April 4-9, 1999

Sunday, April 4th, Easter.

The beginning of the Appalachian Trail begins at the summit of Springer Mountain and looks south to the kudzu covered hazy humid mountains.  The familiar bronze plaque that I had seen in endless books and articles was imbedded in a rock bringing reality to this journey.  Just knowing that this is a reality gave me a small sense of security to take.  I’m moving forward, I have some sense of direction in my life no matter how short or long this hike will last.

Because I had hiked the previous year with Jerome the first 15 miles, I’m pretty confident that I can at least do that section again.  I know what to expect and believe I can go at least as far as I have before.  I keep telling myself I am in much better shape this time than I was last summer.  The reality is that I have gorged myself on anything and everything I have wanted over the last two months like a bear in a honey shop because I knew I was about to go on the best weight loss program.  I worked at a place that made pizza’s and I decided I needed to amply sample all varieties and combinations of that wonderful magic food.

My pack weighs over 50lbs., which I’m proud of because it weighs less than last years short hike.  I think I packed well considering all the outfitters tried to sell me as dire need for my survival.  Today was not a hard hike, it was planned to only give a good introduction, to ease myself into this challenge and lifestyle.  Last year as I hiked it felt like time stood still and one mile felt like it would take me over an hour to walk.  Today time was on my side and it was smooth hiking in the sun and cool spring air.  My mind was full of what I had left, people I was already missing, and looking at the woods as a home and not a hotel.  

Leaving on Easter morning was purposeful as I planned my trip.  For me it was the symbol of what I wanted to see happen in my life.  I wanted some transformation.  I wanted new things to come alive.  I wanted some things to die in me.  Easter is the day Christians celebrate the new life of Jesus after having gone through the pain, suffering, death, burial, and then on the third day he rose from the tomb.  I want to be new, I want new life, I want new purpose, I want new direction, and I want to know what it is to find God.

My first night on the trail I stayed at Hawk Mountain Shelter where I set up my new Walrus tent.  I was a little nervous as I hoped it would fit together as it has when I set it up in the outdoor store I bought it in.  But to set it up when it counts and to do it right was very satisfying. Small confidence boosters are very large.  

Most hikers do not use their given name but rather a “handle,” one that has meaning to them or given to them by others.  I chose my new trail name a few weeks ago when I was traveling in Israel on a graduation present from my parents.  I chose the name “Wadi” which feels weird to tell people because nobody in the States knows what a wadi is. A wadi is a creek nestled in a deep valley.  They are canyons in the desert, often times too deep for the sun to shine down inside of. Trees and green grass grow in the warmth from the life giving water.  The wadi can also be a dangerous place.  Predators lie in wait for smaller animals.  And it’s a place that when the rain comes, the waters flood the canyon and can wash everything away.  Life and death together are in the wadi.  The Bible tells that a wise man builds his house upon the rock while the fool builds on the sand.  The wise man builds his house above the wadi and in the sun with the heat blistering upon him.  He must climb down to retrieve the water and carry it back up to his home.  But he is wise because when the rain comes, the fool in the canyon, where the soil is sand, everything in the wadi will be destroyed. It was shaded, beautiful, easy to get water and guard your sheep.  But the craving for comfort destroys the fool.  Death and life.  

This shelter had a large table in front of it and benches for the hikers to sit or cook on.  There was a buzz of excitement in the air as we were all at the beginning of a new adventure.  Everyone was smiling and getting to knew each other.  This was day one of an adventure we had all been dreaming of for a long time. 

I’ve met many hikers already who all have trail names. Mac and Cheese are a retired couple from Florida.  Canadian Goose is an accountant from Canada.  Mark (who wore a shirt depicting a mustard seed growing into a massive tree) who works for Disneyworld took the name Manwho.   A shy older woman from Kentucky sat reading a book.  She is a dog trainer of sled dogs that race in Canada.  Another hiker was interesting to me because he was obsessed with saving weight.  He was cutting off the excess length of straps on his backpack before bed and dumping everything out of his pack to reexamine what he was bringing on the hike.  He was already frustrated at how much his pack weighed and believed that if he couldn’t cut the weight significantly he wouldn’t make it to Maine.  

