Spring has always been retreat time for me. Eastertide is a great time to cut away for a few days and to reflect as we bask in the new assurance of eternal life and watch the earth unfold into greenness after the grey winter. I usually go to a retreat house. But- Covid. I’ve been reading lot about hiking, and last summer we bought a bunch of new equipment and did some backpacking and… it felt right to plan a hiking retreat for this year: 5 days, 4 nights on my favorite trail of all times, the Appalachian Trail. (If you are new to the AT, it is a 2,190 mile path from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I have had a 35-year dream of thru hiking it- a feat that more than 4,000 people attempt each year, but fewer than 1,000 complete. To learn more about the AT, check out appalachiantrail.org)
It was clear to me that this would be a solo hike. Retreats for me are usually solo ventures. I was afraid to camp alone in the woods and had only recently become less fearful about hiking alone in the daytime (see the first post on this blog to learn more about that) and so I knew that this would a time with plenty of challenge ahead- physical, mental, spiritual. Right up my alley.
I liked the idea of starting in Maryland (or close to it) and “walking home.” The portion of the AT from Beartown (home of our Calvary Chapel) to Boiling Springs offers a lot of varied terrain: pastures, wooded forest, pine stands, impressive rock formations, mountain vistas, and more than a couple of gaps. The trail offers shelters every 8-12 miles and so there was a place for stopping each night that offered the potential for some company, a privy, and a fire ring.
There is much to offer as means of a report:
I could write about my gear- 37# that included a tent, “sleep system,” “cook system,” water filter, food, maps, GPS device, a change of clothes and 2 “luxury items” (a tiny notebook and my crochet project that I’m working on in small pieces for my upcoming granddaughter).
I could write about the AT culture- a supportive and mostly safe group of people who have been drawn to the trail to work something out. The AT community (people form “tramilies” that they hike with along the way) is made up of a varied sort- old, young, athletic, out-of-shape, men, women, the occasional dog, hippies, college professors, preachers, truck drivers, librarians, doctors, and recent college graduates without jobs. People assume “trail names” that allow them to take on an identity that either defines them or that is aspirational. Examples: “Snow White,” “Freestyle,” “Wanderer,” “Stardust,” “Rock.” Most trail names are “given” by one hiker to another, and some people choose their own. Apparently, you just know when you have gotten it. (I’m still waiting for mine.) There are also some weirdos on the trail. I met two. They had found each other and were hiking together- in all black. He wore head phones and talked on his iPhone most of the time. He punctuated his breaks by drawing out his pipe and smoking dope. She was full of questions [How much does your pack weigh? What kind of boots are those? How many pair of socks do you have? Can I share your campsite (answer: “no.”)] and I was polite but kept my distance.
I could write about what I ate (mostly organic paleo dehydrated meals, dried fruit, trail mix, oatmeal with almond butter and dried blueberries, and foil packets of tuna) and how I planned my days (get up at sunrise, make breakfast in the tent, break down camp and be on the trail by 7:30), and how my plans changed (I extended each day by several miles shortening up the trip so that the final day was 4 miles, not 12), and about some of the people that I met (“Big Wooly on the Trail,” a serene guy in his late 50s with a long white beard and long white ponytail who just took his time and let the trail tell him how far to go each day; “Wanderer,” a 62 year old fella hiking with 4 young men including his son and son-in-law. “Wanderer” came over to introduce himself to me at my camp site and told me “not to worry, ” that his group was not going to bother me- there were ” two preachers among them.” (Methodist and Baptist). I told him that “I was a preacher, too,” and he looked a little surprised. He finished our exchange by saying that “If I needed anything in the middle of the night,” to “come on over.” It was a kind offer that both comforted me and annoyed me. Finally, there was a guy named “Fillin’ In” who camped with me on the last night in a clearing down near a babbling brook in a desolate holler. I was grateful for the company. “Fillin In” was hiking to Maine, having started in WVA, chipping away at his 35 year-old dream of hiking the AT. He’d had a busy and successful career as an architect and was now getting around to “filling in” the sections that he had not completed when he started hiking in 1979 but then quit for a plumb job. We enjoyed each other’s company, swapping gear tips and strategies and various details- (it’s funny what you tell people whom you’ve known for one day and will never likely see again.)
But here’s what I want to write about- how the trail “worked on me.” It was a retreat, after all- not just a hiking trip.
