It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to. - J.R.R. Tolkien
The epic is not something you plan, really.
It’s something you find yourself swept up into—often in spite of all your plans.
And the thing is, it typically starts out so unassumingly, so very un-epic, you have no idea what you are actually headed for. Or what it will cost you.
A game of hide-and-seek sends a little girl into a wardrobe, and from there, a hundred adventures and the redemption of a kingdom. A blacksmith agrees to shoe the horses of a band of passing crusaders, and from there inherits a kingdom and staggering warfare in the Holy Land. You see the same theme in all those fairy-tale-like stories in Scripture. Gideon was hiding in a well when the angel came calling. David was out tending sheep when he was called for. James and John were merely washing their nets as they’d done a thousand times before when the Rabbi called to them. Did they have any idea what their, “sure” would mean?
I wonder—when did Paul know he had been swept away? Was it during his first shipwreck, with the sound of splintering timbers and frantic shouts of desperate seamen all swirling in the storm around him? Spending a day and a night bodily adrift in the open ocean has got to re-frame your understanding of your life. Or was it his second? Certainly he had to know by the third (there were three shipwrecks in all - 2 Cor 11:25).
Honestly, I don’t think the moment came for our team when my bike went over the edge at 12,000 feet. I hit a boulder, and my front wheel shot in the air; the momentum brought my rear wheel smack into the same boulder and then the whole motorcycle was in the air, heading over. The landing was hard for sure; I secretly wondered how much internal damage I had done, and if I should try and get to a hospital (an irrelevant thought at that moment, hours from cell coverage and 911). Meanwhile we had a 500 lb motorcycle with some broken pieces on a 45-degree slope, way beyond pulling back up. And no winch.
But it was way, way before that wreck, actually, that we all knew the trip had crossed over from “adventure film” to something far more serious. Collision of the kingdoms serious. Momentous, in a way only God’s stories can be. It’s that momentum that gives you the early warning—following the beavers through the woods in hushed silence, the sudden attack upon Balian in the forest, the five thousand showing up for a sermon on a mountainside. And lunch.
The staggering warfare was an early sign. Never, in all my missions, have I had to stop and pray as frequently as we did on this trip. Not in Eastern Europe; nor in Australia; not even that dark mission we had in South Africa. It wasn’t just the multiple falls the day before, or the disheartening that had begun to creep into the cast and crew even before that. When evil darkness descends, you’re not dealing with low feelings or “bad thoughts.” You are dealing with “rulers…authorities…powers…spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12) and you must fight back or it will take you down. It tried to take us all down. The assault seemed way out of proportion—but when the orcs begin piling over the walls, you know you’ve pissed off Mordor and it is a very clear indication you have found yourself in one of God’s epic tales.
There was, for us, an ominous feeling back in Silverton, the day before the crash, when we stripped our bikes down for serious off road. Blaine and Jon privately conferred on medical supplies, “Here are the combat bandages in case someone is bleeding badly. Do you have the splint for broken bones or do I?” Our film crew was loading gear into two Tomcars—off road vehicles currently used by the Israeli military to patrol its borders. Guys called home to talk to their wives—an eerie scene reminiscent of soldiers before combat. When we rolled out of town we looked like an expedition, not a film trip. And that helps, actually. Once in awhile God gives you a mythic moment, a snapshot from a higher point of view, to put things in proper perspective.
I’ve learned over the years to watch for those early-warning signs that things have moved from a normal Tuesday afternoon into something far greater, far more dangerous. First comes a kind of sweep, or momentum, gaining speed and force. The momentum of God has a certain “tang” to it, like the whiff of revolution the disciples must have felt around those first campfires with Jesus; like finding Mr. Tumnus’ home ransacked by the secret police; like the smell of burning brakes.
Momentum was a ludicrous understatement when we found ourselves flying up mountain passes a little faster than we should, in Blue Angels formation, hot on the tail of a pickup with cameramen hanging out the back holding a $35,000 piece of equipment in order to catch the action. It’s those moments that make you hold your breath and wonder, How did we find ourselves in this?
The project had its humble beginnings, just like every other tale.
Years ago we discovered Long Way Round—Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman’s film series about riding BMW GS bikes around the world. We watched those episodes every summer for years, talked about how we’d love to do it ourselves some day. But those sorts of conversations are cheap and easy to come by. “Some day” is always a long ways off, comfortably speculative, and what guys are really doing when we throw ideas like that around is usually nothing more than armchair adventuring. We could banter about that trip because in truth it was an impossibly long ways off—seeing how none of us had ever ridden off road, let alone technical off road on very heavy German bikes, and none of us had access to a those bikes, let alone six of them.
But after the success of the Killing Lions films, the “water cooler conversations” (cigar conversations around here) regarding a new trip began to happen more frequently, more earnestly.
The thing is, once you get a taste of God’s epic invitations, a taste of being on mission with him, in spite of the horrible costs it gets into your soul. As Sebastian Junger wrote on forward combat posts in Afghanistan, “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know… In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.”
That sort of clarity of purpose and action and consequence on a mythic scale is intoxicating. You tend to forget the suffering and find yourself longing for the mythic again.
Jon Dale on our team had owned GS bikes and done actual trips on them. Dan Allender also had owned an F800, and we knew we wanted Dan to be part of this series because we wanted to tell a story about story, about how to understand your own story, and the story God is telling. Those facts felt more than coincidental; the idea gained legitimacy.