As I sat eating my dinner I watched a hiker arrive who had left the backs of both heals on the trail. His shoes had rubbed the backs of both heals raw.   He winced in pain as he took his socks off to air out his feet.  Blood was in the socks and shoes. He was very frustrated that his first day would bring about such physical pain.  Tomorrow he’s going to try and use duct tape to solve the problem hoping to build himself a new foot. 

There are people from very diverse backgrounds out here. My first shelter had 20 guests all checking gear, setting up dinner, or sitting and talking with others around a campfire Manwho had built.   He was the Manwho build the campfire.  

As I looked inside the three sided shelter, a well ventilated cabin in the woods, I noticed that there was a stack of unclaimed food.   Hikers passing through quickly realized that they had brought too much useless equipment or thought they could carry two weeks of food at a time.  We are taught to bring more than we need because this is a survival situation.  Is it possible that taking too much is hindering our survival?  

There is a journal lying in the shelter for people to sign as they walk through.  I looked through it and I think I found Paul and Amanda, two friends of mine from graduate school now known as Dawn Treader and Shiver.  They were at this shelter 3-24, 11 days ahead of me.  I am going to try and catch up to them.  

            We were too excited to go to be early and because it wasn’t a long mileage day of hiking, most were not exhausted enough to crash when the sun set, so we sat around telling jokes and laughing all night. The sky was clear and the Georgia stars were bright.  We were far enough away from the Atlanta lights that you could follow satellites easily as they streaked across the sky.  I found four within minutes so many tried to give me a new name like “Satellite Guru.”  A name change wasn’t going to happen.  The imagery it puts in my mind is that of a man sitting on a mountaintop waiting for people to find him so he can point to the sky and show them a blinking moving light.   I don’t want that handle for the next six months,  I’ll stick with Wadi.

Monday, April 5, 1999

I’ve been told that the Chattahoochee National Forest is where the Army Rangers practice their training maneuvers.  As I hiked up the hot sweaty trail I would come across bullet shells every now and then.  Many of them were old and rusted but I did spot a few that were bright and shiny making the forest floor bedazzled.  I am not sure if this should make me feel safe or in danger as I passed through their playground but I will say every branch snap I heard caused me to jump a little and stop to pause and await an ambush.  

Spring has not covered the mountains yet.  They are sill in slumber of brown even in the heat of approaching season change.  I am earning my trail legs right now as I train by body.  I’m not yet even trying to hike more than 10 miles in a day.  The last three miles I had to hike in my sandals to give my newly formed blisters a time to stop their growing and to give me a break from the pain.  The hiker curse has initiated me.  Hiking in sandals didn’t seem to be a problem other than I doubt the sandals will last a week if I have to do this much more. I climbed Sassafras Mt., Justus Mt., Horseshoe Mt., and ending my day on Gooch Mountain.  What kind of name is Gooch?

Two men I met last night are off the trail already. The first was an older man named Bull’s-eye who over-heated and felt that he was putting his body in danger. He found a service road and walked out and hitched a ride ending his hike.  The other was a man called the One Armed Bandit.   He told that several years ago a dentist had left part of a tooth inside during a removal causing infection. This led to a partial paralysis on his left side.  He said he had only one good walking arm but all that is needed to roll a cigarette for himself.  The reason he left the trail was because he was chaffing badly where it meets the saddle and said the bleeding was excessive from his raw and blistered thighs.  He got off at the same service road as Bull’s-eye.  That had to be a painful and embarrassing injury.  Both had told me that they had planned for years to hike this trail.  

I didn’t escape the effect of friction upon my body either as my body started to adjust to the physical abuse.  My feet began to form blisters on the tops and bottoms of my toes, and one in-between.  The most painful was the blistering on my heels.  The stiff boots I was told I would need for such a hard hike didn’t move with my feet causing painful friction with each step.  Already I wish I could hike this barefoot.  Duct tape, two pairs of socks, and Tylenol are all I can do for them now.

