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.

 

 

 

 

Jesus was homeless, too.

I don’t live in the city anymore, but when I did, I never once gave money to sign-holders. I’ve never dropped even so much as a quarter in a Salvation Army bucket. That’s a shame.

No, it’s more than that. It’s a complete disgrace.

I met a homeless man named Richard LeMieux last week, and if I would have judged him by his looks and name alone, I would have laughed and said, “It’s all a game. People with high-class, French-sounding names aren’t homeless. Look at him! He has a dog! Homeless people don’t have dogs. And he has a van. What a lazy bum.”

But then I saw the dejection in his eyes, and the humiliation, and the hopelessness. I knew, even before I had heard five minutes of his story.

This man really is homeless. But that’s not the reason for the pain in his eyes. His heart is shattered because he is alone, scorned and rejected. 

Richard LeMieux was depressed.

Depression is a taskmaster who steers the wheels of many, many….. FAR too many lives. No one sees these lives, because they are too ugly—too unpredictable to look at. Yet denying their existence does not cause them or their problems to disappear, and so they exist, and careen farther and farther into the ever more arid desert of un-lovedness. Richard is one, and it didn’t happen by choice. He didn’t start out homeless.

It wasn’t the choice of the 30 men and woman eating ham around me at the Catholic nunnary, the people who had nowhere to go on Christmas morning.

It wasn’t their choice that EVERY single one of their friends disowned them.

It wasn’t their choice that their business went bankrupt and the bank took all they owned.

It wasn’t their choice to be a victim of abuse, and to live life on the move from city to city, hiding for their life.

And the ugliest part of their reality is that almost nobody takes the time to understand them–and that fact alone is the most undeniable proof that they are unwanted and unloved.

Richard and his friend C–two real people with beating hearts just like yours and mine–sat down together one day, having just seen their homeless friend Adrian being dragged behind a car in retaliation for a drug deal gone bad. This is what they said.


 

“You know who the most famous homeless man in history was, don’t you Richard?”

“No.”

“Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, Jesus said.”

“I should have known that.”

“You, Richard, are in good company.”

“People were afraid of Jesus.”

“Yes, and people are afraid of the homeless today. And they are disgusted when they see a person digging through a garbage can or a dumpster. They’re frightened when someone unclean talks to them—afraid they might ask for money, afraid they will steal their car or rob their house or stab them.

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But it isn’t the homeless they should fear.

It’s the people who have jobs and money—like that truck painter, Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer. Did you know he admitted to killing forty-eight women in Washington State? He’s the deadliest killer in the United States to date.”

“Yes, I did read that.”

“Can you imagine that one Christmas Eve, Ridgeway got off work early, cashed his Christmas bonus check, went to the mall, bought some presents on his MasterCard, had dinner at home with the wife, and then went out and killed a young woman and dumped her body along the road?

She was one of those disgusting, homeless prostitutes people fear.

H—, maybe the %$@# did her a favor! She would probably have had to sell her body over and over again for ten, maybe fifteen years just to pay for a three-hundred-dollar-a-month apartment, electric and water, and a run-down car!

People should REALLY be afraid of guys like the Tacoma police chief who shot his wife to death in the parking lot at the mall. Or the son of the director of the Department of Corrections for Washington state who raped a two-year-old. He pleaded guilty and got a whole six months! If a homeless guy had done that, he’d get life in prison!

You know, the big thing that sets the homeless apart is that they usually only commit crimes out of desperation. Those with homes and jobs commit crimes out of boredom or hatred or greed.

‘You are not needed anywhere, not wanted anywhere. Nobody cares what you do.’ And you know, unless people have been there—lost, alone, rejected, feeling worthless and unwanted— they just can’t know the numb feeling that drags you down. All the dreams are gone, gone forever. You’re just hoping for some force to end the nightmare peacefully.

Whatever happened to Emma Lazarus’s sonnet on the Statue of Liberty? ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

Homelessness in this great country of the United States is an abomination!

But the great masses—who are only one paycheck or one stroke of luck better off themselves— even THEY repeat the same great lies about the homeless: ‘They are lazy. They don’t want to work. They are drunks, bums, drug-using, worthless scum.’

If you tell the same lie over and over again about the homeless, eventually it becomes the truth. You tell your wife the lie, then you tell your children the lie. Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage then broadcast the lie, and politicians who want your vote politicize the lie. The lie just grows and grows.

The homeless are human beings. Okay, so they are people with problems—some greater than others. But there is no problem that can’t be overcome with love, patience and kindness. Given help and a sense of direction, most will help themselves and even help others.”

-Dialoge between C and Richard, Breakfast at Sally’s by Richard LeMieux


Homelessness in America is an abomination! But even worse? My response.

So, what am I going to do about it?

 Love. Not fear.