Priorities

Have you ever written a list of your priorities? And then compared them to a list of percentages showing how you spend your time? I never have, but I’ve done so in my mind. It’s horrible.

I’m horrible, at priorities. I need to force myself to be motivated. Forcing myself to be motivated usually involves voluntarily inflicting pain on myself, and that is horrible too.

I had this great idea to redesign the American norm of comfort, once. I’d been thinking about Breakfast At Sally’s by Richard LeMieux, and about the Lost Boys of Sudan. I was thinking about this girl who had to walk three miles to gather water.

I thought, “Maybe I could try living simply all the time, not just in the wilderness. I could eat oatmeal (not very heroic, because I like oatmeal) and go without electricity and stop using technology as a mood-booster. I could start an Instagram account and show pictures about the gritty side of minimalism and inspire the world to change.”

It was a very inspirational plan, in my mind.

I refused to sleep in a bed until I was 100% financially independent. That was my way of forcing myself to be motivated. I felt it was very heroic to sleep on the basement couch or in the back of the SUV instead of in my family’s guest bedrooms. “Maybe I am starting to understand what it is like to be homeless.” I told myself, after a few nights of insomnia. I became so accustomed to sleeping in the back of the SUV, without a mat, that I got a terrible backache from trying out a mattress. “How courageous I am!” I told myself, “I actually prefer the hard floor. Just like a Spartan!”

But I was never rained on while I slept, or robbed, or gnawed on by a rat, so I really wasn’t very heroic after all.

I wanted to live in a van but I couldn’t invest in one without borrowing money. So Jesus gave me a tree house and many kind souls who helped me begin to turn it into a tiny cabin. It was 8 feet square, and 12 feet high, with a loft. Adorably perched on a hillside, and full of mice and squirrels.

“This is very ideal!” I thought. “I can evict the mice and squirrels, turn the cabin into an insulated home, and learn enough about carpentry to one day travel to devastated lands and build shelters for lost souls. I can be done in three weeks.”

It rained almost every day of the three weeks I took off work. An 8-foot-square building does not harbor space for piles of lumber and various saws and sawhorses. Even the trusty SUV could not make it up the steep, muddy track to my front door. So instead of zooming ahead, I inched.

The first project was to replace the missing studs. I discovered that driving three-inch screws into hardwood located two feet above my head is nearly impossible for me.

An animal had died in the loft, and I couldn’t bleach the smell out of the wood. I tore down the loft, and sorted through Pop’s scrap pile for wood to rebuild it. A very difficult challenge it was, to drive the new wood in place while holding it steady with my not-so-spare hand. I felt like a rookie, and my muscles started picketing for rest. I’m guessing the drill I used was partially built with lead.

I was building the cabin out of trash, because that was environmentally inspiring. It was also what I could afford, and what someone from Breakfast At Sally’s would do. The only artsy, free thing I could think of with which to finish the interior walls was pallet wood. My friend brought her truck and we humbled ourselves at the hardware store,  asking for free pallets. The saber saw had a problem, so I had to hold the battery in with my knee while cutting apart 28 pallets. Then 10 more. The blisters made us feel heroic.

My brother in law loaned me a planer, and I honed the nights away and breathed in lots of dust. “The pallet work alone will take 10 solid days.” Pops warned me. “But think how much I will enjoy how it looks when I’m done! It will be so beautiful!” He agreed, but hesitantly.

I spent 5 hours taking a pick axe to the hillside, and then my sister came and directed the construction of my outhouse. The space where we built was level when we began, but it started to slope after a few days. I added more rocks and encouraged the hickory sapling below the outhouse with a rousing speech. “Grow! You alone can keep this outhouse from rolling down the mountainside!”

After the studs and the loft were replaced and the walls were insulated, it was time to install OSB. Nearly four months had gone by so far, and until this time the gables had been open. Pops, Steve, Arthur and Ben closed the gables and built a little roof over my front door. Pops installed the first sheet of OSB in the interior. He took over a dozen measurements to do this. Then their time was up.

My cabin, remember, began as a tree house. It was not planning to adopt a veneer of OSB. It rejected my efforts as best it could. Measuring weather-warped studs and angles and gaps and smoothing them all over with perfectly aligned OSB swaths was impossible for a rookie like me to achieve. I did the best I could, but it took many after-work nights and several dozen swings of my favorite tool, the Persuasion Device. The summer was nearly over when I was finally ready for the first piece of pallet wood.

The pallet wood took a month. Not an actual month, you know, but a build-on-evenings-and-weekends-after-getting-home-from-work month. I used all the planed pieces on the interior, and the cracked or nail-studded pieces were used as siding on the outhouse. Pops loaned me his nail gun, an upgrade I’m sure the Spartans did not have.

This all sounds very chronological and orderly on paper, but it was not this way in real life. Many projects were progressing at any given time, but I hopped between them as dictated by weather, supplies or lack of knowledge.

The shingles went up in three stints, as determined by my ability to buy more nails and more shingles. That was a six-week time span.

10 months after I began the project, I was finally moved in. All that was needed was a heating system, and I had just enough cash for a tiny coal stove and enough fuel to drive to NJ and back.

It was a foggy, rainy night which should not have been confronted without first replacing my windshield wipers and headlights. As a consequence, I  careened Pops and myself onto and back off of a wide cement median at 65 mph, but the angels gave us a softer landing than I deserved. We made it home alive with the stove.

It is still sitting in my cabin, cold as a stone. The land is being sold. My (indoor!) cat ran away. Maybe that is a sign it’s time for me to move on too.

Sometimes things that begin heroically and ideally do not end that way. It’s just life.

But priorities, if founded in the Rock (meaning God, not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), are unchangeable. God is a God of upgrades and that is unchangeable. 

He has given me a simple lifestyle in the civilised world. I do live without technology at my fingertips. I am financially independent and not in debt. And the minor devastation of spending over 500 hours of labor on my project without receiving over 500 hours of enjoyment in return is… Real life.