I met a girl named Dancer and a guy named Stray (as in a cat because he feels lost in the woods).  Stray is a skinny 135 pound 29 year old whose pack is heavier than mine, almost half his own weight.  .  He recognizes that even thought it’s only been a few days its already causing a dangerous strain on his body.   Its almost as painful for me to watch.  He is hunched over to balance his pack on top of him looking like he’s carrying it on his shoulders instead of his back. Most of his right leg is covered with a brightly colored tattoo of a Chinese dragon and Chinese symbols, characters for honesty, bravery, courage, compassion, and responsibility.  His hair is dyed black hair, his skin is sun deprived, and four hoop earrings in his right ear.  He is a thru-hiker but not the poster child for Outdoor magazine.  I guess it proves that all walks of life can value the beauty of nature.  He is bright, cheery, warm, and interested in others.  He’s from Virginia where he was a bike courier.  He told me the job was dangerous but a great workout and training for this hike. 

Dancer is a 21-year-old massage therapist who tried to thru-hike last year but a stress fracture in the foot pulled her off early. She started alone this year with no fear but confident that this year she would complete the challenge before her. She is bubbly and always quick with laughter.  As she walks through these mountains she wants to dance and embrace the joy of the adventure.  I like her. I like people who approach life and challenges with optimism.  People who are not “the glass is half empty,” or “the glass is half full” but “the glass is completely full even if its not all water.”

Tuesday, April 6, 1999

Around 1 a.m. I woke up because the wind started to pick up and sticks started falling from trees and leaves were whipping around hitting the tent.  Trees began groaning as they were pushed around, and the wind whistled as it came through the forest.  Dancer and Stray had more courage than me to sleep under in the open sky wanting to watch the stars through the leaves as they fell asleep.  I wanted some sense of comfort and protection so I had stayed inside though in reality I knew my tent offered no safety.  The unfamiliar noises woke me up.  Falling debris was landing on my tent making it difficult to go back to sleep.

A storm was brewing.  I stuck my head out and saw that the others were awake so I invited them inside my small shelter.  They didn’t wait for a second invitation or for me to try any method of convincing.  So in they came, Dancer (having changed her name to “Boo” as in “Boo-Boo Bear”) and Stray.  The three of us squished into a two man tent sleeping heads to toes.   We had no trouble staying warm on this dog night but I don’t care for sleeping with others.  It was a restless night.  

With sore muscles and a tired mind I approached the trail today.  I’m noticing bruising where the backpack straps onto my body. I had to dig out my rain gear and finally test it out for the first time.  I was told by my outfitter that I should try it out before I go to the trail in case there are issues I need to resolve.  They encouraged me to put on all my gear and stand in a shower.  I never did that, though I’m sure it’s the best way, it always sounded silly. I trusted that new gear would work the way new gear was supposed to work.  I am very trusting.  The rain gear seemed to work, the only issue I had was the noise caused by the pelting water on the hood around my ears sounding like a first semester drum class.  

The rain didn’t last long but turned into a heavy mist making the mountains seem mystical and mysterious.  The three of us walked near each other but I noticed that if they got more than 20 feet away they would be swallowed by the mist from my sight. 

We met a boy named Tye.  Tye is only 17 years old but more than adequate for the challenge ahead. He is confident, assertive, and a bit arrogant.  That attitude might be the best thing he could bring to the trail to help him push through the distance.   Not only is he confident, he is a humanitarian, he is walking to raise money for cystic fibrosis, which his 28-year-old uncle has. The average age for someone with the disease is 31.  The funds he raises through sponsors will go to the foundation.  He has a goal to hike the entire trail before college starts in the fall, so he graduated from high school early to give himself the time to do it. He wants to one day be a high school teacher.  He’s going to miss his graduation and prom.  Do I admire the kid or hate him?  

I didn’t have the life direction and ambition he has when I was his age.  I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college until a month before college started.  It took me years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  And I think I still struggle to think beyond myself to invest in helping others out of their pain.  I’m humbled and challenged by this kid.

