It almost doesn’t feel real that my hike is just a few months away. It feels too good to be true, like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. I haven’t trained like I should, because, well, part of me is scared I will have this hike taken out from under me just like the last. There is no one to blame for it, it is just the way COVID worked. Even still, I find myself continuing to grieve it. I find myself wanting to drive to Amicolola and register as a section hiker and hike a section, so I get a hang tag. The day my patches came in I sewed them to my pack because it was one step closer than I was before. It would be so easy for me to keep pushing things aside and say I don’t need to do it because I won’t get there. . . but I will. This hike will happen, I will make it happen. I find myself needing to get excited about it again, needing to spend some time in the woods.
I go to the woods, when I am there, everything feels right. Like I never missed a moment. I feel just as at peace out there now as I did when I fist began backpacking. It took me a while to get back there, but now that I am, I am so glad that I am home.
My preparation has taken time to get in the swing. Trying to work full time, plan a thru-hike, complete a rigorous master’s program, and taking care of a reactive dog; it has all taught me so much about myself. In this season I had to learn to prioritize self-care and my mental health which meant a job change at a not ideal time, leaving students that I love to have more time to train and prepare. My partner, Allen, has been fantastic. He is my biggest cheerleader. He encourages me to keep working towards the trail and when I am discouraged, he reminds me of this being my dream. He has worked hard to come up with ways to dehydrate some of my favorite meals we make at home and even found a way for me to see the dogs and give them treats whenever I feel far from them.
Life has forced my original plans to change a bit. I think the timing is a good thing now, it encouraged the job change and slowed me down enough to really focus on my mental health and preparation for the trail. I have been going through Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials again, but this time slower, trying to really digest it and prepare the best I could. I take my recertification course for my wilderness first responder this weekend, and now that I work nights I get to go to the gym in the mornings, plan logistics, hike more, and dehydrate meals during the day while I work with Ivy.
All in all, I will make it to the trail. It will be just as much of a journey to get there, it just feels more like a fight, but the fight is with myself. I am excited to be preparing for this journey and to see how it unfolds. In three short months I hit the trail.
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!
These last few months have changed so many of our worlds so quickly. When I left the call that said our hikes would be canceled, my heart broke. I wanted to crumble, I wanted to fall apart. So much of what I have lived for, so much of what I felt was right, what I felt I was called to just crumbled in front of my eyes. Many of us could choose to be bitter. I wanted to be for a very long time, and I still do every once and a while. Everything I had planned and lined up for after school was all on hold. The dream job that I had, up in the air, my plans for after school, up in the air. Everything felt just out of reach. It does not sound like much, one job, you can always find another one. But it hurt – like I lost a piece of myself that day. This was so much more than a job, so much more than a thru-hike. I found the chaplaincy the beginning of my sophomore year of undergrad, I applied 2 years before I knew it would even be remotely possible. I invested my life in the Appalachian Trail, the community it creates, and the people it connected. I was going to be a Trail Chaplain, I had never felt more fulfilled in a calling than I did the day I read the job description and tears streamed down my face onto my keyboard because I had not heard anything that fit me more. I longed for the day where I would follow those white blazes all the way from Maine to Georgia. I longed for the day that I truly stepped into my trail name, Dragonfly, and lived out her characteristics. Just as those tears flowed down on my keyboard when I read that job description, they flow again there once more, this time tears of sadness and grief, but my God is still here. He is just as present and steady as he was the day I truly found the trail. As I think about this unexpected new season of life, I ponder upon some metaphors I have in my life right now, I once again was drawn to a blaze, not a white one this time, but a blue one.
In the Appalachian Trail Community, a blue blaze is a spur trail branching off of the Appalachian Trail. Blue blazed trails could lead to a vista, water source, shelter or campground, or some unusual natural feature. Today, this blue blaze marks a trail to a water source.
