Search
  • Stephen Cook

One Step at a Time.

Updated: Oct 12

When walking by faith feels like walking up a strange mountain in the dark.



One step at a time

One turn at a time

Anyone who really knows me well will know that, in truth, I am deathly afraid of the dark and being alone in the woods at night. I remember, growing up I was even afraid of the dark basement and was always quick to find the nearest light switch. Playing and walking in the woods around our house was always fine but I would never dare venture in the woods at night. Fear of the darkness is something that we often associate with youth and adolescence. But I think that at its core, we never really grow out of it. We may grow out of it to an extent and we learn to manage our juvenile fears but as humans, we will always fear something. At times I think to myself “surely there are other people out there who share the same fear” and then other times I think “no I’m pretty sure I am literally the only adult that’s still afraid of the dark.”

One step at a time

One turn at a time

For most of my life I’ve always had someone to do big things with. Growing up, my brother and I, though four years apart, were close and did most everything together. There was even a short span of time where we went to the same college together. We shared the same bedroom growing up, we had the same jobs for a time, he was my first roommate after moving out of the house, we traveled out west together to see the grand canyon, we shared the same phone plan but then…he got married.

One step at a time

I had suddenly lost my partner and support. Sure, I’ve always been a very independent person and have certainly done well to grow and find my own feet but somehow nothing really prepares you for that kind of change. Up to that point, I had never really made many decisions alone and for myself. There were certainly decisions that I’ve made on my own and choices I’ve made for my own path but for most of my life there was always someone else there. Since then, anytime that I traveled somewhere distant I would always have someone to go with. I discovered that I was fine with road tripping somewhere alone and found myself exponentially growing with each expedition “within driving distance.” But I still would desperately make the effort to find someone to come with me. But flying anywhere on any kind of significant trip alone, much less camping alone, was still quite out of bounds for me.

One turn at a time


So this trip to the pacific northwest was truly a boundary breaker for me. After my many road trips to the mountains that I had taken, I realized that I had become practiced in my travels and that I kind of had a system down. I had my way of moving from one photo location to another, always being guided by the weather and the light. For me, getting the best photo possible was priority, and if that meant a great deal of driving and even backtracking then that’s what I was going to do. To be honest, I actually kind of wanted to go on this trip alone. The thought excited me and scared me at the same time. So I got my plane ticket, booked a rental car, and took off to the other side of the country. The entire trip was indeed incredible and I was even able to meet and make friends with a few locals.

One step at a time

But the part I want to highlight is the last day of the trip. It came down to the last day that I would be out there and I had one final sunrise to photograph before coming home. I finished up at my sunset location, cooked and ate dinner, made coffee for the road and sat in the car for a bit to determine where I would go for my last sunrise.

I settled on a location that I knew would be epic and pulled it up on google maps; it was fairly close by and would be about an hour to an hour and a half drive which would put me there at around midnight. There was just one small catch. There was a long “unmaintained” gravel road I would have to drive up to even get to the trail head.

One turn at a time

One step at a time

Now, I had done my research. I knew about the infamous gravel road before going into it. A blog I had once read described it as a “white knuckle affair” and that some who drive it choose to park and walk up the final two miles. It spoke of shear drop offs, steep inclines and of course the dreaded switchbacks and hair pin curves. When booking the trip, I made sure to book an SUV so I felt fairly confident I could make it but I knew it could prove to be a challenge. But to put a kink in things, I was already driving on a spare tire from the flat that I got while driving down the last gravel road. And that one was maintained! This particular road was described as “unmaintained”…”by anyone.” I weighed my pros and cons and thought about the payoff I would get at the top. So I went for it.


One step at a time

One turn at a time


After driving for some time to, I finally reach the narrow gravel road and plunge right in without hesitating. I made my turn and said “alright…here we go.” It’s bad. And there’s no cell service. In hindsight, now that I’ve seen it in the daylight, it’s not that bad. Realistically speaking, it’s doable for a regular car towards the beginning but once you get miles deep into the forest there’s really no way anything other than a car with good ground clearance could make the drive. Now understand, I’m a good driver. And I’m typically fine with rough gravel roads, provided I’ve seen them in the daylight. But remember, it’s pitch dark outside and this is a totally new and foreign location for me, I’m in a rental car, and I’m driving on a spare tire.