After my first mail drop at Suches, Ga., a guy named Moses joined our small ragamuffin band of musky hikers.  He got so sunburned his first day hiking, the next day he hiked with clothes draped all over him to protect his skin.  With a shirt draped over his head and sandals on, walking down off a mountain to our resting spot, he looked just like Moses coming down to talk to his people.  That’s how he got his name.

            I am eating but my appetite is low.  I am just too tired to want to eat more. Maybe my body is wanting to eat all the fat off that I have put on over the last few months.  So for now I bury all the excess food I have brought or can’t eat.  I think a lot of my pack weight is the food I have in case of emergency.  I tell myself I am in a survival situation and need to be prepared for anything.  So I over pack.  I carry extra granola; trail mix, dried fruit, peanut butter… so I don’t starve to death.  

            At my mail drop I picked up letters from friends and family encouraging me and my first box or food I had sent to myself to resupply food.  Too much food.  I should have thrown much of it away because I still had half my food I started with. But I stuffed in into my food bag and crammed that down into my pack.  My body groaned as I hefted the pack onto my back.   I paused.  Set my pack down, pulled out the food bag and then reassessed.  I threw Gorp and power bars into the trash can with joy.  I looked into the trash can and saw other food supplies left by other hikers who also did budget food appropriately.  

The mist continued through the day never allowing the sun to dry us out or warm us up.  Within sight of the shelter I would spend the night at, I had to stop and rest on a fallen tree. I was wiped out so I just sat on cold moist moss.  I can already understand and empathize with people who end their hike.  This is challenging. In fact I would say that the majority of the time it has not been fun but it has been good.  I’m one who is always looking for what’s new and exciting.  I don’t care for pain but try to find ways to avoid it.  What would happen if I didn’t leave difficult situations, difficult conflict?  I feel that if I quit I would miss all the moments that God has for me and the growth through the pain that God has before me.  

Stray found me and sat with me.  He was also struggling physically.  The others we are hiking around have loosely banded together and called themselves the Ragamuffins.  Even in the woods hiking, social systems develop.  Stray and I shared the new pains we were each experiencing while looking at the others who seemed to be as fresh as daisies.  As I sat with my boots off, the others rushed past us in a dash for the shelter to claim the best sleeping spots inside.  I’ll just be glad to arrive regardless of placement in the pack or location in the shelter.  

The shelter is small and the clouds encased the mountain bringing a chill to the air.  I have quickly found a love for my down sleeping bag.  There were no more spaces left in the small shelter for Stray and I so he took the shelters picnic table top and I slept under it on the gravel. I was so tired I just didn’t want to take the time to set up the tent. When I put my head down to sleep, I was out immediately.

Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Throughout the night mice woke me up as they would run across my body in search of food.  Little squeaks called out in the darkness as they shared with each other where to go in their organized hunt.  I would jump when they would nuzzle under my arms trying to see if there was something hidden from them.  Every movement and noise caused me to flail at them, threw rocks, my shoes, my backpack or anything my hands could grasp and throw trying to end their torments. Once I sat us so fast and hard forgetting where I was, I crashed my head onto the underside of the picnic table I was bedding under.  A sharp pain exploded causing more anger to rise and for me to become fully awake.  I grew more paranoid with every sound I heard. As the wind would blow on hairs on my body, I would jump wondering if it wasn’t the wind but the mieces coming for me. 

In my mind I imagined one of them getting past my defenses and crawling into my sleeping bag.  There they would gnaw and burrow into my body.  It is not a rational thought but it was the middle of the night and I am not accustomed to sleeping with varmints.  I couldn’t control the imagery that sleep depravation induced.   

Then I got angry at Stray who seemed to sleep through the entire invasion above me.  In the morning he woke up feeling rested and refreshed for another day of adventure oblivious to the battle that waged beneath him.  In the overcast morning I sat bundled up in warm clothes closed off  and staring at my instant oatmeal and coffee.  Stray came up to me and asked, “where did these little piles of rocks come from?”  Apparently there were small stacks of rocks all along the tabletop neatly spaced around his sleeping bag.  They were not there when we went to sleep and he’s pretty sure he’s never been one to sleepstack rocks before.  The best hypothesis we could come up with was that the mieces were trying to bury him and save him for a later snack.  They picked the smallest of us hoping we wouldn’t miss him.  

