I was out hiking a trail, deep in the mountains, when I came upon another, certain trail intersecting the path that I was traveling on. Uncertain, of which way to go, I referred to a copy of an article that I’d found in an old newspaper weeks ago in a library. According to the article, approximately one hundred and thirty-seven steps north on this intersecting trail was a fork in the trail that I was looking for. I was searching for something specific, unique, and nearly forgotten by most men. I was not lost. At least, I didn’t think that I was lost. The directions in the article clearly stated that I was to take a right fork off of this trail that I was hiking at this particular point. Arriving at the prescribed location, I could see no clearly defined fork, clear path, or remains of a path, for that matter. But as I stood there wondering if I had merely wasted my time, I noticed what appeared to be a nearly imperceptible depression in the rocky, mountain soil leaving the trail. As I lifted my eyes, I could barely make out areas that were less dense in foilage through the undergrowth that seemed to be thinner than the surrounding brush of rhododendron and laurel. Could this be the ancient, forgotten path I was looking for, or was it just a game trail?
I felt a brief moment of trepidation. Getting lost in the mountains was something to be avoided at all costs but the need to find that which had been lost pushed me forward. The only way to proceed forward was through the thinner undergrowth. Yet that was no easy task. “Thinner undergrowth” was a relative term in this instance. Fifty feet down the “path” I turned to see that the forest had, in fact, closed in around me. Dare I continue to go any further? Yes, I must.
I know that it sounds foolish to some, but I knew what I was looking for. I mean, I kind of knew what I was looking for. No, to be honest, I had no idea what I was looking for or why I was so compelled to find it. So, I guess my being here is kind of foolish. But to the best of my meager understanding, I was looking for a tree, and oak tree to be precise. However, this was not just any oak tree. This was an old, stately oak in the middle of nowhere that an old newspaper article had referred to as “The Mountain Sentry”. There was no picture in the article, just a descriptive account of the old tree’s existence and a certain man’s joy at having found it.
I struggled, seemingly forever, through the brush and bramble of the overgrown path that is no one knows how old. I swear softly, under my breath, as brush and vines tear at my flesh. I find my arms and face are scratched and bloodied. No matter, I must move on. I am not sure what compels me to see this old tree, this massive oak. This ancient path is much more difficult than I expected. I am tired, bloody, and filthy. Why must I see this old tree? Could it be worth all this? I push on! All I can say is that I’m looking for something that I haven’t yet found.
I stop to rest on a boulder and I drink my last bit of water. It’s been a long, grueling hike. What shall I do without water? Will I be able to make it back to the main path if I don’t find more water? I push on, dismayed that all I see is that slight depression of this ancient, forgotten path, overgrown with brush, saplings, and vines. Still, I carry on.
Had I not fallen, I would have missed it. My foot slipped on a mossy rock and I found myself lying face down, shaken not stirred. I get up to my knees and stop, frozen in the moment. Before me stood a giant oak, “The Mountain Sentry”! My but it was huge! I’m sure that there are larger oaks but for this terrain I couldn’t imagine anything as stately or noble as this old oak. The limbs and branches were larger than the trunks of all the trees in this area. I catch my breath as I look around. The area around this old oak was cluttered with oak trees. No doubt, these trees sprouted from the acorns of this massive oak before me. There were some trees that were not more than sprouts with two to three leaves. Others were small saplings while there were other, larger oaks like those in a city park. All were but a splinter in comparison to the massive oak that gave them life.
I looked up, awestruck in wonder, to see broken limbs and branches in the old oak’s canopy. It seems as if the old tree had sacrificed parts of itself to allow the sunlight to filter through, allowing the younger trees grow and mature. I looked for a place to sit and merely marvel at this forest giant.
It appears that it had been struck by lightning at one time. Well, maybe several times. There were burnt scars down one side and a noticeable hollow that I could see. Some limbs were broken and twisted, from some pretty severe storms, no doubt. At this elevation, I could only imagine the fierce winds and storms that this old tree had withstood to remain standing. Looking closer, I found several man made scars. There were several crude carvings where young lovers had carved their initials into the old tree a hundred years earlier. I guess that old, ancient path that is no one knows how old was easier to navigate back then.
