Steps

Far below me on the canyon floor–well, more specifically, one of the many levels of the canyon floor–a round, muddy, teal-blue pool caught the five tiny rays that reached down to it, winking and twinkling them back to the sun on its barely-stirred ripples. Ivory walls rose straight up from this pool, circling up and up with tiny ridges as though bored out by a giant drill bit.

If I had dared to look behind me I would have seen a gap in this pale, circular, bored-out wall–a fluid, graceful crack that extended down and down and around until it was a pencil line indicating the canyon’s mouth.

I kept my eyes locked straight ahead.

My knuckles rose white from the brown, wrinkled skin that clothed them, eight bumps all in a row, like tiny snow-covered peaks against a rough brown desert. I clung with both hands to the cable ladder. “Yes, Jesus. I trust you to protect me,” I whispered, then heaved myself and my wobbling pack up another rung.

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The cable trembled. Water dripped from my clothes, making the metal rungs slippery. Now and again a blast of wind shivered down the canyon, making the hairs raise on my arms. I dislodged a small rock and it scudded straight down to the rock ledge forty feet below me, then down farther still to plunk into the deep teal pool.

Inside my mind, a steady voice cheered me on–was it mine, or the Holy Spirit’s, or both?

Big breath. Another step. Keep your heart strong.

Don’t allow yourself to think about falling.

Focus on what is true. Place your foot. Move your hands. Up you go-one step closer to the sky!

See, he has provided firm footing for you.

Yes, he will provide a firm place for your feet again.

Take another step.

It was scary, but again, your feet are firmly planted. Just like he promised!

One step at a time. It’s a little easier now. You can feel the wind growing stronger. You are almost on the next level of the canyon!

At last, I muscled my pack and body over the top of the ladder and stood upright on the solid ground. I gasped, stretched my twitching leg muscles, then laughed! We did it!

From this small ledge of rock, I now gazed down the canyon, far along the fluid, graceful crack that extended down and down and around until it was a pencil line indicating the canyon’s mouth. What a great view!

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“You and I, Jesus. We have climbed all this! Time for a celebration!”

Facing north again, I see my next adventure, a narrow ledge jutting out from the cliff, offering just inches of trail above another long, narrow pool. At the end of the ledge, the blazes stagger straight up the cliff.

Time to kick it, mountain-goat style!

One step at a time. One adventure at a time. Keep following the blazed route.

Off we went.

An important lesson that I have learned while trekking over 200 miles of the Negev Desert, is that you will always be surprised by what is around the next bend. Study the route, the map and the elevation profile as you will, you will still be surprised.

A flat, easy day of road walking may turn into twelve hours of slow mud-slogging, kicking inches of clay off your boots just to gain three more inches of clay the next minute.

A quick downhill jog may become a cautious crab-crawl down a 40% grade, as you brace your trekking poles among rolling pebbles, trying not to start a rock slide.

You may need to swim through water of unknown depths.

I’ve learned, no matter how surprising the trail is, I still prefer to follow the blazes. During over two hundred miles of adventurous travel, we saw only one injured hiker-someone who had chose their own path. “It looked like a better way, but it was treacherous. Very scary,” said the wounded one. Blood oozed from a battered knee, and caked darkly in the creases.

Do not leave the blazed route, even if you cannot see your next step.

Ask for direction, then walk. You’ll hear the same steady voice.

See, there is a foothold here.

You cannot see the metal rungs as you lower yourself straight off the lip of the crater, but, yes, good, your feet have just found them.

Yes, here is the next toehold.

Walking in heaven-destiny is very like walking an adventurous trail. It’s scary and unpredictable. Thrilling. Sometimes there is deep pain. Sometimes there is incredible joy.

Sometimes you can see the way.

Often you see only a drop-off, and an arrow pointing straight down. Will you lower yourself into the unknown, and trust?

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When you know you are where you are supposed to be, you can rest assured that right now, right this moment, there is a firm foothold for you to step on. Right now, you have what you need.

We were promised provision for now. For this step.

Right now, HE WILL PROVIDE.

Stay on the blazed route. It is narrow, and scary, but it is maintained by the Creator himself! The blazed route leads higher, to some great views!

Ask, then move.

Boldly move. One step at a time.

 

BONUS!

Here is actual footage of me tottering, praying and laughing my way along part of the trail. What could you accomplish if your greatest fear was gone? Comment below!


