like bucky tubes and solar flares. When she invited me up for the weekend to see where she lived, I didn’t hesitate. I thought maybe, just maybe we’d hit it off and we’d fall madly in love and spend the rest of our days together. That’s why it came as an unwelcome surprise when she asked me if I thought Bill, whom I had met the first night I arrived in the little town on the north side of Lake Superior, would be a good boyfriend. We were driving to her church when she asked about him and admitted she really liked him; like-liked him.
It felt like the floor under me gave way. I had no real reason to feel that way, I had never told Mary my feelings, but I was heartbroken anyway. And it was further humiliation the following day when she suggested we let Bill take us on a tour of the area, since he was a guide and knew lots of cool places. And that’s how we ended up on a snowy, forgotten stone bridge that spanned a deep froze chasm.
It was a pretty place, for sure. Bill told us it was part of the old intercontinental highway before they put in the freeways. He was as knowledgeable as he was rugged, that bastard.
He pointed at a 12ft tall rocky cliff and said there was something else he wanted to show us over it.
“Up the rocks?” I questioned. The tallest structure I had climbed in five years was a flight of stairs. Not only that, but I had only brought one pair of new dress shoes with me. I wasn’t expecting to hike in the woods, let alone scale a rock-face.
“Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll help you up,” Bill said it in a kind unassuming way, but I heard “You’re out of your depth, city-boy. Mary is MINE! MWA HA AHAHAH”. After that, he bounded up the wall like a mountain goat trying out for the NBA. He lay down in the snow and held his hand out for Mary. After she made it up, I was determined to make it up without help, but the cold, hardened rubber of my new shoes betrayed me and I nearly fell off near the top. Bill grabbed my arm and I scrambled indignantly to the snowy ground above.
I brushed myself off and mumbled “Thanks” under my breath. Bill just gave me a warm grin and led on. Stabbing me in the spleen wouldn’t have hurt as much. The snow on the hill was about six inches deep and as we walked through the small pines, my shoes filled with melting slush and my pant legs soaked in the cold water. We marched into the wilderness until I was huffing and red in the face. We came out of the trees on top of a sixty foot cliff overlooking the frozen Lake Superior. The sun was setting and the sky was pink and orange, which painted the lake ice similarly only interrupted by deep blue shadows projected by the drifts of snow. The air was crisp and still and the whole thing felt like a dream. If I live for a thousand more years I may never see anything as beautiful again.
I didn’t notice when Bill and Mary moved on, I was entranced. I could feel the heart ache and jealousy I had been feeling melt away in the presence of a view so much bigger than I was. A calmness washed over me and allowed me to think clearly. Then I heard Mary calling my name from some distant place through the trees.
I tromped through the forest, my feet numb, my fingers freezing and my cheeks burning and came upon Bill and Mary sitting next to each on a log. Bill, using his man powers, had somehow conjured a small fire that burned despite the deep snow. Exhausted, I sat in a small fir near by.
“So what do you think?” Bill asked me.
“It’s beautiful.” I spoke quietly, still mesmerized.
“I think it’s amazing to think God created all of this. The trees, the air, the water. Do you believe in God?” Bill posed the question as if it were a test.
I had been brought up Catholic, but after the age of eight, the idea of a super being pulling all the strings in the world never sat well with me. By the time I was confirmed into the church, I had effectively lost faith. I had no need to accept a story that couldn’t be backed up. But through college and my early twenties, I avoided thinking about it. For years I had simply ignored the concept. But there I was, sitting in that poor fir tree, cold and tired and I thought about the scene I had viewed of the lake. How the axial tilt of the earth chilled the air and had ordered the water molecules into crystalline structures that were able to reflect light to make it shimmer. I remembered the different wavelengths of light that caused us to see reds and oranges and pinks from the sun as it scattered in our atmosphere. And the very photons themselves, created in the core of the sun thousands of years ago, escaping to make a quick 8 minute run to earth and create the image I saw. Where was God in all of that? I had never before said anything out loud about what I truly did or didn’t believe. Until that moment.
“No, I don’t believe in God.” The conviction in my voice surprised me. I knew Mary was religious and Bill too, but I wasn’t going to lie to fit in or to try to impress a girl. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation after that, but the coming night interrupted it and we were forced to tromp back through the trees, down the small rock-face and slowly back up the abandoned, icy road that took us there.
In the days and months following, I felt I understood myself better. That simple honest admission on top of a wintery hill in the middle of nowhere about what I didn’t believe allowed me to later analyze what it was I did believe and why. It changed how I looked at life.
Mary and I wrote less and less. At some point she told me that my staying there that weekend made Bill jealous enough to ask her out on a real date. I won’t lie, it did stoke my ego a little to think Bill was at least a little jealous of me. Not long after they got married. While that weekend didn’t go as I planned, I got more out of it than I expected. And as I look back, it stands out as one of those small moments that make the biggest impact in your life.