Tuesday, May 25, 1999
Yesterday wasn’t a huge hike for me, hiked 4 miles to Atkins and was there by 8:30 a.m. I had several errands to fulfill and I completed them by noon. I should have gone back to the trail but I got sucked into the Village Inn with several other hikers. I made a lot of phone calls to friends and family, wrote some letters, had a few large Blizzards at Dairy Queen to see which flavor might be my favorite, read a book, and watched people that looked clean. After dinner I crashed on the floor of the hotel room that friends had booked and watched TV with them. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV. I couldn’t get away. Several hours passed where I was compelled to watch, I couldn’t turn my attention away, nobody talked, you could literally see our eyes melting out of our heads. I wanted to talk with these hikers, to get to know them and build memories and a bond with them but it never happened.
I felt frustrated.
When I woke up this morning I looked out the hotel window, it is a sunless day which makes me want to stay snuggled into my sleeping bag and wait for a day when the sun will be out, birds singing, and when the mountains decide to flatten out. But I feel like today I need to make up for yesterday’s sloth and throw down a few hard miles. So reluctantly and slowly I make my way out of my sleeping bag. I sit for a minute before standing and beginning to work the soreness out of my muscles. I packed up quietly while everyone else slept in the beds and let the whine of the air conditioning unit mask my movements. I worked in the dark before sliding out the door and into the early morning. I made my way to the Village Restaurant and fill my tank with pancakes and a pot of coffee (ok, just 4 cups). I really miss coffee. I’ve tried Folgers singles, which are used like tea bags, but even desperation doesn’t make them taste good. I was hoping that the caffeine would energize me to want to hike but it’s still cold and sunless and I still don’t want to go.
After about ½ mile on the trail I came across my first beaver dam. I have been told that they are everywhere up north but I was pretty excited none the less. I pulled out my camera and was rewarded within a few minutes by seeing a beaver. I saw him splash down under the water to swim into his stacked log home and that was the last of him. What a great start.
Tonight I’m a guest of Knot Maul Branch Shelter. Local settlers used to get knotwood from trees in the area for making mauls (hammers). The strong tough knots made excellent hammers.
I came across a register entry from Amish Reject who hiked through here over a month ago. Next to his entry was a drawing of a stick figure bearded man with a pitchfork and hat on, with cross marks through it. Amish Reject did not want to work the family farm or contribute to the community so he was asked to leave. Now he is hiking the trail as Amish Reject.
Wednesday, May 26, 1999
I felt strong today and my rhythm was just clicking. I thumped out 19 miles and was about to try for another 3 but I found such a beautiful campsite by a stream I had to stop. I sat down, pried off my boots, peeled off my socks, slid off the duct tape and moleskin and looked at my white sad feet with red blisters and blood on them. I hate these boots. There was silence. Nobody around. I didn’t feel lonely, I felt full and satisfied, I felt like I was talking with God without saying words.
After awhile, a section hiker named Rucksack Wanderer attempting the 500-mile section of Virginia meandered into the camp. He was quitting because he was so lonely and he missed his parents. He’s just so lonely that he feels anxious. He asked me how I deal with the loneliness and about God. As we talked he shared that he felt that he was supposed to be out here and to push through the pain, to just suck it up and press on with determination and grit. But he said he just couldn’t do it. He thanked me for giving spiritual guidance and support and hoped I wasn’t disappointed with him and his decision. How could I? How can I blame him? I don’t know what’s right for him? The most important thing has nothing to do with this hike. Its so easy to believe that what we do today or what I invest my time and energy in is so important. Its easy because I want to believe that what I do is of great worth. And if I see it as of great worth, then I want others to also. And I see some people get mad when others have different priorities, even broader priorities. How can I fault Rucksack Wanderer for leaving? I can’t. God bless you as you move forward.
The last several days I have been alone though there are many around on the trail. I just don’t know them. Sometimes I don’t want to take the energy to get to know people just to watch them fall off the trail. I have noticed more and more single hikers pushing north. I did catch up to Dawn Treader and Shiver tonight, but we won’t be continuing on together. They are meeting some family and are going to take a week off with them. So I will press on. And I wish that was all they had said. After they told me that they then expressed a desire for me to move on in my hike without them. They are wanting to spend time with just each other to grow and strengthen their marriage. Ugh. Yes, I understand and how can I not support such a noble desire? I just want to be selfish, I really enjoy them. I really love them. We won’t be living near each other again because we’ve both graduated from graduate school, this makes me sad. I will take my hurt and sad heart and move on, I will give the ample space.
