Chapter 16: Tunnel Vision

This is from my journal dated May 30, 2008, as I was walking from D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.  My friend Diane has joined me for this day of walking.

Here, camping among the forest dwellers in this wilderness section of the trail, I have made friends with the night.  If there were no darkness, I would not be able to see the white crescent that rises just beyond the reach of branches and casts moon shadows across my path on the night walk to the restroom.  Darkness gives quiet space for conversation around the campfire.    Darkness is a gifted time of rest from sore feet and tired muscles.  Darkness settles the daily nesting frenzy of the bird kingdom.  Shortly after dusk many creatures bed down and observe the great silence shared by monasteries.  There are a few exceptions: the call of the hunting owl,  the  rustle of a foraging mouse, the ambles of a skunk. In my life as a town dweller, darkness hardly prevents my activities since I can artificially light my indoor and outdoor space.  But here in the woods, I cannot hike in the night.  The onset of darkness puts boundaries on routine and enforces slowing down.  I have come to cherish this darkness.

The author of John’s gospel does not use darkness in this renewing way.  In his gospel, light is connected to God, life, and belief; darkness is light’s sinister opposite.  We hear in the opening poem: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  Darkness represents the powers that oppose God’s presence, the blindness of the human situation without a relationship with God, and ultimately death.  Darkness used in this manner reminds me of the Paw Paw Tunnel.

The darkness of this tunnel is not the welcoming kind that provides a background for stars.  Instead, it is a creepy, damp, suffocating kind of darkness; I have not made peace with it.  The first time I walked it with my husband Rick, over a year ago now, I  chose not to retrace my steps through the tunnel, but returned to the parking lot by climbing a strenuous trail over the mountain in order to stay in the open air.  One time through the Paw Paw was enough tunnel vision for one day.

Today is the second time I have hiked through the tunnel, and I am walking with my companion Diane, relieved not to be doing this alone.  The tunnel is a half mile long.  It was built where the Potomac River makes a wide loop and the construction of a tunnel across the neck of that loop through the mountain would save several miles and precious time of canal travel.   Inside the narrow tunnel the towpath shares space with the canal.  A railing separates the two and keeps pedestrians from stepping off the dirt ledge and falling into the standing water.  Since this railing is a new addition,  I wonder if any mules slipped off the edge years ago.  I heard a story at the local diner of a guy who leaned against a previous metal railing in the tunnel;  it collapsed with him into the canal.  Fortunately, the water was rather shallow, and he was rescued with only a broken bone.

Once Diane and I enter the tunnel, our flashlights barely illuminate the darkness that wraps around us.  Our lights only reveal  small, dim spots on the ground directly in front of us.  We have to pay attention to where we step. The path under our feet is uneven dirt, and puddles  have collected here and there from the dripping rock, caused by spring rain seeping through the mountain above us.  We can, however, see the half-circle of light, almost a glare, at the far end.  

When I came here before, we  heard noises coming toward us but could see nothing until people were suddenly walking three feet before us,  staring us in the face.   On this day we pass no one and only hear the drip of water and scrape of feet.  Diane walks in front of me, but since she stays close to the tunnel wall, she is completely absorbed by its blackness and I cannot see her silhouette against the distant light.  It is strange how I  feel alone in this bleak space, even though she is so close and Chester is at my side.  Sometimes vague florescent green eyes glint  under the surface of the black water below on our left.  Our flashlights do no good in helping us discover what creature, what kind of metallic rock, or what trash is resting there.  From the time we first entered,  we have watched the opening at the other end;  yet, after ages of walking, the light does not seem to grow significantly larger.  The  tunnel walk lasts about twelve minutes, maybe fifteen, but tunnel time for me is interminable.

The gospel of John makes it sound like a person is either walking in the dark (metaphorically speaking) or walking in the light, but I think the reality of discipleship is not so simple.  Because I am a sinner living in a broken, sometimes chaotic and cruel world, there are dark tunnels I must walk through.  Some tunnels are longer than others.  Some curve so that it takes a long time before I may even see the half circle of light at the other end.  The walk in the midst of these damp walls of the Paw Paw  is a picture of times I have felt overwhelmed by the darkness of grief and loss, or by discouragement and failure, or by anger and unforgiveness, or by my own critical cynicism.  Some darkness I bring on myself, although I may deny it at the time.  Other dark tunnels just happen.

As Diane and I near the end of the Paw Paw, I stop and get out my camera, wanting to capture the significance and relief of stepping into the light.  I fuss because there is a  construction sign  posted at the exit, “messing up” the picture.  When later I look at the photograph more carefully, I  notice that there is a cross made by the wooden frame holding the sign.  Looking from the darkness of  the tunnel, the light is just beyond this wooden cross.  How appropriate to tunnel vision!  If there is anything that the beloved disciple has been teaching me in John, it is that I can only see  the true light toward which I am walking through the cross of Jesus Christ.   My darkness, whether it consists of  unbelief, distrust, denial or grief, can never seal me out of  the light of God’s presence for this reason: Christ in love gives his life for the world, including me.  I walk past that very cross of Christ whenever I step into the light of my relationship to God.

The beloved disciple tells us that Jesus said:  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8.12)

I am still friends with the evening of the forest dwellers, but it is good to know that no darkness, tunnel or otherwise, can thwart God’s loving grip that keeps drawing me out into the life-giving light of God’s self.