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.

 

 

Another 8 a.m. lesson

My friends and I went camping on Assateague Island for my friend’s 21st birthday.

We camped in the State Park area, which was blooming with dune goldenrod (which is unusual), and teeming with people (as it is all season).

We strolled the beach as the setting sun tainted the cloud-filled sky with a hundred hues, roasted hotdogs over a smoky fire,

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wrapped up in blankets and laid on the beach to star gaze and watch the moon rise orangely over the water, snored all night in the tent like a pile of cats, and woke up with the first bird calls to watch the sunrise on the beach.

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And then….

the ponies came.

It was cute and kind of funny, really, to see 4 little docile frames trotting through a half-asleep campground, nosing at shrubs and tendrils of grass as if they had just been let out to pasture for the day–as if they never even noticed the entourage of 9-year-olds on bikes behind them, or the sleep-disheveled lady on her way to the bathhouse who stopped and ran back to take their picture.

It was funny to see them nose into the doorway of a neighboring camper’s tent and rummage through the contents of a Styrofoam cooler which was too weak to withstand their practiced ransacking.

My friends laughed, and as a joke we took pictures of them in the  background as we settled down to our long-awaited breakfast, prepared to watch the saga continue to unfold.

And then they turned our way.

Noses down, steadily they came towards us, but we knew what was up. My friends and I gazed longingly at our half-eaten breakfasts on the table, knowing we had to follow park rules and give the ponies a 10-foot wake.

“Don’t worry, guys. I got this.” I boldly stated, and walked towards them commandingly, waving and clapping my hands.

Noses down, they steadily advanced past me, eyes zeroed in on our breakfast.

“Never mind. HIDE THE FOOD!” I screeched, desperately swooping up what I could reach. And then I leaned against the car and laughed.

It was chaos.

One of my friends was grabbing the last cinnamon buns out of reach of the hungry jaws, one was taking pictures and one was literally wrestling a hot dog skewer out of a pony’s mouth.

With the innocence of a dove, Assateague’s native ponies had effortlessly taken over our picnic table, where a very pleasant breakfast HAD been taking place not 4 minutes prior.

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What goes around, comes around.” They say.

“Do to others what you would prefer them to do to you.” Those are Jesus’ words.

Both a good thing to remember at 8 a.m.

That is, if you value your breakfast.