How beautiful on the mountains

IMG_3598I had a feeling that my hike along the Appalachian Trail would bring experiences I could never foretell.

As it turns out, expecting the unexpected is the only thing I got right about my little adventure.

The plan, my plan, was to spend 10 days in the solitude of north Georgia where I would carry a 35-pound backpack all the way to the North Carolina state line and beyond.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says that a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.

I finally know what that means.

The motivations were pure. Or so I thought. I wanted to honor the father and sister I lost to cancer. I desired time alone in the wilderness to confront my lingering grief. I wanted the quiet of a solitary stroll so I could listen for God’s whisper in the hopes that He might guide me toward my true purpose.

Somehow, I allowed selfish ambitions to get in the way. Without realizing it, I made my trip all about what I could accomplish and what I could endure. I planned hikes of 10 and 15 miles over challenging terrain. When my wife voiced her wise objections, I stubbornly claimed my tattered 58-year-old  body could endure the stress, the rain, and freezing cold without complaint.

I needed a little humbling. A lot of humbling, actually.

God was there to provide.

My pride took a ferocious hit on the very first day. As it turns out, just getting to the start of the famous Appalachian Trail is a struggle. The trailhead is at the top of Springer Mountain. That’s an 8-mile climb from the Amicalola Falls Lodge. I was an aching, breathless mess before I left my first footprint on the AT. I had another three miles to tread before reaching my first campsite. It was all I could do to eat a few bites of dinner on that first day before collapsing into my sleeping bag.

The next day was even harder. My backpack pulled me left, right, and a lot of backward as I stumbled over Sassafras Mountain. I’d done a poor job of stuffing food, clothes, tent, and the rest of my survival needs into a borrowed pack. Angels named Don, Keith, and Davis volunteered to push, pull, shove, tighten, and somehow relieve the pain in my shoulders. Unfortunately, my new friends lacked the ability to make me 30-years younger.

By day three, I was broken.

God and His amazing mountainous creation had thoroughly humbled me. My walk was no longer about making it 10 days or 100 miles. It was about surviving one more step. I’m not as tough as I thought, not as brave as I thought, and the north Georgia mountains were more than willing to deliver that message. It was then and only then, when my mind was no longer cluttered with selfish infatuations, that God spoke.

And I listened.

God taught me that you can find beauty where it doesn’t seem to exist. During a cold, wet climb up Blood Mountain, I fell in love with a rock. You heard me. It wasn’t even an attractive rock, but a bland, jagged bolder emerging from the mud. As the lactic acid building in my legs worked to convince me I would never reach the top of that mountain, there it was. It was as if God placed His slick, dirty creation in just the right spot. God knew I needed a breather even when I didn’t. For several minutes (I didn’t count how long) I sat there on my rock with the rain pouring off of my hat. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. That rock was a haven. It was cold jagged comfort. It was as welcoming as a couch in front of a warm fire. It remains, in my mind, a hunk of rugged, grimy, wilderness beauty.

At the top of Blood Mountain, I joined other hikers for a moment of respite inside of a drafty shelter. Protected from the rain, we were all equal parts fatigue, filth, and famished. Some of those gathered were the energetic youth who’d sprinted past me as I sat on my rock. There were experienced hikers with the best equipment money could buy. There was also one unusually joyful man who was woefully unprepared in his denim jeans, leather jacket, and steel-toed boots. He looked like a fresh baked biscuit as steam wafted from his head and shoulders, and we all had a good chuckle over this unusual sight. In that group were the fit, the unfit, the well prepared, and the spontaneously ill-prepared. It didn’t matter. In that setting, we were unified in our joy, our exhaustion, and the challenge of the trail.

The hike gave me the opportunity to spend hours in conversation with God. He helped me resolve lingering issues over the death of my father. There were words I should have spoken long before painkillers and the evils of cancer left my father still and mute. Through prayer, God assured me that He is taking care of my dad and that I shouldn’t stress. God and I still have more to discuss in that regard, but I know now that He is listening to my concerns. I am no longer a man of quick, superficial prayer to begin and end each day. I know the joy and comfort that comes when you pray without ceasing.

Ultimately, a journey that was supposed to take me to the North Carolina foothills instead ended after 5 days and 50 miles. I have many reasons for leaving the trail early, but let’s just leave it that the terrain, the weather, and my aging body got the better of me. Besides, it was never supposed to be about miles. It was about my relationship with God, one that is now better than ever. I found peace in a steep climb. I found comfort in an ice cold rain. In a slippery rock, I found a friend. I discovered that God doesn’t care if I’m a news reporter, a writer, or a professional race walker (never going to happen). He just wants me to allow Him to lead the way. He wants me to find joy in the struggle.

Had I walked 100 miles, 200, or 2000 miles, this journey was never going to end on the Appalachian Trail.

God has humbled me.

He’s in the lead now, where He belongs, and I want Him to stay there no matter how far we walk, no matter how steep the climb.

 

 
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” — Isaiah 52:7

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6 thoughts on “How beautiful on the mountains

  1. Jerry,
    I have no words
    You truly are a gifted writer. Your words truly touched me. Doing what we (surgeons) do everyday ,schedules rearranged for an emergency, dinner with family cancelled to go to the ER , work all day and night , it can make you at times somewhat callous and cold to the human spirit. We see gunshots, stabbings and motor vehicle accidents at all hours of the day and night and we get robotic in our approach and forget the human side. Just being able to read your journey from the start to now has reminded me that there is a human side and a human story for each of us , you seem to have reunited with your path and it made me think maybe what I’m doing is God’s will also, to attend to the suffering and those less fortunate. Your gift is writing and your ability to touch others with words is incredible. It certainly touched me . Thanks to you for allowing me to be on your journey by your words. I do hope to see you soon . I would say God Bless but we both know he already did!!
    David Sailors

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  2. Jerry – You and I share some things. First of all, we are both UGA alums – go Dawgs! I too have been challenged and humbled by the AT. I too am a writer and I too have lost a sibling to cancer. Thank you for sharing your journey with such honesty and courage. Of course you didn’t fail because you didn’t reach your original goal. You reached the goal intended for you. Peace.

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  3. So moving, and so well written, Jerry. Attacking this challenge is something I’ve long considered so, being around the same age, I was following your journey with keen interest. I did a mere 10 miles in those rugged hills and I was left to wonder what walk, camp, sleep, eat might be like. Thanks for the sneak preview! Having now read about your experience, I think if I ever do follow your lead I’ll do so without so many goals in front of me. I think I’ll instead pack light, take my sweet time and look for some nice rocks to kick back on and think. Thanks for sharing. Look forward to hearing more,

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    • IT was a wonderful healing experience Chip. Don’t approach it for what you can accomplish, but what God can accomplish through you. I saw so many people who seemed in such a hurry and refused to slow down and take in the beauty. It’s amazing up there. But you can find beauty anywhere if you slow down and really look. I know you’re busy with the search for a basketball coach. Let me know if you have time to talk in the coming days and I’ll give you a call.

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