Thursday, December 24, 2020
When I was young man attending Camp Ridgecrest for Boys in North Carolina, there was one singular honor that all the campers aspired to achieve: the rank of Little Chief.
The Little Chiefs were the best of the best. The highest-ranked campers in the entire camp, they were chosen on the basis of maturity, selflessness and achievement. They were our leaders and our role models. Being “tapped out” for Little Chief was the highest honor any camper could achieve.
But being tapped out was only part of the selection process. Little Chief candidates had to meet a day- long challenge in order to achieve the rank—and it was not an easy thing to do. The Little Chiefs came into my cabin shortly after midnight and awakened me, bidding me to be silent. With grave expressions on their faces, they ushered those of us who had been chosen for the honor into the Lake Lodge and instructed us about the challenge that lay before us:
“You will gather wood for an hour and build a fire. The fire must be able to be ignited with a single match. You must then keep your fire burning with a visible flame until daybreak. You cannot sleep, you cannot eat, and you cannot talk. In the morning, we will inspect your fires. If they meet the standard, you will be taken to the second part of the challenge: The run up Mount Kitsuma.”
The run up the mountain was brutal: A two-mile sprint along a rock-strewn trail with a steady upward grade from 1600 to 3200 feet. If you fell or if you were passed by anyone else, you were out. I still remember how I made it to the bald, craggy peak of Kitsuma right before dawn. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, I took a canteen offered me by one of the Little Chiefs as those who had survived the run gathered on a rocky promontory to watch the sunrise.
Daybreak came as it always does in the Appalachians, at once subtle and spectacular, its first ochre rays clambering over the massive peaks as they slumbered on, shrouded in mist and shadow, before the incandescent disc drove away the night and began its daily climb toward the apex of the sky.
As I watched the shadows fade, John Cooke, one of the older Little Chiefs, looked out over the valley below. His back was towards us. John’s voice sang out, soft and low:
“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, Go tell it on the mountain, our Jesus Christ is born.”
John turned to face us. The brilliant rays of the morning’s sunlight were streaming all around him as he walked back towards us. In that singular moment, I felt something vital shift in me. My spine became straighter, my mind clearer, and my devotion to my faith was never more profound.
“Now you all know what that hymn really means,” John said. And although I knew I could not speak, I wanted to shout my affirmation of that understanding from the top of Mount Kitsuma.
I’ve been back to Mount Kitsuma many times since that day. I even took my wife and children there once. And each time I visit, I think of that beautiful long-ago summer morning, that glorious hymn, and my youthful epiphany on the mountaintop as I took my first faltering steps toward manhood.