I didn’t have a fully thought out plan for my reflection before going. I thought that I might pray the psalms. (I have a BCP app on my phone). I thought that I might choose a “theme:” (creation, awakening, resurrection, etc.) but I couldn’t settle on one. I thought that I’d pray the Morning Office with Dean Robert (canterbury-cathedral.org) but that plan was thwarted when my cell phone signal was spotty on Days 3 and 4. And so, I just let it come.
What evolved was enlightening. I wrestled with my innate drive to do hard things. I despaired at my pace up the hills. I was surprised at my lack of fear in both hiking (I’ve stopped looking over my shoulder every few minutes) and at camping alone. The first night I was completely alone in a holler campsite with not a soul in the shelter .3 miles up the hill. Around 1 AM a helicopter started circling the mountain and continued for more than an hour. They must have been searching for someone. It freaked me out a little, but, really- what can you do? At 1 AM I was not going to pack up and start hiking, and so I slid down further into my sleeping bag and eventually fell asleep again. I found that my drive to “get to the next place” was so strong- too strong- and I had to snap myself out of it and focus on the beauty of the moment. It really was a beautiful hike. I gloried in the rain on a 79 degree day. I gloried in the downhills. I gloried in the path when it was rock-free (an infrequent event), and I gloried in the breezes when they came.
I saw no bears or rattlesnakes. (my two wildlife anxieties.)
I did not use my emergency whistle or my GPS SOS alarm.
I made one foolish error that was a good teacher: on the 4th day the plan was to hike an easy 7.3 miles to a shelter and spend the night. But I arrived at the shelter before noon, it was pouring, and desolate. (The shelters bring out a deep loneliness in me- not sure why). The only option was to press on another 8 miles to the next shelter. I knew that part of the hike and it was rough. It included 2 major “rock scrambles” climbing over boulders that are two-stories high and some that include taking one’s pack off and tossing it down ahead of you, or hoisting oneself up a chest high crevice to the next part of the path. I couldn’t hoist my heavy pack over my head and so I attempted a detour “off trail” around the boulder formation. So stupid. It was raining. The rocks were slippery. I put my foot on the leaves instead of the slippery rocks, and my boot sunk up to my thigh. I held onto saplings as I tried to traverse the steep hillside and navigate to the bottom of the gap. It was scary. The only way out was up, back to the rock maze. I climbed from sapling to sapling, too scared to cry. Obviously, I made it. I scraped my leg. I was shaking when I got back to the trail. I told a friend that it was “traumatic.” Yup. Lesson: Stay on the trail. Don’t hike hard spots when you are 13 miles in to a 15 mile hike on a wet day. Know your limits. Don’t be a fool.
I was really lonely. I waver between considering myself an extrovert and an introvert- and this kind of adventure makes me realize how much I need and love people.
Each day, the Spirit delivered a different hymn for me to carry in my head as an “ear worm” to move me along the trail. Honestly- I didn’t choose them, they chose me. They were: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” ( St. Helena, Hampton), “For all the Saints” (Sine Nomine), “O Praise Ye the Lord” (Laudate Dominum), “Fairest Lord Jesus” (St. Elizabeth) and “When Morning Gilds the Skies.” (Laudes Domini)
I felt very “held” in the power of God. Not in a “go-do-something-stupid-like-go-‘off-trail,’ God’s-‘got-you,’ ” kind of way but just in a general sense that there was a deep peace, a “cleanness” and a “clearness” when I was able to push aside all of the “shoulds” and drives and expectations that I had for myself. “For God alone my soul in silence waits” (Psalm 62: 1a) will deliver God every time- but you have to get the stuff out of your own head first, to get to the silence. When you do get there, it is sweet- pure- embracing. I was able to see that a few times on this retreat.
So. One story to finish. (If you’ve hung in this long.) On Day 4 I was hiking in the early part of the afternoon. It was not long after I’d made the decision to press on from the early stop after 7. 3 miles and to add on 8 miles to get to the next shelter. I was a little fearful about having made that decision and hoping that it was not the wrong choice. I had just completed a mile long uphill that required me to stop every 25 yards for a few moments’ rest. I was feeling defeated, anxious and it was raining. I came to a clearing in the path and there was a road crossing. I saw a car pulled over on the side of the road and, up on the path across the road where the AT continued, was a woman about my age walking very slowly up the trail, looking down. I heard her husband call from the car, “OK. Come back now.” She continued walking very slowly up the trail. I took the opportunity to have some water and watch the story unfold. “Come back,” he called. She just sauntered. I finished my water and crossed over the road towards her. She looked like she was looking for something like a lost watch or earring or something. As I neared her, I asked if I could help her find what she was searching for. “Oh, no,” she said. “I have always wanted to walk on the Appalachian Trail. It has been my dream. And we were just driving here and I saw it and made my husband stop. I’d love to hike it but I’m not ‘trained enough.’ And so I just wanted to walk a few steps today, just to fulfill my dream.” That was it. I smiled. She smiled. And I went on up the hill.
