I returned last week from a week of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Here’s a story of what happened on the way. Day 1.
I wake in the dark, an unfamiliar bed, the scent of pine. Where am I? Turn on my headlamp to illumine the small wood cabin, a car door closing. Pull on my pants and fleece, greet Tabitha who is sorry to have woken me and is off early to go get a mountain and leaving me here to wonder on the brilliance of stars.
I’m off today to begin my own interim adventure, stepping into my own anxiety and uncertainty, my first time hiking alone and camping alone in the woods. I’m far from an experienced backpacker but think I have enough to get me through the next week.
What I don’t have is enough room in my pack for a bulging bear-bag packed with food and dry bag stuffed with warm clothes. I know I brought too much but not knowing what to leave behind, I push down harder, squashing the peanut butter sandwiches I brought for lunch today and fearing I’ve turned my apples to applesauce.
Chattering with Phil on the hour long drive from Monson to Caratunk, a drive I hope will never end.
But then, here we are, and the start of my journey. As he pulls away off from the trailhead, an ache of aloneness. A twinge of doubt, Why did I think this was a good idea? Do I actually want to be doing this? Comfort myself with the thought that in a few days it will soon be over.
Head back to the shore of the Kennebec to start my journey. Here by the river bank, on a rock warm with sunlight, watching the canoe turn away around the bend in the river, a prayer, to get out of my own way so the Spirit can lead the way.
My former colleague Tom reminded me yesterday that I am going in the right direction. I want to trust that, to believe it’s true.
I so wanted the position in Portland to work out. So wanted to get to hold on to Maine, to have the certainty of something on the other side of this time. A forwarding address and a new place I could imagine calling home. Instead, didn’t get the job and I’m left without job, identity and role. In other words, the “gift” of having a real interim time of unknowing and a commitment to use it to connect with Spirit.
I rise from the river bank, ascend the trail, cross the road back to the trailhead where he’d dropped me off an hour ago, descend into a forest of green. Trust the path, God is with you, he said. Just be yourself. You can’t go wrong.
Hours later down the trail, I set up camp down the path from the Pleasant Pond lean-to on the way to the shore. As dusk descends, a hiker comes by and asks about sites further down. “This is it,” I tell him, “but there’s space over there and you’re welcome to it,” hoping he might stay. But no, he’ll head down further and see what he finds. I take my dinner down the trail to sit by the water’s edge, watch the sky turn to stars.
I wake in darkness the next morning after a fitful sleep. Rustling leaves, a clear step by my tent in the night that scurried away as I banged the ground. I think it happened, not sure if it wasn’t a dream.
The demons hadn’t only been chasing me all night as I lay awake listening for bears in the woods. They’d been with me all yesterday afternoon on the trail. As much as I’d vowed to be present, to let go to the lilt of the trail, take in the shock of color and beauty of the north woods, all I could hear were the old tapes and tired voices of my past. Familiar twinges of regret of things not working as I’d always hoped they would, a past I couldn’t return to and couldn’t yet leave. Chasing memories that turned to fantasy, an imagined life that never truly was, the sadness of leaving the gift of what had actually been. Found my only “presence” in tripping again over my endless attempts to change what I could not, to fix what was beyond me.
I’d hardly ever looked back at an old sermon text and whenever I had knew I could never preach that old sermon again. What was there was for another time, a voice no longer my own, an old word that did not speak to this present one. Until last month, I’d hauled around with me for decades boxes of journal scratches I’d made tracking the swing of my daily moods and uncertainties. I’d hardly ever looked back at them because not only could I hardly read them, but there was nothing living there, only an endless re-hashing out of what was to find my way to a ground that had been then and was not this.
And yet, stepping out into the woods, those old words, tired regrets, unfixable issues were all I could hear. A much more experienced hiker than I had noted that the things people say are hard about hiking is not what is really hard. It’s this – these old memories, unsolvable puzzles that gnaw at you and will not let you go. No wonder I found hiking so exhausting, the futility of working up a perilous mountain peak of interior noise while trying to scale a real one.
Somehow, survived the demons of the night and yesterday on the trail to find myself here, the next morning, atop Mount Pleasant, lying on a warm ledge in the bright sun, my tent, tarp and ground cloth, drying out from the morning dew, flapping gently on the rocks beside me held down by hiking poles. A second breakfast of a handful of peanuts and raisins, a not too bruised apple and cell service. Delighted in texting family and friends, views from the mountaintop. Telling them about surviving my first night on the trail, my slow hike beginning, vowing again to savor everything.
Up here, looking out at green mountain islands floating in a white sea of fog. Early that morning I’d had my morning coffee down there, wondering on the bright skies far overhead. It felt down there on the foggy shore like my life felt – like I couldn’t see a thing before me with clarity, and yet, up above a sky so blue and clear.
And now, here I am, having found my way up into that blue, looking up and out.
He’d watched me like no one had ever watched me professionally before. Filmed and Watched as I struggled to connect with a congregation I’d barely met who had disappeared behind the crack at the top of the sanctuary door where they sat at home watching the morning service. Saw when I got lost in my head, witnessed when I was just present. Helped me get out of the way so the Spirit could get in.
Last week, he’d left me a little paper box with a note inside.
You told me that you arrived with thirty-seven boxes. Thirty-seven boxes of assorted memories and trinkets. Thirty-seven boxes that were weighing you down in one way or another. Thirty-seven boxes that you were attached to as well as things that were attached to you.
In retrospect, I can see them weighing you down. As I look back on your time here I can also see you starting to stand up as you started to let go. I’ve watched your shoulders start to square, and have seen your head rise. I watched as you went from looking down and in, to up and out. I watched with a smile as you stood proudly looking up and out and proclaiming that you had finally been able to get rid of those boxes “with help.” Could you have done it any other way? “Where two or three are gathered in my name, then there I am among them.” You can’t do it alone.
You are the man who has made it through. You are the man who stands taller and straighter because you have been there before, the man that looks up and out because to look down and in blinds and incapacitates. You have a good heart that is open and ready for what the Spirit has to offer. Wherever you go from here is where you are supposed to go. I feel that in my heart. Be well my friend,
I roll up the tent, tarp and groundcloth. Stuff it all into my over-stuffed pack. Take off up the trail, knowing my direction. Keep looking up, keep looking out.