One turn at a time

One step at a time

Progress is slow. The road is tight. Outside of my driver side window is the steep embankment rising up and out of sight. Outside the passenger side window is black nothingness. Every so often I would pass a small widening of the road, that hardly classifies as 2 lanes, to allow for oncoming traffic to pass by. Thankfully, there’s no one else in sight for me to try to pass. Well truthfully, seeing someone else out here in the middle of nowhere, as crazy as me, might give me some comfort. But nope, not a soul. I keep as far away from the drop off as possible so I hug the left side praying that I don’t have to pass anyone. I pick my path carefully. It’s definitely living up to its reputation. A couple of times, I stop to get out and survey the steep terrain ahead of me and to chart my course. I get about halfway there and I pass by a random trail head that also makes its start along the road. There are a number of cars parked there. I breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that there are in fact other people in the area and this must be somewhat of a normal thing to do. The road levels out and widens as I pass through the area. I pause for a moment debating whether or not to call it quits and just park here with all the other people. But that would leave a great deal of ground to cover on foot; so I press on.

One turn at a time

I know from looking at maps that towards the end of the road there would be a series of switchbacks making the final ascent to the trailhead. So I purposed in my mind I would at least see if I could make it to the switchbacks. I knew that since they were toward the end I would be able to walk the last bit without too much trouble. As I continued, the road only seemed to get worse. The more I drove, the rougher it got. I stop a couple of times, debating about going back down to where I saw the other cars. But that would mean backing down this craziness because there was certainly no way to turn around. No thanks! “You first bro bro” I said to myself. Instead, I get out and examine the road in front of me and decide to press on.

One step at a time

One of the great things about technology and smart phones these days is that I can watch my dot move in real time on google maps. There’s still no cell service but I’m able to see where I’m at on the road from when it last loaded earlier that night. I’m keeping a close watch to see when I get close to the switchbacks. I nervously speed over the next few humps as going slow doesn't work. My rental isn’t a 4x4 so getting up some of these steeper and more rough spots just won’t work at a slow pace. Confidence is key when dealing with these matters. I glance at my phone again and just coming into view on the screen are the switchbacks. And I am now coming up the last stretch before the first hair pin turn. I encounter yet another large awkward hump. With the towering mountainside out my left window and black nothingness out my right, I am anything but confident in this matter, lol. I get out of the car and walk up the road to scope it out. I decide to call it.

One turn at a time

I know that I could probably do it without much trouble if I put my mind to it, but I put my foot down and decide to not chance it. In the words of one of the Mandalorian characters, “I have spoken!” I’m in an unfamiliar place, it’s pitch dark, I can’t see more than a few yards in front of me, I’m in a rental car on a spare tire, the list goes on. It was too much, and I just wasn’t confident in continuing on. The last turn out in the road that I had passed was just behind me and could potentially make for a good spot to park and be out of the way should anyone drive by. The remaining bit of road to the top I knew I could walk up in a decent amount of time. However, my 3-mile hike now just became substantially longer and steeper and in order to make it to the fire tower for sunrise I would need to start EARLY. So I nervously back up and pull off to the side, put the car in park, make sure the e-brake is engaged and in top condition, and turn the car off. The lights go out.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

Normally, I would enjoy how quiet and dark it was. But I was pretty tense from the drive. Fear does things to the mind. And when sitting in the dark in an unfamiliar place, all you have to go on is your imagination of what’s around you. I sit for a while debating about whether or not to hike up now and sleep a little at the top or sleep a little now in the car and hike up early. It’s after midnight. I want to be certain that I don’t miss sunrise so I decide to hike up now. I will just need to get my big back pack out and pack everything I need. I’m afraid of being outside of the car and the safety of the locked doors so packing my bag outside was not an option. Instead, I very unashamedly crawl into the backseat, turn my light on and start packing.

One step at a time

I’m halfway packed and that’s when the thoughts start coming. I start contemplating and thinking about what it is I’m really about to do. The fear of walking up a strange mountain at 1 and 2 in the morning by myself starts to set in. I’m not even sure if the fire tower will have people in there or not. I’ve heard that people camp up there sometimes so it may not even be available. If there are people there then I will need to set up my tent when I get there and getting there at 2 in the morning to set up camp just doesn’t sound appealing. I could skip setting up the tent and just sleep under the stars. No. Sleeping alone and exposed on a mountain just didn’t sound like a good idea. I glance down at my half-packed backpack and realize that time is ticking. So there I sit, in the back of the jeep, weighing my pros and cons of every possibility I could think of. I’m absolutely exhausted. I lay down next to my gear hoping that an idea will come to me. Nope. I promptly fall asleep.