Thursday, May 27, 1999
I limped 14 miles today. My right shin was aching as soon as I put weight on it. So I slowed down my pace and spent time looking around at the things I could see. Often times I keep my head down, staring at the dirt, rocks, and roots so I don’t trip or roll an ankle. But other than the pain of my shin and the normal blisters in my boot, I really enjoyed today. When I began this hike I would have thought I would do this more noticing, I’m finding that I have to be purposeful to enjoy the hike and purposeful to soak in the landscape.
There is an ancient idea called natural theology,it’s the term used for the attempt to prove the existence of God and divine purpose through the observation of nature. The idea can be seen in the writings of Paul in the bible and later developed by Aquinas in medieval times. Before the inquisitions Galileo explored it and Christian mystics immersed themselves in it. And the pious naturalist Jonathan Edwards brought it across the ocean from England to the Americas.
Because I’m created in God’s likeness, I carry His image. Not only do I get to notice it but I also get to love it and revel in it. One of the struggles is that in our man-made world I often times cut myslef off from the created natural world. More and more I’m immersing myself in the internet, cell phones, video games, TV, theaters, and anything else that brings entertainment. And none of these things are bad. I just don’t seem to keep them in any kind of balance. God created this world and all that is in it. I should want to know more about it instead of just filling my mind and heart inside the technological world.
The more a subject is researched or known about, the richer and fuller it becomes and the greater amount that can be drawn from it and enjoyed. Art, music and nature are just a few, but the only way to begin learning is to just jump in with both feet and choose to find pleasure. When God rested on the seventh day he took time to notice and take joy in what he created, then he said, “it is good.” My family didn’t take me out into nature much. They never showed me how to enjoy God in creation. In fact, I think I was raised to mock environmentalists as people on the fringe of sanity. They were hippies and “a good Christian should never be a hippie.” I feel like I have so much to unpack in my life and paradigms to shift.
The Celts are heavily influenced by natural theology, they believed that God could be confirmed and proved through the beauty and order of the natural world. They believed that the wonders of the world were not just to provide the key to establishing the existence of God but also the path to knowing more about him.
I believe that God wants to be found by me and everyone. And I’m thinking that through all creation, through the rocks, water, plants, trees, sky, and even the elements of weather God is trying to reveal Himself to me. I want my eyes and ears and heart opened to seeing God. Is it possible that while I hike all by myself that I am the least alone? I don’t think God is in all of the elements, but they are his fingerprints and convey his voice to me.
The shelter was one of the busiest I have been to yet. I don’t know why this is a magnet tonight but we were a full house. Ponderosa, Cessna, Drifter, Julie, Frizz, Sky, Raven, Tommy Bahama, Fireman, KC, Amazon, Hobbit and Llama are just a few of those who crowded the site. I had never met Hobbit before, he’s a tall lean man who was immersed in reading a book while sitting by the fire. Activity was going on all around him, conversations, meals being made, people packing and setting up their tents, and repairing their bodies. I sat at the fire while I started my dinner and tried to talk to him but he didn’t seem interested it conversation. In fact, he didn’t seem to talk to anyone except his friend he was hiking with, Llama. He rubbed me the wrong way. He would talk to Llama as if she was supposed to be serving him. Was she his llama, his pack animal to order? He had her cook his dinner while he relaxed and read the Lord of the Rings. She cleaned up afterwards for the two of them and did a few other things he told her to do. I was equally mad at him and also amazed at her for how kind she was to him, how she responded to him without antagonizing him or being beat down by him. She took his attitude but didn’t look weak as she did it. The more I watched I began to pity him and not her. It was a weird interaction. As I looked around at others who were watching, they all nodded heads, they didn’t like him and were equally impressed with her patience. Then he knocked the hot stove into Llamas arm burning her, and he blamed her for being there. Everyone watching bit their tongues.
