Two roads diverged in the middle of my life,
I heard a wise man say
I took the road less traveled by
And that's made the difference every night and every day
--- Larry Norman (with apologies to Robert Frost)
March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an
abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended
and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge
from eastern Oregon. Although spring was surely just around the
corner, the god of winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won
dominion without a tussle. There was a blanket of new snow in the
Cascades, and rain was now freezing on impact with the frigid
ground outside the house; enough reason for Mack to snuggle up with
a book and a hot cider and wrap up in the warmth of a crackling
But instead, he spent the better part of the morning
telecommuting into his downtown desktop. Sitting comfortably in his
home office wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt, he made his sales
calls, mostly to the East Coast. He paused frequently, listening to
the sound of crystalline rain tinging off his window and watching
the slow but steady accumulation of frozen ice thickening on
everything outside. He was becoming inexorably trapped as an ice
--- prisoner in his own home --- much to his delight.
There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine.
Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations,
performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules.
And unlike illness, it is largely a corporate rather than
individual experience. One can almost hear a unified sigh rise from
the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has
intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out
within her purview. All those affected this way are united by a
mutual excuse, and the heart is suddenly and unexpectedly a little
giddy. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some
commitment or other. Everyone understands and shares in this
singular justification, and the sudden alleviation of the pressure
to produce makes the heart merry.
Of course, it is also true that storms interrupt business and,
while a few companies make a bit extra, some companies lose money
--- meaning there are those who find no joy when everything shuts
down temporarily. But they can't blame anyone for their loss of
production, or for not being able to make it to the office. Even if
it's hardly more than a day or two, somehow each person feels like
the master of his or her own world, simply because those little
droplets of water freeze as they hit the ground.
Even commonplace activities become extraordinary. Routine
choices become adventures and are often experienced with a sense of
heightened clarity. Late in the afternoon, Mack bundled up and
headed outdoors to struggle the hundred or so yards down the long
driveway to the mailbox. The ice had magically turned this simple
everyday task into a foray against the elements: the raising of his
fist in opposition to the brute power of nature and, in an act of
defiance, laughing in its face. The fact that no one would notice
or care mattered little to him --- just the thought made him smile
The icy rain pellets stung his cheeks and hands as he carefully
worked his way up and down the slight undulations of the driveway;
he looked, he supposed, like a drunken sailor gingerly heading
toward the next watering hole. When you face the force of an ice
storm, you don't exactly walk boldly forward in a show of unbridled
confidence. Bluster will get you battered. Mack had to get up off
his knees twice before he was finally hugging the mailbox like some
He paused to take in the beauty of a world engulfed in crystal.
Everything reflected light and contributed to the heightened
brilliance of the late afternoon. The trees in the neighbor's field
had all donned translucent mantles and each now stood unique but
unified in their presentation. It was a glorious world and for a
brief moment its blazing splendor almost lifted, even if only for a
few seconds, The Great Sadness from Mack's shoulders.
It took almost a minute to knock off the ice that had already
sealed shut the door of the mailbox. The reward for his efforts was
a single envelope with only his first name typewritten on the
outside; no stamp, no postmark, and no return address. Curious, he
tore the end off the envelope, which was no easy task with fingers
beginning to stiffen from the cold. Turning his back to the
breath-snatching wind, he finally coaxed the single small rectangle
of unfolded paper out of its nest. The typewritten message simply
It's been a while. I've missed you.
I'll be at the shack next weekend if you
want to get together.
Mack stiffened as a wave of nausea rolled over him and then just
as quickly mutated into anger. He purposely thought about the shack
as little as possible and even when he did his thoughts were
neither kind nor good. If this was someone's idea of a bad joke
they had truly outdone themselves. And to sign it "Papa" just made
it all the more horrifying.
"Idiot," he grunted, thinking about Tony the mailman; an overly
friendly Italian with a big heart but little tact. Why would he
even deliver such a ridiculous envelope? It wasn't even stamped.
Mack angrily stuffed the envelope and note into his coat pocket and
turned to start the slide back in the general direction of the
house. Buffeting gusts of wind, which had initially slowed him, now
shortened the time it took to traverse the mini glacier that was
thickening beneath his feet.
He was doing just fine, thank you, until he reached that place
in the driveway that sloped a little downward and to the left.
Without any effort or intention he began to build up speed, sliding
on shoes with soles that had about as much traction as a duck
landing on a frozen pond. Arms flailing wildly in hopes of somehow
maintaining the potential for balance, Mack found himself careening
directly toward the only tree of any substantial size bordering the
driveway --- the one whose lower limbs he had hacked off only a few
short months before. Now it stood eager to embrace him, half naked
and seemingly anxious for a little retribution. In a fraction of a
thought he chose the chicken's way out and tried to plop himself
down by allowing his feet to slip out from under him --- which is
what they had naturally wanted to do anyway. Better to have a sore
butt than pick slivers out of his face.