Once I was able to shake the tired off and get on the trail, the hardest challenge of the day was to hike up Blood Mountain. Blood Mountain is the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia (4,461 feet).  At the summit is a dirty abused shelter of stone that is no longer in use.  Most shelters are three sided, raised a few feet off the ground and made of wood modeled after Swiss Chalets.  It smelled and had no attractive qualities for me to rest from the climb.  I found a patch of grass and rested my feet before descending.  

As I have been walking, at times I feel the beating of drums or some other vibration.  At times I hear it but I could not find where it was coming from before it would leave again.  I asked another hiker as we climbed Blood Mountain if he knew what I was hearing and he told me it was the sound of a Grouse (Bonasa Umbellus).  Bonasa means “Bison” because of the drumming sound I hear and feel is like the sound of a bellowing Bison.  He told me that the grouse will stand crosswise on a fallen log and brace itself with it’s tail.  It begins to whirl it’s wings faster and faster, striking the air which creates a miniature sonic boom.  Its how he tries to grab the attention of a mate, how can I fault him for just wanting love.  

Blood Mountain got its name from a mighty battle between the Creek Indians and the Cherokee.  Thousands of men died in battle soaking the soil with their lives, it has since been called Blood Mountain.  

The mountain is also the location of the first gold rush in America with hidden caves spread throughout that are still supposedly hiding stashed Indian gold. The white people in the area didn’t think the Indians really needed the gold and that it might be too good for them so they thought they should help relieve them of it.  They thought it was better suited for the 10,000 gold fevered men who would know what do  with such great wealth.  They told themselves that the Indians would only waste it or use it to buy useless things. There were few laws at the time to protect anyone so the men followed their greed and lusts without consequences. They took what they wanted however they wanted it and when they were done they moved towards the next gold rush that would seduce them in California.

Many made a home of the area carving out a life in the rugged wilderness.  They slaughtered the wildlife without limit until all deer were eliminated from the region.  Then the government got involved and continued the abuse.  The state of Georgia passed an act to confiscate all Cherokee lands and declaring all laws of the Cherokee Nation null and void.  When the Indians cried out in alarm their voices were silenced when they were forbidden to testify in any state court against a white man. Bills were then made to prevent them from digging for gold on their own land and for them to hold counsels or to assemble for any public purposes.  

The land was then taken and distributed to white people by lottery.  After such deep oppression the white people with no value for Indian lives let which let loose a bloody reign of terror by armed bands who plundered, torched and terrorized Indians because there was no consequences.  Through all the abuse and brutality upon the Cherokee in Georgia, they refused to run or leave but dug their heals in deeper refusing to budge. Armed bands caught and flogged Indians, the women and men, stripped and whipped them without mercy or law striking them with cowhides, hickories and clubs.  Blood Mountain.  

Many thru-hikers believe it’s named appropriately because of their worsening blisters.  Two guys I met can’t wear their boots because there is no skin on their heels.  Regardless of the amount of duct tape they put on they can’t stop the friction and burning.  They are the latest hikers to try the strategy of walking in sandals.  As I complain about the blisters on my own feel I’m a bit ashamed.  Yes it is the pain I have right now and its very real and bothersome, but I’m overwhelmed with emotion for the choices people can make, the levels humanity can run to if people will just turn an eye.  

On the hike down Blood, Stray and I hiked with each other and our conversation drifted to God and faith.  He used to go to church as a kid until he perceived that it was only a social event for people to posture themselves. The better you looked and acted the better Christian you were and better respected in church and in the community.  He was taught that If you didn’t come from a family of influence and money then your spirituality must be suffering.  That went against how he thought Christianity should be and the frustration brought his blood to a boil.  Not knowing what to do, he decided to throw out everything he was taught and to start looking for God without the trappings.  He got involved in a church that he liked but over time the church demanded more and more commitment to their programs and events.  He was feeling pressured to now invest all his extra time and effort into the ministries the church led.  That didn’t sit well with him either.  There were people in his life that didn’t go to church and he was feeling the pressure to cut them out and invest in only the clean Christians, those who would have the best influence on him.  He walked away from that church also.  