One turn at a time

I wake up. I look at my phone and it’s after 3:30. I know what I have to do. And I know that I have to do it soon. So I lay there for a while, pulling myself together and working up the courage to move. Why am I doing this again? I know that the payoff will be worth it. But then, no one is asking or paying me to do this. I can totally just call it quits and no one would know. No one would blame me. No, I can’t quit now. Not when I’m right here. I sit up and finish packing. On the bright side, I don’t need to bring my sleeping gear with me now. I pack my camera gear, I grab some food for breakfast at the top, put on an extra layer or two of clothing, and work my way out of the car. I double check, recheck and triple check to make sure I have everything I need. I pause, do I really want to do this? Will it be worth it? I pat my pockets one last time, lock the jeep, close the door, and start off.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

The road is steep. It’s about 4:15am. The lowest setting on my flashlight is plenty sufficient to see the steps in front of me. I make it out of sight of the car and begin to approach the first of many turns that wind up the steep mountainside. I check the dot again on my phone to see where I’m at. I imagine the countless eyes watching me from within the forest. Supposedly there are mountain lions in this region; though, I don’t think it’s very common to come across one. I imagine the curious bear coming up behind me or a massive bull elk just around the corner. I make the first turn in the switchbacks and can see just how steep it is. It’s certainly drivable but I just didn’t have the mental confidence to try it in the middle of the night. I take a short break and a sip of water as I think of the daunting task before me. I still have miles to put behind me, hundreds of feet to climb, and many more turns to make just to even make it to the trailhead. I take a breath, lower my head and take the next step as I say to myself…

One step at a time

One turn at a time

I make it round the next turn and am now walking up the next stretch. I’m well on my way now and am already far from the car. I can’t tell if I’m out in the open on the mountainside or in a forest. I feel like I’m still in a dense forest with trees lining either side of the road. I don’t bother checking with my flashlight for fear of shining right onto a pair of eyes. I learned quickly that it’s best just to keep your flashlight trained and focused on the few steps just in front of you. If something is lurking nearby then I would much rather just not even know it. The hope being, that whatever is out there will see and hear me first and scamper off into the woods before I’m ever aware of it being there. Just a day or two before I over-heard a guy talking to a park ranger about an experience he had the night before when he spotted a pair of eyes on the trail. I was determined to not let that happen to me so I kept my flashlight down and my eyes straight ahead. Though, the nature of the situation demands that I must also fully prepare myself mentally for that possibility.

One turn at a time

One step at a time

As I repeat these lines to myself I begin to realize just how profound that statement is. Truly, we walk by faith and not by sight. The fear is potent and strong. The darkness is overwhelming. But forward is really the only way to go. I know that if I were to see the area in the daylight then I would laugh and see just how silly it is to be so afraid. Yet, here I am, alone in the darkness with only my imagination to paint the picture of my surroundings. How often in life are we walking on the road that is set before us, surrounded by the darkness? If I shine my light ahead of me then I become anxious about what lies beyond my sight. If I shine it behind me then I start to spin around and out of control. No. I must keep my light trained on the few steps right in front of me. Just then, I come around the next turn and a dark shadow sweeps across the corner of my vision just a few feet to my left. I jerk my head and flashlight to the left but nothing. Oh! Right. The moon is out tonight. It was only my own shifting shadow. I paused for another short break and sip of water as I chuckled to myself “Dude! I am LITERALLY afraid of my own shadow.”

One turn at a time

One step at a time

A good little laugh at myself helped lighten my spirits. The next stretch of the road felt a little easier as my mind turned to positive things. I mean, come on! I’m here! In Washington! I’m doing this! My steps became a little more confident and sure-footed. I think about the week I had just spent in the pacific northwest and how I’m taking huge strides in my growth by doing this. I think about how far I’ve made it on this road and how far I’ve come in my own personal walk. I think about the progress that I’ve made and how I’ve actively sought out ways to push my comfort zones and grow as a person and as the leader that God is making me to be. I think once again about the profoundness of just taking one step at a time. The more I thought on this, the more I realized it became a useful tool to occupy my mind and pass the time. The more I occupied my mind with this the less room I had for fear. I then thought of how I might write this piece that I’m currently writing and how I might tell the story and the message that I want to get across. I begin to think that maybe this is not so bad after all. I’m doing this for Pete’s sake!

But…we’re not there yet.