It was only then that I noticed that the ground I was standing on was soft and muddy. It hadn’t rained so where did the water come fr…..A SPRING! There had to be a spring close by! I began circling the old oak and just twenty yards up the incline was, indeed a mountain spring bubbling up out of the rock. No wonder it had grown so large. It had its own built-in water supply over the centuries. I spent twenty minutes just filling my water bottle and drinking the clear, cool water that had fed this oak for no telling how long. I drank my fill and began to fill the bottle again.
“She really is beautiful isn’t she son?”
Startled, I turned too quickly and slipped down, soaking my backside. There, leaning against the old tree, was on older man dressed in jeans and a denim shirt.
“Hey, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you! But she is beautiful isn’t she? The Tree I mean.”
I began somewhat befuddled, “Who? What? How did you get here?”
“Me?” he asked offering his hand to help me up. “I’m nobody special. I just come up here, once a week, to visit this old tree.”
Once a week? At his age? He had to be fifty or sixty years old! I’m was easily a third of his age and yet he did not look anywhere near the worse for wear that I did. “How did you get up here?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said smiling, “I know these old paths and trails around here pretty well.”
“Dude, there is no way you came here on the same path I did.” I stated in disbelief.
“No. I confess.” He said as he took a few steps and sat on a huge rock. I could not help but notice that there was almost a…well…thought and purpose in each of his steps. “No, son, I came another way. But it’s still difficult, even for an old man like me.”
He reached into his pack and took out a book as I approached. “But you’re not sweaty, filthy, and all scratched up like I am. You look, well…almost pristine.”
“Well thank you, young man,” he said, smiling as he opened his book.
“But how…,” I began before he interrupted me.
“Why are you here?” he asked, rather sternly, as he thumbed through the pages of his book.
“I came to see the tree.” I replied.
He chuckled to himself. “You came to see a tree? C’mon! You can see a tree anywhere! Look around you! There are trees everywhere!”
“Not like this one.” I replied in my defense.
“True.” He said rather solemnly as I fell under his fixed gaze. “But, why are you here?”
It was then that I realized that I had no identifiable reason. I didn’t really know why I had to come. I’d just “felt” like I needed to come. I admitted as much to this old man.
“You are searching for something that you have no knowledge of.” He stated plainly as he licked his thumb and turned another page.
“Yes!” I cried out. “Yes! You’re right! How did you know?”
“Fifty years ago,” he began as he turned another page, “I was you, sitting here, speaking with another old man.”
“Really?” I gasped. This was getting a little scary.
“Umhmm.” He replied. “I was searching then too. Just like you.”
“Really?” I asked. “What were you searching for?”
“Same as you,” he replied, taking a pair of eyeglasses out of his shirt pocket, “I was searching for the ancient paths, peace, the meaning of life. Although I didn’t know it then any more than you know it now.”
“Well,” I began, not really knowing what to say, “how did you get up here so neat and clean?”
“The path I took to get here is more rugged, steeper, and more overgrown than the path you came in on.” He replied, never taking his eyes out of his book. “The difference between you and me is that I’ve learned how to navigate these old trails.”
“How?” I asked in disbelief.
“It’s all in this book.” He replied solemnly as he looked over the brow stem of his glasses.
“That’s impossible!” I cried.
“No, it’s not. Here, see for yourself.” He said, motioning for me to come closer.
He opened the book wide. Its pages were stained, marked, and wrinkled. “It says in here, in the Book of Jeremiah 6:16 “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your soul.”
“The Bible?” I asked. I was dumbfounded.
“Son,” the old man said as he stared up at the stately old oak, “You saw an old article in a newspaper that spoke of an ancient path, the good way, where there stood a mighty oak. And you came looking for it not knowing exactly what you were looking for. Right?”
“Yeah, but how did you know that?” I asked.
The old man shook his head impatiently, averting the question. “How do you feel right now? Do you feel as if you’ve “discovered” something? Do you feel at ease and peaceful? Do you feel more energized and rested than when you began?
I did a quick self-evaluation and I had to admit that, in fact, I did.
“Son,” the old man said as he began turning pages again, “that old tree right there and I have a lot in common. We have weathered a lot of storms, made a lot of sacrifices, and suffered the scars of time. In a lot of ways this old tree and I are a lot alike. We stand on ancient paths battered, scarred, and broken, this old tree and I. It’s taken a beating over the centuries that old tree has. I’ve taken a few hard licks in life myself. However, we’re both still standing. But God planted that old tree, I suppose, to hold this mountain together. He planted me here to help you navigate these ancient paths.”
