Touching the Mountain: My Divine Encounter in Montana

By Thom Mollohan

In 1990, I spent the summer running children’s programs for some ranching communities in central Montana. I had asked to be assigned to Montana due to images in my mind of tall white-peaked pinnacles of stone, their knees and feet carpeted with stately forests and icy cold torrents of frothing water weaving their winding ways between them.
Instead, I was assigned to the exact middle of the state, which was a dusty plain sparsely populated by pronghorns, prairie dogs, sheep and tumbleweeds. The flat terrain stretched out on every side of me like an endless tablecloth with purple shadows of mountains only peeking tauntingly at me from over the edge of the distant horizon.
Prairie dogs and tumbleweeds are interesting enough, but even for those who always see their glasses as half full, the thrill fades pretty fast. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I had had enough of only hearing about the mountains and I wanted more than to simply see pictures of them towering majestically over lakes the color of pure sapphires. Instead, I wanted to ascend the mountain’s summit and touch its face, so that I would know from personal experience its glory.

Given the demands on my time, I had almost given up hope of such an opportunity. But finally, after six or seven weeks, the opportunity came. Faced unexpectedly with a free weekend, a few colleagues and I loaded our backpacks and headed out to the Beartooth Mountains in the mid-western part of Montana, in spite of the fact that I was still recovering from sickness.

We trekked 35 miles onto a ridge of mountain peaks that overlooked a wide lake at the foot of its northwestern face. We began our climb up a twisting trail marked at about every quarter mile with small, crude signs roughly nailed to trees. It was a great climb, but with my fits of coughing and sneezing, we knew that the only wildlife we’d possibly see were wolves that might have mistaken my hacking for an ailing moose. In spite of my sickness the beauty of the hike was staggering. The sun shone with its glory undimmed and each step brought us closer to it. The pine smell was lost on my miserable sinuses, of course, but the wild evergreen trees stood faithfully on either side of the pass arching overhead with stoic solemnity that made me appreciate, ever more deeply, their tribute to the Creator.

We made our way above the tree line until we reached some of the year-round snow that adorned the mountain peak and looked out over the flatlands to the east. Far below me, I could see the unremarkable terrain stretch out until another string of mountains rose again from the earth as a brown dust devil swirled quietly below us in the empty plain. The thrill of being caught up in the mountain’s majesty gripped me and I found myself singing a song of praise to God.

That night we found a large, sheltered hollow in which a grove of pine trees had managed to take root and thrive. We made camp and enjoyed both human companionship and a sweet fellowship with the stars that seemed to be near enough to listen in on our conversation.

But later that night, I was awakened by a titanic boom as a peal of thunder blasted our little dell with an aural explosion. I was momentarily blinded by the brilliant flash of accompanied lightning. Suddenly, I found myself praying furiously, imagining that each pole holding up my tent was a miniature lightning rod. The wind whipped my little tent about like it was an newspaper kite. The rain crashed down like tiny tidal waves, and soon penetrated my “water-proof” tent, soaking me to the bone. When it finally turned to sleet, I didn’t mind in the least: at least sleet couldn’t get in the tent as easily. Only an hour after the storm passed, the full moon re-emerged and the stars were again my friends.

In the days that followed that hike, I realized how much it was like our relationship with God. We sing, teach, pray and talk about encounters with God. But encounters with God don’t always turn out the way we imagine they will. In fact, the longer we walk with Him, even when seeking Him with all our hearts (see Jeremiah 29:13), the more unpredictable we find Him. At times, He shelters us in small valleys of comfort and protection. Sometimes, He sparks our wonder with His power and His love. Occasionally, we are possessed with joy as we glimpse His majesty and know that, somehow, He has chosen to love us. And yet…at other times, He thunders into our lives with His holy voice and we are dumb-founded by a sense of His omnipotence and holiness. How rich and wonderful then is our God Who made the heavens and the earth!

“May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works – he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke. I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 104:31-33).

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