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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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

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.

 

 

 

 

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!

Upgrades

“Life as God’s child is a life full of upgrades,” my boss told me one day long ago. I agreed with him wholeheartedly then, but I agree even more the longer I live, and even more strongly today.

I’ve been on a pilgrimage for the past ten weeks. I carry my home, clothes and food on my back and spend each day walking onwards, sometimes uphill, sometimes down, but always forward–no matter the weather.

When people ask me what I’m doing, I have all sorts of different replies. Sometimes I tell them I’m thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, sometimes I say I’m training to be a backpacking guide, sometimes I say I’m running from the law and sometimes I say I’m out here to experience miracles–that I’m on a journey of taking God at His word.

Most of these answers are true, but I like the latter answer best because it is the one I go back to when times get tough.

My friend has a CD of stories told by a missionary I know as The Pineapple Story Man. She plays it over and over, so I’ve had the chance to hear it now and then when I drive with her. There is a story The Pineapple Story Man tells that sticks with me. It’s about a boy who believes in miracles and God rewards him with exactly what he asked for. “God doesn’t need our help!” The Pineapple Story Man says emphatically. “He didn’t worry when He saw Elijah pouring water over the sacrifice. He didn’t say, “Umm, just sprinkle the water, Elijah. Don’t fully soak that sacrifice. Just in case.” No! The Creator of the world doesn’t need our help!”

I remember that emphatic declaration many times a day as I travel this pilgrims road.

The Creator of the world doesn’t need my help to fulfill His promises. “If I clothe the lilies of the field in all their splendor, which are alive one day and dead the next, how much better will I take care of one of my own children?” He asks.

I hold the promises of the Lord in one hand and my experiences in the other hand, and often compare them.

It is a vulnerable thing to be 400 miles from home with only $8.00 in your pocket. It is a vulnerable thing to sit for hours at a trailhead where there is no cell reception, and trust that Jesus will send someone to give you a ride into town. It is a vulnerable thing to live under cloudy skies with nowhere to go when it rains except under the shelter you are carrying in your backpack.

It is vulnerable because there is no backup plan. No place for me to gather up all of my internal strength and pull off a smashing victory by planning every detail perfectly, or pulling some witty piece of knowledge out of my brain just in time to save the day.

Out here, there are no backup plans. Just one hour at a time with Jesus.

And so when we are cold and hungry and narrowly escape encountering strangers while using the forest as a restroom, Jesus sends us Gatorade and chocolate bars to say that we are still worth celebrating, and that He will provide us with strength to go on.

When we are dealing with an injury and reach the trailhead too late to hike into town, we pray and Jesus sends us a trail runner to drive us to where we need to be–just as the first drops of torrential rain begin to fall.

When I find myself stranded at a campground with no resources to pay for a campsite, Jesus speaks to the owners heart and he gives us a campsite and firewood for free without knowing a word of our struggle.

When my hiking partner is sick beyond words and desperately in need of rest, He sends a group of botanists our way who are planning to drive right through the town we hope to go to, and refreshes my mind by allowing me to have a 20-minute conversation with the head gardener of the famous grounds and gardens of Monticello.

“My plans are not to harm you! They are to give you hope, and speak life into your future!” Jesus says through these experiences, upgrading me time and time again into greater trust in His protection, greater faith in His love, greater understanding of His vast material storehouse that is meant for the use of the saints of God.

What a heritage!

So I sit here in yet another library in yet another strange town, and ponder this strange and exhilarating journey I am on. Beside me is a man who is researching Tootsie Rolls and scribbling furious notes on his stack of papers while laughing in a most unpredictable manner.  I think I’ll soon leave and buy a half-gallon of chocolate milk to drink while I walk through the rain in search of my friends who are also in town.

After that, who knows? I have no plans, no schedule, no home. The sky is the limit!

One thing I know for sure, there is no place on earth where the fame of the King is not proclaimed! His promises endure forever! What a good, good Father!

 

 

Scrooge, on the subject of Employers

“Fezziwig had the power to render us happy, or unhappy.

To make our services light… or burdensome. His power lay in his words–and in his looks–and in things so slight it is impossible to add them up.

But the happiness he gave us was as if…

as if he had given us a…

fortune.”

A good reminder for us all, I should think.

Find the dramatized version of this snippet at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qzx2qEhTT4.

And after watching, for those of you who know me, look carefully again at the young actor playing this said Mr. Fezziwig. You may distinguish a gentleman we all know, or then again, you may not.

My Selfishness as it Relates to Hamburgers

It all happened when I was mid-burger, 2 minutes in and 3 minutes left on the clock to consume the 67% remainder of the tomato-lettuce-cheese-pickle-beef creation in my hands.

I sat there with the tomato-y mayo dribbling down my hands and thought,

“How selfish I am! Here I am, scarfing down a 1/4 lb burger at the speediest (and messiest) rate known to mankind, and I’m hardly even tasting it!

How often do I eat a burger? Rarely.

How often do I eat a burger with the PERFECT ratio of pickles to tomatoes? Even less often.

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And I’m just here gobbling it down like my dog would do, and worrying that I’ll choke it my haste!

Now, IF I, as a Christian, am the bride of Christ… and IF all good things in life come from Him, it would make sense that He gave me this burger.”

So I put myself in Jesus shoes (well, I tried at least) and suddenly I felt so small and ashamed.

Here was Jesus, creating a masterpiece of a burger just for me, and watching me to see if I liked it.

And there was me, chowing down in a terrible rush and not even tasting what I was eating, much less thanking the Lord for all the work He put into it, and for choosing to give it to me.

Preposterous!

I have a ways to go towards living in the heavenly kingdom, especially when I’m late for my second job of the day.

But I have decided that this earth’s–and, sad to say, especially North-East America’s– style of enjoying food is not for me. I’m going to live out of the peace of the kingdom I was created for, and take time to taste my food no matter how late I am.

And thank the Giver.

So if you want to join me, come on over! We can have some coffee, and take an entire half-hour out of our day to drink it while it’s still hot.

And to soak in the warmth of thankfulness.

Because we are so very cared for, and so very BLESSED!