Wilderness Ranch

I was 17 years old.

Close to 40 years ago.

The phone rang and I answered it in our kitchen. No cell phones back then.


"Yeah, Greg. This is Rich Crooker with Young Life. How are you?"

"I'm good," I said. I had only been to one or two Young Life clubs during my Junior Year of high school. It was summer now, a month or so away from the beginning of my senior year. I wondered why Rich was calling me?

"Hey, I'm taking some folks on a backpacking trip to Colorado with Young Life to a place called Wilderness Ranch. We have an opening if you would like to go."

My heart started beating hard in my chest. I had never been out of the state of Missouri. The idea of traveling all the way to Colorado overwhelmed me.

"Uh, that sounds like an amazing trip, but I don't think I can go. I don't think I could get off work at McDonalds, we don't have a lot of money, and I'm sure my parents wouldn't let me go."

"I see," Rich calmly answered. "Well, we have some scholarship money to help you with the cost. If you would like to go, just ask off from work. We will be gone the first week of August. And ask your parents. I'd be glad to talk with them about the trip too. If they say no or work says no, then you don't go. But if they say yes, would you want to go? Mark Mathes, Valerie Starnes, David Clemenson, and Kris Davison are all going."

I knew and liked all three of those guys and Valerie. This sounded like an amazing adventure.

"Sure, sounds like a great trip. I'll ask."

I was shocked to hear my parents say I could go. Well, my Dad said no at first, but he always said no at first. And Randy, my boss at McDonalds, was very nice to give me the week off. So in August of 1981 I went to Wilderness Ranch with Rich Crooker, my friends Mark, David and Kris, Valerie, and Suzie, a college student at Southwest Missouri State University Rich recruited to help lead the trip. At Wilderness we had three guides lead us out for six days and nights living in fly tents and hiking many miles a day with backpacks in the rugged mountains of southwestern Colorado. 

Wilderness Ranch to this day was the greatest and most impactful week of my life. It was the place where I witnessed the grand beauty and majesty of God's creation. Around the campfires I listened to our guides open up small Bibles and read about Jesus and his words of hope and love. I got to hear lifestories of my friends, and for the first time in my life, share my own story of who I was...which at that time I was very unclear the answer to that question. 

Wilderness Ranch was also a very challenging and at times difficult week. We hiked in rain almost every day. Our backpacks weighed 50-60 pounds. The air was thin and there were days it seemed we would never stop hiking. I remember getting frustrated and wanting to quit, wishing I was back home with my Camaro and other friends. But at each campsite hearing the stories of Jesus, smelling the sweet fragrance of pine mixed with crystal clear streams, and sharing the experience of an adventure with friends, my heart was slowly changed. Forever changed.

Now, forty years later, I think back to that time. I stare at the picture you see with me of those who experienced the shared adventure. I with my dark shaded glasses, trying to look tough, while on the inside discovering my heart forever knit to my Savior. I recall staff driving us from the mountains back to base camp. I recall hot tears streaming down my face, knowing that my life was forever transformed.

My life over the past forty years has actually mirrored those six days and nights in the Wilderness of Colorado. Like that trip, my life has been a journey. At times, fatiguing, difficult, but at other times, exhilerating as I follow now not a Wilderness Ranch guide, but the Shepherd of my soul. He leads me through many valleys, especially the past few years. He has shown me some amazing vistas as well, and knit my heart deeper into His. Along this journey I have met my wife of now over 28 years, been blessed to have raised two sons, been involved in the lives of hundreds of teenagers and young adults, and been able to love and serve my Mom before her passing nearly eight years ago...and now struggle through the process of my 88-year-old Dad's declining adventure.

Wilderness Ranch taught me to keep walking no matter how tired I get, because I'm not alone, and the guide knows the way. It taught me the power and joy of walking with others. It taught me that every journey has both valleys and mountaintops, dark-wooded wildernesses and streams of rejuvenation.

As I continue my journey in this life, I'm thankful God led Rich Crooker to call me to invite me on an amazing adventure. 

The adventure continues. One step in front of the other. Through Covid, betrayal of friends, loss of loved ones, heartache over my son's battles, anxiety and fatigue in my own life and failings...I will press on.

The Shepherd leads on.

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