Does The Lord Go Before
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139 : 1-12
90 days since departing Seattle, I wander into an 8 o’clock night mass with especially low morale. What is reasonable to hope for right now, I wonder. This Psalm, my father’s favorite, showed up in his parting letter tucked away in a print of the New Testament he gifted me the morning I left. "May you feel His presence every day," pop wrote. I pray this desperately.
It’s New Years Eve and I’m exhausted and lonely as hell. The route from Medellin to Mompox required two trying 7-hour rides in oppressive heat. It has been a number of days since I have spoken with someone in English.
In the 3 months preceding this evening I've had plenty of lonely stretches - during which I've thought this is a dumb, dangerous, and lonely thing I'm doing. I've also encountered people and landscapes that have stopped me in my tracks with an overwhelming gratitude. It's all part of the deal, I've figured.
I will leave Mompox the next day, the first day of the year, protecting a delicate hope that the next destination holds rest or beauty or surprise to pull me out of despairing thoughts.
The first several hours of the route to Santa Marta are the worst conditions experienced thus far. Unmarked Road #78 (fitting name, Garmin) goes in a straight line for 80 miles in 95 degree heat with 100% humidity. The way is obscured by red dust and littered with rubble, potholes, ruts, and unmarked speed bumps, each threatening to buck me off the bike as I try to blink away the sweat stinging my eyes. The horizons are empty, spare a few piles of trash and emaciated cattle gathered in the shade of the sparcely scattered trees. After a while vultures begin appearing, first circling high above the road then by the dozens loitering around the piles of rubbish. A dead dog lies beside the way, the black birds tearing at its flesh. Next I see a calf, mouth ajar and eyes already taken. A little later an old man with grey eyes, picking through a pile of trash.
When I finally reach Ruta 45 that leads north to my coastal destination I stop at the first gas station. Closed for the holiday. I can feel a rattling in my chest like a bucket hitting the bottom of a dry well. I turn northward and begin my prayer for gas. In my experience I can expect 180 miles on a tank. That number, though, is variable. I’ve gotten as much as 220 miles and as few as 140 on a tank. I’m at 165 when I pull away from the closed gas station. I pass another closed gas station. Keep praying. 170. I follow a gas station sign to find an abandoned station - windows broken in and pumps missing. Finally I spot an open station with an attendant reclined under the shade of the awning. I hurridly strip off my helmet and jacket. I’m dripping sweat. I chug hot water out of my nalgene. I can hear the muffled voice of attendant, who hasn’t gotten up from his chair. I remove my earplugs and ask him to repeat himself. "No hay. No hay [there is none here; we are out]."
My jaw clenches to keep from crying in front of this man.
Remounting the bike, I tell myself to toughen up. I roll down the road and begin the routine of thinking through worst-case scenarios. I have a half-liter of water left, but I have iodine pills. I know enough Spanish to tell someone I need gas. I could ditch the bike in the bushes and hitch a ride to the nearest open station. I could camp out at someone’s farm.
My thoughts are brought back to the road rapidly as I see a man standing in the center of the street directing traffic. There's a dump truck pulled off in the left side, two motorcycles on the right. 4 people are standing still as statues, staring at the pavement. A woman leaning over the barrier is wailing. Even at a distance I can see every muscle in her neck and face is straining. Following the direction of her gaze, I notice two motorcycles on the ground and debris spread across the road.
Then I recognize a lump on the ground behind the man directing traffic.
A boy's face stares back at me, body twisted like a pretzel. A bloodied, base-ball size contusion protrudes from the boy's forehead. A pool of blood drips down the side of the road. Two more bodies lie behind the boy's: a woman on her back and a man on his stomach. None of them are moving.
Involuntarily, I begin yelling 'no' in my helmet.
5 miles later I find an open station. No one is aware of what lies on the road a few miles back. A man nods at me, another asks me something about the bike in Spanish too fast for me to understand. I breath a little while to keep myself from imploding, then try to answer him.
I arrive to the hostel 7 hours after leaving Mompox, strip out of all my gear, and weep.
In my travel journal, the question "Does the Lord go before me?" is scribbled at the bottom of a number of entries. There are days when this is especially hard to believe.