Friday, May 28, 1999
For the last few days I have been hiking around KC and her friend Amazon. Both women are in their late 30’s to mid 40’s, both sport shaved heads with short Mohawks. KC is the friendly one of the two who is always ready to chat. Every time I pass them on the trail or when we are around the campfire at night she would come over and sit with me. As we talked tonight I found that KC is a Certified Master Graphologist, she’s achieved the highest level of
certification in the art and science of graphology. That sounded interesting so I handed to her my journal to read over and analyze. She loved it. I write in all capitals, which she said is rare and instantly made it impossible for her to decode. My ‘Y’s are the only letter that drop below the base line and the only cursive letter I use. She got so excited she decided she was going to buy some special $106 book that is two inches thick that will help her figure me out. She said I was a rare person. I have heard that before but often times in a critical voice or in sarcasm. Sometimes it’s followed up with loud laughter as I walk away. I’m open to anyone figuring me out, I need all the help I can get.
When most people had gone to bed and the fire was getting low, KC and I continued to talk into the night. She started to ask questions about God. She was raised in the Church of the Holy Brethren, which she said is a heavy patriarchal sect/cult. She was very hurt by the rules they enforced on her and the shame when she would fail to meet the standards. But instead of this pain driving her stubborn feminist feet into the ground and rebelling she went to college, earned a degree in religious studies where she was allowed to ask all the questions about God she wanted and explore what is true and what isn’t. It was through her studies and education that she found the hypocrisy of her upbringing, giving her reason to rebel. Instead of finding deeper truth and freedom in faith, she walked away with a heart of anger and become a self-proclaimed pagan. She now walks through nature and is able to find her gods or the god inside her. She loves religious conversation so I’m sure we will have more, to both our anticipation. I’m just honored that she doesn’t see me as a threat, as a representative of her past faith to combat, or as a someone to look down and pity. She sees me as a safe person to continue to process with. That’s cool.
Saturday, May 29, 1999
The azaleas and rhododendrons are in full bloom, splashing purples, and yellows, fire oranges, crimson and violets throughout the emerald green forests. This hike just gets better and better. Not only were the colors exciting but the fragrance carried you from one to another in rich perfumes. If the heat had been less than 80 degrees it would have been perfect so I didn’t sweat so much.
As we slept in our shelter the mieces began another assault upon us. We were once again under siege. Ropes were thrown over the side of the roof and they repelled down ready for battle. We would have slept through the invasion if it had not been for a man who has only been in the battle for a week. He had heard news of the problems beforehand, leaving him in a state of hyper fear, waking and jumping up at every noise of the night. We were not prepared for battle and sustained heavy losses. One guy left his Jiffy Pop out on a bench beside the shelter. We found nibbled kernels all over the campsite in the morning and even in some boots. I myself had carelessly left my peanut butter jar out and sitting at the foot of my sleeping bag. When I awoke at 3am, I turned on my headlamp and saw a miece sitting on top of it just looking at me. Tantung me. Claiming the spoils of war. There was a shriek in the night as one woman had a miece run across her face. We were lucky, it could have been much worse.
Sunday, May 30, 1999
I hiked into Pearisburg, VA to get my mail and food drop at a Catholic Hostel, but only my mail was there. I know what I’m doing for while I wait for the post office to open on Tuesday, sleep, rest, and body repair. And some might argue that I need to do laundry.
I’m sitting at the laundry mat wearing only my rain pants. Everything else is being washed as I wait. A few of the people at the far end of the laundry facility have raised their eyebrows at me more than once, at this bearded shirtless hiker hippie, and their looks are not one of pleasure. They fold their laundry carefully and whisper back and forth with quick glances at me to make sure I have made no threatening moves in their direction. I smile. I waved once. Many people like the hikers that come through and go out of their way to help them or just talk with them, but there are an equal amount that are skeptical of us. We do smell. We do wear sweat and backpack stained clothes that have holes in them from daily use and abuse. We carry hair on the face (mostly because we don’t want to carry razors and shaving in a stream is a dangerous risk) and for women their legs. We do not visually fit into the clean world of successful society. The Romans had bath houses where daily you could visit and get sweat and hair washed and scraped off your body. The more elite you were in society the more you could afford to be cleaned. If you were especially conscious of your image and standing in society, you might visit a bath more than once a day to be scraped, washed, and shaved. That amount of self-grooming is just not possible. I’m I thankful? This is a vacation from expectations and I love it. And I do understand the sideways glances when in town, so I do what I can, I smile and wave.
