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Paul Willis

Here, Mr. Hoerth

A Wheaton freshman, 40+ years ago.

In the fall of my freshman year at Wheaton College in Illinois, I took a required survey of the Old Testament. I would have taken the class anyway, because I hoped to major in biology and biblical studies en route to becoming a doctor on the mission field. In the meantime, however, since I seemed to be spending most of my weekends on rock-climbing trips to Devil's Lake in Wisconsin, I was not passing my calculus class, which did not bode well for my plans to attend medical school. But I did like climbing, and was sincere about biblical study, and I noticed that the Old Testament had a few mountains in it.

The OT survey was taught by a wry and patient man with a small, dark mustache. He told us to call him Mr. Hoerth. Not Professor. Not Doctor. Just Mister. I liked that about him. In response to our questions, he would say things like "I would tell you who it was that Cain married, if I were Abel." He also told us that he was an archaeologist who spent his summers digging around in Israel and Palestine. That the clock tower of Edman Chapel was in fact filled to the brim with potsherds from previous Wheaton expeditions, and if anyone wanted to help him catalogue these precious items, we should let him know. To my knowledge, no one volunteered. That red-brick clock tower was pretty massive, and I, for one, could think of better things to do in my spare time—like climb red quartzite in Wisconsin. When Mr. Hoerth would call the roll, I would sometimes cling to the facade of the building under the second-story window until he intoned my name. Then I would clamber over the window ledge and calmly say, "Here, Mr. Hoerth."

We would both keep a straight face. That was the cool thing about it.

Several years later, as a senior, I asked my creative writing professor to fill me in on graduate school. "Like, how does that work?" I asked.

"I've heard that in the summers you teach climbing in Yosemite," he primly said.

"That's right," I replied, pleased he would know this.

"That's probably a pretty good job for you," he said.

And then he walked off.

But I am getting ahead of myself. As a freshman trudging through autumn leaves on Wheaton sidewalks, miserably aware that the highest point in DuPage County was a landfill called Mount Trashmore, this future insult would have sounded like a blessing. And when we got to the story of Noah in Mr. Hoerth's Old Testament survey, something clicked. Though Mr. Hoerth allowed there might be something mythic, even folklorish, about the flood, the ark, the forty days, he also said that "the mountains of Ararat," where the book of Genesis says the ark came to rest, have often been identified with an actual peak in Armenia in eastern Turkey—a very tall peak at 16, 854 feet, its summit draped with glacial ice. Mr. Hoerth added, with a slender smile, that several expeditions had been mounted to discover the remains of the ark, high on the mountain.

That sounded like a pretty good job for me—and I cooked on it for several weeks. Then, at the end of a Friday afternoon class session, I marched up to the lectern and reported for duty. "Mr. Hoerth," I said. "I would like to go on an expedition to find the ark on Mt. Ararat. I've done a good bit of climbing in the Cascades in Oregon, where I grew up, and I just spent my whole summer on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska, so I know how to use an ice axe and crampons. Really well. I'm even trained in crevasse rescue. So I think they could use me for something like this. Do you know of an expedition that I could go on?"

It would be perfect. At Wheaton College my professors always talked about the integration of faith and learning. Using my exceptional skills honed over the last three years in the mountains of Oregon and Alaska, I was bound to find the remains of the ark deep in the recesses of some glacier, somewhere right next to the summit, since I might as well get to the top while I was at it. The climb would be an apologetic triumph—the truth of the Bible proved beyond a shadow of a doubt—and all because of my steady determination and my handy ice axe, twirling in my ready grip.

So I was confused when Mr. Hoerth paused before answering me. Then he said, "Well. Hmmm." And then he shook his head slowly, as if clearing it of a few stray potsherds.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said finally. "I'll give you a book to read this weekend, and, on Monday, if you still want to go find the ark, I'll connect you with the right people."

"Deal," I said, and shook his hand, though I noticed his grip seemed surprisingly limp.

I walked back with him to his office in Blanchard Hall, the iconic structure of the college, built of Kankakee dolomite, rough to the touch and apparently ideal for climbing but not so when you actually ventured up the face—that dolomite was flakey as Hades. Mr. Hoerth rummaged through his shelves until he found the book he was looking for, then handed it to me with an air of mild distaste. The book's title, in yellow psychedelic letters, was The Quest for Noah's Ark. And the book's author, in white print, appropriate for such a knight errant, was John Warwick Montgomery.

"See you Monday," Mr. Hoerth said.

That weekend I did not go climbing in Wisconsin. I sat high up on a fire escape in balmy weather and read all 335 pages of John Warwick Montgomery's book, for in my hands were the keys to the kingdom of my future. There were lots of pictures, and that made the reading go faster. Maps, of course. Charts of previous expeditions. Fuzzy photographs of ark-like shapes in the ice—about as clear as images I had seen of Bigfoot back in Oregon. But most of the images, curiously, were of the author himself. (Or of his son, who apparently had set an altitude record on the mountain for someone of his tender age.) These photographs invariably displayed Dr. Montgomery, all done up in his newly purchased alpine gear, posed on the side of the mountain, ice axe in hand. Most of the captions read something like this: "The author, at 12,000 feet." "The author, at 13,000 feet." "The author, at 14,000 feet." The author may or may not have made it to the top of Mt. Ararat, but that was beside the point. He had heroically made his presence known, and that was sufficiently impressed on his readers.

But to my further surprise, I was not sufficiently impressed with his apologetics. Because Jesus had once said, "As it was in the days of Noah," it was of paramount importance, said Dr. Montgomery, that the ark be found. And once the ark was found, he said, everyone on earth would be absolutely compelled to believe in Jesus. So by finding the ark, he would be bringing about the salvation of the entire world.

Whoa, I thought. Seriously?

He could of course have argued something much more nuanced than this; memory dims and simplifies. But this is what I remember, and this is what I remember turning away from. And those endless snapshots of the author striking a pose with his ice axe (which I may have multiplied in memory)—they were of course pictures of me. Like the rich young ruler, I climbed down from that fire escape and went away sorrowfully. It is hard to abandon a cherished vision of your once and future self, even if that self has been reflected back in a funhouse mirror.

On Monday afternoon, after class, I returned the book to Mr. Hoerth.

"Well?" he said.

I hesitated.

"I don't think it's for me," I said. "This ark stuff. I think I'll be staying here, Mr. Hoerth. Right here."

Paul Willis is professor of English at Westmont College. He is the author of Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild and The Alpine Tales, both published by WordFarm.

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