The Truth About Two Kinds of Wilderness

I loved the wilderness as a kid. May be even more drawn to it as an adult.

My father’s love for duck hunting ensured I spent my fair share of time in the

My dad, David Watkins, doing what he loved so much. Duck hunting on the St. Francis River. I must have seen him strike this pose a thousand times.

My dad, David Watkins, doing what he loved so much. Duck hunting on the St. Francis River. I must have seen him strike this pose a thousand times.

woods. Each cold, dark morning as we’d make the 15-minute boat trip to the duck blind I’d always imagine Curt Gowdy’s voice in the back of my mind as if we were the featured adventure on American Sportsman. Every moment on that river thrilled me.

Other days I enjoyed building stick houses at a small pecan grove near our home. I could take refuge there protecting our homestead from the mammoth creatures that would surely would make their way down County Road 513. Settling into those stick shelters was especially fun on the rare winter days when a deep snow blanketed the countryside and you could hear a pin drop from miles away.

At 49 years old, the television I enjoy most today are any number of shows where a guy gets dropped in the woods with nothing more than a machete and a rusty tin can to survive for a week. The idea of it all obviously appeals to a significant demographic and I think John Eldredge had it right in his 2001 bestseller Wild at Heart where he contended so many men are bored with themselves and fail to pay attention to the deepest desires of their heart that would ultimately make them more valuable to their families and society.

In 35 days I’ll catch a couple of planes and a train en route to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to trek the 550 miles of the ancient pilgrimage Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.  And honestly, I’m already feeling the faint call of the Appalachian Trail  for the grandaddy of all wilderness adventures.  Each year, a few thousand people attempt a thru-hike on the AT from Georgia to Maine, or the reverse. Only a couple of hundred make it. Seriously, how can anyone resist that challenge? Dana wisely reminds me to take these things one at a time and savor the day. Alas, she knows my proclivity to self-sabotage the grandest of plans.

Yes, I love the wildness, and have spent my fair share of time wandering there. Sometimes, it was with intention. Other times, not so much.

It’s the difference in the wilderness that we

(1) Accidentally find ourselves in, and;

(2) the one we intentionally put ourselves in.


Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 5.54.55 AMI’m betting there was a time in your life when things were going really well. You were climbing the professional/social ladder, your relationships fruitful and abundant,  people cared what you thought, said, and did. You enjoyed a series of mountaintop experiences and the view from your vantage point was pretty spectacular.

And just as quickly, something happened. A layoff. A broken relationship. A shortcoming in judgment that violated your moral conscience.  And all of a sudden the view from 20,000 feet is much less picturesque. You’re in a valley and the trail leading out seems impenetrable.  Mostly, you feel lost and very alone.

A few years ago I had both a friendly and professional relationship with a local church pastor who was doing a great job leading a congregation out of a nasty church split.  He was a decent and moral man. I believe he still is.

But somewhere along the way he picked up some bad personal habits that got him into money trouble. For four years, the church withheld payroll taxes from staff paychecks, but the $150,000 in withholdings never made it to the IRS. Then there was a $450,000 bank loan that used the church’s real property as collateral, but it, too, was never directed to the greater good. It all went in the pastor’s pocket.

Months later I sat in a federal courtroom in Little Rock and watched a judge sentence him to 33 months in prison and full restitution. I’ve never seen a man who, more abruptly, found himself in the wilderness.


The wilderness has a way of sifting us down and reducing us to the core of who we are, and to the crux of what we need. Just like the church pastor, I’ve found myself in the deepest of wilderness valleys on a few occasions. They were times God used to teach me things like patience, humility, and a greater understanding for the plight of others.

The consistent thing I’ve found about different times waking up in the wilderness is this: There’s always a cost to leave. You may have to leave some friends behind. Some habits or dependencies.  Some things you thought to be your greatest pleasures.  But God supplies the strength to do so and he opens up a clear trail to the next mountaintop with an ever greater view. Entering the wilderness is free. There’s a cost to take your leave.


With intention, Jesus put himself in the wilderness for 40 days. While I’m not sure all the reasons are clear for his doing this, I think among them was to show us the fixed, North Star quality of scripture and the way it grounds us in helping to resist temptation. Matthew 4: 1-11 is some really good stuff. Today, as I’ve “evolved” I believe more than ever that the key to life is God’s spoken word revealed in the Bible. I know not everyone believes that, but I surely do.

For almost four years now, Ecuador has been my wilderness. The times I’ve spent there with Dana, and sometimes, alone, have been among the most formative in my life. It’s a quiet place, where I can think, and be, and do, without distraction, and I’ve always believed I returned from Ecuador a better person than when I went.


While the first wilderness costs you something, the second wilderness gives you something.  It’s why I’m looking so forward to the Camino. I desire this wilderness experience, and I pursue it with expectation.

Whichever wilderness you may find yourself in, you can come out better on the other side. I promise.


9 thoughts on “The Truth About Two Kinds of Wilderness

  1. It’s true – both kinds of wildernesses will profoundly shape us, if we let it. I have found that the wilderness has actually become a comfortable place – eventually we can choose to maintain a portion of our life in “perpetual wilderness.”

    Are you sure that is not Paul Newman in that picture – wow, what a striking resemblance!


  2. Another jewel Steve! Completely on target as usual. Brought to mind a proverb that readily say, “humility comes before honor”… So true. Thoughts and prayers for your journey. —Dom

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Interesting read, Steve. My Camino was 40 days last fall, 8/23-10/01/14, and far too crowded to be considered a walk in the wilderness, at least by most meanings. Yours ought to be less busy at this time of year, but not less civilized.

    Many of the people on Camino are not undertaking the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons, so there will be “wilderness” in that respect. However, many pilgrims are seeking a higher purpose, so your comments about Wild at Heart are apropos. Additionally, you will generally be able to walk alone if you choose, and have time to “think, and be, and do” if/when you want to.

    I’m less religious than I used to be, but still spiritual. The Camino will provide ample opportunity to experience either and both, and I recommend visiting the little local churches and monumental cathedrals along The Way. The pilgrim mass in Burgos brought me to tears.

    Spending time in Ecuador, I assume you’ve got some Spanish. If not, try to pickup a little before you go, as it will enhance your experience in Spain. Duolingo is very basic, but decent for a free app.

    Buen Camino!

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