It is only a crumb of the devastation Richard LeMieux, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the girl who carried water three miles felt all day, every day.

Real life. I did not plan for my goal of redefined comfort to feel like this, but it does, and it is my priorities fulfilled and rewarded. Upgrades that look like compassion and empathy instead of a cozy cabin and glowing embers in my tiny stove.

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Would you like to buy a piece of land with a pallet-sided outhouse and a tiny, not-quite-completed cabin?

 

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Ellen’s Home

My church has a calendar of events, and I looked at it today. Tomorrow is Ellen’s Home.

Ellen’s Home is shady.

It is shaded by wide-spread elm trees, but it is also shady in the curious way. I met the proprietor when I was 7–old and wise enough to decide I could never trust him.  The owner of Ellen’s Home looked exactly like The Donut Man and I could not possibly comprehend, in my childish mind, why The Donut Man would be operating such a rustic facility, and why it was filled with the elderly instead of children. The Donut Man is supposed to be surrounded by donuts and children, both capable of song, but I saw neither at Ellen’s Home.

Consequently, no songs either.

Maybe that’s why it became my church’s job to bring them, and for the last 20 years we have faithfully sang at Ellen’s Home every second Sunday of the month. During this span of time I’ve learned that the owner isn’t the actual Donut Man. I’ve forgiven him for that fault.

On this particular Sunday, promptly at 1:03 pm, my church shuffled into formation in a corner of the Ellen’s Home entertainment room with typical lost-yak style. “Are there songbooks today?” someone asked. “No, we forgot to bring them.” Our choral director’s skin blanched subtly. Today was his first go-round at leading us. “Let’s begin with ‘How Firm a Foundation’.” We faltered through the first verse with very little success.

A new resident was cemented into a chair near the TV, and my money lies on the hunch that he was a former choir director. Strong bass notes resounded out of a mouth scantily clad with teeth, and he didn’t need a book. He knew the songs by heart…. mostly.  Our next attempt, ‘I’m Pressing On The Upward Way’, tugged our faltering memories back on track, but mostly because Mr. Choir cheerfully substituted any word that rhymed with ‘stay’ if he forgot the correct one, so if any of us forgot the words we just let him fill in.

Talk about teamwork!

By now the heat was getting to little Zach, so he pulled his dress shirt up to his chin, letting his belly catch the breeze from the air conditioner. Sochi and Anita stared at their shoes, lips twitching.

We were moving forward in tempo, and Mr. Choir was not subtle about his appreciation. As the energy in the room rose, so did his arms and legs. At the peak moments of feeling in ‘Standing on the Promises’ he appeared not only to be ready to stand on the promises, but to be ready to rocket to the moon on the promises, having three limbs raised perpendicular to the floor, as if a huge vacuum cleaner behind our group was trying to suck him in.

This was just his way of saying, “Amen!” but the youngsters gazed in wonder.

A slow stench took over the crowded corner near the window. I glanced at the woman beside me to see if her face would give a clue about who to blame as the culprit, but at the same moment another slow stench joined the first one, and I didn’t have to ask about the origin of this one. And then it just became a game, back and forth for a few dozen seconds, our own little kazoo band blending in with the song.

At that moment I knew our service would never recover.

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Our final song was ‘Bringing in the Sheaves” and by Mr. Choir’s ninth prophesy of bringing in sheep instead of sheaves, I had dissolved in unpardonable laughter. I would much rather bring in sheep instead of sheaves myself, and my laughter merely congratulated Mr. Choir for holding the same preference, and for being bold enough to say so.

Our smiles were wide as we bade our friends goodbye after the service. Travis and Jonathan kissed all the wrinkly cheeks that were hopefully directed at them, and out the door we marched.

Ellen’s Home is as much a part of my church as the church building itself, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

Preparing for War

“What would you like me to teach you?” 4 sleepy, innocent faces stared at the table. 2 sets of eyes blinked back at me. It was 10 am on a Sunday morning, but the brains in the 4th grade class were functioning at the slowest possible speed. “It’s ok.” I said, “We’ll talk about this again. For now, I’ll just teach what I think you need to know.”

I love teaching people what I think they need to know.

I asked the class what they worry about, and they listed fire, drowning, being at war. Floods. We talked about Master Chef Jr., and Little League, and how kids prepare to be kid-champions. How they train & become strong. When it’s go-time, these kids are ready for action.

How can prayer get us ready for hard times?” I asked. Either the class didn’t know, or they were afraid to speak their ideas. “Let me draw a picture.”

“Here is a girl, because that’s easier to draw.”

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“When we have a fear or worry on our mind, it takes all of our energy. This is how it would look if our worries were visible.”

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“That’s a big backpack!”

“Sure is! Do you think this girl could compete on Master Chef Jr, or be in Little League, with this big load? No? You’re right. So if we want to be champions, we have to learn how to keep our minds strong. We can’t be champions if our minds are weak and worn down. Can you finish the verse that starts, ‘Cast all your…’ ”

“Cast all your worries on Him, because He cares about you.”

“This is how that looks!”

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“God wants to carry our worries for us! We still think about them, but we don’t have to carry them around with us. God carries them because it is His job to be the Protector. Sometimes He invites us to help solve the problem, but it is always something small enough to carry around while still competing.”

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“Does this make sense to you? Isn’t it cool that God sometimes invites us to help Him solve the problems we are worried about?”

I was preaching at myself, really. I found myself repeating, “Jesus, you are the prioritizer. You are the protector. I choose to let those jobs in your hands.”

It’s so simple, but similar to Naaman, who despised the idea of a muddy swim as a cure for leprosy, we despise the idea of doing something in which we have no power to control the outcome. We prefer to run, stress, work and worry. Instead of, in 4th-grade lingo, “Sending our worries up to heaven.”

Cast those worries away, heaven-champion! Buckle up that belt of truth, grasp that sword of faith and wait for battle orders! You will never be in control, no matter how hard you try.