One turn at a time

One step at a time

With most anything in life, I’ve found that you can’t really give into fear. Then on the flip side, you can’t really give into giddiness and glee either. They are emotions. The road is long and tough. You’re not home until you’re home. Life requires grit. Yes, there are moments of joy and moments of fear but that’s just what they are…moments. All we can see are the 2 or 3 steps ahead of us in the light of the truth that we’ve been given. And just like seeing this place in the daylight would reveal how silly I am to fear, we would see how silly we are to fear in some of life’s circumstances. To God, the day and the night are the same. We cannot see what he sees. We do not have His perspective. That’s why we trust and walk while having the faith that the way he says to go is in fact the way to go. He has given us his word and it is a light to our feet. Many times, that’s as much light as we’re given and is all that we need…just enough to see our feet and the next few steps. It’s true that one day there will be no more darkness and all will be light around us. But for now, we must endure. Until that day, as long as there is darkness, fear will be close at hand.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

At long last I make it around the final turn of the switchbacks and am making my way up the final stretch. “One turn at a time” has now become my mantra and my rock that I use to steady my mind as it sways from fear to courage. By this point, I’ve pretty well formulated in my head how I want to write this and it has become another tool for me to use to occupy my mind as I make my way through the dark forest. I check the dot on google maps again and see that I’m nearly coming around the final bend of the road that continues on around the lake up ahead. I just come over the crest of the hill where the road flattens out, shine my flashlight up ahead of me and then I see them. Two bright flashes staring right back at me. I freeze. My heart is pounding. My sweat turns to ice. My mind races with every possibility and regret for breaking my flashlight rule. But wait a second….Oh! Geez Luiz! It’s just the taillights of a car parked at the trail head. I breathe a sigh of relief.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

I have finally made it to the parking area where the famed twin lakes sit nearly a mile above sea level. The trail head itself is now just a short walk away, making its start between the lakes. I make my way around the first lake and can barely make out shapes of tents and trucks lining the road. I spot another Subaru; there's lots of those here in Washington. For the time being, I forget about the terrors of the dark forest and begin to enjoy knowing that there are actually other people in the area and I’m not in fact totally crazy. My main concern at this point is trying to resist the urge to point my flashlight at peoples’ tents to check out their campsites. I am also making quite a bit of noise crunching down the gravel road at 5 o-clock in the morning. Being dark, I’m not entirely sure where exactly trail head sits. Based on my research, I thought it would likely be in one area but all the cars I saw a few hundred yards back made me think I might have passed it. I make it halfway around the lake and decide I should go back to those cars over there just to make sure that wasn’t it. So I crunch my way back down the gravel road again and around the lake only to realize that I hadn’t passed it yet and was on the right track to begin with. So I turn around and crunch my way back around the lake yet again and imagine that people are for sure awake by now. They’ve got to be thinking “who is this joker walking around at 5 in the morning!?” Finally, after crunching by a number of campsites and heading straight for the mountain between the lakes, I find it.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

I pause here and shine my light on the map that’s posted at the trailhead to see what more goodness lies ahead. I see the winding road where I had just spent the last hour to hour and a half of my life walking up. I see the dashed red line that now lies ahead winding its way up to the Winchester Mountain marker. I check the mileage. I check the time. But honestly, what I’m most concerned about is how much green is on the map. In this case, the less green the better because green represents forested land. I really do not like walking in the woods at night. The road I had just walked up was densely forested, but the trail ahead looks to be fairly open. This brings some comfort but directly ahead of me I see nothing but trees. I know that it will most likely clear up as I go but I still wish I could avoid walking through the woods in the dark. It’s 5:15, sunrise is at 6:38 and I still have 3 miles to go and 1,300 feet of elevation to climb. I’m certainly not quitting at this point. So I climb.




One step at a time

One turn at a time.


From what I can tell by squinting into the darkness and taking a few chances with my flashlight, the forest isn’t too terribly dense and the climb isn’t all that strenuous. Parts of it seemed dense and other parts the underbrush grew high and closed in on the trail. Now is when I start thinking about all the snakes that I can’t see down at my feet. Only once have I encountered a snake across the trail but that was years ago on a different trip. But here, for now, all is quiet. There isn’t much wind on this side of the mountain. Mostly just the sound of my own footsteps and my own breathing. Whatever pair of eyes may or may not be out there, I can feel them watching me. I keep my light focused on the trail in front of me and move as steadily and as quickly as I can. Fear of the darkness doesn’t seem quite so potent at this point. Perhaps it’s because of the boost in confidence from the progress I’ve made. Maybe it’s because I’ve begun to get used to the dark and can now manage my thoughts better. Maybe the less dense forest makes the fear seem a little more distant. No matter. A slight smile starts to spread across my face as I think to myself “I’m here, I’m doing this.” And then the reminder, “we’re not there yet.”