But the adrenaline rush caused him to over compensate, and in
slow motion Mack watched his feet rise up in front of him as if
jerked up by some jungle trap. He hit hard, back of the head first,
and skidded to a heap at the base of the shimmering tree, which
seemed to stand over him with a smug look mixed with disgust and
not a little disappointment.
The world went momentarily black, or so it seemed. He lay there
dazed and staring up into the sky, squinting as the icy
precipitation rapidly cooled his flushed face. For a fleeting
pause, everything felt oddly warm and peaceful, his ire momentarily
knocked out by the impact. "Now, who's the idiot?" he muttered to
himself, hoping that no one had been watching.
Cold was creeping quickly through his coat and sweater and Mack
knew the ice rain that was both melting and freezing beneath him
would soon become a major discomfort. Groaning and feeling like a
much older man, he rolled onto his hands and knees. It was then
that he saw the bright red skid mark tracing his journey from point
of impact to final destination. As if birthed by the sudden
awareness of his injury, a dull pounding began crawling up the back
of his head. Instinctively, he reached for the source of the drum
beat and brought his hand away bloody.
With rough ice and sharp gravel gouging his hands and knees,
Mack half crawled and half slid until he eventually made it to a
level part of the driveway. With not a little effort he was finally
able to stand and gingerly inch his way toward the house, humbled
by the powers of ice and gravity.
Once inside, Mack methodically shed the layers of outerwear as
best he could, his half-frozen fingers responding with about as
much dexterity as oversized clubs at the ends of his arms. He
decided to leave the drizzly bloodstained mess right where he
doffed it in the entryway and retreated painfully to the bathroom
to examine his wounds. There was no question that the icy driveway
had won. The gash on the back of his head was oozing around a few
small pebbles still embedded in his scalp. As he had feared, a
significant lump had already formed, emerging like a humpbacked
whale breaching the wild waves of his thinning hair.
Mack found it a difficult chore to patch himself up by trying to
see the back of his head using a small hand-held mirror that
reflected a reverse image off the bathroom mirror. A short
frustration later he gave up, unable to get his hands to go in the
right directions and unsure which of the two mirrors was lying to
him. By gingerly probing around the soggy gash he succeeded in
picking out the biggest pieces of debris, until it hurt too much to
continue. Grabbing some first-aid ointment and plugging the wound
as best he could, he then tied a washcloth to the back of his head
with some gauze he found in a bathroom drawer. Glancing at himself
in the mirror, he thought he looked a little like some rough sailor
out of Moby Dick. It made him laugh, then wince.
He would have to wait until Nan made it home before he would get
any real medical attention; one of the many benefits of being
married to a registered nurse. Anyway, he knew that the worse it
looked the more sympathy he would get. There is often some
compensation in every trial, if one looked hard enough. He
swallowed a couple over-the-counter painkillers to dull the
throbbing and limped toward the front entry.
Not for an instant had Mack forgotten about the note. Rummaging
through the pile of wet and bloody clothing he finally found it in
his coat pocket, glanced at it and then headed back into his
office. He located the post office number and dialed it. As
expected, Annie, the matronly postmaster and keeper of everyone's
secrets, answered the phone. "Hi, is Tony in by chance?"
"Hey, Mack, is that you? Recognized your voice." Of course she
did. "Sorry, but Tony ain't back yet. In fact I just talked to him
on the radio and he's only made it halfway up Wildcat, not even to
your place yet. Do ya need me to have him call ya, or would ya just
like to leave a message?"
"Oh, hi. Is that you, Annie?" He couldn't resist, even though
her Midwestern accent left no doubt. "Sorry, I was busy for a
second there. Didn't hear a word you said."
She laughed. "Now Mack, I know you heard every word. Don't you
be goin' and tryin' to kid a kidder. I wasn't born yesterday, ya
know. Whaddya want me to tell him if he makes it back alive?"
"Actually, you already answered my question."
There was a pause at the other end. "Actually, I don't remember
you askin' a question. What's wrong with you, Mack? Still smoking
too much dope or do you just do that on Sunday mornings to make it
through the church service?" At this she started to laugh, as if
caught off guard by the brilliance of her own sense of humor.
"Now Annie, you know I don't smoke dope --- never did, and don't
ever want to." Of course Annie knew no such thing, but Mack was
taking no chances on how she might remember the conversation in a
day or two. Wouldn't be the first time that her sense of humor
morphed into a good story that soon became "fact." He could see his
name being added to the church prayer chain. "It's okay, I'll just
catch Tony some other time, no big deal."
"Okay then, just stay indoors where it's safe. Don't ya know, an
old guy like you coulda lost his sense of balance over the years.
Wouldn't wanna see ya slip and hurt your pride. Way things are
shapin' up, Tony might not make it up to your place at all. We can
do snow, sleet, and darkness of night pretty well, but this frozen
rain stuff. It's a challenge to be sure."
