Joseph Avenue Christmas is the story of one man's journey to the true meaning of Christmas. Not just the birth of the babe, but the salvation of the soul. Set on the wintry streets of Rochester, NY it is a visit to the heart of that city and the hearts of some of its best and bravest people. From their good example, and the simple lessons of their own lives and faith, a troubled man finds on a dark Christmas Eve an escape from an increasingly failed life.
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I was thinking as I walked into work the other morning of the quilts on Emer Wiltbank’s bed.
It was in one of the guest houses on his ranch in the mountains above Eagar, Arizona, more than 30 years ago, on the summer solstice, when the crisp forest air was strikingly cold.
I thought of the quilts because the chill of winter has come on and my mind wandered as I walked between the office buildings to the little bed and the warm layers of quilts.
I was a Mormon missionary then, when I was younger and better and braver.
And I had come down from St. Johns with another missionary and we had hitchhiked into the pine mountains to preach some gospel. There was a Rainbow Family gathering in the Apache National Forest and that put more people up in the mountains than in the little towns around them so we went to where the people were to do our job.
The Rainbow Family was a traveling nation of hippies, Grateful Dead-types, riding the 70s for all they were worth. From around the country they converged that year, as they converge every year, to denounce Babylon, smoke dope, mooch off each other, and, occasionally, walk around naked.
Elder Wilkinson and I had short hair and wore suit pants, white shirts and ties. We walked into the woods on wingtips. We each had a backpack full of pamphlets – “What the Mormons think of Christ” – and paperback copies of the “Book of Mormon.”
The encampment was broken into several parts across many acres. There were fires where people cooked, circles where they played guitar, mires where they wrestled and writhed, and shady places where they stood and talked. It was an impromptu city of 30,000 in the high Arizona mountains.
And we walked through it, talking to those who would talk to us, preaching and debating and testifying and teaching. We blessed those who asked for a blessing, and we gave out our books and pamphlets, and prayed with those who would pray with us. It went on that way all day. Two clean-cut establishment men in a sea of counterculture and BO.
But this isn’t about the Rainbow Family or about our day with them. It’s about Emer Wiltbank’s quilts.
As the afternoon gave the first hints of sliding into evening, Elder Wilkinson and I decided it was time to leave. We weren’t spending the night and we had to get out of the mountains and we had to get moving. So we started walking in the direction of town, or at least in what we thought was the direction of town.
But we were wrong, and soon we were on a dirt road, snaking over the successive ridges, nothing but high pine forest in every direction. There were no hippies in the woods, there were no cars to hitch rides with, there was no nothing but the dry air and the smell of pine and the long shadows of a dying day.
And we were thirsty.
We had not brought water with us and we had not drank since the early morning and through the long, hot day we had taught and sweat and walked, and now we were walking more, side by side, down the middle of the dirt woods road.
And we were more than thirsty. We were dehydrated. Almost to the point of being faint. Elder Wilkinson was from Alaska and I was from New York and we were both outdoorsmen and we both recognized that we were in trouble.
So we did what missionaries do.
We knelt down and prayed.
In the middle of the single lane of dirt between the tall pine trees.
We each prayed in our turn. First him and then me. We told God that we were in trouble, that we were thirsty, that we had gotten ourselves into a tight spot, and that we needed help.
We closed in the name of Jesus Christ, said “Amen,” and lifted our heads.
And heard the water.
Near at hand. On the side of the road, where the ditch was. It was running full with clear, cold water.
Which we had not seen before. Which had not been there before. For several miles we had walked along that road in the woods, and we had neither heard nor seen water.
And yet here was an ample supply, suddenly, miraculously, at our feet.
We walked to it, stunned and surprised, knelt beside it, said another prayer, of gratitude, and bent down to drink our fill. It was cold, it was delicious, we were saved.
And after several long minutes of drinking and resting, we stood and continued, walking into the gathering dusk.
Minutes later, the first either of us thought to notice, the sound of the rushing water was gone and the ditch beside the road was dust and dry.
Before long it was dark and the temperature fell considerably. The stars were brilliant but as we crested each ridge and hoped to see the lights of town or of passing vehicles we were disappointed. We were lost in the mountains and it was getting cold and we were hungry and fatigued and we felt the growing desperation of all who are lost.
Near midnight we came over one more ridge, exhausted and dragging, and saw a light. Far off, to the left of the road, in the lowland of a valley, easily three miles or more, a flicker in the black, a pole star.
We thought to leave the road and go overland toward it, but as we did we both instantly and undeniably felt horrible, almost sick, and reflexively came back to the road. There was a sense of urgency, and I’m not sure why, but we felt we had to get to the light as soon as we could, so we set out running, on the road, though it led us to 12 when the light was at 10.
We had run for quite some time when in the darkness there came a side road, perhaps a driveway, that led to where we had last seen the light. We turned down it and came to a barn and I remember thinking that if we found the ranch house I would be happy if they would let us sleep in the hay in the barn.
Quickly we came to a cluster of buildings and corrals with a mercury vapor light illuminating them all, and the dull roar of a generator in the background.
We went to the door of the house and knocked and a loud, gruff voice shouted out, “What do you want?”
I answered through the still-closed door, “We were lost, and we saw your light.”
The gruff voice uttered a profanity and added, “Just a minute.”
Then the door opened and there stood a big bear of a man. In the moment of recognition, the countenances on all our faces changed. Our fear became relief when we saw that he, not wearing an outer shirt, had on the religious undergarment of our faith. His anger became surprise and welcome when he saw our shirts and ties and nametags.
“Elders,” he roared, “what in the heck are you doing out here?”
He invited us in and we explained our day and our predicament and he had us follow him to a nearby building, the cook house, and he fed us out of tins of leftovers from the guest ranch we had stumbled into. People from all over came here to ride horses in the mountain splendor, it was a dude ranch for people who were something a little more than dudes. It was called Sprucedale and Emer’s mom and dad had bought it from the people who bought it from the pioneers who settled it. This was the old west, the beautiful west, and Emer was the genuine article.
He told us he thought we had been Rainbow Family people, come to barter for a calf or bum some food. He said we had arrived just in time, as he was about to turn off the generator and plunge the valley into darkness – extinguishing our pole star.
I sensed that as we ravenously ate his leftovers he thought we were fools for setting out without a plan to get home, and that maybe spending the day preaching to hippies wasn’t the smartest thing, and that we were darned lucky to have gotten to his ranch.
But he smiled a lot, and we smiled a lot, and I knew he had saved us. I knew that God had used him to save us. I knew that God had watched over us.
When we had our fill, he took us back to a guest cabin in the dark. There were two old wooden beds, each covered over with homemade quilts. The kind that are pieced together from scraps of fabric by old women in meetings with the ladies from church.
I remember thanking him and kneeling to say my prayers and climbing under the quilts in the black chill.
I’m sure after 30 years I have forgotten much of that day, but one thing I will never forget – the warm embrace of Emer Wiltbank’s quilts as I lay exhausted and sore on that guest-ranch bed.
That’s what I thought of the other day, walking to work between tall office buildings in the pre-dawn chill. I thought of a moment in my youth when I felt warm and safe and protected.
Against the mountain chill, and everything else.