The metaphor is that of a trail intersection of a blue blazed trail. On the tree you see two blazes, one blue, one white. The blaze indicates the incoming trail, a blue blazed side trail that leads you the winding scenic way around to a water source you did not intend to stop at. This side trail you found yourself upon was not one you wanted to be on, it was further from the trail than you wanted to travel, nor was it the most reliable of water sources. Along the this unexpected trail you see a type of beauty you have never seen before. Stopping for water was necessary for your health, the climb before had been more intense than you imagined, and you have another big climb ahead. This time on the blue blaze trail was you being a steward of your resources, thinking ahead, looking out for yourself, and for those around you. It was the smart choice even though it was not an easy choice to make.
This metaphor resonates with where I am at personally right now. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested hikers postpone all thru-hikes, removed their ridge runners, entire states have shut down shelters or sections, and the chaplaincy has opted to cancel the hikes for 2020 chaplains; a crossroads that was definitely not anticipated a few short months ago. The blue blaze trail appeared suddenly; I had my plans written out meticulously, I knew the direction inside and out, graduate, spend a few months in the community I call home, and then head out to finish up last minute details and start the trail. Just as one might plan their day on a trail and chose to skip a mediocre water source because there was another more reliable source closer to the trail up ahead, I did not put my focus on this pandemic, or even the possibility of it eliminating the effectiveness of a hike as a trail chaplain. As much as I did not want to stop at this water source, I had to, I was out of water and had to take the less ideal trail to quench that need. The safety and health that stopping for water brings was something I needed more than I needed to hike.
In the need for water I am learning some things about myself, I am seeing new things. I am learning what it means to stop and rest, to just be, what it means to sit faithfully at the Lord’s feet waiting for direction. I am learning that it is okay to feel and grieve the things you once had. This new water source has taught me to be a steward of my resources, my energy and time, but also the trail. I fought long and hard about what this would mean for my hike even before the final decision was made. Hikers are still out there, and I wanted to be there with them; but the reality is that it is not safe to be out there right now. The trail also needs to heal just as my heart does.
Sometimes, being a steward of something, taking care of those things that are entrusted to you, something so special, means stepping back. Without ridge runners there are few people to enforce trail etiquette and regulations. Being a steward of the trail meant I had to intentionally decide I would not add to the impact and that I would follow the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s recommendations for thru-hikers. It was a heartbreaking decision when I came upon that crossroads but adventuring into the unknown of the blue blazed trail was what was needed, even if I did not know it at first.
I am learning that along this blue blaze sits the character of steadiness. In this journey to becoming my most authentic self, I am learning that as we believe what the word has taught, the gold, the value of our authentic selves is covered layer upon layer with cement until we are completely encased. Each time we rediscover a part of our authentic selfhood, each time we walk faithfully into an unknown season the Lord is calling us to, we chip away pieces of that cement. As the cement breaks away we begin to see imperfections in the gold, remnants of the cement that entangled us. Those blemishes need to be counteracted with steadiness, they need to be buffed with the knowledge that this season is not bigger than we are, that it will not swallow us whole, that we will return; but more importantly that none of it is bigger than the God we serve.
The Lord is my Shephard. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his namesake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, Forever.
These words from the 23rd psalm have always been dear to me, the scripture I cling to time and time again, especially when I need comfort. But this time, they were more than comforting, they were steadying.
Stephen Simpson in his book, “The Leader Who is Hardly Known” defines the concept of steadiness with the story of the runaway horse. 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.
The words of the Psalm bring me back to this state of steadiness. Whatever the world is throwing at me, joy or trial, I remember that the Lord is my source of steadiness! He is always bringing me to those green pastures, the quiet streams, he restores my soul time and time again. Through this pandemic I am challenged to maintain that level headspace, that steadiness, to endure and press on along the blue blazed trail and to find its hidden beauty.