Look, here, in the Book of Isaiah, 61:3 “To grant those who mourn on Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes The oil of gladness instead of mourning The mantel of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called OAKS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, The planting of the LORD, that HE may be glorified.”
I could only look at him in a puzzled fashion. However, he did not seem short on patience.
“C’mon!” he said, slapping me on the knee. “Let’s get out of here and leave this old tree to stand guard over the mountain. I’ll take you to town and we’ll get a burger, my treat. Then I’ll take you back to your car. Deal?”
“Uh..uh..yeah, sure.” I stammered.
I followed the old man as he led the way. He had not been kidding. This path seemed much older and it was irrefutably more difficult. I watched as he navigated the way. Every step was calculated. Every branch was pushed gingerly aside as he passed by. I watched, and learned, repeating his every action. I listened as he instructed me how and where to step. I heeded his words on what areas I needed to avoid and soon, we were out of the thick and into the clear. It really was not that difficult of a descent. Well, not when you are following someone who really knew what they were doing. As promised, we made our way into town and he ordered up two triple cheeseburgers with everything on them, two extra-large orders of fries, and two milk shakes in glasses big enough you could have watered horses from them. We took our time enjoying our meal together. He talked and I listened. I offered to pay for my meal, which he declined. “It’s a family business, me and my sister. Don’t worry ‘bout it.”
When we had finished our meal, I told him that he didn’t have to take me to the trail head. My vehicle was parked a few blocks away on the courthouse square and that I’d walked across town to the trail. He reached into the seat of his car, got his Bible, and said, “C’mon, I’ll walk a little ways with you.” We walked and talked or, to be more precise, we walked, he talked, and I listened. We had walked a couple of blocks, when he said, “This is as far as I’ll go. I won’t take any more of your time.”
“Oh no!” I cried. “Thank you! I would still be out there fighting through the brush to get back if it weren’t for your help! And thanks for the meal!”
“You’re welcome!” He said smiling. “Here,” he said extending his Bible towards me. “I want you to have this!” I stammered and tried to not say something stupid like, “I can’t take that!” But he had already thrust it into my hands. “Take it!” He said. “It was given to me fifty years ago. I think it’s time to pass it along to someone else.”
We said our goodbyes as we each turned to walk away. But I felt as if I had to ask one more question. I turned to call to him, but he was already gone. How did he do that? Then I remembered what he’d told me on that ancient path that is no one knows how old, “All the answers are in that book, son. The maps of the ancient paths, the tools needed to navigate life, the weapons needed to wage wars and win battles. ALL of that is in there!”
Now, what was his name?
I opened the old tattered Bible and on the inside cover it read: Howard Shipley, Rt.2 Box 82, Muskrat Cove, TN
And below that was a note: “Come see me anytime, son. I’ll always be there for you.”
The name, address, and note had a single line drawn through them and underneath it read:
Howard Barksdale, 120 Ripley Cove, Seymour, TN 37865. 865-555-5777
And underneath was a note much like the first, “Call me anytime. I’ll be there for you.”
Then, I began to understand. I thought I was merely searching for a tree on some forgotten path. What I was searching for was direction and answers to questions that I couldn’t even put into words yet. I was searching for what had been lacking throughout my entire life. The old man was the oak that I was looking for. The ancient paths were the directions or instructions in the Bible that he had pointed out to me. Instead, he found me on that ancient path. That tree was not the oak that I was searching for after all. I just didn’t know. That old man taught me, I suppose, as much as he knew I could understand for the moment. Then he gave me his own, personal map of the ancient paths and extended his friendship to help me figure out the rest just as Howard Shipley had done for him fifty years earlier.
Howard Barksdale? That name sounded familiar. I dug the copy of that old newspaper article out of my pack and I began to tremble as I read the author’s name. It couldn’t be, but it was. It was Howard Barksdale. HE had written the article? Nooooooo way! Could it be? Could it be that he had written that article and walked those ancient paths every week waiting for someone like me to stumble along? No, he couldn’t have known I’d pick up that article and come looking. Was he waiting for me? Or, was he waiting for anyone? No, it was just a wild coincidence. It had to be! I hefted the old Bible in my hand. Somehow, I get the feeling, that I will find that there are no coincidences on these ancient paths that are no one knows how old. After all, what are the chances of finding an old oak of righteousness on an ancient, forgotten path in the middle of nowhere?