Want more stories? Consider supporting me on Patreon! By joining a team on this goal-achievement platform, you help me prioritize story-telling and you gain access to exclusive content. Members of the Celebrate the Miracles team get access to mini miracle stories posted every Monday, plus sporadically posted wilderness trip footage, gear reviews and peeks into my sketchbook! If you want to check it out, just visit https://www.patreon.com/hypernike.

They Killed the Biggest Bear

I pointed Harley’s face towards the creek at the edge of the woods, speaking into her ear with quiet intensity. She lowered her head, wriggling away from my grasp. Then the lights came on. Her ears shot forward. Her eyes froze. Her hackles stood up. Growling,  she strained against me, but I did not let her chase what she saw. “Good dog,” I said, “Stay here.”

Below the cabin we were renting, down by the creek, sprawled a lumpy black bear, fat and fluffy enough to have come straight out of the Samsung washing machine commercial. He was gathering mouthfuls of corn out of the plastic dispenser and chewing them with rhythmic chomps. He didn’t look around.

When we spoke to him, he simply took up another mouthful of corn as if to say, “Hello human, your presence is annoying, but it will not distract me from getting what I want.”

He was there to feast, and feast he would.

100% unconcerned.

It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed a change above the cabin fireplace.

Blonde-haired Jed, 5 years old and full of wisdom, was glad to explain the changes to me. “That one was ‘tacking,” he announced, poking his small finger towards a wide new bear skin on the cabin wall. Pointing at the other bear skins, he continued, “That one was not ‘tacking, and that one was not, and that biggest bear was ‘tacking and they SHOT IT.”

I remembered meeting this huge bear last summer. He’d arrive each night to feast at the corn dispenser, sprawling on the ground and licking up the kernels with cartoonish apathy. Then he’d waddle away at daybreak, down the drive and up the mountain road. I’d watched him waddle by me at very close proximity–the fattest, fluffiest, tallest black bear I have ever seen.

Now the legend was dead, shot in his tracks even though he’d tried to put up a fight. 

I remembered another black bear I’d met on a grassy mountaintop nearby.

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Baby Mountain Bear, I’d called that one. Small, quick and fluffy. I had only noticed Baby Mountain Bear because of the dew drops raining from the tree he’d been hiding in. That little bear had scurried to safety the moment he heard a human coming. When I looked back after hiking past him, he had clambered down from the tree and disappeared.

Cabin Bear, fat, lazy and unnaturally bold. Willing to let his enemies watch him sprawl in the dirt as he feasted.

Baby Mountain Bear, small, quick and scared. Not willing to let his enemies catch a peek at him.

There is a corn dispenser at the fringe of my forest, too, but it takes the shape of a cartoon tee shirt I used to imagine myself wearing that says, ‘Cactus Recovery Program’. It’s the way I used to explain my cold responses towards people who triggered my fears. I can go back to this tee shirt any time and put it back on. It fits me well, and is comfortable. I can be a cactus any time I want to.

But I’ve learned that as a cactus, you actually grow spikes on the inside, too. While your exterior spikes prick people and keep them at bay, your interior spikes cut down your destiny every time it tries to rise. You’re not living where you’re meant to live. You grow more and more confused.

Abnormal habits feel normal so very soon. Remember that.

Figure out how you were created to live and live that way, no matter what! No matter what appealing gifts your surroundings offer you. No matter what feels good. No matter what feels easier.

You were created to rule the wild mountaintops, not for a placid partnership with your enemies in the valley. Know who you are, and live that way!

Don’t let your enemies feed you.

Don’t let your enemies make you tame.

Trail Blazers

Trail blazers.

They are the women who hold their daughter’s hand and skip across the Walmart parking lot at mid-day. First to look into a small one’s eyes and say, “I made a mistake. Could you please forgive me?” First to trade old habits for new. First to say, “Yes,” when they’d have rather said, “No.”

Trail blazers.

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They are the mentors whacking understory brambles aside with their trekking poles, blazing a line of travel down a forgotten spur trail in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. The first to be slapped in the face by young saplings. First to face the rattlesnakes. First to come up with a game plan. First to squeeze out their last creative juices and mix them together into an entertaining feast for exhausted minds. Real people.

Trail blazers.

They are the men sitting alone in the front row at the seminar. First to be honest. First to cry. First to accept love. Trail blazers.

