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.

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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.