The blue blazed trail is long and winding. Along its path beauty is found; people are falling in love with writing letters to each other, they are reading books, playing games with their families, going outside, the church is reaching wider than before even without gathering physically. Huge things are happening following this little blue blaze, things that I had never thought would happen. It has shifted my perspective enough to remind me who I am through all of this, to remind me not just of the value of steadiness, but how steady and faithful the Lords is, even when everything you know feels like it was flipped on its head.
At some point the blue blaze trail will end and I will be reunited with the beloved white blaze once again, a reunion even sweeter than the initial meeting. The length of the journey back is still unknown, but what I do know is however unexpected this trail junction has been, there is a symphony I was missing. I need to spend my life looking for big magic in the mundane, big love in the small moments, steadiness when life feels like you are walking on a suspension bridge. To remain steady and watch that cement chip off, piece by piece until I rediscover my most authentic self – rediscovering Dragonfly. I challenge you to do the same, rediscover yourself along your blue blazed trail. Look for your inner knower, rediscover the steadiness The Lord brings, because you too will return to your beloved white blaze.
Psalm 136: 1-3 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of Lord’s. His love endures forever.”
I have been safely home for about two weeks now. I’ve mostly relaxed and fulfilled a promise to myself that I would do the CPT (Couch Potato Trail), which has led to a lot of time reflecting back on my AT thru hike.
I know that I would not have completed the trail if it had not been for so many people that supported my efforts through help, encouragement, and especially prayer. I also know that God answered those prayers!
I am thankful for literally hundreds of you that faithfully prayed for me and the Chaplaincy. Most of you, I have not personally met, but one day hope to. Many reported that their church, Sunday School class, or prayer group also prayed for me.
I’m thankful that my wife Marty, went from calling me “crazy’ for wanting to do the trail to being my biggest supporter! Thanks to all of my family and friends for your support and encouragement.
Thanks to the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church for trusting me to carry out the mission of this unique ministry and thanks to the Chaplaincy Board members that gave me total support.
Thank You to all the friends of the Chaplaincy that fed me, let me stay in their homes, gave me transportation, took me to the ER, and even washed my clothes or allowed me to wash my clothes.
Thank you to all the Trail Angels along the way. Not many of you will be reading this, but my thanks to you will be to return trail magic in the years to come.
By the way, I hear that Board Members have conducted interviews for the 2020 AT Chaplain. I can’t wait to hear who they have chosen!!
After finally completing this incredible journey I have been pondering whether the cost of the journey was worth the result.
The cost includes the financial cost, which I was very fortunate to have the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church to fund most of the journey. The biggest cost to me was being away from family and friends. There are so many people I want to see, asap. The cost also includes weight loss (which is a positive). However, I have had many blisters on the tops of my toes resulting in the loss of 4 toenails, and too many cuts, scrapes, and bruises to count. I developed trigger finger in 2 fingers. I had bruised ribs from one of my falls, which have totally healed. I have swelling between the lower knuckle and the little finger of my left hand. I also developed a hernia. The final cost was missing out on some prime fishin’.
Back to being worth the cost. ABSOLUTELY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
IT IS FINISHED
John 19: 28-30
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty”. A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus lips. When he had received the drink Jesus said, “IT IS FINISHED.”
Please note that in NO WAY am I inferring that the cost of my journey compares to the pain, suffering, and humiliation that Jesus endured for us! Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing can compare to the depth of his love for us in order to bring us into his heavenly kingdom!
Philippians 4:19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his riches in glory.
Hikers on the AT either use 2 hiking (trekking) poles (sticks), one hiking pole, or none at all. I use two. They are used to prevent falls and to take pressure off of your knees.
Other hikers can hear me as I go down the trail because I pound my sticks into the ground. The result of this pounding is the development of trigger finger on two fingers, and the need for FOUR sets of sticks.
Some hikers say, “the trail always provides.” I agree with Philippians, God meets all my needs.