He’s willing to go back one day on the condition that he doesn’t  have to appear, act, or talk a certain way to please others.  Where he doesn’t’ have to give his life to the vision of the church as a measure for his soul health.  The more he talked the more he sounded healthy in his views and I even felt he had a hunger to know God.  He’s just been bullied and belittled by the church.  I would love for him to come to a place where he can see Jesus without the junk others have added to such a simple and life changing relationship

Stray and I have really clicked and seem to enjoy each other a good bit.  I enjoy his personality despite his mild cynicism.  He reminds me of one of my previous roommate Mike Ralph, a self proclaimed realist.  He is bringing a touch of home to this hike.  I am hoping that we can both continue on together to Maine.  He loves all things Asian and would love to move there to any of the countries.  He is planning a long trip next year and hoping to find a place to stay and work while traveling to Japan, China, Thailand, Philippines and maybe Burma. He has never left the country and has traveled little but there is a passion growing in him.  

Stay and I made it to the Walasi-yi by mid-afternoon without too many incidents.  I started to worry about my left foot because the ball of my foot ached so much as we pounded downhill off Blood Mountain.  At Walasi-yi I bought foot insoles and padding to see if it would help me out.  If my wheels don’t work well, this truck ain’t rollin.  The wind picked up bringing with it a cold winter air that made it so tough to want to leave the warm store and climb the mountain out of the pass.  Some hitched a ride a few miles away to a hotel to find solace in a bed with blankets and a fresh hot shower while others stayed in the bunkhouse at the store. Stray and I hitched a ride down to the hotel but when we heard how much it cost for the night we decided to hold onto our money, so we hitched a ride back up to keep hiking.  

We were about to dawn our packs and continue on the trail when we got a whif of our odor.  Not only were we foul smelling but so were our clothes.  We decided we should do some laundry.  A group of us piled together our most wretched clothing and we started the machine while wearing our rain gear.  While we were waiting for our clothes to dry, a hiker came in we had never met and started to talk to us in a rush.  He had a compulsive disorder and a speech impediment making it hard for us to understand him.  We learned that his name was Whirl.  He rambled at a fast pace and we just tried to grasp what he was saying.  I was lost and yet felt like somewhere along the way he asked me a question.  He just looked at me like he was waiting for an answer but I had no idea what he wanted to know.  No one else said anything or knew what to say in the silence that followed, so I blurted out “I have diarrhea.”  I’m quite sure he thought “wow, this guy is sun baked.”  He just gave me a quizzical look and walked away from us.  I was just glad to help.

When our laundry was completed the group of us all encouraged each other to stop sitting around eating ice cream and dreaming of a bed and shower, so we all headed out into the mountains.   We didn’t hike far and found a beautiful spot to rest and spend the evening on Rock Spring Top, out in the open air.  I reflected on the day 

The Rainbow Coalition has joined the trail. Apparently there are hundreds of people who are starting to walk the Appalachian Trail as they head to a gathering or festival in Pennsylvania.  As a general rule they are very earthy people who don’t regularly bathe, wash hair, or shave regardless if they are on the trail or not.  They love the lifestyle.  The trail is a highway for them as many of them have no other form of transportation.  When I look at them I think hippie.  Many members wear rainbow colored or tie-dyed clothing.  Around them you smell incense or pot, usually both at the same time. They are much louder than I would have thought them to be.  The walk in packs of twenty or more and many with drums and other instruments.  They play happily, singing and shouting, oblivious to what others may or may not care for.  Their backpacks have clothing hanging from them, bumper stickers, tamborines, fire sticks, hula hoops, just about anything they want.  They are not trying to compete with the ultra lightweight backpackers.  

One of the Rainbow girls was Love Bug, she wore jeans sagging down about to fall off and a bikini top.  She didn’t wear shoes because that is not the natural order of things.  Dogs don’t do it so why should we?  

