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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Surely, this could not be the same wilderness.

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed out loud.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Less is more (usually)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fog envelopes the forest on Whitetop Mountain, Virginia

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They melted!” I gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, it has so far.