Life Lessons along the Appalachian Trail

man hiking in mountains

The quiet of the woods was a voice he couldn’t resist.

For some, it’s the call of adventure or the challenge of reaching a goal. For me, it’s the power of sacramentality that washes over me and refines itself with each spirit-testing trip. There is something deeply transformative in these little wanderings in the wilderness. And, once away from the noise and clutter of civilization, I can more clearly hear the Spirit’s tender whisperings within my soul and come home a better man.

Trail Magic and Journey Strength

Finding Christ on the Appalachian Trail (AT) went hand in hand with the exertion and the unexpected twists and turns I met along the way. Though I was determined to learn from last year’s “character-building,” two-day hike, there were many aspects I couldn’t foresee, events both beautiful and trying.

I had prepared for the rigors of the AT by packing my new and improved gear, my GPS-enabled cell phone and solar charger, and all the food and emergency items needed to keep me safe and sound. When I arrived at my starting point, I said goodbye to my wife and jumped out of my vehicle to make my way to the trailhead in Salisbury, Connecticut. There I encountered what I initially considered my first ever “Trail magic” occurrence: a fellow hiker and his mother with an open car trunk loaded with brownies, candy bars, and sports drinks to share.

Spending time with them was a wonderful beginning to the experience; but as I thought about it, it was really not the first Trail magic I had experienced. That godsend came in the form of two text messages from brothers at my church, wishing me well and promising to pray for my journey—an unexpected blessing that filled me with a sense of security and was a heaven-sent sign of the fellowship we shared as members of the body of Christ.

But perhaps the greatest Trail magic of all came from my bride, who chased after me as I made my way to the entrance to the AT because she had forgotten to pray with me before I began my trip. Her sweet words and tender tears were truly the greatest strength I would take with me on my trek.

Relationships and Incarnational Living

One of the best parts of the AT came in the relationships that I formed along the way. Sharing words, a shelter meal, or the hike itself was a reminder of my own relationship to the One who took on flesh for me. It was humbling to accept that there were hikers better equipped for the trail than I, and beautiful to discover that, in the end, it really didn’t matter. Here on this wilderness journey, we were all family, there to support and encourage one another along the way as we “hiked our own hike” together.

As those narrow trails and steep ascents pushed me to my limit, I remembered another man who 2,000 years ago made a trek into the wilderness to face the greatest of human temptations, and who later made the journey up the hill of Calvary to die so that I could be reborn. In that experience, I felt a renewed union to my own rebirth in Christ, experienced so many years ago.

The Confessional of the Woods

Along the weary way I found myself in the confessional of the woods. There was something powerful in being totally spent, in wondering when the climb would end, and in facing the fear that I might not make it. It left me in a very vulnerable place, a place where all I could do was surrender to the moment and draw strength from the One who bore the crushing weight of sin for me. I realized on those climbs that I was but a limited human being, full of frailties and flaws, and not at all in command of my destiny.

Here on the mountain I found it hard to conceal the many secret sins that I could hide so well from those around me at home. As I drew closer toward heaven—literally—there was a peace in letting go of the pettiness of my own lowly estate and taking on the character of a child in need of the strength of his Father’s care. As I poured out my sins before the Father, I felt an intense release and a profound reconciliation in the embrace of his forgiving arms.

Eucharist: Real Food and Drink for the Journey

I confess that as I hiked, I often neglected to take time for proper meals. Part of it was the rush of adrenaline as I hiked along; part was my own ego that pushed me to put more miles behind me more quickly than I had the previous year. While the energy from a sugary breakfast gave me a good start, it didn’t really sustain me as I struggled on through the day. What I needed was the protein and nutritious foods to give me the nourishment my body required. As the weakness slowed my momentum, I knew I should have eaten more—and more healthfully—while out on the trail each day.

Those times of hunger reminded me very powerfully of the Eucharist. There are times in my life when I fill myself with the goodies of pleasure and possessions, believing the temporary high they generate is enough to satisfy me. But what I truly need is the spiritual nourishment that comes from the bread of life and the cup of salvation, given to me in memory of the One who fills my deepest needs with himself.

