The trail petered out two-thirds of the way in.
No blazes. No signs. No nothing: just a branching path in two different directions that was not referenced anywhere in the descriptions we’d read of this, our inaugural and supposedly simple vacation hike.
As we pondered our options, a man appeared. He waved his trekking poles at us. “Hey! You guys headed to the upper falls?”
“Yeah,” he said, perturbed, “it’s not even marked—we went the wrong way before we came back. So I marked it—” he pointed down one of the forks “—just go down this way and you have to cross a creek in a certain spot so I made this arrow of stones pointing the way. From there you can find the trail. It’s a climb, though!”
We thanked him. He disappeared.
Another pause. We had spent, already, longer on this hike than we had intended, because it was longer than we had realized. We had encountered, already, three snakes, to my husband’s profound dismay. Stay or go?
The arrow was where the man had meticulously placed it, a little guidemark of stones pointing the way over a creek. My husband stepped neatly over the rocks; I did not, and my shoe filled up with water. After I got to the opposite bank, the thick, sticky mud almost sucked it off my foot.
We looked at each other doubtfully, and continued forward.
Not long after the creek the path became roots and rocks, and a series of judicious climbs and scrambles. We passed huffing, puffing couples, bewildered this was the hike, and rosy-cheeked conquerors coming back down from the falls.
We got there, eventually. But the waterfall isn’t the point of the story.
The most difficult hikes are, always, a series of decisions. Where should I put my foot? What rock is most stable? Where is the scree least loose? Should I cross this creek? Will this mud suck my shoe off my foot? Am I going to die if I try to climb over that rock?
And, beneath all the other questions:
Is it worth it?
This is the question of love, too, because love is most loving when it stops being easy.
It’s easy to love the one who calls back, the one who acquiesces to our wants, the one who always listens, the one who always shows up, the one who smiles, the one who is available, the one who is kind, the one who made the sweet gesture that time, the one who gets you, the one who loves you even when they don’t get you.
It is harder to love the recalcitrant one. The one who never calls and sounds bored when they do. The one who becomes careless with your feelings. The one who forgets not to be selfish. The one with annoying habits, the one who doesn’t care, the one who doesn’t smile, the one with the tart tongue, the one with the scowl, the one with the repugnant views and hostile words.
And with these people, I inevitably approach the fork in the road: left or right? Cross the creek or not? Is it worth it? Is this worth my resources, my energy, my time? Is it worth it? What about now? What about now?
For the Christian, the answer is always: yes, because God says it is, even when my heart doesn’t.
And I try to imagine that in hiking terms: that I might make all the right choices, that I might take the right forks and choose to persevere and scramble up the scree and pick the right rocks and roots and cross the right creeks and at the end receive no return on my investment.
The choices on a hike are made with investment, resources, and an end in mind: is what I want and expect to see worth the resources I am about to spend on it? But love says there is no such thing as cutting losses, that my investment without promise of benefit or even breaking even is the order of the day. This is what sacrifice is. This is what love is.
We found the waterfall, by the way.
The view was not nearly so good as the view as several other waterfalls we saw with much less effort.
But love is different—and the hike was a reminder that, at least in when it comes to caring for others, the summit isn’t the point. The journey, with all of its hardships, is.