Since yesterday I have been thinking about walking and community. I heard Kim Brown, the author of this book (which is now at the top of my wishlist!), talking about her experience on the Camino de Santiago. It made me think about my Appalachian Trail experience which lasted about 30 days and 204.5 miles. In a sense I began the AT as a sort of pilgrimage. I was a Deist at that time, a short skip away from Paganism and witchcraft. When I was Pagan I saw all of nature as a sort of shrine and tabernacle for the God and Goddess. As a Deist I believed that nature was the surest sign of God's existence and that immersion in nature would be a religious undertaking. I would be surrounded by the glory of God in the hazy slope of the Appalachian mountains peering at remarkable beauty all day long. It sounded like a dream. It was a dream.
What I found was that the charm of nature could not satisfy my need for communion with others. In essence, I could not escape the deep human need to know and be known. I was quickly beset by a pervasive loneliness and longing to reunite with my loved ones. Even in the absence of those dear souls who knew me most intimately at home, I found the greatest joy in meeting people along the way in the woods. Eventually the endless stretch of path and white blazes up and down the ridges became a long, arduous walk toward campfire camaraderie at the end of the day. I went to find God in nature, but found greater joy discovering people.
The journey ended when I reached Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was whisked away to a warm hotel room with my parents and then boyfriend (now husband). It was a marvelous reunion. The meeting filled my aching heart. What was I doing on this pointless trek meeting strangers when my future was at home? I knew that I wanted Oliver and a front door of my own, a quiet life nestled in peace and clean sheets. A garden and books and most of all, a future and a family. It was all so domestic, boring and perfectly average. When I left the trail to return home I was ashamed of my weakness in choosing a boring life over what could have been an epic 2000 mile trek.
A reader of my online 2008 Trail Journal left this comment in the guest book which confirmed that my need for others was a weakness which I should have quashed:
"I'll be sad if you gave it up, I agree with previous posters that you have grand writing skills. One interesting thing I've noticed about trail journals: when they veer from focus on info about the hike, the gear, the territory, etc. into primarily social diaries (e.g....at the hut were Sling Foot, Beer Belly, Happy Guy, Funny Person, etc... and we couldn't find Hiking Dude or Monkey Boy... and we all went beer drinking...and tomorrow we're joing up with Bloody Mary and Dog Woman and....etc. etc. etc.) something gets lost, the hiker and the journal reader seem to lose focus. Seems to me the AT has changed from wilderness experience into crowd control and it grieves me."
For years I have carried this comment in the back of my mind. That I should have focused and placed my hike, my dream, ahead of people. It only occurred to me today that when seen as a pilgrimage, my hike led me to exactly the place that I needed to be. It brought me top-to-bottom, inside out. It was folly to seek God and focus only on nature when God shines most truly from those wonderful creatures who are made in his image and likeness. I experienced their kindness again and again. I was one of the "least of these" of Matthew 25:35. I was brought low and gratefully accepted their charity. I lost my focus on sterile nature, but gained a glimpse of God shrouded in glorious humanity.
Thanks to God for shining a light on my "great failure" and letting me see his fingerprints all over my past.