I don’t even know where to begin. It has been a whirlwind of a year and I don’t know that I ever thought we’d make it this far. I don’t feel like the best person to be writing this letter because I don’t know what you’ll experience out there. I don’t know what to tell you to keep you pushing through on the days where it feels like all you want to do is give up. I don’t really have tips and tricks I can pass on from my journey. This feels a little out of place. I think that could be said about a whole lot of 2020, but I do know one thing. It’s that the Lord will use you in incredible ways this season. A thru-hike is not just a physical feat. It’s emotional, mental, and spiritual as well. I know without a doubt in my mind this season will embrace all of that. As I was preparing for my journey this time last year, I was continuously reminded of the concept of steadiness, particularly visualized with this Chinese symbol for it. I shared a bit about this concept when I first wrote about my journey as a chaplain, I feel it is only appropriate to share it again. In the context of the trail.
Stephen Simpson in his book, “The Leader Who is Hardly Known” introduces the concept of steadiness with the Story of the Runaway Horse. It went like this, there once was a farmer whose horse ran away. All of those around him bemoaned the loss, but the farmer remained steady, even if the absence of the horse meant harder work for him. A week later, the horse returned, bringing four wild horses with him. All those around him rejoiced at the farmer’s good fortune, but the farmer kept an even keel, even if the horses, when broken, would bring him a welcome income. Then one day, while his son was breaking one of the new horses, the horse bucked, and the son fell off and broke his leg. All those around him expressed sorrow at the son’s pain and the farmer’s loss of a worker, but the farmer accepted the accident as the natural course of things. The very next day, the army came through the farmer’s village, taking all young men off to war. The farmer’s son was excused, because he had a broken leg. All the people said that the farmer was very lucky to keep his son, but the farmer’s heart remained calm throughout. While all those around the farmer moved from extreme happiness to extreme sadness and back again, the farmer knew that life was too complex to be explained by any single event. His goal was to keep a light heart, regardless of the events beyond his control.
I envision the trail being a little bit like that. Some days are filled with blisters, rain, cold, bugs, you name it. Others are filled with the joys of sunny days, trail magic, fresh blueberries, connections built with the trail community as well as the UMC community that has been so instrumental in a Chaplain’s journey. That’s where the steadiness will come in. The Appalachian Trail is a roller coaster of miles, emotions, and experiences and it is our job as chaplains to take that yoke upon us and walk in humility.
If there is anything I can say, it’s this: You are not alone. Your journey as a chaplain is more than just those 2,193 miles that you will walk. It is a journey filled with community. A journey chalked full of holy moments. Some days it hits more than others just how much I wanted to be out there. I was anxiously anticipating my start date as I imagine you are. But I know you are going to carry the torch well and I promise to do everything I can on this end to make sure the way is cleared for you, but that won’t make it easy, it is still your journey. I want you to live into it, Bone Spur. Press into every second of your adventure, press into how it stretches you and helps you find your authentic selfhood. Don’t take it for granted. I wish I didn’t. I want to watch you crush those miles. I want to hear about all of your adventures.
Because I never left, I struggle with some of the specifics to encourage you with. I found myself rereading Blueberry’s letter to Chappy Jack from March 2, 2019 , and I think these words could serve your hike as well.
“Take my words with a grain of salt, but here’s what I’d like to impart:
- Embrace the suck—there is plenty of it on the AT, from cold rain to oppressive heat and feet that look and feel like they went through a meat grinder. You’ll miss this dearly when you enter the bland comfort of normal life again. Laughter is the best medicine.
- You are about to walk through the closest thing to Eden I’ve ever known. The Lord will come walk alongside you in the cool of the afternoon if you let Him. Don’t be afraid to walk with just the Lord for a few days. You have to be fed to feed others.
- Take Solomon’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes seriously—there is a time for everything; a time to share faith and time to simply live honestly in front of other hikers, a time to give prayer and time to receive it, a time to hike and a time to stay put.
- Never pass up a good meal—always pack out the leftovers (if there are any).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s hanging your bear bag at mile 1500 or a ride to town and a place to stay with a random stranger.
- Pick all the blueberries in New England. Schedule at least 90 minutes per day for this.
- Give yourself grace to adapt to life on the trail. Each section holds new challenges.
- There’s no shame in riding out a storm in the Motel 6 or hiking a 3 mile day just because you can.
- Become best friends with Miss Janet; she’s a true AT gem.
- Remember SLRTT in every town: Shower, Laundry, Resupply, Trash, TP and you’re golden.
- Use the long days of grinding out miles to incessantly intercede for other hikers.”
All of that to say, Bone Spur, we are excited you are the 2021 Appalachian Trail Chaplain. You are making your Heavenly Father proud. Happy trails!