They are the cashiers who dare to look each customer in the eye, risking enough to see what there is to see in this world.

They are the men and women and children who say, “I don’t know how to do this, but God called me to do it so here I go.”

They are the children and women and men who grip truth relentlessly.

Facing the fire.

Giving up what feels good so they have room in their worlds for what IS good.

Creating safe spaces in an unsafe world.

Making heaven visible on earth.

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Trail blazers, please know you are seen. You are celebrated, and so very loved. All of heaven is at your disposal–all of heaven celebrates your every win and mourns your every loss.

Trail blazers, the wild places look like paradise now that you have trampled a path through the stinging nettle, and marked the place where the ground bees live–now that you’ve pulled out the poison ivy and cut back the saplings that used to leave welt marks on your face.

Each and every  trail blazer after you will continue to widen the path!

Many will walk in your footsteps, and never experience the dangers and the pain you’ve faced. These people will thrive!

Today, release the questions of what is yet to be and celebrate the reality of…

what is.

 

We Don’t Get To Be Here Long

Bu-BUMP, bu-BUMP, goes the blood in my jugular vein, as if my blood vessels are a track and the blood cells are thoroughbreds, surging towards the finish line. I stomp the accelerator and turn the wheel into the mat of blackberry vines, very aware that my body is being forced back into the seat as we climb. A grumble of mud and stones, a scrape, and we slide gracefully on to the mossy space below the yellow beeches. It is 23° but my cheeks are hot. “Thank you, Jesus!” I squeak, and Harley pants and yawns loudly, as she does every time we live through a moment of terror.

Fear stomps on my lungs every time I think of driving up that lane. Some of you will shake your heads and sigh, and some of you will understand.

The only reason I began driving to the top of my dirt lane at all is because my father showed me how and then said, “It’s your turn.” I hate being wimpy in front of him after he shows me how to do something. It’s like saying, “You are a liar, Dad.”

The only reason I made it to the top of my dirt lane the second time, and the 202nd time, was because once you start going up, you can’t stop. Stopping is actually dangerous. Driving up just feels dangerous.

Once I had to jump start my car in a black parking lot, all alone. Slump-backed in the rain, I shivered and prayed for 32 minutes before finally connecting the clamps. My hand would go towards the battery, and then jerk away.

I’ve learned recently that dream-chasers fall into two categories: Tryers and Doers.

Tryers have options. They can say, “I am trying for my lifeguard certification. I’m training 14 hours a week, but I honestly doubt I will pass the test.” They never sign up for the test, because they don’t think they will pass it. Reasons, reasons, reasons…. all very valid and unable to be explained away.

Doers do not have options. They say, “I will refuse to be comfortable until I have set up a new way of life. By hook or by crook, I will get there, and no delay.”

The thing with trying, is that you are never truly a failure. If you set out to TRY, you can rationalize success either way. You will stand in the parking lot, in the dark rain, wasting time because you are trying to jump the car but you must first evaluate all the dangers.

If you set out to DO, there is only one way to win. You will put your foot to the accelerator, knowing once you begin you will not be ‘safe’ until you reach the goal.

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You do the thing, and no delay, because you refuse to say, “You are a liar, Dad.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I know I am.

 

 

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. 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Victors

Tonight, the headlines irrevocably declare: “120 Dead in Paris Attacks, Worst Since WWII”.

Terror is spreading across our planet, and the people of this planet, like ancient wooden ships adrift in a storm, scatter. Some cry, some shout “Revenge!”, some huddle in the paralysis of fear. Some hold up signs that say ‘NOT AFRAID’–a distinctive message to their enemies, but the sign-holders are powerless to make the message true within their hearts.

We the people– the meant-for-another country people. We the foreign exchange students, so to speak. What are we doing?

If we’ve been trained to fight, why are we afraid?

If we are truly selfless, why not choose to feel pain with the hurting instead of jumping into our closets of self-protection?

If we really believe God’s power makes us unstoppable, why not walk towards the danger instead of running away from it?

We are never victims.

We are always promised joy.

We are always promised rest.

We are always promised protection–the definition of which only Jesus knows.

We are never victims.

We are victors.

We the people pray for Paris tonight.

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We also pray for peace within ourselves.

 

Never, never, let us accept the title of “victim”, Jesus. Never let us stop receiving peace from you, and fearlessly giving that peace away.