War is here, but more war is coming. Our minds have got to be free so they can be strong. 

 

 

 

No Looking Back

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“I’m ready for my scolding.” I draped my arm out the SUV window, desperately hoping my half-hearted smile would be enough to melt the ridge-runner’s stiff jaw line.

It wasn’t.

“Was that your trail magic?” He gestured towards the now-vacant trail-head. “I have to tell you, the food you left here was a very poor choice towards preserving our state forest lands. When I arrived there was trash scattered everywhere. An open invitation to bears….” His KTA hat was tilted at a stern angle, nodding its agreement to every parently jerk of his head.

I sighed silently and felt prickles of embarrassment creep up my neck. You deserve this. Just grin and bear it. 

“When I hiked the trail, I loved coming across trail magic. But you’ve got to stay with your coolers. I know it takes a chunk out of your day, but the hikers love meeting you. Then you won’t create a scenario for animals to become accustomed to being fed. I know–” he lifted his hand, “I saw the buckets and your notes about securing trash inside them, but a bucket lid won’t hold up to a raccoon or a bear.”

I started in on my I-Camp-in-Bear-Country-Regularly-and-They’ve-Never-Plundered-My-Food-Buckets speech, and then cut it off. “I know leaving food unattended was a poor life decision, and I am genuinely sorry.” He could tell I felt ashamed. I saw his face soften.

“I never properly introduced myself. I’m Tinker.”

“Nike. Nice to meet you.” I said, and fist-bumped him. “I’d like to see the carnage. Could you send me a picture of it?” I didn’t have to ask if he had taken photographs of the mess. He was a millennial, and that is what millennials do. I tapped my number into his filthy i-phone.

“I’m glad you came along when you did. I was about to post the photos on our page.”

Super! Local dis-fame for my wilderness guide reputation. 

“–But you’ll be happy to know I didn’t remove your coolers immediately. I let the hikers enjoy them. There was a forest fire here. The fire teams wouldn’t let me back in. I had to wait to come again until they had the flames under control….”

I lost track of what Tinker was saying. I wasn’t interested in fire stories. My coolers were nowhere to be seen. I’d combed the area looking for them. There wasn’t so much as a snippet of Coke bottle wrapper. “Could you tell me where to find my things?”

Tinker’s head jerked to attention, and immediately swiveled towards the road. “I had your chairs and coolers stacked right beside that tree. I thought you loaded them up already!”

If I’d have loaded them up already, I’d be GONE right now, brother!

“Go ahead so this guy can drive through, and I’ll see if he saw anything.”

Tinker talked to the forest service man, and I sat on the dashboard and stared at my shriveled-up self on the damp, dirty SUV seat. It was unusual for me to see myself so humiliated. Awkward, always. But shamed, rarely. I wanted to churn the gravel and disappear into the fog, but the thought of replacing $120 worth of camping gear held me back. Tinker darted towards me through the raindrops.

“He hasn’t seen anything. I have your number, and I’ll let you know what the police say after I report this. There have been other petty thefts in the area.”

Police?  No thank you! “I’m not from here…” I started a desperate attempt to remove myself from the scenario.

Sternly. “I will update you. It was your things that were stolen.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it!” I said mechanically. This time I did let my tires eat the gravel. I pulled slowly onto the mountain road. The neatly-stacked pizza in the take-out dish beside me smelled nauseating.

How could I have been so stupid? I KNOW better than to leave food unattended in the wilderness. I’ve given Leave No Trace speeches to my trainees at least a dozen times.

I scowled at the pizza, as if it was to blame. I’d shivered in an air-conditioned pizza shop 30 minutes for it under the slim chance that I’d cross paths with a rain-soaked hiker while collecting my coolers. The pretty little waitress had understood what I wanted when I said it was for a hiker. She’d separated each stacked piece with a square of waxed paper and wrapped the take-out dish in aluminum foil. Tinker had left my things unattended for only 30 minutes. That’s what he had said.

I scowled at the box again.

You know, it’s amazing how much effort a person can spend to escape the fact they were wrong about something.

I heard a faint voice in my head. It came from Zvek, my adventure buddy, and the words had been spoken several months ago. “Do you really believe that? Or are you just saying that to make yourself feel better?”

Ah, Zvek, you hit the nail on the head even without being here. I like to feel good–yep, I do say things that I don’t really believe in order to make myself feel better.

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I grabbed my mind by its invisible bootstraps and repeated: “I made a mistake, but I am not stupid. The hikers should have properly disposed their trash, but this is not their fault. There might be bears here. I really don’t know. No one is to blame here but me, and it’s ok. I am not irresponsible. I made a mistake, but I still have a good heart.”

Isn’t it crazy how much time and energy I spend to convince myself and others that I AM OK?

Why try to prove that there is such a thing as wind? Realities do not change. 

No self-blame allowed, Jesus-kiddo. No shifting blame either. Just save time and sift out the truth. Throw away the lies and place the truth on the table. Then move on.

The Lord does not need our help to prove what is true. 

And who knows, maybe the purpose of it all is for you to make friends with a wiry ridge-runner from Florida.

Life’s What You Make It

After letting over 100 arrows fly into the lake, tonight I landed a carp. Sports are not my forte, so it was a big deal to score this first success at bow fishing. I’m so thankful for the ones who patiently instructed me.

Success is empowering.

I believe in going after success in what I care about. My dad has one line he always says when we have a career-related question: “If you do what you love, you will get energy from doing it.” I’m a fan of synergy, so I’ve tried to follow this sage advice.

I have very few assets and my life is far from “in order”,  but can you guess what people say to me every week? “You have such a great life.” “I wish I had your life.” I did absolutely nothing to win this life. I just followed my interests and left the rest up to Jesus.

Leaving the rest up to Jesus is a fantastic way to de-stress, did you know that? There’s a place in the Bible where He says, “Don’t worry about what you will say when you are called onto the witness stand. I will give you my words to say.” I think that goes for living your life as well. If the Creator of the world is really the creator of the world, He does not need earthly help to accomplish his plans.