One step at a time

One turn at a time


The trail begins to do its own series of switchbacks up the mountain. I pass a couple of turn offs and wonder if I’m going the right way. The dot on google maps doesn’t seem to quite match up with the map I saw at the trail head. One thing I do know though, is that the trail starts out on the right side of the mountain and then at about halfway up it cuts across the face and shoots over to the left side. With every turn and every straight-a-way I think, “this must be it!” Nope. Still not it. I find that I’m once again coaching myself with “one turn at a time.” It seems like forever and I’m almost sure I’ve missed some turn I was supposed to take but I come around a bend and suddenly leave the trees behind as the trail levels out and cuts across the mountain. Thank the Lord! I pause for a break to take a quick breather as I can now begin to make out the shape of the mountain. Far behind me I can just make out a faint light coming over the horizon. I check the time and it’s 5:26. I see that the verse of the day has popped up. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Hm! It's also now the 19th anniversary of 9/11. I stand for a moment and process before continuing on.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

Now, the going is becoming much easier and my fears are beginning to fade away with the trees. I can see the peaks on the horizon now. Excitement is starting to build. The sky is beginning to get light as it turns that beautiful deep blue and purple in those pre-dawn hours. It’s nearly 6 o-clock now and sunrise is about 40 minutes away. I can see that the trail up ahead will soon turn around the bend where it finishes its ascent up the left side of the mountain. My pace quickens as I start to see the landscape reveal itself around me. I want to stop and take it in but I remain focused and determined as I don’t want to get distracted with subpar views before ever reaching the top. I look up and see the bend ahead of me that climbs over the small ridge and around the corner. It looks a little sketchy but I don’t think it will be a big deal. I make sure to stable myself with my hands as I pick my footsteps. It’s not necessarily a shear drop off on the left but slipping down would certainly not be a pleasant experience. I scramble over the ridge and my jaw drops as I look at the view in front of me. I am greeted with an indescribably beautiful and majestic view of Mount Baker lit up and on display.

The sun is rising behind me so the great white peak is posing beautifully in the pink and red hues of the morning light. I snap a quick pic with my phone. “Oh my gosh dude!!” I exclaim to myself. “I gotta get a photo of this.” Being still not yet fully daylight, I have to use my tripod to really get any kind of decent shot. So I decide to spend the necessary time and effort at this spot and really get a photo that I’m happy with before moving on to the top.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

The rest of the journey to the top is a blur to me. The morning light began to fill the sky and the rest of the hike was spent partly snapping photos and partly running up the trail. There were a few small lookout points where I stopped to get a photo but the views at the top were the prize. When I got there, I saw that I had the place to myself. I stood for a moment to catch my breath and to process what was before my eyes.

Dozens of sharp peaks lined the horizon and deep valleys lay far below. Evergreen trees stood straight and tall as they lined the valley walls. Glacier covered peaks and rugged cliffs filled my vision. I had made it! And I had made it there in time to see it just before the sun broke the plane of the horizon. What fears I had felt in the forest and in the car far below the night before were gone in an instant. To know that I was very nearly overcome by fear made the satisfaction of accomplishing what I had just done that much sweeter. In terms of hiking, it was by no means an amazing feat but for me, this was a big deal. And now, the prize was mine.

One step at a time

One turn at a time

The time that I spent up there and the photos that I got are certainly some of my favorite of the trip. But isn’t this such a clear picture of the walk of faith? We are all on a journey and earth is not our final destination. There is a very real spiritual darkness that surrounds us every day and often times, I have no clue where I’m going. All I have is the map that Jesus gave me and his words. The landscape around me is often shrouded in darkness and fear seems ever present but I must not let my mind be overtaken by what may or may not lie ahead and by what may or may not be lurking close behind. I must keep the light of Jesus’ words trained and focused on my next few steps and trust that, in time, I will get there. I’ve learned that God WILL direct my steps…even the shaky ones. If we are following Him sincerely and truthfully then He WILL guide us. A lot of times I question whether or not I made the right decision about something but really, as I walk and as I look to Him He WILL direct my steps. I can trust Him that whatever decision I prayerfully make is the path that He has directed me to go in. As long as we are actively walking and taking steps, he will guide us. And one day, those steps will lead me directly to Himself.

But until then…

One step at a time

One turn at a time.

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest