Lessons I Learned on The Appalachian Trail


Lessons I Learned Along The Way
by Larry D. Wright
“Even youths shall grow tried and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary;
they will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40: 30-31
        It all began when Stephanie and I went to the Appalachian Trail for her Spring Break, April 1999.   Rebekah and I returned during Memorial weekend two months later. Both trips were great adventures as well as a special opportunity to spend time with two daughters who have grown up way too fast. I want to share with you a few of those things. Then, I will conclude by applying some simple truths from a favorite Bible passage about The Things I Learned Along The Way.
          The question most normal people ask is, “Why would anyone want to leave the comforts and conveniences of home and meander through a strange, even hostile environment?” Some people think it is stupid, borderline moronic, to strap a 40 to 45 pound pack on your back and go hiking in the wilderness where there are insects, snakes, even bears. However, I can identify with a poet of some fame named Henry David Thoreau in his work Walden.
I went to the woods because I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.


          So, there are a few things that I learned along the way. First, I learned a lesson about simplicity. I have come to the conclusion that most of us live a complicated and complex life because we have too much stuff! Most people find it a little absurd to strap a heavy pack on your back and go for a walk in the woods, but I find it liberating to know that right here on my back I have everything I need to live, at least for a week. I have shelter and clothing, food and water, a filtering system that turns mountain springs into drinkable water. Everything I need, the essentials of life, I have right here. I really don’t have to depend on anything except what I have here and my own personal skills. I can sleep wherever I want. I can cook and eat whenever I want. I can take a break wherever I want, just about everything is here but a bathtub. The contents of my pack are condensed to the essentials and it becomes an extension of me. I take it wherever I go and guard it with my life. I find that liberating because as a backpacker I discovered that in order to make my trip tolerable, I had to eliminate all the nonessentials in life. 




          Before each trip, I take everything that I think I need and I lay it out. I eliminate everything that is not necessary. Then, I weigh each item before loading it in such a way so that all the weight is transferred to my hip belt, not on my back. Invariably, I always remember one or two small items that usually relate to my comfort. I sneak those things inside until the scales top fifty-five pounds! When I load this pack in preparation for a long distance hike in the mountains, I am always looking for ways to reduce weight. When I can eliminate five ounces, I feel like having a revival! Some serious hikers even go so far as to cut off the handle of their toothbrush!


          Why do I sneak extra stuff back in the pack only to see it burgeoned with expendable items? I do so to cater to my fears or my vanity when they serve no purpose other than to occupy space with their bulk and stress my body with their weight. As hiker David Brill observes in his excellent book As Far As The Eye Can See, “The least experienced hikers labor under a yoke of fear and worry, cluttering their packs with devices they hope will duplicate the security of more familiar surroundings. Veteran hikers have discovered that a well chosen poem or quotation, which weighs nothing once committed to memory, can provide more solace in the face of fear than a welter of gadgets and trinkets” (p. 26).
          Most thru-hikers [1] learn to trim their pack down to 38 to 40 pounds. I go through all the stuff and make choices again. I evaluate every item... “Did I even carry that last time? If I did, did I use it? Does this item relate to safety or survival?” The rule with backpackers is if you don’t use it everyday, you don’t need it. Of course, that rule doesn’t apply to your first aid kit, because hopefully you wouldn’t need it everyday and you definitely need to take that. But generally, it’s a good rule. So, I begin to eliminate all the unnecessary items. . 
Law of Priority
Am I carrying too much stuff? Do I need to readjust my load?
          I’ve discovered over the course of my life and the seasons that I’ve experienced, that I’ve had to eliminate a lot of unnecessary things. Also, I’ve had to readjust my loads many times. I’ve had to redistribute my weight structure in life so that I can enjoy the journey. It is so easy to get overloaded. And when I get overloaded, I realize that I can’t function well. So I have to go through all the stuff in my pack, in my life, readjust, and establish some priority. Or, as Walden called it, “I wish to live life deliberately.” All of us go through life accumulating so many things, so much stuff, so that in the process of lugging it around, we’re weighted down. Jesus said it like this, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things [the nonessentials] will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). When I focus on the nonessentials, I find that I’m living life in a strain. I can’t pull the hills good. I don’t enjoy the flowers and seeing the rhododendrons in bloom. When my goal is just to survive, then I do not enjoy life. That is a good indication that I need to readjust the load. I constantly have to eliminate things from my life. I have to say, this is essential, but I’m not carrying it well. I’ll pack it differently and it’ll work. This is a nonessential; I have to get rid of it.
Law of Partnership
I must be learned to be yoked to Jesus.
          In my renewed pursuit for the Kingdom of God, I’ve gone back to the words of Jesus, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God”, and made necessary applications to my spiritual life. For those hikers who consider their pack as an accessory, the burden soon gets heavy, even unbearable. However, those who come to see their pack as an extension of themselves have learned a valuable lesson about bearing burdens. As a result, I have had to readjust my load. I have had to eliminate some nonessentials. When life becomes so complicated that I start whining and complaining about it, I’ve discovered that something is out of balance. Jesus shared a truth about carrying a load in life. He said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). When I find myself complaining about how hard life is, I realize I’m not yoked with Jesus. To be yoked with Him means to be in partnership. I need to exchange my weariness for His strength. I’ll say more about that in just a minute. I have learned a valuable lesson about simplicity. 
          Secondly, I have learned a lesson about the terrain and the pace of life. Most of us would like to live our lives on a flat, winding, strolling, soft trail. We want to be high on a ridge somewhere, where the view is beautiful, but very seldom is life like that. In fact is, any trail you follow, and especially on the Appalachian Trail, the name of the game is ups and downs. Preparing for the next days hike, here is a typical description you might read about in the Appalachian Trail Guide. [2]
                   Reach wooded summit of Levelland Mountain (3,942 feet). Descend slightly. Cross rocky open area with excellent views in fall and winter. Descend on rocky trail. Reach Swaim Gap (3,450 feet). Ascend slightly, passing to left of Turkeypen Mountain (3,550 feet), then to left of ridgecrest. Past the left of Rock Spring Top (3,526), with spring left of trail. Continue on ridge, ascending and descending slightly. Reach Corbin Horse Stamp. Ascend. Reach Wolf Laurel Top (3,766 feet). To the right of trail is open rocky face with excellent view toward Wildcat Ridge. Descend, and continue along ridge. In about 20 yards, you will reach Baggs Creek Gap (3,591). Spring is located down blue-blazed trail on left. Ascend. Reach the summit of Cowrock Mountain (3,842 feet). To right of trail are good views to southeast. Descend slightly to open, rocky area, turn sharply left, and descend steadily. Enter small gap. Bear right around knoll, and descend. Reach Tesnatee Gap.
                   Ups and downs. That is a lot like life, isn’t it? Ups and downs. Peaks and valleys. Ascend. Descend. Climbing hills, then descending them and the descents are usually as tricky as the ascents. You’re up and you’re down but very seldom is life on a level plain. 


                               The terrain determines the pace in life and the miles you cover. When you are on the AT you’ll soon find that there are those who are faster than you and you must let them pass. You learn to step aside and let them trek by at their pace, not yours. You observe the bulging muscles in their calves, you see how they’re fitted to their pack. They’re carrying everything well and they just zoom past. You are tempted to pick up your pace in an attempt to keep up. However, such a move would be foolish because you have to learn to travel at your own pace. You can only enjoy life if you travel at your own pace, not the pace of others. As David Brill observes, “Hiking becomes a meditative act. There was euphony in the measured, purposeful sound of motion: the rhythmic rise and fall of breath, the thump of the heart, the cadence of boots crunching soil and rock, the steady tap of the walking stick, the bending of knees and the flexing and relaxing of thigh muscles, calf muscles, hip muscles.” [3]


                               Occasionally you will approach someone who is struggling. Their pack is too heavy; their legs are too weak. They are really struggling. So, you zoom around them. You are tempted to feel superior. It’s a lot like life isn’t it? Some people zoom past you and you think, well, I can keep up with them.  And you try, but why would you want to do a thing like that? Then there are others you pass along the way and you feel a little bit smug. Allow the terrain of life to determine the pace and not the lifestyle of others. If you’re really going to enjoy life, you must figure out the right rhythm for you. You must find your own pace. You can’t chase everybody. You can’t be like everybody. Also, you shouldn’t feel superior because you are walking faster, or traveling better than someone else. You have a better job, you have more money, you have a better education, you drive a better car, you live in a better house...GREAT! You must learn to live life at your pace, not at someone else’s. You will enjoy the journey a lot better if you focus on the trail and not those traveling on the trail.


 Thirdly, I have learned a lesson about community. One of the facts that I have absolutely fallen in love with about the Appalachian Trail is the community atmosphere that exists there. A lot of people think that when you travel a trail as long as the Appalachian, 2,159 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia in the Chatahochee Mountain range to Katadin, Maine, that it would be a lonely experience. However, according to the statistics released by the Appalachian Trail Conference, some 4 million people visit the trail each year. There are times when you walk for an hour or two without seeing a single person, except your traveling partner. There are times in which the solitude is what you came for, and it is welcomed. Yet, there is a linear community on the trail who are on a quest just like you. 


          Some people turn to the trail at times of radical change in their life...graduation, disillusionment, working through grief, burnout or job loss. It is mystical, but true, a narrow path strewn with rocks can chart a new direction in life. Several of the end-to-end hikers that Stephanie and I met fell into one of these categories. To them, the AT extended an invitation they could not refuse. It offered refuge from pain, anonymity and the prospect of finding nature’s healing powers. Others approach the trail for the physical and mental challenge, the adventure of it all. They want to see if they can attain a goal that demands dedication, stamina and a clear focus. On the trail attitude is everything. Whiners and those easily discouraged don’t last very long. The infamous Granny Gatewood, a spunky grandmother who thru-hiked the AT at age sixty-seven, once said, “Head is more important that heel.”
          Some families are out for a day hike. Some people like me are out for a section hike. Although the purposes vary, the thing about the AT that is so amazing is this: you might hike with a person most of the day and all you know about that person is that his trail name is Easy Money. He is dressed similar to you, his gear looks like yours, maybe a different brand name. At the end of the day you camp together around the shelter area. You sit at a picnic table and cook your noodles together or sit around the fire and talk. You learn that Easy Money is actually the president of a bank in a large city. Or maybe he is a doctor, or even a lawyer, but the bottom line is all the artificial lines that we create in life really don’t matter on the trail. It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black, male or female, considered a white collar professional or a blue-collar worker. It doesn’t matter what bracket best describes your economical status. It doesn’t matter what type of vehicle is waiting on you at the end of the walk. All that really matters is that you are both on a quest. You both may be questing something different, but you are just hikers. By definition, you are a person who simply lifts one boot, planting it squarely in front of the other, and then bite off another three-foot section of trail. It defines who you are and the community that you are an accepted part. 
          It is a community that loves, accepts, trusts, and shares food and supplies with one another because you’re not against anybody. You are just a pilgrim on a quest. That’s one thing I love about the Appalachian Trail, because it is a community of people that you can relate to almost instantly. The one thing you have in common is that you have a big pack on your back and you’re walking on a trail covering the same miles and facing the same challenges. When Rebekah and I were hiking we met a young father and his eight-year-old daughter. Her hair was drenching wet, her face was flush but she was having the time of her life out there with her dad. They looked at Rebekah and I and asked how long we had been backpacking together perhaps using us as a possible image for their future. We sat on the side of the trail together and enjoyed a simple meal. All I knew about the pair was their names. During the conversation I discovered that he had been a Christian for a long time, but he hadn’t been a committed Christian but a short period of time. He had some questionable habits in his life, habits that I didn’t ask him about. I didn’t pry into his personal life. He freely shared what God was doing in his family. He told me how God had transformed his marriage when his wife became a Christian. He asked me some questions about parenting, questions that I always make me feel uncomfortable, but somehow, sitting on the side of a trail eating a bagel with peanut butter and drinking a bottle of water, we felt connected. 
          Unnatural barriers, walls, lines that exist in the real world somehow vanish for hikers on a quest. In the real world, it might have taken years for us to get to the point where someone would ask, “I see you’re out hiking with a college age daughter. How did that come about? What works for you?” Oh, how I long for a sense of community, where people can relate to one another without superficial walls!
          I learned some things along the way. I learned about simplicity, lessons about the pace and terrain of life, and lessons about community.   
          I want to conclude by making an application from a favorite Bible passage of mine found in Isaiah 40. The British statesman Oliver Cromwell observed that Isaiah chapter 40 is the greatest chapter in the entire Bible. It is a chapter about the greatness of God. Cromwell says when the prophet wrote this chapter, he dipped his pen in golden glory and wrote for God Himself. It was this very passage that inspired Handle to write The Messiah. It was also this very chapter in God’s Word that impacted the reformer Martin Luther. He posted on the church door at Wittenberg Ninety-five Theses that set forth his position and objections to certain practices and doctrines of the church. As a result, he was summoned before the Diet of Worms to defend his position. Standing before the counsel he was given the opportunity to recant or face the consequences. Inspired by this very chapter, Luther took a stand and the Reformation was the result.  
          There are some valuable lessons from this passage that instructs us in how to carry a load and be faithful in our journey along the way. The prophet declares, “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But they that wait upon the Lord, they shall renew their strength.” In some translations it says, “They shall exchange their strength.” That is what I want you to understand today. The good news is, regardless of whether you’re weary in life because you are climbing a lot of mountains, packing too much stuff, underestimating the incline of the hills, or maybe you’ve just been at it so long that you’re weary, there can be an exchange of strength.
          I’m glad at this season of my life that I’ve fallen in love with walking. Isaiah says that even young people grow weary. In the month of March in the year 1513, a young explored left his home country of Spain. His name was Ponce de Leon. He was searching for the infamous fountain of youth because the Indians had told him there existed an Artesian water source that flowed from the very Garden of Eden. If a person found this water supply and partook of its magical contents, they would be renewed in body. In fact, they would live forever. He was searching for immortality. Ponce de Leon didn’t find that spring. He found Florida instead.   Ever since that time, people have been looking for that special drug, that special fountain, that special spring, that special formula that can cause their body to be rejuvenated. We want to be able to run and not be weary, fly in the currents and not crash, walk and not faint. 


          First, the BAD NEWS..., there is no fountain of youth for the body! Everyone must deal with the aging process. We should stay in shape and discipline ourselves to eat right and exercise, but aging will happen. Now, the GOOD NEWS...there is a fountain of youth for the spirit. You might not be able to drink from an Artesian water supply and have all of your gray hair leave, all of your aches and pains disappear, but you can find that supply for your spirit. That is the promise in this passage for those who wait upon the Lord. They will be able to exchange their weakness for His strength. I find that to be an interesting scenario.


They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not faint.
          We would logically think that the prophet would have reversed that order. You walk, walking progresses into running, running progresses into flying. That’s logical, isn’t it? First you walk, then you run, then you fly. But that’s not the order of the prophet. He said first you fly, then you run, and then you walk. It is amazing that walking, the most simple act, is the thing that we have the most problem with in the Christian life. Walking is an appropriate description for consistent faithfulness in life.  
          God can exchange your inadequate strength for His strength, and He can do it in multiple ways. For the storms of life that come unexpectedly and overwhelm us, He gives wings like an eagle. There are times in life that God chooses to do something supernatural, above and beyond anything that man can explain. God miraculously supplies wings that enable us to be lifted over, up and beyond a challenge, a hurdle, an obstacle, an adversity. Also, for the challenging opportunities in life, God gives strong legs enabling us to go beyond our natural limitations. There are moments and seasons in life when God gives divine energy beyond what you normally have. Runners call this second wind. Hikers call it trail magic. It’s that moment you are walking down the trail and you’re into a cadence, you’re into your rhythm, your pack is fitting well, everything is going well, but you are so weary. Unexpectedly, you notice strength in your step. Your weariness is overpowered by new energy and you are fueled by strength from on high. 
          In the spiritual dimension of life, there come those moments in the middle of our weakness that God gives grace. Paul had a thorn in the flesh, we aren’t exactly sure what it was. We think that it was something physical, that’s the most logical thing to assume. More than likely it was his eyesight, but we don’t know that for a fact. We know that Paul prayed and asked God for the wings of an eagle so he could be lifted above and beyond this thorn in the flesh. God didn’t answer Paul’s request for a pair of wings. However, God did answer Paul’s prayer, not by giving him the wings of an eagle, but by giving him the strong legs of a runner. God gave Paul the grace to see him through, and that is exactly what God does for us. There are times when He gives us strong legs, not wings that lift up and over, but legs that carry us though.
          For the storms of life, God gives wings. For the challenging opportunities and deadlines in life, God supplies the legs of a runner. Then, for the daily routine of life, God supplies feet for faithful walking. This is where life really operates. It is estimated that a thru-hike on the AT consists of five million steps. The challenging thing about life is that it can be so routine, so daily, so boring. However, it is our daily consistency and faithfulness that pleases God.   Flying is wonderful. Running is exciting. However, walking is really what life is all about. Life has hills to climb, it has rivers to forge, it has creeks to cross, it has challenges, unknowns, and mysteries. However, one of the greatest challenges in life is faithfulness in the daily routine. God gives us the strength to be faithful because He is faithful. The Prophet Jeremiah discovered this truth and declared, “[It is] Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22).
          The apostle Paul discovered the dynamic truth about the exchange of power. He expressed it like this: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul discovered that they key to faithfulness is not flying, though that happens. It is not even running, though that is possible. It is the consistency of walking with God everyday because what pleases God the most is when we allow Him to exchange our weakness with His strength. In that moment of exchange we learn... [His] grace is sufficient for you, for my power in made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
           If the stress of climbing the hills, the challenge of consistently walking the ridges and valleys in life is getting the best of you, I have GOOD NEWS! I offer to you a solution. The Lord Himself wants to exchange your weakness with His strength. That is a valuable lesson that I Learned Along The Way.

[1] A term used to describe a hiker who intends on hiking the entire Appalachian Train from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine...2,159 miles.
[2] Appalachian Trail Guide, 11th Edition, p. 147.
[3] Brill, p.41.
 That is a description of one who has discovered his rhythm on the trail and refuses to allow others to dictate the pace.
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