I’ve been transforming my life recently. My culture has a strong flavor of affluence, technology, social norms and workaholism but I’ve decided this is not normal. If it was normal, it would leave us feeling at rest. But we are not at rest.

So I am identifying stress in my life and weeding it out.

First to go? Anything I have not used in 3 years. I have too much stuff! I don’t need it. I don’t use it. “Goodbye to you….”

Also, it isn’t normal to communicate on 7 different platforms. This is something that has been birthed in the last three decades. How has something so young become more normal than the face-to-face communication that worked so well for the past several millenniums? It stresses me out to check multiple places for messages about weekend plans! For me it enough to have three mainstream options: phone, text and email. I don’t have social media messaging on my phone. It feels good to be uninterrupted by notification signals. I’m not apologetic, because you know, my front door is always open!

Next, over-commitment. It is not normal to race from place to place. It destroys focus. I cannot have a meaningful conversation if I’m worried I’ll be late for the next meeting. I am practicing saying “I would love to, but no.” I’ve set aside one day of the week as “family day.” It feels good to have no question about what I will do on that specific day.

Simplicity is a good way to fight stress.

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So what about doing what I love? It’s a challenging goal, but I’m trying. I’m self-employed in multiple  fields, which suits my personality. I’m growing ever closer to my goal of moving into a tiny space. I’m making an effort to carve regular space for myself to create art.  There’s one thing money can never buy, and that’s time.

In order to make the most of time, I need energy. And in order to get energy… you guessed it, I’m choosing to do what I love. I’m choosing to identify social norms that are not normal, and weed them out.

I’m choosing to celebrate the good people in this nation who are making a difference by doing what they love. Success is empowering.

Joy is contagious.

And the catfish from our fishing expedition has finally stopped flopping in the sink, so I’m gonna go filet it and bread it with  Cheez-It Grooves crumbs and fry it in a big round pan. Don’t worry, I watched a YouTube video about how to use a filet knife, so it will be perfectly safe.

In the meantime, you could check out this article about a handful of men who opened a restaurant which employs ex-cons. They believe in change.   

Hollywood Restaurant Giving Ex-Cons A Chance At Redemption

10 Unexpected Things I Learned on a 2,000-Mile Journey

It’s amazing how much my life has changed since living in a hammock for 6 months. And some of the changes are totally unexpected. I’ve become a freak about turning the lights off. I wear the same sweater for weeks. I drink more water. I love people more than ever before.

When rain spikes the landscape hues from dull greys to red, rust and charcoal, it takes all the effort I have to remain at my desk–to not jump into my running shoes and climb the nearest mountain. It was hard before, but it’s harder now. It’s hard to have your view of the wild places reduced from a panorama to a 4×3′ square.

“Conquer my internal fears. Learn the skill of hammocking. Take a break from mentoring and just spend time alone with God. Gain skills to guide backpacking trips.” Those were my goals when I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Thank Jesus, he taught me them all. But since God is a God of upgrades, my paradigm shifted in dozens of other ways. Here are ten of them.

  1. Good Days Will Always Come Again

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Winter will not last forever. Sunshine ALWAYS follows rain. It may take three weeks, but it will come again. The hardest climbs always bring the best views, and there will always be a valley after the mountain. Nature speaks the language of its Creator. 

2. The Power of Life & Death is in the Tongue

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I used to say, “Sorry I’m so slow.” “I’m not fit.” “We’re weak.” and a dozen other self-slams before my hike and during the beginning of it. When I made the difficult and humbling decision to change my language to speak only what was positive and more deeply true than just surface feelings, my energy level changed as well… drastically and immediately.

3. I Need Far Less Energy than I Consume

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Living without electricity has taught me how valuable…and easy to waste… power really is! It’s also taught me how little energy I actually need to thrive.

4. Being Fit is Addictive

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I’ve always had a high metabolism, and have been slender most of my life. As a teen, I could never convince people that I wasn’t athletic. “Pshh. You’re skinny as a rail.” they’d always scoff, “Of course you’re fit.” It was news to me that rails are muscular, but hey, I just couldn’t win the argument.

This hike gave me my first chance to experience what it’s like to be a for real athlete. Besides the typical changes  such as high energy levels, increased positivity and self-confidence, and a high immune system, I noticed a big change in my lung capacity. I’m no Adele, but it was amazing how much easier it was to sing after climbing a few dozen mountains. And trust me, it feels great to see fat (or, in some cases, nothingness) turn into rock-solid muscle!

For the first time in my life, I can understand why athletes find it addicting to work out. It takes weeks to gain muscle tone, but then you take three days off and feel sluggish and weak as a turtle.

5. Community = Energy

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Interaction is necessary for life. People need people.

6. In the Front-Country, We Eat Far More Food than We Need

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It’s good to enjoy food, and I always have loved to eat. But my front-country lifestyle just does not require that much of it. In the front country, we eat because it’s time. In the backcountry, we eat because we need it to move forward, or in order to stay warm enough to survive the night.

I never understood how much food the body requires until my very survival depended on it. Now, I miss the feeling of being truly, ravenously hungry. Or the energy high you get from a baggie of skittles after having very little sugar for months. Or being able to eat literally any amount of calories and enjoying them because you knew your muscles would perform 50% more powerfully the next day.

7. Clothing has a Mind-Boggling Life Span

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Wearing the same tee for 180 days will quickly teach you to respect its quality. Which brings to mind the question, “If one tee can survive nearly 180 consecutive days of abuse with no obvious side-effects, do I really need 129 additional shirts in my closet? Will I live a lifetime long enough to wear them all to their dying day? Most likely, no.”

If one pair of shoes can travel 900 miles, do I really need 13 pairs for front-country use, where most of my travel takes place by car?

8. Pure Water is a Gift

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First-world citizens have no understanding of the value of pure water until we are forced to purify or find our own… in a different place each day. When the real-feel is 103 degrees and the humidity is at 76%.

