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  • Writer's pictureSharon

Echoing Hills

I went with my neighbor to take her son to camp.  Located in rural Alabama, we drove miles of two-lane winding backroads before turning on a narrow dirt road. The car tires crunched on the white crushed oyster shells as we crept along the long narrow drive with dense kudzu-covered brush on one side and the algae-covered bank of the pond on the other.  The driveway opened up to a sprawling rustic camp, nestled in a stand of long-leaf pines.

While my friend and her son navigated the long registration line, I found a shady place to sit and people watch.

Surrounded by vast farmland, a weathered split-rail fence defined the camp’s boundary.  Bright colored canoes gently bobbed on the surface of the large pond.  While the visual scene was serene, it was anything but quiet.  Laughter echoed between the cinderblock cabins as teens darted about.  There was a contagious, palpable excitement in the air.   

Unexpectedly, the excitement stirred dormant memories.  The scene before me faded and in my mind’s eye, and I was transported back to when I attended my first and only youth church retreat.    

As a military dependent, living onboard Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station, I attended Sunday school in a small classroom at the base's recreation center.  Our youth group was a whopping six members, consisting of five girls and one boy.  Three of the girls were sisters, and the lone boy was the son of our Sunday School teacher.   

The summer of 1978, our teacher arranged for the us to attend a retreat with students from Hawaii Baptist Academy.  We excitedly piled on the bus, sticking together.  The bus trip was rowdy, with lots of laughter, singing "camp songs" and loud conversation.  In an old school bus without air conditioning and little suspension, we merrily bounced along on our journey from the windward side of the island, through the Ko’olau Mountain range, past Honolulu and Pearl Harbor and up the western coast of Oahu.  Back then, it was an unpopulated region of the island, and in this young teen's mind, in the middle of nowhere.  After what seemed like hours, the bus turned off the two lane highway onto a narrow two lane road, and then made a hard turn onto a long, crushed oyster-shelled driveway.

As the bus rolled to a stop, I stood to get a glimpse of our destination; my jaw dropped.  It could have been a scene out of James Michener’s movie, Hawaii.  Even back then, I loved old houses.  Two rows of royal palm trees led up to the former sugar plantation house with massive doors, tall windows and deep porches.

We spilled out the bus, claimed our sleeping bags and belongings, and entered the house. With every step, I felt as if I was stepping back in time.  Inside, the ceilings were high and the walls covered in a warm honey-colored bead-board, the same color as the polished hardwood floors.  A stately staircase led to the second floor.  The floorboards creaked beneath our feet.

The second floor was designated for the girls.  My friends and I wandered through the rooms, and after an evaluating several options, decided the coolest place, both literally and figuratively, were bunks on the summer porch.

With a couple of hours until the scheduled activities began, we explored the nooks and crannies of the house and the expansive grounds, then went with several others to the beach.  We walked down the long driveway, down the narrow road, and across the two-lane highway to the beach.  The sand was warm and firm. I looked over the flat surf and was awestruck at the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  While I'd seen the ocean hundreds of times, this time was different.  I was profoundly aware of God's creation; I felt small and invisible, but at the same time, significant and seen.

Camp activities cranked up: fun mixed in with Bible studies and group activities.  That night, we were sent to our bunks with an individual assignment.  I can't remember what the assignment was, but I do know it evolved to a discussion about George Orwell's book 1984; our hushed conversation lasted well past lights-out.  At some point after midnight, I climbed in my bunk, but sleep alluded me. Eventually, the rhythmic sound of crashing waves lulled me to sleep.

I woke to a bird's song.  I rolled on my side and looked for the noisy myna bird.  It was perched on a branch of the Kukui tree, mere feet away from the porch.  I thought about how this wake-up experience was a world away from those early morning chickadee-song wake-ups at my grandfather's house in Virginia.  For a moment, I felt alone and lonely; I missed my extended family on the east coast.  But I knew that when a military member serves their country, everyone in the family makes some form of sacrifice.

Sunbeams filtering through the Kukui tree caught my attention. I shifted to look past the tree. The early morning sun was peeking over the Waianae Mountain Range. As the trade winds stirred, so did my bunkmates.

From sun-up to sundown, we were busy with camp activities.  After dinner, we gathered for a brief Bible study and discussion and then settled in to watch a movie, The Thief in the Night.  (The movie follows a young woman who awakes to discover her husband has vanished, as well as many others, and realizes she is living in the end times.)

I chose to sit on a step on the main staircase to watch the movie. I mention that detail only because that was where I was sitting when I heard for the first time the Biblical prophecies on the end times. I'd been a Christian for over a decade, but had never heard about the rapture, the appearance of the anti-Christ or the tribulation.  The movie didn't scare me, but it sure was an eye-opener.  That night, the conversation with our small group again lasted well into the night; this time trying to figure out who might be the anti-Christ and when the rapture would happen. (Silly teenagers; no one knows!)

Again I was lulled to sleep by the waves and awaken by the myna bird.  As I lay in bed, I was keenly aware of God's presence.  He was in the morning sun peeking over the mountain range, the sound of the surf, the myna's song, the caress of the trade winds on my skin, and the fragrance of salt air.  I savored those moments, writing them to memory.

After breakfast, we all piled back on the bus for the journey home.  With a glance over my shoulder, I bid the beautiful plantation house farewell.  I knew I'd never forget the joy I had roaming her halls, and most of all, how I felt God's presence.

Several years ago, I spent hours scouring the internet trying to learn more about the plantation house.  Finally, by using google maps, and following the ocean-side highway, I discovered that it is now the Pu'u Kahea Conference Center in Waianae.

And I also learned that — very appropriately — the Hawaiian word Pu'u Kahea can be translated to "Hill of Calling," and the old plantation has been called "The Place of Echoing Hills."   Indeed, she still echoes in my memory.

You will show me the path of life;

In Your presence is fullness of joy;

At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16:11

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