A Footpath Toward a Stronger Faith
A hiker shares the devotional lessons she's learned on the Appalachian Trail.
“Why the Appalachian Trail?” friends asked somewhat incredulously. Great question. I’d spent all of three nights in the woods my entire life. The one summer camp I went to had air-conditioned cabins and hot water.
Yet here I was, telling everyone I was going to thru-hike the trail from Georgia to Maine after graduation. Partly to test myself, sure. Isn’t that what you do when you’re young? Partly to put off getting a job. But the real reason went much deeper than that.
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Ever since I’d heard about the trail, I had the strangest, strongest sense that I was supposed to hike all 2,180 miles of it. I felt called to do it.
Fresh from college I set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, on my unlikely quest. I have since thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail twice more, most recently in record time—46 and a half days (an average of almost 47 miles a day).
But speed has never been my true goal. What I’m really after are the spiritual lessons that come from the trail, a kind of freedom of the soul, lessons that serve us wherever our life’s journey takes us.
1. Choose your own identity.
Trail names are a hallowed tradition. Hikers pick nicknames to go by, like Dude or Mooch.
“You should be Stretch or Amazon,” people told me because I’m six feet tall and have the long stride to match. But after 21 years of others defining who I was, I was ready for a change. Who did I think I was?
The first time I was about to sign a register near the southern end of the A.T., I paused and thought of all the reading I’d done as a classics major. Homer’s Odyssey had captivated me.
Look at all the wisdom the hero, Odysseus, gained from the challenges he overcame. Could I be like him? That March day I picked up a pen and wrote my new name: Odyssa. Because I was on a life-changing journey.
2. Accept the generosity of others.
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One evening in the woods I smelled something tantalizing. I followed my nose to a clearing where an RV was parked. There was a circle of lawn chairs around a campfire. Pots of beans, rice and corn were warming over the fire.
A table was set up with cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream and tortillas. The RV door squeaked. A motherly woman stepped out. She handed me a plate. “Take whatever you want,” she said. “Pull up a chair and enjoy.”
I’d heard about strangers offering gifts to thru-hikers—a ride to town, a shower, a hot meal. I’d always been the independent type. This hike was something I was doing on my own. But I soon discovered I was never going to make it without accepting the generosity of others.
They call it trail magic. I call it God’s grace. P.S. Those fajitas were fabulous.
3. Let your spirit sing.
My biggest fear was cold, wet weather. It hit early on, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A bonechilling rain fell. I had to slide down Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the trail, 6,643 feet above sea level, over patches of snow and ice.
“Tomorrow will be better,” I muttered to myself. But, no, the next day was worse.