9. Less Really is More

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Less possessions=more time. More possessions=more to carry. More physical strain. More stress. The metaphors are strikingly obvious.

10. Americans are Not Lazy at All

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After traveling through dozens of forgotten small towns, I now know it would require a book of encyclopedia magnitude to capture the stories of all the artists, architects and angels my friends and I encountered.

Good people surround us. Maybe we just don’t see them until we realize how much they impact our survival.

Or how they empower us to thrive.

 

 

Strength in Strange Places (plus me embarrassing myself yet again)

Do you ever think about how hard it is to be kind to yourself? I do.

Considering how selfish human beings are thought to be, it shouldn’t really be a problem for us to be kind to ourselves. But it is. It’s hard for us to believe there is something good on its way. Maybe for someone else, we think, but not for me.

It was like that one grey April day in Tennessee. My hiking buddies and I had been gradually increasing our daily mileage as our Appalachian Trail thru-hike progressed–8 miles per day for a week, then 12 miles per day for two weeks, then 16 miles per day for two weeks. Now we were at 18 miles per day, and I was mentally kicking myself for coming up with this ridiculous schedule.

Every day my well-trained hiking buddy, Shooting Star, arrived at campsite two hours before Kaio and I. She was an inspiration. I forced myself to stick with the plan. I was broke, first of all, having set out on this adventure with only $400 in all the world. Secondly, if we changed our mileage, it would disturb our mail drop schedule. I knew pain was a typical part of life on the trail, so I pushed myself onwards.

As I lay in my hammock that night, listening to raindrops splat against the tarp 8 inches from my head, I worried. My right knee and both legs still ached and throbbed by turns after today’s workout. I knew Kaios knee pain often turned her sleep into fitful tossing. If we couldn’t even get comfortable when resting, how were we going to manage another big day with the added challenge of cold, driving rain?

Jesus, it’s up to You from here! I prayed, and typed a text message to my friends.

“April 6, 2016. Hey prayer warriors! I feel your support so much, thanks a million! We’ve been transitioning to 18 mile days this week and I’m asking for extra prayer tomorrow and Friday as we push ourselves mentally and physically to the limit to make it to the next resupply in Irwin, Tennessee. We’ve been doing well and have plenty of food to make it but our bodies are complaining and we want to thrive in the presence of Jesus, not just survive! There’s a cold snap afoot and winds have been high which saps energy pretty quick! Thanks so much for your care!”

When I groggily awoke at 5 am the next morning, the rain had stopped. Kaio and I set out before the dawn, determined to make the day’s miles. Wind whipped clouds across the unfriendly sky, and every hour or two a patch of happy blue sky appeared. There was a rumor circulating that tonight’s rain would turn to snow. I didn’t doubt it. It was cold, and growing colder.

Kaio dropped behind me as we climbed yet another painstakingly gradual hill, and when she didn’t appear around the bend for awhile after I summited, I began to worry. Had her knees totally given out? Had she accidentally turned the wrong way on the trail? Was she lying in the woods in some kind of distorted configuration, having fallen victim to a blood-thirsty Tennessee creature no one had warned us to avoid?

After what felt like thirty minutes, I saw her small figure advancing around the bend and I let out a great sigh of relief. I felt like a Mt. Everest explorer as we plodded onwards up the next ridge. The wind in our faces was like a thousand tiny darts-usually bringing energizing life but today a messenger of numbing gloom. The wind soon mixed with cold drizzle, which did nothing to quench the fire shooting up both of my legs with every downward step. My knee injury was never diagnosed, but some called it tendonitis. Basically, fire stabbing upwards from both knees with every downward step, increasing in intensity until bending the knee was impossible.

We were nearing Sam’s Gap, 8 miles from tonight’s shelter, but I could not force my leg to go faster. Jesus, I’m mighty curious how you’re gonna get me out of THIS fix. I thought. Then I had an idea.

Why not get a shuttle into town and wait out the storm like our friends often did? That would give both Kaio and I time to rest our injuries.

No. We can’t leave Shooting Star to face the snow-covered mountain alone.

But what good will we be to her anyway? We’re collapsing!

But you don’t have $60 to squander on a shuttle and lodging, Nike! That’s 1/6 of all the money you own and you haven’t even completed 1/6 of the trail!

But Jesus didn’t send me out here to kill myself. He sent me out here to thrive.

This conversation went on in my head for awhile, but the same voice spoke louder and louder over the din. “BELIEVE THAT I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED.”

So I called ahead to Kaio, and told her I was going to call for a shuttle from the gap. We are both embarrassingly stubborn, so it was a bigger deal than you can imagine for us to consider this. For us, this was almost like hiring a Sherpa.

Kaio decided to come with me, so we sat in the gap and tried to figure out what to do. We were both broke. I had no cash for a shuttle. “I’ll try to get us a ride.” I said, “But if I can’t could I borrow the $30 shuttle cash from you? I’ll pay you back.” Kaio agreed, so I asked an unrighteously clean group of day hikers if they were headed towards Erwin. “We have no idea where that is,” they said, “We’re not from this area. But we’ll look it up on her phone.”

I could almost hear the group sigh with relief when their directions told them to head the opposite direction of Erwin. “Sorry.” they said and we said, “No problem.”

It would have been an organizational feat to stuff ourselves and our packs into their tiny car anyways. We sat on the damp curb and called Uncle Johnny’s Hostel. Uncle Johnny said Jeff would be there in 45 minutes. “Don’t go anywhere!” he said. Where were we to go? No cars had passed us in the last 20 minutes, and the rain clouds were creeping ever closer. No more day hikers would be setting out from this parking lot today, we were pretty sure.

Raindrops started to splatter, and Jeff pulled up just as Kaio and I retreated to the underpass to escape them. Jeff offered to stop by the burger shack on the way back, but we said no thanks. Broke people can’t afford meat, we were thinking, but we didn’t tell him that. Uncle Johnny gave us towels and directed us to the showers and tenting area. The hostel’s advertisement of endless hot water was true! As temperatures dropped into the low 30s, that hot water sure felt amazing!