"Thanks, Annie. I'll try and remember your advice. Talk to you
later. Bye now." His head was pounding more than ever; little trip
hammers beating to the rhythm of his heart. "That's odd," he
thought, "who would dare put something like that in our mailbox?"
The painkillers had not yet fully kicked in, but were present
enough to dull the edge of worry that he was starting to feel, and
he was suddenly very tired. Laying his head down on the desk, he
thought he had just dropped off to sleep when the phone startled
"Uh . . . hello?"
"Hi, love. You sound like you've been asleep." It was Nan,
sounding unusually cheery, even though he felt he could hear the
underlying sadness that lurked just beneath the surface of every
conversation. She loved this kind of weather as much as he usually
did. He switched on the desk lamp and glanced at the clock,
surprised that he had been out for a couple hours.
"Uh, sorry. I guess I dozed off for a bit."
"Well, you sound a little groggy. Is everything all right?"
"Yup." Even though it was almost dark outside, Mack could see
that the storm had not let up. It had even deposited low, and he
knew some would eventually break from the weight, especially if the
wind kicked up. "I had a little tussle with the driveway when I got
the mail, but other than that, everything is fine. Where are
"I'm still at Arlene's, and I think me and the kids'll spend the
night here. It's always good for Kate to be around the family . . .
seems to restore a little balance." Arlene was Nan's sister who
lived across the river in Washington. "Anyway, it's really too
slick to go out. Hopefully it'll break up by morning. I wish I had
made it home before it got so bad, but oh well." She paused. "How's
it up at the house?"
"Well, it's absolutely stunningly beautiful, and a whole lot
safer to look at than walk in, trust me. I, for sure, don't want
you to try and get up here in this mess. Nothing's moving. I don't
even think Tony was able to bring us the mail."
"I thought you already got the mail?" she queried.
"Nope, I didn't actually get the mail. I thought Tony had
already come and I went out to get it. There," he hesitated,
looking down at the note that lay on the desk where he had placed
it, "wasn't any mail yet. I called Annie and she said Tony probably
wouldn't be able to make it up the hill, and I'm not going out
there again to see if he did.
"Anyway," he quickly changed the subject to avoid more
questions, "how is Kate doing over there?"
There was a pause and then a long sigh. When Nan spoke her voice
was hushed to a whisper and he could tell she was covering her
mouth on the other end. "Mack, I wish I knew. She is just like
talking to a rock, and no matter what I do I can't get through.
When we're around family she seems to come out of her shell some,
but then she disappears again. I just don't know what to do. I've
been praying and praying that Papa would help us find a way to
reach her, but . . ." she paused again, "it feels like he isn't
There it was. Papa was Nan's favorite name for God and it
expressed her delight in the intimate friendship she had with
"Honey, I'm sure God knows what he's doing. It will all work
out." The words brought him no comfort but he hoped they might ease
the worry he could hear in her voice.
"I know," she sighed. "I just wish he'd hurry up."
"Me too," was all Mack could think to say. "Well, you and the
kids stay put and stay safe, and tell Arlene and Jimmy hi, and
thank them for me. Hopefully I will see you tomorrow."
"Okay, love. I should go and help the others. Everyone's busy
looking for candles in case the power goes out. You should probably
do the same. There's some above the sink in the basement, and
there's leftover stuffed bread dough in the fridge that you can
heat up. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, my pride is hurt more than anything."
"Well take it easy, and hopefully we'll see you in the
"All right honey. Be safe and call me if you need anything.
It was kind of a dumb thing to say, he thought as he hung up the
phone. Kind of a manly dumb thing, as if he could help if they
Mack sat and stared at the note. It was confusing and painful
trying to sort out the swirling cacophony of disturbing emotions
and dark images clouding his mind --- a million thoughts traveling
a million miles an hour. Finally, he gave up, folded the note, slid
it into a small tin box he kept on the desk, and switched off the
Mack managed to find something to heat up in the microwave, then
he grabbed a couple of blankets and pillows and headed for the
living room. A quick glance at the clock told him that Bill Moyer's
show had just started; a favorite program that he tried never to
miss. Moyer was one of a handful of people whom Mack would love to
meet; a brilliant and outspoken man, able to express intense
compassion for both people and truth with unusual clarity. One of
the stories tonight had something to do with oilman Boone Pickens,
who was now starting to drill for water, of all things.
Almost without thinking, and without taking his eyes off the
television, Mack reached over to the end table, picked up a photo
frame holding a picture of a little girl, and clutched it to his
chest. With the other hand he pulled the blankets up under his chin
and hunkered deeper into the sofa.
Soon the sounds of gentle snoring filled the air as the media
tube turned its attention to a piece on a high school senior in
Zimbabwe, who had been beaten for speaking out against his
government. But Mack had already left the room to wrestle with his
dreams; maybe tonight there would be no nightmares, only visions,
perhaps, of ice and trees and gravity.
Excerpted from THE SHACK © Copyright 2011 by William P.
Young. Reprinted with permission by Windblown Media, an imprint of
FaithWords. All rights reserved.