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A Family Overcomes Storms While Hiking the John Muir Trail

Was God calling his family to bond in the great outdoors? Or was it his own ambition? 

Guideposts: The O’Neills reached new heights at the 14,500-foot summit of Mount Whitney.

We were a sorry sight coming off the trail. My wife, Julie, and I, and our two kids, Cade, 13, and Rebekah, 11, staggered to the gravel parking lot where we sloughed off our backpacks. Our legs were caked with dust, our clothes smeared with mud. We were ready to collapse.

Worst of all was the fear. Fear in our eyes and defeat in our bodies. We’d almost died out there. We had set out to fulfill our long-held dream of hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail through California’s Sierra Nevada. We hadn’t made it. Everyone felt crushed. And I blamed myself.

Just the day before, we’d cowered in our tents, arms braced against the poles as 50-mile-an-hour winds and slashing rains threatened to wash us away. We were down to half a day of food. The minute the storm cleared we raced back down the mountain. Along the way we had to cross a creek swollen to a raging torrent. We crawled across wobbly logs, certain one would give way.


I’ve hiked thousands of miles in the backcountry. Julie and the kids are strong, experienced backpackers. Yet I’ve never been more scared than I was at that moment. The kids knew it. They saw it in my face. Knowing that my own fears amplified theirs was the hardest part of all.

This was actually our third summer walking the JMT, as hikers call the iconic trail. Every time, something had gone wrong. Blisters, storms, altitude sickness, misjudged food supplies—you name it, we’d been hammered by it.

Standing there in that parking lot, shaken and exhausted, I at last allowed myself to ask the question that had been gathering force inside me—inside all of us—the longer we hiked. Why were we doing this? It was a family dream, yes. But it had been my dream first. A dream I’d nurtured before I even had a family.

I’d loved mountains ever since I spent teenage summers working at a youth camp in the High Sierra. I experienced God in a whole new way in that light-filled, granite-rimmed wilderness above the tree line. I wanted to pass that love on to my wife and kids. I wanted us to be an outdoors family, our bonds strengthened by shared adventures in God’s grand creation.


But was my dream making our family stronger? Or just pushing everyone too far? I had high standards when it came to the wilderness. I wanted more than an RV campground. I loved the remote places, the dramatic landscapes miles away from any trailhead. That’s where I sensed God calling us, where he could bind us closer to each other, and to him.

Driving home to Oregon, we all did our best to remember good moments from the summer. But whenever my thoughts strayed to that harrowing creek crossing, I wondered if I’d misjudged God’s call. I wouldn’t be the first dad to confuse his own ambitions with God’s desires for his family.

I knew Julie and the kids shared my love of the wilderness. Julie and I had gone hiking on our first date in college. We backpacked right after our honeymoon, and Cade and Rebekah had spent every summer of their lives exploring wild places with Julie and me. Those experiences forged us as a family.

And yet I was always pushing for more. Julie and I were schoolteachers, and every summer we unplugged and headed for high altitude. However many miles we logged each summer, I aimed for more the next. However high we climbed, I aimed higher.

The John Muir Trail was a capstone. It threads the highest, most remote, most beautiful regions of the Sierra Nevada. The kids were seven and nine when I first sketched out plans to complete the trail with them. It took two more years before Julie finally agreed they were ready—provided we spread the hike over several summers, stitching together sections of trail until we’d walked the whole thing.

The kids were excited. Julie was game—cautiously. I was overjoyed planning our trek.

Had I ever stopped to consider that our family could be strengthened in the outdoors without hiking more than 200 miles in barren wilderness? I remembered a haunting question Julie had asked me once: “If I didn’t keep hiking with you, would you still love me?”

We’d been sitting on a rocky lakeshore in California’s Trinity Alps. Just two years earlier, during our post-honeymoon trip, Julie had suffered a grand mal seizure and plunged down a precipitous snowfield. She’d been airlifted out by helicopter. We never learned what caused the seizure and she’d never had another one. But we took a summer off from backpacking. That trip to the Trinity Alps was an experimental return to the mountains.

“Of course I’d love you!” I replied.

But did my behavior show that?

After our third unfinished JMT trip, we all got back to normal life. School started, the kids returned to sports, and Julie and I resumed leading worship at church and giving piano and guitar lessons to earn extra money for our next summer trip.

I raised the possibility of completing the JMT with Julie in January—you have to apply early for trail permits.

“I don’t know, Cory,” she said. “That storm last summer. We could’ve died.”

“I know,” I said. “That was my fault for not turning back sooner. I’ll be way more cautious this time. We only have forty-five miles left to Whitney. We can start later in summer when we have the best shot at good weather.” “Whitney” meant 14,500-foot Mount Whitney, the end of the JMT and the tallest peak in the continental United States. We’d hiked all but that last section of the trail.

Julie seemed to wrestle inside herself. I knew what she was thinking—what if Whitney’s extreme altitude triggered another seizure? Plus, the kids had never climbed so high.

“Do you think Cade and Rebekah are ready?” she asked.

I wanted to do the right thing. “Physically, I think we’re all ready,” I said. “Let’s pray about it. If God wants us to do this, he’ll make it happen.”

In the end, it was the kids who gave us the final push. Rebekah was shocked that we would even consider not completing the trail.

“It can’t possibly be worse than last year,” Cade said.

“The only thing worse would be if we didn’t go at all,” Rebekah said. “That’s my favorite place in the world.”

“Mine too,” said Julie. “I think we have our answer.”

We planned every detail. As soon as summer started we began taking day hikes at progressively higher altitudes to acclimate ourselves. I made sure we had enough food and pared every possible ounce from our packs. We left room in the schedule for storm delays and other mishaps.

Skies were blue as we set out on the trail. We crossed our first high-altitude pass without incident, then descended into a lush meadow rimmed by jagged peaks. Julie and the kids were strong chugging up the next pass, more than 13,000 feet. Then we traversed the vast, barren Bighorn Sheep Plateau, named for the species that lived on the surrounding slopes.

At last, after a glorious series of clear, calm days and star-blanketed nights, we reached the base of Whitney. We camped at a lake near the summit trail, then awoke before dawn to begin the climb, walking with headlamps until the sun rose.

We were all breathing heavily in the thin air, our steps slowing as the trail rose higher. More mountains came into view. I glanced at the splendor but mostly kept my gaze fixed on Julie and the kids, alert for signs of altitude sickness, exhaustion, dehydration.

Everyone slowed even more as the summit approached. At first I worried that they were getting tired. But I realized they were simply savoring the moment. When the summit itself appeared around a bend, I glanced at Cade next to me and saw tears. Julie and Rebekah were crying too. I gave in to my own tears.

I looked at my family standing atop giant rock slabs, their faces lit with grins, their arms raised in triumph. I thought of everything they’d endured to reach this place. And with the clarity of High Sierra sunlight, I at last understood why we had hiked the John Muir Trail. It wasn’t because I had misjudged God’s call or forced my wife and kids into my overambitious vision. It was because we were all called to do this.

We were all changed by the experience. We were a family bound together by the challenges no less than by the triumphs. Here on this mountaintop it was easy to feel God’s presence. But he’d been with us every step of the way. Through every mishap, every storm. He’d taught us to rely on each other and on him. That was the point of the hike.

I held Julie tight as the kids clambered off to investigate a stone shelter near the summit. I didn’t need to follow them, to make sure they were safe. Up here, on this hard-won peak, we were all held and strengthened by a love I could trust. The love that raised these mountains up and that draws us all ever closer, ever higher.

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