Another was a guy with dread locks who was wincing with every step in pain as his feet were soft and unused to the rocks and sticks. He didn’t go for this hiking backpack peer pressure so he used a ruck-sack  to carry 80 pounds of his most important items like fresh produce of broccoli and cauliflower.  And then he had books.  Not just a small novel to delve into but multiple large text books on mushrooms.  He is wanting to learn to live off the land as he hiked and figured he should know how to not poison himself.  Seems like a smart idea.  Hanging from the back of his pack was a pair of old rugged boots. These were to be burned as a symbol of the oppression upon them though now it seems the mountain is an oppression beneath him.  

As I talked with others there was a theme with them, they carried other symbols of oppression to be burned at the gathering in a large bonfire while they would sing and ignore the addiction of smoking pot and getting high.  We saw them several times through the night and with each meeting they tried to give us tomatoes and heads of lettuce.

We spent our night among the trees on the top of a mountain sitting in our hiker chairs talking and laughing with hot cider to warm our hands and stomachs. Moments like this are what are helping me to push forward.  A peace while connecting to God and others in nature.  

“There is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear.” John Wain Wright

Thursday April 8th

I woke up to a delicious morning.  Refreshed and ready for whatever mountains lay ahead of me to scale.  My muscles felt refreshed and my scabs were strong.  I looked around at the group of friends that were trying to stay hiking close to each other as they were making breakfasts, packing up their tents, stuffing their backpacks, or just staring off into the distance in silence.  This is a motley group.  They decided to call us the “Ragamuffins” after a book I was reading every night around the campfires.  We are made up of Moses, Boo, Stray, Iccy (Icky), Canada Goose, and I. 

When I left on my own just a few days ago I had no idea how much community would develop. I thought that this was going to be a lonely adventure trying to find myself and getting annoyed that I would probably just be losing myself.  I may spend hours in the day alone with my thoughts hiking at my own pace but I’ll stop to eat with some of them or know we’ll be heading to the same shelter at night and we will talk about what we saw, what we thought about, or just share our stories with each other.  

I like knowing that there is shared misery and shared joy out here.  That this process of growth is not just in me and my journal.  I’m still not comfortable living in the woods, this doesn’t feel natural or relaxing for me.  It’s a very unknown place.  I wasn’t raised in a family that took me out into nature unless it was to look at tidal pools for an hour at the beach.  I didn’t have a dad who would take me fishing or out on canoe rides.  We didn’t go hiking or even car camping.  I feel like I moved into the bad part of town and am on high alert for any danger around every tree.   I don’t have doors I can lock at night or ninja skills to ward off any invader.  So it feels good to have others around me to bring me a sense of security and comfort. I know they are looking out for me and will encourage me as I walk through the pain of adjusting.  Friends anywhere in this world are a treasure and a need for me.    

When I got into the shelter I crashed onto the only dry spot that wasn’t filthy or covered with backpacks.  I took my boots off and let the cool air dry them and take the blister pain away.  Soon a man walked up to the shelter in jeans, t-shirt, clean, shaved, and with a simple backpack on.  Already I could tell he wasn’t like everyone else.  I and everyone else already had sweat stained clothes and dirty faces. He was grinning at us and walked confidently into the middle of the group before taking his backpack off. This didn’t seem natural. Something was up.  Something was going on that I couldn’t read.  

When his backpack was on the ground he bent down, unzipped it and began to stick his big hands into it all the while not taking is eyes off of us.  Silence in the air between us.  He then began to pull out hot dogs, banana’s, apples, and sodas for all of us and as much as we wanted to eat.  Oh, I’m in love with this man.  His name is Mark.  I hadn’t eaten much through the day, just a few spoonful’s of peanut better and a power-bar hours before, so for dinner I filled myself with eight hot dogs, 2 bananas and an apple.  It was such an affirming action to support and care for us on the trail.  

As I prepared for this hike, I had some family and friends share with me that they believe this hike is a waste of time in my life, a time that I’m being reckless and irresponsible.  I’m not saying this one act by Mark cleared the hurt from the words of others against me, but it did help. Mark, thank you.  Thank you for affirming that I can be on this hike, that you see it as something important to support and to encourage.  Thank you.  I just learned what a trail angel is and I vow that one day I will be a trail angel for others. 