We sat on the picnic table bench as the sun set, watching the changing colors of the sky through the branches of a blooming apple tree.

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How did we go from struggling uphill, foot by painful foot, to being warm and cared for with no looming stress of pushing ourselves to the limit again tomorrow? It felt like Jesus sure had given us two hard-skulled hikers a miracle.

“You are valuable.” He said. “You are meant to be protected and safe.”

But I’m sure you must be wondering, did Shooting Star survive? Did we ever make up 30 miles we missed? Yes, and yes. Shooting Star covered the 18 snow-covered miles to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in record time. We thought she was a hero.

I returned to Tennessee two months after summiting Katahdin. I didn’t do any planning, I just chose a weekend that was open, grabbed some gear and Zvek, my hometown hiking buddy, and left.

We drove all day and hit the trail in the dark, hiking two miles in the warm night air until we reached a grassy field. As we neared it, I saw two close-set eyes glowing in the darkness. As some of you may know, I have a raccoon problem, so I immediately apprehended this unknown, unnamed creature.

“Reveal yourself!” I demanded, “Are you an animal, vegetable or mineral?”

A second form stirred, and I sheepishly realized the eyes belonged to a small dog, curled up in a hammock at the feet of its master. I apologized and scurried past the remaining hiker tents, laughing softly. Is this what two months in the front country has done to me? I wondered, I’m already acting like a front country person. It’s nearly 10 pm! I should have known hikers would be camped here and I should have known they’d be fast asleep.

Zvek and I cowboy camped under the Milky Way. The air was summerlike, warm, and I woke up overheated  under my down sleeping bag. The sun rose pinkly over auburn mountains, and I sat on my therm-a-rest, eating granola and pudding and just being amazed.

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Surely, this could not be the same wilderness.

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I said it again and again as we hiked that day. I couldn’t help myself.

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The grey, barren wilderness had become a fiery painting of fall splendor, with new hues around every bend! The air was warm. I was strong and 100% pain free.

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Surely this couldn’t be the same Nike, zooming along through red-tinted leaves at top speed, leaving the day hikers in the dust.

But I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Taking the I-Should-Have-Done-Better and trading it in for a Free, Mind-Blowing Gift is what my Jesus does best.

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Zvek and I traveled the day’s 17 miles in short order and arrived at the shelter early, in time to make a roaring fire. As we drifted towards sleep, still staring at the dancing flames, two night hikers sped by. “People had Neuro in that shelter last night. Just thought you should know.”

I laughed out loud.

Fear is obviously as alive and well in these mountains as it was in the spring. But I’m not falling for it. Not after all the miracles I’ve seen.

Miracles surround us. But we have to choose to step into them. We have to choose to be kind to ourselves. Choose the good. Choose to celebrate. Choose to believe truth. Choose to believe we are worth it. Choose to believe that there is help on the way.

“For I will create a masterpiece in your lifetime that you cannot imagine, even if someone described it to you.”

This masterpiece is just beginning. And it starts with believing that I am worth taking care of. I am meant for something good.

 

 

 

 

Less is more (usually)

I’m preparing myself for a minimalistic future. Something around 90 square feet, if all goes as planned, so needless to say I have some changes to make. Today I took my first step in downsizing. I just chose one clothing item to start with. Dresses. This shouldn’t take long, I thought.

I was wrong. That dark, cobweby corner of my closet housed not 10, not 15, but TWENTY-SEVEN dresses.

Considering that I only wear three of them, this discovery was shocking. I made a rapid discovery that 70% of them did not fit me. I can’t tell you how fantastic that corner of my closet looks now that I’ve pared the twenty-seven down to six. It’s stressful, really, to look at clothing you never wear. I always think “Man, I should buy a shirt to wear with that.” or “I really should iron that so I could wear it.” But I never do, and so it all just piles up and makes me feel guilty.

I’ve been hiking backwoods trails for the past six months, and I’ve worn the same shirt nearly the entire time. I have an entirely new relationship with clothing these days. I mean, I’m not quite ready to wear the same shirt for six months. Not yet.

But, simple is fun. It leaves time for more adventurous undertakings.

There is one downside to minimalistic wardrobe that I really should mention, however. That is this: if you lose an item, things go downhill with surprising rapidity. When your goal is to climb mountains, this is not good. It’s not good at all.

I remember setting out on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of Virginia one particularly foggy April day.

Fog envelopes the forest on Whitetop Mountain, Virginia

 

Kaio, my long-distance hiking buddy, and I had been waiting for spring weather ever since our journey began, and today it felt like spring had finally arrived–there was just the right combination of damp and wind and subtle humidity in the air.

Our blazes followed the Virginia Creeper Trail for a few miles, and there was a invigorating hint of danger in the dark-tinted clouds that sped across the higher, whiter cloud cover–a stark contrast to the reassuring civility of the Creeper Trails smooth, evenly manicured gravel.

Kaio was hiking ahead of me that day and was already out of sight, her short, quick strides difficult for my long legs to match. I wished she was with me as I entered a dense pine thicket.

I’d always told her that a pine thicket would be the place where some gruesome tragedy would befall me, if anywhere. It was just the sort of lonely place an animal with ill intentions would choose to lurk (at least, that’s always what they show in the movies) and the grey drizzle of rain made the setting even more eerie.

I hadn’t gotten halfway up the first 1,000 foot climb before the heavens opened and poured their bounty upon the earth–and me. The raindrops bounced off my hat and I knew if I tried to quickly don rain gear the pounding drops would soak through the shoulder seams of my rain coat. It’s called a rain coat after all, not a Dryness Preservative. No rain jacket is truly waterproof, I reminded myself sternly, so I just decided to enjoy the storm. I sang and splashed my way up the trail (it was really more similar to a creek) with the greatest enjoyment.

