I 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