One of the most peopled corridor of Appalachian Trail is the section through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
For 101 miles, the AT meanders through ancient forests and across grassy meadows, always within a few miles of the Skyline Drive Scenic Highway and its numerous snack bars and rest stops. The trail itself is well-graded, frequently stone-and root-free, and oftentimes perfectly flat. Shenandoah’s beauty, easy walking, ready access to unhealthy foodstuffs, and road attract thousands of visitors every year.
To a thru-hiker, Shenandoah is either heaven or hell.
Those hoping for a true wilderness experience grumble and curse through the park, annoyed that their views must be shared with scores of tourists whose “hiking” consisted of getting out of a car and huffing .2 miles to an overlook.
On the other hand, most of thru-hiking is characterized by impending starvation, and some of us don’t mind the crowds so much if it means we can stroll that same .2 to a cheeseburger, French fries and Coke, sometimes two or three times a day.
Owen and I were pretty well fatigued when we reached Shenandoah in late June of 2010.
At 550 miles and boasting 1/4 of the AT’s total mileage, Virginia was a hot beast; we were mostly of the opinion that we could skip from one of Shenandoah’s heavenly rest stop banquets to the next, thus breaking up into more manageable chunks the very state that seemed hell-bent on breaking us.
Two unforgettable nights spent in Shenandoah continue to resurface in my memory, years later, as evidence that we might meet heaven, here, at any time.
The first one began as Owen and I decided to try to catch up with some friends who were some miles ahead. In order to do so, we had to hike some night miles, something we hadn’t done too much of at that time.
As the day started to shift into night, I was reminded of the slowly boiling frog parable. You know the story: a frog is placed into a pot of water that is gradually brought to a boil, and because the change is incremental, it does not notice it is being cooked until, alas, it is too late.
Well, the darkness that night was like that.
Almost imperceptibly, the yellowness of the air around us melted into pink and then into grey. Sunlight through the leaves soon flickered and vanished, closing us into the dusky space of the few yards surrounding our frames. Our eyeless senses shouted; every rustle and swoosh out there ampted up our threat radar so that squirrel became deer and deer became bear. Feet felt out every stone and twig, guiding the rest of the body over obstacles the eye could not discern. I was able to smell mud, moss, and something that might have been mouldering mouse.
Then, quite suddenly, it was night.
“Headlamps?” Owen breathed.
“It’s really dark,” he shivered.
“I know. You okay?”
“I think so.”
We walked for a few miles in the pitch black, at one point trying to scare away a stump masquerading as a ghostly-appendaged bear lurking in the shadows. That certainly got the adrenaline pumping.
It took a mile for my pulse to slow, and by that time, we were closing in on the shelter where we hoped to find our friends.
Our sweat dried as we weaved across a ridge, the darkness waning as a half moon rose. Shenandoah had a surprise for us before the night was over, sweeter and more mystical than anything in all of our wanderings.
Rounding a bend, I could sense rather than see an opening-up, a vast spacefulness that felt safe and wide and wonderful. To our right, a rocky outcropping glowed with a luminescent sheen, beckoning us out onto a promontory high above the valley. Awestruck, we marveled at the vista stretched before us.
Under the graceful embrace of the moon, the mountains across the expanse were silhouetted in deep indigo, the sky a paler sea beyond.
The forest tumbled sleepily down to the valley floor, cooled by the gentle splash of falling moonbeams. Skyline Drive, so ugly by day, was a grey ribbon casually tossed on the carpet-pile of trees, the solitary taillights of a passing vehicle casting a wake of soft vermillion across its fabric. Pinprick lights of a distant town lay cradled in a bowl, a traffic signal blinking green-yellow-red at us in lonely astonishment.
That sky! All of God’s magnificent, unsearchable universe spread out like a visual feast, lovingly prepared just for us!
We couldn’t look away, couldn’t speak.
The Bible tells of a “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Standing on that granite ledge, contemplating the absolute smallness of a single soul, knowing that our Creator God, who fashioned both the vault of the sky and the fragile scales on a moth’s wing, loves us, loved me with a love that propelled Him to endure a most horrific death on my behalf, filled me with such gratitude and peace that I felt I could almost conceive of what life will be like in heaven.
The veil had been lifted, and it was as if nothing stood between us, God and girl, raw, transparent, and perfect. It was a precious gift from a tender Father to an undeserving daughter, and I wanted to stay there forever wrapped in His quiet, intimate approval.
“Thank you,” my heart whispered.
How long we stood there rapt and humbled I do not know; I couldn’t conceive of what my son might be thinking, so I slowly pulled my gaze away and regarded him. He must have sensed me looking, for our eyes met, and we both smiled. Touching him gently on the shoulder, I indicated with a point of my chin that it was time to leave, and reluctantly we tucked ourselves back into the trees.
It was not the first time that God had showed up on our hike, and it would not be the last.
A few nights later, having caught up with our friends – Etchasketch, Crow, Power Ranger, and Sprocket Monkey, Young Turks all – we found ourselves in one of Shenandoah’s messy crowds, this time at a shelter.
It seemed like every NOBO*, SOBO*, section-hiker*, and weekender had decided to stay at Blackrock Shelter. There was an enormous fire and happy conversation despite multiple sightings of a bear and her cubs wandering around the periphery of the shelter area and a water source that dripped so slowly it caused a bottleneck of tired hikers, all trying to coax enough drops out of the slimy pipe to cook and wash.
When the time came to retire to our coveted places on the dirty shelter floor, Owen and I wondered aloud if our tiny tent would have been a better choice. The inside of the shelter was a blast furnace, and two NOBO’s seemed oblivious as to how their loud debate between the lightweight properties of a tin can stove versus the steady versatility of a propane stove was making it impossible for the rest of us to sleep. They sat outside at the picnic table, but somehow the acoustics of the place made it seem like they were arguing right in our ears.
Sometime during the clash of the stoves, raindrops began plinking on the roof, lightly at first, then with wild enthusiasm. Mercifully, the two debaters were forced to shut up and seek asylum in the shelter as an absolute violence of precipitation assaulted our temporary home. Owen and I frantically pulled our feet away from the windblown downpour splashing into the open side of the shelter and became front row spectators to an awesome sight.
There is something about witnessing a storm from underneath the secure protection of a sturdy roof. It makes one feel invulnerable and alive in a way that few others things can.
This storm seemed almost boastful in nature, raging and convulsing with such insistence that the entire shelter population retreated until we were all pressed against the back wall, judging or applauding each lightning flash or wind squall.
Whereas the God of our night hike whispered and smiled, the God of this storm thundered and triumphed with gleeful fury until it was impossible to regard His power and remain in doubt. The only response to such a God – loving Father, fearsome Creator – was worshipful submission. In fact, in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul chides the church in Rome:
But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse (Romans 1:20).
I love Paul.
His mouth got him in all kinds of trouble, but he didn’t care as long as the gospel was advanced. Look around, he challenges, look around! Look around, you naughty Romans, you inconsiderate stove debaters, you cowering denizens of Blackrock Shelter. Look around and know. Don’t you see the great I AM? Don’t you know that you are without excuse?
I fell asleep that night with a different kind of Godly gratitude in my heart.
Owen is no longer a 10-year-old boy, nor am I his same mother.
I’d like to think, however, that despite the piecing arrows of life after the AT, we have both been able to find peace even in even the most peace-less of times simply by pulling our AT recollections down off the shelf, skipping to an underlined page, and re-reading again and again the passages where God showed up.
Though, of course, He was there all along.
I think there might be a mild danger in looking back – in romanticizing those nights, those days, to the point of neglecting to enjoy our present reality, but perhaps as long as we remember that the best, our heavenly home, is yet ahead, the small glimpses we have of it here on earth can fill us with joyful hope.
*NOBO – a northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker (Georgia to Maine, or GAME)
*SOBO – a southbound AT thru-hiker (Maine to Georgia, or MEGA)
*section hiker – one who completes the AT one “section” at a time; a section can be any number of miles, depending on the amount of time and motivation the section hiker has