Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trail Magic

As my recent reading probably shows, I've been a bit intrigued by the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,160 mile, fourteen state hiking trail along the Appalachian mountains through the eastern United States. I've read a couple of accounts of "thru hikers," brave, determined souls who typically begin in the early spring at Springer Mountain, Georgia and hike continuously to Mt. Katahdin, reaching the trail's terminus in Maine around September or October.

A few reasons for my fascination with the AT come to mind. First, I've always loved the outdoors. Getting away from the daily grind, forgetting cell phones and technology, leaving behind noise and pollution, and connecting to the slower, quieter rhythms of forests, lakes, and streams reminds me of the vacations of my childhood. Hiking through the woods, fishing on a quiet lake, watching eagles overhead, and hearing loons in the distance restore my soul. But to be honest, I've typically experienced that escape from civilization for a week or two. Spending six or seven months intricately in touch with the wilderness rain or shine (or snow!)would obviously change the intensity of the experience. What would happen if I extended that ten fold?

Second, thru-hiking the AT takes an amazing level of determination. Hikers who succeed typically average about a hundred miles a week. Sometimes along the way, they take breaks off the trail for a few days. But for the most part, no matter the weather, his/her mood, the terrain, aches and pains, boredom, the hiker goes on. The successful hiker pays attention to the pace, sets small goals, yet keeps Katahdin ever in mind. A small percentage of thru-hikers make it each year. Some hikers try again and again. Those who succeed claim the feat is as much mental as physical. I often wonder when I read such accounts if I could stay the course.

Finally, despite the individual nature of the thru-hike, a sense of community forms on the AT. Most hikers travel in groups. Also thru-hikers write in logs at shelters along the way so in a sense, each hiker gets to know those who go before. As people slow down and speed up, they eventually meet those whom they've been reading about. Hikers look out for each other. But the community of the AT goes beyond the trail itself. Along the way are hostels, restaurants, supply shops, post offices, and other businesses that look out for the thru-hikers. While some locals turn up their noses at the ragged, grimy, seldom-showered lot, others look to give a helping hand, whether a ride to a campground, a hot meal or a shower, a chance to call home. Sometimes when a hiker is down on his/her luck and feels like giving up, someone offers help or retreat at just the right time. Hikers refer to this as "trail magic"--the unexpected hospitality or generosity of someone along the way. Hikers tell of the way "trail magic" lifts their spirits, encouraging them onward in their journey.

This year my church is focusing on the Gospel of Luke, reading through it in this church calendar. And the theme of journey has been a recurrent one. The parallel between my church's theme and my recent reading has gotten me thinking. Day in and day out at school, I am surrounded by people on a long spiritual journey. The AT takes 6-8 months. A year into our Christian journey of faith, we have barely begun. When I think of my own journey, how willing am I to leave behind the "things that so easily ensnare us," to use Paul's language, what we used to talk about as "worldliness" (though that's become quite unpopular). What level of determination do I have to stay the course? How cognizant am I of the community journeying with me? Are there ways I could provide encouragement, strength, and the ability to rejuvinate to those around me, a kind of spiritual "trail magic"? The journey is long. Again, Paul encourages us to "press on toward the mark," "to keep our eyes on the prize." For me, that journey often becomes focused more clearly during the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. I encourage you to consider your journey this week and how to focus more clearly on what lies ahead.

I've decided to hike the AT. I'm really not at the right place in my life to consider dropping out of life for three quarters of a year to make the attempt. So I plan to begin hiking sections of the trail with my family. We will start small--maybe a few miles this summer in Virginia. When they are older, maybe we will hike for a few weeks, or one year, maybe for an entire summer. I will hike the entire AT, God willing. It's just going to take me a little longer.

Happy trails.

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