Mysteries Too Marvelous

You might think I’m crazy, but sometimes we walk into mysteries too marvelous for our reasoning.

You might think I’m crazy, but . . . 

. . . a trail runs along the side of Mt. Pleasant, in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest.  About a hundred years ago, a hotel stood on the ridge overlooking the Piedmont plains to the east. Harsh Appalachian winds and the relentless forest have obliterated the hotel, but the trail retains its memory: it’s called, “The Hotel Loop.”

Old stone steps along “The Hotel Loop Trail” on Virginia’s Mt. Pleasant.

One autumn day in 1999, I hiked the Hotel Loop from its beginning where the Appalachian Trail cuts across “Tar Jacket Ridge.”  About a mile into the loop, I rounded a bend and an ordinary hike turned into a Vision Quest.  Let me explain.

The early October late morning sun shone from a cloudless sky through a canopy of yellow foliage.  A gentle breeze loosened a fluttering snow-fall of yellow, spear-shaped leaves, pirouetting and flickering as they fell onto a forest floor already carpeted in fallen yellow.  The very air had a warm, golden hue.

I stood transfixed. I closed my eyes and listened to the quiet whispering of the falling leaves pattering to the ground.  I felt the expanse of the mountain and the forest surrounding me, and it felt like an embrace.  A sense of a presence grew in the core of my body and this solo hiker knew himself to have company.  I had heard Native peoples speak of communing with their ancestors in sacred places, and I’d always listened respectfully, as a curious academician, but there, on the Hotel Loop on that October day, in that Golden Air, I knew my late sister was with me.  Others had come with her.  They smiled and sang. They celebrated. They reassured me.  I felt great joy, and a great sense of peace, and happy tears filled my eyes. I hadn’t planned on walking into a sacred space, but that’s exactly what I’d done and I had the presence of mind not to dismiss what I felt as some sort of yet-to-be-explained psychological phenomenon.

From time to time, we get to walk into mysteries too marvelous for our reasoning.  As I returned to my lodgings that evening, I knew I’d been given a gift.  Somehow, I’d been taught by wisdom teachers no one saw using words no one heard composing a lesson I cannot describe.  I returned to my lodgings, however, a slightly better man.

Appalachian maples on an idyllic October day.

The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, once observed that we modern humans live under the heavy weight of an “industry of distraction that makes us forget that we live in a universe.”  On the Hotel Loop, the sacred space reminded me that I live, move, and have my being in a breathing universe infused with invisible lines of connection that defy my tiny definitions of time and space.  Way too often, the life I live distracts me from this Truth.

Oddly, that’s also what this journey through cancer has done for me.  I’ve been forced to stop on this path I’ve been pursuing and remember the things that matter.  In radiation oncology, in the infusion clinic, at home with my wife, and surrounded by the regular encouragement of a loving community, I’m in sacred space.  The invisible lines of connection run from the Hotel Loop all the way to the Hospital.  This cancer cuts through the distractions and grounds me again in the Presence.

Perhaps, as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy increase the odds of my surviving this physical threat, the odds will also increase of my becoming a deeper, more compassionate human being.  That would be the greater healing.

By Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.

8 replies on “Mysteries Too Marvelous”

Your reflections spoke to me. Your thoughts always seem well framed and convey deep insights into life situations I typically walk by with little awareness. I hope your present treatment is not too bad–although I fear it is very difficult. I appreciate you and wish you health, strength and continued happiness. I hope to visit sometime. My sister in law is also going through cancer treatment (colon). She and husband, Larry Thompson, live in Hoover. All the best. Jim


Thank you for your very kind words, Jim. Perhaps, if y’all come to visit the Thompsons, you’ll give us a bit of your time, too?


I can’t even find words with which to respond to this true story. If we don’t have a taste for mystery, our beliefs in a divine presence will be limited to what we can see and explain. And that would be a real shame. What we can see is overrated; what we feel can be life-changing.


thank you, Drexel, for witnessing to what is more than we guess or imagine…also for the reminder of that beautiful loop trail and the bald of Cold Mtn.


Such a beautiful story Drexel. I totally understand and connect with what you shared. I once had a similar experience while driving alone in my car, engulfed in grief over the loss of my daughter. I began to remember one by one all the loved ones I had lost over the years and came to the relization that each of them seemed to be present in the car wkth me. It got crowded in there, full of joy.

I hope your strong faith will continue to sustain you through this difficult journey with cancer. Bill and I love and miss you and Vickie.


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