The Great Outdoors Is Her Sanctuary

While living in the remote high desert of Colorado, Lou Dean has grown closer than ever to God

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Posted in , Mar 31, 2022

Lou Dean takes her morning walk; photo by Matt Staver

On Easter morning, I will celebrate the glory of the Resurrection—but not in­side a church.

I’ll be standing by a cross on a hill­side, surrounded by sagebrush and ce­dar trees, miles from civilization in the foothills of northwest Colorado. With a handful of other early risers, I will brave the cold as the sun ascends over the distant snow-capped mountains.

After a Scripture is read, I will join in the singing of a hymn and feel a spe­cial closeness to the Creator as I em­brace the familiar comfort of this Eas­ter sunrise service. This is the church I have called home for many years. My church of the great outdoors.

Looking at the high desert foothills, you might think, “There’s nothing here.” I’ve had visitors ask, “Why do you live in the middle of nowhere?”

I could tell the long story of how I left the place where I grew up and drove hundreds of miles to this lone­some hillside, surrounded by thou­sands of acres of unpopulated public land. I could talk about my lifelong search for love, healing and belonging. Mostly I just say, “This is my church.”

Mama said the first word out of my mouth was “outside.” That’s where I went—outside—when I was seven years old and Mama walked out on our family, leaving my three siblings and me in the care of my dad.

I ran to the creek and hid amid the blackjack trees. I found something there I would keep chasing for many years.

Except for a brief stint in Vacation Bible School and a summertime visit to my grandmother’s church, I had no real concept of God.

What I did know is that, whenever I was outside, playing by the creek or sitting on the schoolhouse steps, listening to the wind in the grass, I did not feel alone.

 

I grew up, married young, divorced and found myself raising a five-year-old son named Scott who suffered from asthma.

One night, I was desperate enough to attempt something I’d seen other people do. “Lord, how do I help my son?” I whispered.

Scott took a dozen medications daily. I’d lost my job as an orthodontic assistant because no day care would accept a boy with severe asthma. I cleaned houses, propping Scott in front of a TV while I worked.

A strange idea came to me in re­sponse to my novice prayer: “Go see Dr. Bob.” He was the family doctor who’d made house calls at our farm when I was growing up.

“I’d get him out of Oklahoma,” Dr. Bob told me. “Take him out west to a high, dry climate.”

So much for prayer. What was I supposed to do with that advice? It had taken me a year just to scrape to­gether enough for the old pickup truck I drove. No way could I afford to move to a different state and start over.

Another unexpected thought came to mind. I remembered an aunt and uncle in Rangely, Colorado, near the Utah border about 90 miles north of Grand Junction. I had spent a summer with Alma and Slim after high school.

I called Aunt Alma. “We have two empty bedrooms,” she said. “You can stay with us until you get a place of your own. Bring that boy and come.”

The prospect of moving terrified me. And yet, as Scott and I drove through Kansas wheat fields and into the Colorado mountains, a comfortably famil­iar feeling took the place of fear.

Outside, in the big sky and big land­scape, I was not alone.

If you’re imagining Rangely as some Colorado ski town, think again. It’s high desert, mostly sagebrush, cedar trees and oil derricks. I was homesick and regretted moving.

Three months after we arrived, I awoke one morning and real­ized I hadn’t gotten up in the night in response to Scott’s wheezing. I ran to his room. He slept peacefully. Dr. Bob—and the Presence who had directed me to him—was right.

I wanted to get to know that Pres­ence. I began attending a small com­munity church in Rangely. Everything I heard made sense to me, and I decid­ed I was a Christian.

Four years later, Scott was a happy and healthy elementary school stu­dent. I found work in construction, training as a welder’s helper. I got remarried. Everything seemed to be coming together.

One day, Aunt Alma called. “Your dad’s gone,” she said.

I sought solace at church. To my bewilderment, instead of comfort, I received questions and judgment. “What church did your dad attend?” everyone asked. “Was he saved?”

Dad believed in a divine power, but he did not attend church. Plenty of ornery farmers are like that. The congregation grew chilly toward me. The pastor quoted Bible verses suggesting my dad was now in hell.

I fled that church and cast aside my newfound faith. I started going to bars. My second marriage unraveled, and my drinking escalated.

One night at a bar in Rangely, I com­mented bitterly to someone about the judgment cast on my dad. A stranger beside me turned and said, “No man can determine that.”

“Who are you?” I demanded.

I was shocked to learn the man was an Episcopal priest. “The state of your dad’s soul is known to God alone,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you they know more than God.”

Right there in that bar, I broke down. The priest and I talked for a long time about God’s mercy and all-knowing ways.

The next Sunday morning, and for many Sundays afterward, Scott and I were at the Episcopal church in town.

I recommitted myself to God. I cut back on my drinking, read Scripture and, for the first time in my life, felt truly welcome in a Christian commu­nity. I even allowed myself to forgive that other church.

A few years later, an oil bust sent Rangely’s population and finances plummeting. Like so many other places of worship in struggling rural towns, our little church had to close, and the priest took a position in an­other community.

I joined an informal Bible study with women in town. We met to dis­cuss Scripture and agreed not to argue over differing interpretations.

Life moved on. Scott graduated from high school, went to college, married and moved to Boise, Idaho, where his wife’s family lived and there were more work opportunities.

The Bible study group drifted apart. Slim and Alma died; their house was sold. After years as a single mom, jug­gling work and parenting, I was alone.

Another of those strange thoughts came to me. If I stayed in Rangely, un­anchored and unhappy, I would be back in the bars in no time. Something pulled at my soul, directing my gaze out of town, toward the hills.

This time, I knew where those thoughts came from. I bought a house 12 miles from town in Blue Mountain, a small, desolate parcel surrounded by acres of public land.

It was a lonesome spot. I couldn’t help wondering why God had directed me here. I explored my new territory. Every afternoon, my dogs and I took long walks through the hills.

We meandered through scrubland and unusual rock formations. I saw ancient fossils and evidence of the Na­tive Americans who’d once lived here.

This place was not desolate. Once I set aside my preconceptions and opened my eyes, I could see beauty everywhere.

That’s how it is with God. The more I walked, the more I soaked in the hills’ muted colors and ever-changing vis­tas, the more I listened to the voice of the wind in the sage, the closer I grew to my Creator.

I guess I’m like my dad in some ways. A little ornery. Single-minded. People like me don’t always fit in at church. For this stage of my life, God gave me this wilderness as my church.

Family and friends try to persuade me to return to Oklahoma. “You moved out there for Scott. He’s well now. Why don’t you come home?”

No, thank you. Here on Blue Moun­tain, God has sustained me through the losses that come in the second half of life. My older brother died, and my younger brother took his life.

Both times, I plunged into depres­sion. Just when my doubts felt over­whelming, I would take the dogs for a walk and suddenly feel lifted up by a powerful sense of consolation.

God was here. I was home.

The deepest lesson God has taught me in this church of the outdoors is that, however close I feel to him here, he is everywhere.

My life story confirms it. God was with me by the creek in Oklahoma. There in Dr. Bob’s office. Even in that bar where the priest helped rescue my fledgling faith.

This Easter, surrounded by the sage and cedar I’ve grown to love, I will give special thanks for my home in the wil­derness and my relationship with my Creator. I’ll take comfort in his pres­ence here. And everywhere.

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