I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to be a thru hiker. I sure don’t want to do it alone. But I am grateful for what I got to do this past week. There is a (corny) saying that “the trail will teach you.” Indeed. Corny, and true.
This version of it could be titled: “Why I stopped wearing makeup during the Coronavirus.”
It’s not what you think. It’s not laziness. It’s not part of the slick new move where you dress only from the waist up for Zoom meetings and keep your pajama bottoms on for the entire day.
No. If anything, ten hours of Zoom meetings a day might lead to a greater emphasis on “putting on one’s face,” since that’s what we’re all looking at, now.
No. It’s not laziness. It’s not “I don’t care anymore.”
Eighteen months ago, I turned 60. (According to COVID-19 standards, I am now “elderly.”)
I didn’t mind turning 30 (I was busy having babies.)
I didn’t mind turning 40 (I was busy raising those babies.)
I didn’t even mind turning the legendary 50 (I was shin-deep in a new career.)
But 60. Oomph.
Now, a lot of this has to do with a 61-and-a-half year-old difficult relationship with my body. Someday I’ll write about that in greater detail. It’s plenty complicated and mining that deep emotional hole would keep any psychoanalyst in the green for years. But for now, suffice it to say that in this complicated relationship, I have worked myself over for years. I’ve run marathons. I’ve had to balance my soul-nurturing practice of cooking and creating in the kitchen and the concomitant eating that comes from a day at the stove, with my need to fit into my jeans. And, I’ve been gentle on myself, keeping a wardrobe full of jeans in about 3 different sizes.
But turning 60 was about more than the size of my waistband.
Turning 60 meant a turn towards one’s own mortality and the end of one’s days.
I’ve outlived my father’s lifespan by more than 30 years. The women on my mother’s side of the family made it into their 9th decade, and so I’ve less to worry about there.
I eat kale. Lots of kale. I drink water. Lots of water. I quit smoking 30 years ago. I quit drinking 4 months ago. I run. I’m doing what I can. I’m at peace, even, with my mortality. In the past couple of years, I’ve found a softening of the terror that I used to feel when I would even consider death. Now, I grieve the idea of death because I love my life so much. I just don’t want it to end. I’m not sure what is on the other side. My faith tells me that I’ll meet Jesus and that I’ll step into a form of being that will be filled with love and light and a timelessness that won’t drag on, but that will be right. Just right. Perfect, in fact. And that is wonderful.
But there’s still the idea of this body that we live in- this “earthly tent” as St. Paul calls it. And, lately- for the last 18 months of so- that’s been a challenge.
My Christian faith tells me that vanity is not cool:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4
Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Proverbs 31:30
And weighing in from the literary corner, there’s this:
There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it. Mark Twain
Vanity is often the unseen spur. William Makepeace Thackeray
But, dammit, I don’t like the turkey neck that rests under my chin- which has its own share of wrinkles. I don’t favor the batwings on my upper arms or the thinning hair on the top of my head, or the sagginess of just about everything. I’ve got lip lines and whiskers and all the add-ons of a post-menopausal creature.
I don’t mind my laugh lines.
I don’t mind the translucency of my skin. I remember, as a child, stroking my grandmother’s bony, translucent hand and being in wonder at it.
But the other is hard. Because- why? I’m not quite sure.
And so, a few months ago, when a strange virus from a foreign land came to spread its deathly pall over us in our corner of the world, and last month when we were all sent home to sequester and keep to ourselves, I quit “putting on my face.”
Now, if you know me, a tomboy at heart, you know that I never sported a full face of makeup. But a little eyeliner, mascara, maybe some blush made me feel… presentable. I haven’t brushed my hair for 20 years. Keeping one’s hair a 1/2 an inch long is a real timesaver. But I have spent some time each morning doing something to my face before walking out the door.
And now- at least for now- I’m done.
I feel a lot more authentic.
I feel as though the pandemic that we are living through is asking us to do things in new ways, to put our priorities in line, and to be as real as we can be.
And so, I am chatting with my siblings every day, now, online. They are a touchstone.