I felt exactly like my former 8-year-old self who used to come up with excuses to go outside any time there was a summer rainstorm. It was grand, let me tell you!

An upbeat song bounced through the rodedendron thicket surrounding Lost Mountain Shelter, and I rounded the last bend to see that it came from the fingers of my friends Canuck and Moonboots, huddled in the shadows of the overhanging roof, both playing their travel-size ukuleles and waiting out the rain. I wrote “Yay for coffee! -Nike” in the logbook, took a healthy swig of the same, and was on my way. Moonboots looked discouraged, and I wished I could stay and cheer him up.

But I was soaked to the bone, and knew if I stopped for more than five minutes my blood temperature would drop dramatically. So I wished him well and scurried on my way.

The wind bit deep near Buzzard Rock, and I began to question my sanity for allowing my clothes to get soaked. My skin was cold to my own touch, and I was not yet at the days highest elevation. “Jesus, please keep me from being stupid.” I breathed over and over again, and kept on hiking, on and on past the rocky, mysteriously cloud-swept summit of Whitetop Mountain and down the wooded northern side. The parking lot for the summit trail was foggy and deserted.

 As I descended the mountain, my blood pressure dropped and I felt the first shiver come on.

I knew it was time to get dry, so I dashed into a rhododendron patch to riskily ditch my wet clothes and change into my rain pants and rain coat. My raingear was a significant buffer against the wind, and I felt confident and warm once again. I refused to worry about Kaio. “She’s experienced.” I told myself. “Her backpack contains everything she needs to stay warm.”

I bounded down the mountain towards Route 600, and was shocked to hear a voice call out my name from the woods near the parking lot. “Nike!” It was Kaio, who had decided to set up camp early, along with most of the other hikers who had passed me earlier in the day.

“Cool Dad said that anyone who climbs up to Thomas Knob Shelter in this weather is crazy!” Kaio said, “And who are we to prove him wrong?”  I laughingly agreed, relieved that my friend was safe. I was more than happy to set up camp and change into my fleece hoodie and down vest.

Kaio had a pile of wood gathered in no time, and we soon had a fire blazing. It was a tall, impressive blaze, and I must admit we looked down our noses at the smoky, floundering fire of our neighbors. We never said it, but of course we were thinking the same thing.

“Front-country people. They have no idea how to thrive in rough conditions.”

I held my rain-soaked shorts beside the blaze, waving them gently to avoid spark holes. Kaio did the same. It took only a little while for the shorts to become nearly dry. The remaining dampness would dissipate inside my sleeping bag tonight, I knew, so I folded the shorts and set them on a warm rock on the opposite side of the fire ring, away from the flames.

I was feeling pretty tough, to be honest. Kaio and I had gone from near-hypothermic to dry in toasty in just two hours, and had cooked dinner and dried our clothes to boot. Not too bad for a pair of beginners!

I bent down to pick up my folded shorts… but–what was this? My shorts were in my hand but a small ashy pile remained on the rock. Confused, I flipped the shorts around and gasped in dismay. Two brown-rimmed spheres smiled back at me.

“They melted!” I gasped.

Sure enough, the rock had been hot instead of just warm, and the polyester fabric at the back of my shorts had shriveled away. Kaio laughed and held her own shorts towards me in response.

I yelped again. “What!!?” She had scorched her shorts too, in a sudden burst of flame. We dissolved in laughter. Great, just great. We were about to enter one of Virginias most popular state parks, the Grayson Highlands…. and now we’d be sporting large burned spots on the back of our shorts. I could just imagine a faint trail of dusty ashes floating in our wake as the scorched polyester continued to crumble and fall.

As if people didn’t already have enough reason to feel sorry for us.

There are places where duct tape patches look snazzy, but we were pretty sure smack-dab on the glute muscles of two hikers was not included on this list. Yet, through-hikers do not carry a back-up set of hiking clothing. A ride to Walmart would cost the same as 9 pairs of shorts.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but creativity surely never has.

Kaio cleverly concealed the faltering remains of her shorts under her trail skirt. I mournfully parted with mine at the privy waste can, and resorted to my rain pants. It was an incredibly humid experience inside those rain pants, let me assure you. Consequently, I was forced to wear them on the longest day of our entire hike–25 miles.

Maybe the forever-lingering hint of sweat on my expensive rain pants will remind me not to snoot my nose at other campers who don’t know how to start a wet-wood fire.

At least, it has so far.

 

If my hike had a soundtrack…

The air was the perfect flavor of pine and clean wind as I sauntered along the smooth, shaded path past Lake Hebron that warm-but-not-too-warm day. The loons cried their short-lived daytime conversation and a bandana’d youth sat contemplatively underneath a fir tree, watching the reflection of clouds sweep across the slightly rippled water.

His iPod played a soulful tune and I thought it was a perfect soundtrack for the moment.

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I often thought I should have a soundtrack for this hike.

Not only a soundtrack, but an entire video recording of it that I could look back on if I ever forgot how incredibly, miraculously blessed I’d been to experience this.

In case I forgot the Me I Used To Be.

If I had a soundtrack for this hike, it would have begun low, building slowly in tight-stringed suspense. There would be lots of creepy segments in this first soundtrack, that would make you want to look over your shoulder or stand with your back against a wall. There would be tense notes–lots of them in fast succession. There would be a happy, frolicking piece. And then a mournful, low bar, full of pain.

As the soundtrack for my hike went on, the suspenseful notes would lessen and the smooth notes would gain the upper hand. There would be not so many creepy segments. Not so many tense pieces. But the mournful bars would continue, transfusing pain into the listener.

There would be short bursts of heavy metal. A few screams.

Lots of upbeat parts.

The final segment would start hauntingly beautiful, maybe just a solitary oboe or maybe a windy flute. There would be pattering and low, persistent whining notes and maybe a few screeches of nail on a chalkboard. Then there would be a clash of cymbals and the soundtrack would take on a folk song vibe. Another clash, and then a long piece on the piano, building momentum. Then a loud, long clash, with drums. And then my soundtrack would be one continuous dance party, ending with the Hallelujah chorus.

