If you want to go to Charit Creek Lodge, I wish you the most sincere of luck in getting there. Tucked firmly inside the Big South Fork National Park, it is accessible only on foot or horseback.
Myself, Drew Cline, Kortland Fuqua, and Jamie George found ourselves on the latter as we made our way to an elder’s retreat for my home church, Journey. The plan was to ride the horses to the lodge 12 miles and then keep the horses there at the stables for rides into the surrounding forests and mountains.
Ask 5 random people and they’ll tell you they haven’t heard of this massive sprawling 125,000 acre Nat’l park covered with forests, gorges, bluffs, mountains and rivers straddling the TN/ KY border. It’s located only 2 ∏ hours from Nashville on the Cumberland Plateau. When you hear the weather people say “it’s going to snow up on the plateau”, this is where they’re talking about.
Upon arrival at the lodge you’ll find a structure built somewhere in the mid 1800’s with some additional structures built more recently. Say around 1920. There is no electricity. The ceilings in the bunkhouse were all short, very closed in. The website describes this as the cozy accommodations. They were so cozy that at one point Jamie hit his head so squarely on the top of the surprisingly short door jam that it knocked him down. People in the 1800’s were clearly much shorter than we are 150 years later.
There are family style meals served by a full time inn keeper like dude who lives in a smaller cabin. He’s been here for 8 years living with no electricity in a cabin in the woods. My first impression would be that someone who lives here full time on purpose might have some issues. I had envisioned a dark well inside the staff quarters. If you were to eavesdrop you might hear the words “it wants to put the lotion on”. (my apologies for the obscure reference from Silence of the Lambs. just calling them as I see them) The guy actually turned out to be quite normal. His name is Brian. He’s a marathon runner, and quite the cook I might add.
And then there’s Larry.
Larry has been on this mountain for 30 years. He runs Southeast Pack trips and is equal parts mountain man/ ladies man. He’s got plenty of TN accent, but not the deep drawling kind as much as it is lively and entertaining. His catch phrase were “heavy duty” and “rock and roll”. As we pulled up to his barn, Quiet Riot “Bang Your Head” was blaring.
He seems to live life with his finger on the trigger, with 21 horses, a dog named Winchester, and a cool duster. No question if you needed a posse that Larry was your guy. Larry figured out that what he calls regular life, people like you and I call adventure. He has figured out that people would pay an interesting amount of money to live his life for a few days.
Every time I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted, Larry would shout, “operator error”. Larry told me later that day, “they’re pretty much stupid. They could buck us off at any minute and run away. They don’t. How stupid is that. ” This caused a philosophical shift in my approach to Spur. I had been thinking of it more like a carnival ride than a partnership between myself and Spur.
One night after dinner, Larry offered us a moonlight ride. This sounds way more romantic than it is. To be clear it’s riding your horse through the pitch black in the woods. You begin to understand exactly what happened to the headless horseman. Larry had been into the vodka a little bit that afternoon and there was definitely a question about the laws of drinking and driving applying to the horse. Ultimately I decided that since the horse hadn’t been drinking we should be just fine.
Larry said; “boys, you gotta trust your animal”. I asked Larry about his comments a couple days earlier that the horses were pretty much stupid, and he said ah, forget about that. He said they could see better in the dark. I asked him what about getting my head knocked off by branches. Larry said, the “problem with being tough, is that it’s tough”.
He took us on a trail a couple miles through the dark woods to the top of an overlook that was stunning by day and breathtaking by night. This dangerous ride turned out to be the highlight of our retreat. Learning that life with a guide is so much easier, so less scary. As long as I knew Larry was leading the way, I had a sort of calm. He had been this way before. After 30 years of this, he knew where he was. There were scary moments, but overall it felt peaceful. I was bolstered because I was with a band of brothers whom I trusted. I had Spur, whom I was forced to trust, and who proved himself trustworthy.
I learned that with the right folks around me, the right guide in front of me, the right horse beneath me, that I could go places and experience things I would’ve never dare think of by myself. We stood there on the edge of a cliff while Drew sang How Great Thou Art accapella and God was there.
There is so much that we’ve accomplished at Conduit because we’ve done it together. We’ve gone places that we wouldn’t have gone because we did it together. We have an amazing guide in the Holy Spirit and Jesus who carries us. He is indeed trustworthy. We’re not an institution. We’re a band of people saying yes to the adventure, the danger, the beauty of a relationship with God. How is it possible that the idea of “church” became so boring, so domestic over the centuries?
What I realized Larry meant wasn’t that Horses were stupid, it was that they were servants. They have the power to kill me, or at the very least throw me a few feet in the air and choose not to. They’re not stupid, they’re servants. They’re trustworthy. They’re not tame; they’re just kind.