During the late ’50s, possibly it was the early ’60s, I was visiting family at Vantage, Wash. Nearby, behind the newly finished Wanapum Dam, rising waters of the Columbia River would soon inundate most of 300 well-preserved rock paintings, or petroglyphs, bearing witness to the dreams and doings of a primitive people. Sixty of the 300 petroglyphs had been cut from the basalt cliff face and saved by the state university. Those remaining would become lost to sight after the rising river covered them. I knew I wanted to be among those who would look upon them for the last time.

It was August. Azure skies leaned over an arid landscape where desert winds raised distant dust devils. Temperatures were in the upper 80s. Provisioning myself with a map, a hefty lunch and water, I trekked the several miles along the river to where I might view the remaining petroglyphs. Here in New England, whenever passing one of the ubiquitous stone walls by the roadside, I muse upon whose hands might have been the last to touch the bottommost layers of stones. How long ago? A hundred years? Two hundred years? Coupling such thoughts with what I then was about, I sat there by the river and ate my lunch, contemplating those ancient scrawlings of a people, who, like me, knew themselves to have been cast upon another river — the flowing river of time.

I sometimes muse upon what I thought I was about when I set out upriver. I wanted, I suppose, to “touch” or be in the presence of something old, something that was to pass away, as I was “passing away.” Are we not to consider, as the Psalmist declaims, that “our years come to an end like a sigh and we fly away”? My tramp upriver was for the purpose that I might look upon some ancient petroglyphs — nothing more. I had not counted upon the possibility of an ordinary day turning extraordinary.

Inwardly, I was grasped by mental hoverings that saw the rising waters as a metaphor of God’s grace encompassing my life. I can only say that my first purpose gave way to an inner compelling that involved a time of self-examination, while awakening me to a richer appreciation of what it meant to be alive on this planet. I moved to the water’s edge, found 12 substantially sized rocks, and placed them in the form of a pyramid. Placing the rocks singly, I let each rock equal something. Here was confession of sin. With other rocks I laid down for the river’s hiding certain haunting and painful memories. Others, completing the 12, signaled my thanksgiving for the joy of being. I assigned to them my prayerful desire to take fresh bearings for living into the future.

It was one journey. That journey, however, turned into an inner journey of spirit and heart — a journey framed by a mindfulness of the preciousness of our lives. It was a recognition of something said long ago by G.K. Chesterton: “We have come to the wrong star. That is what makes life at once so splendid and so strange. The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We come from somewhere else.” In this world, for a little while, prudently we pursue such dreams and purposes nurtured in us by personal inclination, circumstance, family and place. We may take little notice of life’s mysterious and underlying potency to shape our lives along purposes other than our own. Still, now years away from that day’s excursion, I am grateful for how an ordinary day turned extraordinary, revealing to me the otherness of my life.