Well, I don’t have a soundtrack for my hike, but it would be a lot more concise to explain if I did. I could just pop in the CD and everyone would experience the same feelings with me. Instead, I’ll have to use words to share the story, which is what I know.

It will do the same thing, just take longer.

I jumped out of my reverie when my feet hit a paved road. This was Pleasant Street, and it would take me to Shaw’s Lodging in just 1.6 miles.

I hadn’t gone far before Poet, the owner of Shaw’s, zipped towards me in a trendy SUV. There were already three hikers inside, but my pack just fit under the dusty hatch, and I slid my boney self into the back seat.

It was stinky inside that car–sweat, mostly.

Poet had the air conditioning on and didn’t seem to notice. But I took the time to consider that it was us three feminine hikers in the back seat who were making it reek. Somehow that just didn’t seem right.

Poet dropped the two girls off at the post office, then gave me and Turbo, the third hiker, a tour of his hostel. It was colorful and clean inside, with tablecloths on the tables, plenty of towels in the bathrooms and bedspreads on the bunks.

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“This is a really nice hostel, Poet.” I said, and he thanked me.

After hanging my hammock outside in the tree line, rustling through my food box, and making a quick tour of the small, friendly town, the sun had almost fully dropped below the horizon. I carried my box of coconut caramel ice cream into the dining room and ate it while uploading YouTube videos.

AJ and Poet bantered in the kitchen, and the hikers had settled into their typical 8-o’clock calm. A few sat playing scrabble at a table adjacent to mine and drinking Maine craft beer. They congratulated me on my voracious ice cream consumption and after awhile decided to stroll to the quick-stop for pizza. I had the dining room to myself.

I stared out the window at the luminescent glow of headlamps inside the tents scattered across the yard, and thought about how far my heart had come.

I remembered my first hostel visit. It was at Top of Georgia.

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Even though Renaissance greeted us with his famous flair and gave us a highly entertaining tour I had been too shy to really relax and join in the community there–too scared to hang out in the bunkhouse with the other hikers.

I’d sat on the porch in the damp, biting air instead, listening to the upbeat chatter coming from inside and eating spam and ramen. I could still taste the feeling I’d had then–that numbing, unshakeable belief that I was young, weak and clueless, and would never make it to Katahdin. I’d felt like a giraffe in a pet shop that March day.

Now it was August, and I couldn’t begin to list all the miracles I’d experienced in that six month span.

All I knew was that this place of dreadlocks and backpacks and new faces felt cozy and comfortable. Like home. How big my muscles were, how light my pack was or how much knowledge my brain contained didn’t matter anymore. I was equally comfortable alone on a wind-swept mountaintop or in another strange town in a sea of new faces.

It’s still hard for me to explain it. If I could play you my soul’s soundtrack you’d understand. But that’s impossible.

I guess I’d better get started on my book.

But in the meantime, you might be interested to know that there IS an actual Appalachian Trail soundtrack coming to an orchestra near (or far away from) you!

I met this composer after I collapsed onto a bench in Madison Hut after a 14 hour race across the presidential range one Sunday last month, and he shared his incredible vision with me over a lukewarm pile of homemade dinner leftovers from the hut kitchen. You can find out more about his Appalachian Trail Symphony here: http://keanesouthard.instantencore.com/web/home.aspx

 

 

Jesus Did It

It was about 5 pm at Silers Bald Shelter in the Smoky Mountains National Park, and the clouds which had sprinkled us with chilling rain for the past two days were just beginning to dissolve–just a bit.

Just enough to allow the air temperature to sink even lower than it had been last night.

It was a selfish time of day.

It was a time of day when each man was absorbed in making the speediest possible bedtime preparations. I and the remaining pack of Appalachian Trail through-hikers were scurrying about in our pre-bedtime rush, doing our best to cook dinner, insulate anything that might freeze overnight, and scurry into our down sleeping bags before the true night chill set in. It was at this moment that two children walked into camp.

Children are an usual sight on the Appalachian Trail, so the sight of the two–a boy and a girl– was enough to instantly snatch our attention. They greeted us with the relaxed air of people assured that they are in the right place at the right time.

“Our parents are behind us. They’re slow.” said the girl.

Sure enough, the parents did indeed drag into camp some minutes later, backs bent under lumpy Osprey packs, faces tight with stress. The father ducked into the shelter immediately, and raised a small ruckus as he fought to gain inside sleeping space for his group of four. He set up, cooked dinner, made plans.

He was the first one to shiver out of his sleeping bag the next day and face the frost-rimmed morning.

That was the first encounter I’ve had with fathers on the trail, but I’ve had many since. It’s always the same story.

Fathers.

They are always hiking at the back of their group, muscles straining under behemoth packs, beads of sweat glistening on their foreheads… a striking contrast to their children frolicking down the path ahead of them like young antelopes.

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This picture expresses my hike with Jesus perfectly.

I never had to be the protector… that was my Dad’s job.

I never had to make perfect travel plans…. my Father had them written out already.

I never had to worry about the weather… the Creator of the Universe always shielded me from the worst of the storms.

Can’t you see how, just like the littles in this snapshot, I really was given full liberty to scamper down the trail in utmost lighthearted freedom? The only difference between these cherubs and myself was that MY Father was unseen, and He never subtly complained about the weight of His load to other adults.

I’m a bona fide AT through-hiker now, having over 2,000 miles under my now-muscular feet. I just arrived in my hometown three days ago and I’m already overwhelmed by the congratulations that have been poured over me.

Why?

Why is everyone congratulating me on a job well done? I appreciate it, very much. I won’t deny that I worked hard.

But we all know who carried the heaviest load.

All I really had to do was scamper along beside Him and bask in His strength, wisdom and beauty. One step at a time, and then He’d announce the next plans.

What a good, good Father!