Then came that subtle but unmistakable moment I mentioned in our June issue, on a late night flight flipping through Overland Journal, reading a review of GS bikes. You should do it, went the voice. And it wasn’t just the voice of my own unbridled desire; desire is important but it is also insufficient to confirm divine guidance. It wasn’t that wild child inside that says jump! when you’re standing over a precipice, either. You don’t take on the epic on a whim. It was, unmistakably, the voice of God. Which did not soften the wildness of the proposition one bit. Truth is, when God suggests something fairly outrageous to you, and you know it is God speaking, you ought to find yourself holding your breath for a moment. Because he has this way of understating things, luring us into projects and undertakings that later prove staggering.
And thus the wardrobe door swung open.
And still we hedged our bets.
We didn’t really have a trip plan yet; we figured we could push this thing as far as it would go, and when it stopped going we would say it was a nice idea and walk away. Playing it on the safe side, we thought we’d go the lighter, cheaper KLR650 – Kawasaki’s answer to the bigger German bikes. Easier to handle. Lots easier to afford. It felt…less committed somehow. But after we rode the KLR and the F800 back-to-back there just wasn’t any arguing.
So we laid out our first fleece.
We figured if we could track down used late-model F800s, and if we could snag six of them for killer prices, we could probably sell them after the trip for what we got them for, and thus fund our adventure. On day one of our search an ’09 F800 fully decked for off road travel hit Craigslist in Colorado Springs. What are the chances, right? Two hours later it was ours. We found the next bike in Salt Lake City, then Phoenix; then Portland, Seattle, and one closer to home in Colorado. The Seattle and Portland bikes showed up via transport, at night, in the rain. The lift gate on the huge van began to lower and from the pitch-black bowels of the truck all you could hear were heavy voices, with Russian accents. It felt like something out of Bond movie. Then the headlights flared up, and out came the bikes like X-wing fighters.
The project had taken on a life of its own, accelerating, gaining momentum, like that huge round boulder Indian Jones accidentally sets chasing him in a spider-webby Incan tomb. It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.
The sense that God was writing something bigger than we thought was unmistakable when we went out to some serious sponsors—leading names in the motorcycle world—and asked for serious gear. We’re a popsicle stand to those guys, and a Christian one at that. They saw our Lions films and said, “We’re in. No one has made an adventure motorcycle film series of this quality. You will be the first.” Boxes started showing up at the outpost with Arai helmets and Klim suits, Sena headsets and all sorts of protective bike gear from Twisted Throttle. Then suddenly the president and chief designer of one sponsor are on a flight to Colorado Springs to install the gear themselves.
Suddenly this was very legit. When someone else believes in you, it has a way of making you believe in yourself, too.
Which is one of the other signs you watch for. When you take on the preposterous—especially the potentially lethal preposterous—desire is a good beginning, but you’d better look for confirmations before you commit. And after you commit. And the confirmations kept pouring in.
Dan said, “If we are riding these big machines on dirt, through water crossings, and over high mountain passes I am taking a course.” Jon was the only rider with real backcountry experience; the rest of us had mostly ridden street bikes. And the difference is about as great as being a pretty darn good tennis player, then suddenly finding yourself in a professional hockey game. A street bike cannot ford rivers and climb boulders; the little dirt bikes you’ve seen your cousin ride can’t make serious road trips and they can’t carry all your gear. The BMW GS is made for such adventures, and they are powerful, and they are monsters. If you drop one in a water crossing, it takes three guys to get it out. So Dan’s desire sounded like sober counsel; we checked into it and yet another serendipity happens—the official BMW authorized course which had for years only existed in California had recently opened a second location. Here in Colorado. And they had room for us.
So God kept pushing it bigger.
And it’s a good thing, too—that it was God making this filming project/adventure trip bigger and bigger, and not us.
I’m thinking of something Francis Schaeffer said years ago, in a beautiful sermon entitled, “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way.” He refers back to Jesus urging us to always take the lowest seat at the table, and let God be the one to call us up into something more (Luke 14:10). Schaeffer went on to say we should do the same with our projects—take a humble path and let God be the one to bring in the momentum if it’s supposed to be bigger. Let him provide the wave. Because when all hell breaks loose you want to know you are right where you are supposed to be, and the help of heaven is coming.
By zero hour on August 8 the guys had put in over 2,000 miles scouting for the trip. The drone crew we knew from the Lions project rolled into town, but this time they showed up with three new ships ready to shoot Hollywood-grade stuff. Our film crew came in up-graded too. And we spent eight days and a thousand miles in one of the hardest, most opposed, most glorious missions any of us have ever been a part of. Sleepless nights; rain; x-rays; that little incident with the semi on a blind curve; and the altercation with a 2,000 pound bull on Ute reservation land; nine hours in the saddle every day; heinous warfare. From the Sand Dunes to deep canyons to Hurricane and Engineer Passes, New Mexico to Wyoming. Capturing absolutely incredible footage.
We thought the wildness was over but the Great Momentum decided to take it even farther. He said we should make a feature film version.
The plan all along has been another series of short films—called A Story Worth Living—this one based around unraveling the mysteries of your own story in light of the Story God is telling. But when we returned, we each felt strongly that this story could only be told in a feature-length film. So did the director, and production house. So did our team, and a few generous supporters. More confirmations, more momentum, and we are now headed that direction: A full-length film coming early 2016, with twelve shorts to follow. Just another turn of events in life following the Wild Goose. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Meanwhile, we thought we’d share a few notes from the field with you, to help you watch for the signs in your own story.
You never know when the epic will come calling.