The Iron Rod

The Iron Rod

From Chicken Soup for the Latter-day Saint Soul

The Iron Rod

. . . They came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.

1 Ne. 8:24

Like many typical girls raised in Utah, I came from a Mormon family, lived in a mostly Mormon neighborhood and attended girls’ camp every summer. After all, it was the most exciting thing the Young Women did all year. It was always memorable and spiritual, but one year was especially so.

That year it was stake camp, and was held in a small area in Providence, Utah. It wasn’t necessarily a campground— just a sizable piece of property that belonged to a farmer and that happened to include a lake and a mountain. It was only my second year at camp, and it promised to be a fun one.

Girls’ camp wasn’t real camping. Many girls brought mattresses and rigged up showers on trees. Most wore makeup, cute clothes and shoes that were never intended for hiking.We usually had a leader that did all the cooking and a priesthood leader who supervised, chopped wood for the fires and set up the tents. We girls spent our time doing crafts, chatting and eating the snacks our mothers packed for us.

This year was different. Before camp we were all forced to certify in first aid, which involved passing a written test administered by a registered nurse. Then when we got to camp we were told we would be sharing tents by age groups, not just in groups of friends, and we would have to pitch the tents ourselves.

There were about six of us Mia Maids, and we were to sleep in a gray, eight-man tent. Our tent was old and had no instructions, but we finally figured out how to pitch it after awhile. We were pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to sag like it did, but we were tired and hungry so we quit. No big deal, right? After all, a leader could fix it for us later.

We went to see how the food was coming along and to our horror, there was none.We were told someone needed to chop the firewood while others got the meal started. Thankfully, one girl had spent some time on a farm and knew how to wield an axe. Otherwise, we all might have been forced to subsist on the gummy worms stashed in our backpacks.

As the week wore on, we all eventually got the hang of things. Our food was burned, but thanks to all the work we were doing we were hungry enough to eat it. We were required to actually attend classes and were being tested regularly on the stuff we learned. Miraculously, our tent didn’t collapse on us, although we never could get it zipped up. We slept with our blankets over our heads to keep the mosquitoes away.

The last night of girls’ camp was traditionally testimony meeting night. For most of us, it was the one time of year that we spilled our spiritual guts and tentatively admitted we believed in the gospel. Usually, it was an all-night affair with lots of tears and hugs. And, not surprisingly, it was the highlight of the week.

This year, though, like everything else, it was going to be different. After a full day of hiking, a burned dinner and some lazy campfire conversation, everyone was summoned to the base of the nearby mountain. We were told not to bring flashlights or water—just ourselves. We all tromped over and began to sing hymns; the last campers arrived just as the sun was setting. Someone offered a prayer, and we were divided into groups of eight and assigned a leader with a flashlight.

From behind a tree someone produced a stack of PVC pipes spray-painted to look like metal. We were told to proceed in absolute silence and to hold on to the “iron rod.” If we let go, odds were that our leader—the only person who could see in the dark and knew the path—would lose us. We all rolled our eyes, snickered and grabbed on.

The various groups of girls were sent off on the trail at staggered times. Our group was one of the last, and even though we knew we weren’t really alone, by the time we set off, all of us had a tight grip on the pipe. Our leader started on the trail as stars began to pop out of the night sky.We could see small pockets of light ahead of us on the trail, but that was it. As the darkness increased, so did our solemnity.

We hiked silently for a while, crossed a stream and stopped for a rest. Suddenly, a group of young men from our stake burst out of the trees. They asked us what we were doing, where we were going—and then invited us to go with them instead—tempting us with a warm fire, food and games. We girls kept silent and held on to our length of pipe, absolutely confused.

The longer we stayed silent, the angrier the young men got. They started to call us names and make fun of us. Just as we were about to burst, our leader tugged on the rod and signaled us to begin hiking again. The boys’ voices died out after awhile, and we picked up the pace a little bit.

After hiking a little longer, we stopped for another rest. As we caught our breath, a light turned on. In its wash stood one of our leaders, who smiled and told a story about how she had withstood peer pressure. She testified about God’s love for us, of his plan for us, and sent us on our way.

We continued holding on to our rod and followed our guide around twists and turns in the trail. Sometimes we could hear other groups and voices in the darkness calling out, but mostly we hiked in silence.With each rest we took, we were greeted with another set of visitors. Some were good stops where we were encouraged. But there were also more provoking stops—like the older girls smoking and drinking and saying that we should, too. It was our body, they said, and we weren’t hurting anybody else.

Finally, at one stop one of our leaders came out and offered us a comfy seat, some hot cocoa and some chocolates. She said it was okay to give up and take a rest. No one really cared what we did. What did something like this matter in the long run anyway? It was okay to give up, she told us. At this point we had been hiking for quite some time, and we were tired and hungry. One girl in the group spoke up, “Are you sure? Guys, the chocolates just look so good, and I am so tired!” We all kept silent.

She looked around. The leader stepped closer and held out the temptation. The girl reached out her hand to take a piece, only to discover the candy was just out of reach. We all watched intently. If she really wanted the candy, she would have to let go of the rod. There, in the moonlight, was the basic question of agency. Each of us, like that girl, would have to choose between holding on to the rod or letting go and taking our chances with an easy reward. Our friend wavered for a few moments and our guide began to tug on the rod.

“Maybe we don’t have too far left to go,” the girl concluded, leaving the chocolates behind.

Throughout the hike, we were faced with choices. It wasn’t enough that we were trudging up a mountain in the dark and cold.We had to constantly recommit to trusting our stake leaders and the plan they had laid out for us.

As it happened, the girl was right, and we didn’t have too much farther to go. For a while we had been able to see a distant glow that we hoped was getting closer. Then, I thought I heard music and voices. As we rounded the last bend, a stunning sight greeted our tired eyes. There was a huge, glowing tree right in front of us. It was surrounded by lanterns and people dressed in white—to our tired eyes, they looked like angels. As we walked closer to the tree, we began to see each individual light twinkling and bouncing off little crystals hanging like dewdrops from the branches. The “angels,” who were our bishops and parents, came to greet us and led us over to comfy chairs and blankets (and snacks!), all the while congratulating us on our successful journey.

Of course, my parents were there, dressed in white and happy to see me. But the grins on their faces were nothing compared to what I was feeling inside. After that strenuous hike, the joy I felt at seeing my family and the sweet serenity of our surroundings was too much for me. I thought my heart was going to burst. I had no idea the Spirit could fill me so completely. I was full of Lehi’s “exceedingly great joy.”

When the last group of Young Women arrived, everyone was gathered together for a testimony meeting. It was like no other. Instead of the usual tumultuous and emotional teenaged testimonies, we shared quiet convictions of peace and joy. As each bore her testimony, a leader pulled a crystal off the tree. Each was on its own chain and magnified the lights surrounding us. We were told the crystals served as a tangible reminder of the light and Spirit we had experienced that night. We were challenged to keep that light by holding to the course the Lord had laid before us, always remembering the sweetness of the reward that awaited us.

I wore that plastic crystal for months, until it was lost in my incredibly messy room. Through my difficult first year of middle school, I wore it under my shirt and felt it whenever I was upset. At those times, I remembered with fondness my happiness at seeing my family and their delight at seeing that I had clung to the iron rod. For one brief night that summer, I had felt celestial joy—and I knew it was something I wanted to feel again.

Laura Craner

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