In the hills of life there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields where those who journey see afar, and the light lingers even when the sun is down; and one leads to the lower ground, where those who travel as they go, look always over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done.
You just read the opening paragraph of Harold Bell Wright’s classic novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills.” (I could only covet such a talent in writing!) It is an old story of the two possible roads people can take can take on the journey of life. A timeless story as true today as when Wright wrote it over a hundred years ago.
Last weekend, I found a 1907 edition of the novel in my late brother-in-law’s library. It reminded me of visits with the best brother-in-law anyone could have. Jimmy Whitaker. He was from near the Ozarks and regaled me with stories of growing up in that part of Missouri. Walking muddy roads to school; working hard at harvest time; crossing fields and creeks to visit his grandmother. He was a man of the soil, rich in honest values and down to earth morals. And he could tell a story as rich and colorful as any of Harold Bell Wright’s. He worked his way through John Brown University. The school began in 1919 in Siloam Springs, Ark. (Not the revolutionary John Brown who helped start the Civil War.)
(A little research found that at one time two John Brown graduates were from Brownwood: Mrs. Lillian Webb, ’33 and O. Jack Webb, ’36.)
For many years, Jimmy’s Cello Wrap Printing Corporation printed the lettering and art work on Mrs. Baird’s Bread and other such products. (But, I digress.)
The novel is set in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Finding the old copy at Jimmy’s house made for a meaningful re-reading.
Some readers may have seen the 1941 movie of the same name with John Wayne (young Grant Matthews), Betty Field (Sammy Lane) and Harry Carey (Daniel Howitt). As beautiful as the hills in the movie are, they do not compare to Wright’s descriptions and his apt dialect of the hills. (Other movie versions of the novel were in 1919, 1928 and 1964. It was also a stage play and a television production.)
“Preachin’ Bill” who ran the ferry in the story would not care much for San Angelo or West Texas or what he called flat land. He said, “A man jest naturally wear hisself plumb out a walkin’ on a level ’thout ary down hill t’ spell him. And then look how much more there is of it! Take 40 acres o’ flat now an’ hit’s jest a 40, but you take 40 acres o’ this here Orzak country and God ‘lmighty only knows how much ‘twould be if hit war rolled out flat.”
The two trails facing every person does not mean to simplify all the ins and outs, ups and downs of life’s choices, but in a broad way it illustrates how much our destiny depends on the roads we take.
Yogi Berra is as famous for things he never said as things he actually said. One thing he is supposed to have said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it! is of little help in steering us to the higher road.
Wise is the one whose choice is the high road from the beginning. But next best is to make the choice around the early years of maturity, making for a fuller life into middle age.
But for those whose wanderings have brought little joy or a lot of poor decisions, there is still hope that even in old age, choices can be made to make the days brighter and nights restful.
So don’t give up the ship. At anytime in life, it can be renewed and enriched if we set our sails toward higher ground. (Mixed metaphors sometimes work.)
Britt Towery is a former missionary, freelance writer and published author of “Carey Daniel’s China Jewell, story of the Gal from Buffalo Gap.” His columns are published in the Bulletin on Fridays. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other columns are available on his Web site, www.britt-towery.