My hunger on the trail brought to mind just how important it is for me to receive the spiritual food and drink that brings me the very life of Christ, without which I would fall flat on my face as I journey toward my heavenly goal.

The Confirming Presence of the Spirit

Finding water on the trail, especially on my third day out, was not as easy as last year, since there were fewer legitimate water sources along this part of the AT. At one point, I began to run out of water as I hiked the final leg of a 14-mile trek to the next shelter. I started rationing my intake: taking small sips every five minutes or so and then getting down to simple swallows as I found myself still more than two miles from my destination. Then, with fewer than two-tenths of a mile to go, I realized that I was completely exhausted, dehydrated, and discouraged. I kept pushing on, knowing I had to reach the shelter before I could drink again.

But when I came to yet another difficult climb, I sat down and called out to God, asking him to send me some help. Almost immediately, rescue came in the person of a fellow three-day hiker who generously offered some of his water, and then sat and talked with me as I regained my strength.

I was grateful to know that when I thirsted, God provided just what I needed to see me through. It made me think about how often my life can become so dry and depleted that I fail to recognize my need for God’s Spirit and his divine counsel. The living lesson of that day helped to reconnect me to the Holy Spirit, who filled me at my Confirmation, and who stands ready to enter into the dryness of my desert days and fill me with his presence once more. That hiking brother and his gift of cool water reaffirmed my belief that God sends miracles and angels into my life every day—if I’m willing to ask and look for them.

Later, while sipping fresh water in the coolness of the shelter, I recommitted myself to recognizing the purpose and power that each trial and treasure brings to me. In that ordinary experience, I found the touch of the Spirit’s hand.

Life Lessons Learned

I had originally decided to hike an extra day, but an injury to my left foot made me reconsider that plan. I could have pushed on through the pain, but there was no good reason. It would have been easy to see this as a failure, but truly the failure would have been in turning such a satisfying hike into a painful experience for no reason other than to prove to myself I could finish the arbitrary goal I had set. My purpose for the hike was to experience the sacramentality of each summit and the beauty of communing with my Creator, not to prove how strong (and stubborn) I could be.

And so I awoke the next morning, handed out some of my leftover food, and said my goodbyes to the great people I had met along the way. I hiked a mile down to the closest road, waited for my ride, and was ever so grateful when she arrived. Our first stop was at a local fast-food place for a much-desired steak, egg, and cheese bagel sandwich and an orange juice. To my delight, two of my hiking companions, a mother and daughter section-hiker team, called us to come and share a booth with them. We talked and laughed as I savored my sandwich, relishing the taste and the extreme satisfaction in filling my belly with something other than a sugary, jam-filled toaster tart.

It was so gratifying, too, to take in the joy of knowing that these two lovely ladies whom I had met as strangers now spoke with me as friends. I knew that most likely I would never see them again—at least not in this life—but what I did know was that I was richer for having met them. As we broke bread together one last time, what we shared served as a deeper sign of the joyful journey believers take as members of God’s family of faith.

Sacred Signs along the Way

The signs along the trail were everywhere, waiting for the grace of the Spirit to awaken me to them each day. Their mystery filled me to overflowing and spoke to my heart in ways I’m still working to understand. I learned that God uses my pain and struggle to give me a new perspective as I travel the deep valleys and ascend the great summits that lie before me. I was reminded that there are good and beautiful people in this world, fellow travelers with whom I can share the journey of life as I experience their strengths and unique gifts.

I discovered that these journeys are a way for me to let go of the mess and mistakes inside me, to get in touch with my vulnerabilities, and in the end to surrender all of that to a loving God, knowing that the result will be a beautiful and wonderful inner transformation!

On my next hike, I’ll be making some changes to how I do things. Each trip helps me to learn more about what’s really important and needed out on the trail—and on the journey of life, as well. Maybe I’ll meet some of the same hikers, or maybe I’ll make some new friends. I hope that sharing our stories together will serve as a sacred sign of God’s grace and give me the courage to continue to take my journey one step at a time.

I know my experiences will help to guide me for the next hike, and I may even make it a little farther than I did this time. Whatever will come my way, I’ll certainly surrender to the signs of the Holy Spirit and marvel at the mystery that speaks to my heart when I’m willing to listen and learn

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