I am clinging fast to the videos of my two grandsons who totter around and eat tiny bits of ham and macaroni and whose worlds open up a sliver more, each day, with their expanding abilities. Sitting. Crawling. Walking. Singing. A few words.
Compared to that, what is a stroke of mascara on an already thinning set of eyelashes?
Yesterday, in the sequestration program adopted across the US, I stayed at home. I said my prayers, I wrote in my daybook, I made the bed, I hosted a “drop in” zoom conference for clergy. I read a chapter from Fleming Rutledge’s collection of sermons for Holy Week, The Undoing of Death.
I ate a protein bar for breakfast.
I played with the cat. (My cat. Glenn’s cat won’t come near me. Maybe she is self-isolating, feline-style.)
And then, I decided to go for a hike. (Glenn is away on a trip.)
I love to hike. Glenn and I hike frequently when our schedule -and his knee- allow it.
There’s a section of the Appalachian Trail that we hike at times when we just have an hour or two and don’t want to think too hard. This section of the trail begins five miles away in the village of Boiling Springs. There’s an easy place to park the car and a short walk to the trailhead. The trail is mostly flat and goes through woods and along a cornfield. An easy walk to the next road crossing is just 2 miles, and as an out-and-back, it is an ideal short hike.
And so I filled up a water bottle, threw on my boots and made my way.
A nice guy leaving the post office shouted “Have a nice hike!” as I locked my car and shrugged on my pack. I don’t know why that touched me. It was a normal greeting, but made more friendly, maybe, in this time of sequestering. He knew what I was up to: wanting to sequester, but sick of being alone at home.
I started out on the trail and no more than 1/4 mile in, that feeling came over me.
Now, if you are a woman, my guess is that you know the feeling. The feeling of uneasiness, of wariness, that puts one’s head on a swivel.
Women don’t travel alone in the woods. Even in the tame suburbs of bucolic Boiling Springs.
I didn’t use ear buds because I wanted to hear everything around me. Including any sudden intruders.
I looked behind me every couple of minutes. Head on a swivel.
When I was a senior in college, one of my best friends went to Denver, Colorado for an internship during our winter break. Just a couple of weeks into her stay, Helene was abducted off of a commuter bus, taken to a secluded area, raped, stabbed and murdered. The killer made off. My friends and I sang at her funeral in a large, cold, cavernous Roman Catholic Church somewhere in Massachusetts. I never got to see her body. There was no closure. I clung for years to the small candlestick that she had given to me as a Christmas gift just a couple of weeks before she died, and a small collage that she had made for me as a testament to our friendship.
When I am alone, I think about her violent end.
I look behind me when I hike.
I look behind the shower curtain before I go to bed when I am home alone.
I keep the doors locked.
I wonder if this fear will ever leave me.
About 2 months ago, by some miracle of DNA testing and ancestry.com, Helene’s killer was found. 40 years later, in a Florida bar, a beer glass with his spit on it led ambitious and persistent detectives to track him down and arrest him. He confessed. He will be sentenced next month.
I don’t feel better. I hope the killer does not receive the death penalty because I don’t believe in taking a life for the life of another. Theologian John McQuarrie wrote: “Where there is life, there is hope.” I believe that.
And when this man is either dead or behind bars for life, I still don’t think that I’ll be able to hike without looking behind me or retire without sweeping the shower curtain open to check for stealthy intruders. That makes me sad, and that makes me angry that my life has been altered this way.
My mother was widowed in her thirties with three young children. Her life’s narrative was one of survival. She was widowed again, in her sixties. She lived alone for the rest of her years, most of them in a rambling house at the end of a dirt road on one of those bits of land that juts out into the ocean on Casco Bay. I wonder if she was afraid, ever? She wrote poetry, sketched in pastel and pencil, read the classics, did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and listened to Robert J. Lutsema on NPR through her old brown Sony radio. I listen on the same radio, today, in my kitchen.
She was one of the strongest and bravest people I have ever known.
And so, I keep hiking. Sometimes alone. I keep on doing things that are hard, and that scare me, because I will not be paralyzed by fear.
I take on hard projects. I step up when asked to do things that I don’t know how to do. I oversee a diocese that has put its trust in me to do my very best.
I say my prayers, and I lace up my boots.
Today I will go hiking again. It is cold and rainy and it would be easier to take a gentle walk around my neighborhood with a pocket full of dog biscuits and a podcast playing through my ear buds. But I will go to the trail and keep my head on a swivel, because I will not be bound by fear.
Stay safe. Say your prayers. And all shall be well.