Back home I may be clean but I still do not wear the dress code image of success. I dress simply, I’m not led by labels of status, though I’m not against or degrading those who are. I enjoy being in this trail culture because clothing is created for purpose of function. Its designed to cool the body down as it generates heat from exercise, to breathe, hold in warmth when it’s cold, whisk moisture away from the body, prevent chaffing (possibly the most important), hold knickknacks, flexibility for motion…and we wear the same thing every day. We see each other every day without visual difference except sweat and dirt layered on. When we meet people our basis for preliminary judgment is stripped away, measurement for value of success is taken away, or at least given a new standard for measurement. Many times, I can remember being devalued because my appearance was not to the high standard Christians caught in culture thought I should. I was once told that I wasn’t able to attend a Christian college in Portland because shorts and sweatshirts didn’t honor God. I walked away very sad from that encounter. When I was 19 I pierced my ear. My mom cried for three days when she first saw that. Over time we both got used to the jewelry and saw that it was cosmetic and not a character fault or attempt at rebellion. I was just trying to figure out my identity and it was a part of the wrestling. Over time I realized that my external self had little to do with my identity. Who I am is my internal self. What is happening between God and I. My character, my personality, my growth and maturing and my laughter. I’m not saying that my external self isn’t important, it just fails in comparison to the inner man. This trail hike seems to place a higher emphasis on that person. I like that. I feel like I fit better in this world.
I have found a lot of freedom in the woods for myself. Social and economic barriers are taken away allowing people of all levels of life to connect. We are all struggling with the same things. We are all finding support and community through each other. I’ve met doctors, farmers, TV producer, cooks, students, military, authors, artists, journalists, biologists, teachers, divorced, widowed, diseased, introverted, extroverted, wealthy, and poor, all coming together without regard or status. Character is the main issue and the trail network. Are you kind? Are you critical? Are you generous or selfish? Are you interested in others or aloof and disengaged? And maybe one of the most important things, can others depend on you if they are in trouble?
I ran into a small stress today, every week a letter arrives with cash in it to so I don’t have to carry money with me and to cover any small incidentals that pop up that I might not have anticipated. Several times they have come in very handy and even saved my butt. The Post Office made an error with my packages and mail, so the letter and my food drop have not arrived. The struggle I have is that I was counting on that cash to buy dinner and pay for the hostel. And what has amazed me is that several friends and family members, unsolicited, have regularly sent me cash to help me. Problems have come up unexpectedly and I am deeply grateful for those that have supported me.
My afternoon has passed and now, I found a box with discarded hiker meals in it, perfect! Dinner was not memorable but it was filling and the night is quiet despite the number of hikers around. The afternoon was a sensory overload as I walked around the super-duper Wal-Mart just down the hill from the hostel. When I walked around the store anxiety filled me. My senses felt like they were on hyper alert from all the smells, the sounds, movement, and interactions. And so many people stared at me like I was a homeless man. I am starting to understand why some choose to become hermits. I am much more content with who I am and my place in life when I’m freed from the pressure of image, success, whether cultural or self-imposed. The answer to the problems of culture is not to run away to the mountains and become separate from it. But how am I responsible to bring Kingdom values into it? How do I live my life differently than I have? How is this hike changing me? What changes are supposed to last beyond this journey? Moment by moment and day by day I am dependent on God Almighty and that doesn’t change. And I am responsible for the lessons being learned. How is culture to be empowered to fall to its knees before God? And how do I remain there with such stubborn knees?
As much as I do not want to be sucked in and trapped in the town along the trail they are very beneficial. I am forced to rest and not carry my burden. I get to take joy in eating foods that honor the overuse of cheese and swim in pools of desserts (ice cream). Several times I’ve found hikers trying to hibernate in towns, digging their feet in the familiar culture that they miss. Some decide to hang up their shoes and call their journey over, but most, after the novelty wears off they head back to the mountains where life has become the new normal. I’ve been out in the mountains long enough that my life is more normal in the wilderness, it has become my home, and my journey is where I find peace. What used to worry and stress me out no longer causes fear or concern. I enjoy the rest and healing off the trail but there is a pull to continue on, a desire to enjoy this lifestyle while I have this opportunity. Often times it is the town days that affirms and measure my growth and push me back in for more. There is nothing wrong with the dominant western culture, its not bad or evil, I am just trying to find out what I am willing to accept and receive from it, what I want to embrace and what I don’t want.