            As we all sat around in our full bellies and the peace of not having to continue moving forward in the day, we rested and started to compare blisters. The award for the day goes to Stray.  He is the first to get a blister under a toenail. I can’t comprehend the pain that is causing him with each footstep he pounds down the mountains.  Next comes the betting on the day that the nail will fall off.  People are promising Snickers, Nutella, Coffee, and Pop Tarts to the winner.  I’ve heard stories of people from past years who would wear toenails that had fallen off on a sting around their neck like some trophy or medallion.  I think that is one area that is just a little too native for my taste, at least so far. 

            I have always been a big Walt Whitman fan and thought it appropriate to add his poem “Song of the Open Road.”  Its always been a favorite of mine but never more than now.  

A Foot and light hearted I take to the open road, (Or trail)

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. (but mostly north)

Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more (He never had a blister under his toenail), postpone no more, need nothing (Not even duct tape?),

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms(From family and friends),

Strong and content (somewhat though I guess I still have a lot of fears)I travel the open road.

The earth that is sufficient,

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,

I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me whenever I go,

I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,

I am filled with them, and will fill them in return.) (Both the good and the bad)

You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,

I believe that much unseen is also here. 

That last line is the truest for me and I guess what I cling to as I read this.  I believe that what is most important is what is unseen, the healing, deep healing that needs to happen in my heart and life and the growth that is happening in me and in those around me. I also believe that my connection with God is growing.  I believe that my open road is designed to draw me to Jesus and to learn to trust Him when I walk in the unknown and uncertainty of my today.  No matter what I face inside myself or around me.  And I can face it and it will not win.

Friday, April 91999

After hiking roughly five miles, I were sitting at the bottom of a mountain by a major road resting and trying to get the courage and energy to start the next climb.  A family that had been weekend hiking alongside me for a few days pulled up in their van offering a group of us a ride to Wendy’s, ten miles away.  I needed to convincing.  It didn’t take us Ragamuffins but a second to jump in with our packs and sweaty bodies and squeezed our smelly bodies into the van. 

We arrived in Helen, Georgia, a Bavarian theme town with building codes to keep the atmosphere.  We had six more miles to go to get to the shelter I had planned on making, so I felt a little anxious to continue and knock them out, but I remembered that I keep saying , it is the journey, and not the drive towards destination. So we ate at the Troll Tavern feasting on sandwiches and cheesecake, and some only sat with a frosty liquid refreshing bread, beer.  Every time beer is mentioned Moses eyes light up.  He thinks it’s funny that he has a Biblical trail name after having left a job where his workers thought he was Satan for all the practical jokes he would pull on his fellow workers.  I have come to enjoy Moses, a college graduate who is looking to go to graduate school after the hike.  He has a warm personality that is friendly to everyone and a gentle heart.  He is the kind of guy that everyone likes and they don’t even know why, they just do.  

            Helen was a town about to go bankrupt about ten years ago when some guy caught the vision to turn it into a Bavarian Village. I would love to know how he convinced the town to build the theme and to invest the money into it when I am not sure there is even one Bavarian living in the county.  And what is amazing is that however he convinced the business owners and the chamber of commerce, he did it, and it has worked.  The city is now growing and financially healthy as it opens T-shirt stores or jewelry stores every ten feet enticing customers with pendants of dolphins, Nike symbols, or personalized names.  They saved the city but my follow-up question would be: have they done something beneficial?  There are a lot of couples with kids running around eating fast food and ice cream thinking this is the best of Georgia.  This is vacation heaven for some, to others it is trash tourism.

            After we ate we headed back to the trail, hitching a ride in a truck.  At one point we had thought of staying the night but I did not want to stay in the noise and busyness of shopping, so off we went.  Back on the trail it was up a mountain of 1,000 feet gain in one mile, with full stomachs.  We were so bloated we camped on top unable to push on any further.  We ate too well to continue hiking.  I may not have made my goal but I was smiling and happy that I had built some good memories with some cool people.