My first set of sticks broke as my son D.J.was finishing up spending 10 days on the trail with me. He gave his sticks to me. After a while, I broke one of those. The day after it was broken, I found a set in a Hiker box. Businesses along the trail set up boxes in their business that hikers leave for other hikers. I soon wore these sticks out, too. A Hiker friend that was leaving the trail to attend his son’s wedding gave me his sticks because he wanted to buy new ones. As he handed me his two sticks, another hiker friend asked if he could have the remaining good stick that I was about to place in a Hiker box.
In talking of prayer with another hiker, I explained that we do not have a candy store God. However, God does like us to make our request for our needs, and sometimes he surprises us with things beyond our needs. He loves us more than we can understand!
Isaiah 40:26: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
With less than 500 miles to go in this incredible journey, I still at times can’t believe that I have this opportunity to accomplish this dream. I continue to find the trail quite difficult at times, however, I also can’t believe how beautiful the trail is. Every day I see a vista, stream, forest setting, or even a tiny bug, butterfly, animal, or insect that is overwhelmingly beautiful.
Usually at night, I am either in a shelter or my tent and the stars are blocked by the trees of the forest. Two nights ago, I was in my tent and had a clear view of the cloudless night. Of course, there was no artificial light for miles and the stars were breathtaking. I even got to see a falling star!
Heavenly Father, I praise you as the Creator of all things! You are an awesome God!
“Heavenly Sunshine, Heavenly Sunshine! Flooding my soul with glory Divine! Heavenly Sunshine, Heavenly Sunshine, Hallelujah Jesus is mine.”
While hiking this week, this hymm that I can remember from my early childhood, came flooding back to memory. This hymm describes my mood as I am feeling refreshed physically, mentally, and spiritually, due to the answered prayers of so many wonderful people. I can’t wait to see so many places between here and Katahdin, Maine, that I have heard and read about. As my Grandmother used to say, “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!”
Another thing that helped to rejuvenate me was to spend a little time at New Hope United Methodist Church of North Adams, Massachusetts. My hiking buddy and I spent the night in their extra parsonage, and were invited to speak at their children’s Ready Set Serve program. As I continue to be bombarded with kindness from total strangers along my journey, it was easy to speak to their project S.P.A.R.K. (Seeing People And Responding With Kindness).
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”.
I have slammed into the proverbial brick wall!! I have reached a level of exhaustion that I have seldom known. Mile after mile of walking and not getting adequate rest and caloric intake has depleted all my energy.
For the first time in this journey, I have considered calling it quits! However, I have heard over and over again, “Fatigue almost always occurs to everyone attempting an AT thru- hike” and, “Before quitting, slow down, quit concentrating on daily miles completed, and take some days off.”
So, I am doing the above, and I am handing this burden over to the Lord! He has promised to give me rest for my soul. I love the word picture of Psalms 23: 2-3, as it says “He MAKES ME (my emphasis) lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul….”
Please be in prayer for me as I finish the last 620 miles. Pray that I get the needed rest along the way and that I allow the Lord to refresh my body, my mind, and my spirit.
Romans 12:3 For by grace given me I say to every one of you, Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgement in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
The AT is often referred to as “the great equalizer.” It does not matter what race or creed, social or financial status, or past accomplishment, all AT hikers have to go step by step to complete the 2,192-mile journey.
My wife, Marty, recently asked me during our nightly phone conversation, how the AT has changed me. I did not have an answer for her at the time, but the question did put me in pondering mode.
I know that I have always been quick to judge people by appearance alone, and being judgmental is rooted in pride and arrogance. As I have made these quick judgments on the AT, I have been proven wrong time after time. The hikers that I previously judged, have been extremely good at skills needed for the AT, and simply just “good people.”
So, now back to my wife’s question on how I have changed: I hope and pray that I am becoming less judgmental and prideful.
Lord Jesus, forgive me for my pride and arrogance. Help me by to love ALL others.