Appalachian High Route, Part 3: Hot Springs to Home

The Other Bear

Hot! Temps are high on the steep slog out of Hot Springs, but all during my time at Laughing Heart Lodge, I had been mentally preparing myself for this particular pain cave.

I love hiking. Truly, I do. Sometimes, however, like with a pack heavy with town, it can be rough, so I try to appreciate the dewy webs and the French Broad look-back at the crest of the climb.

The day before, I had been startled at how tired and worn down Hot Springs seemed since my son and I had walked through 12 years prior, though this vibe is tempered by the friendly optimism of everyone I meet.

I recreate a pic of the AT sidewalk logo wearing the same crocs as before and try not to miss the kid.

I’m starting to long for home, though I want to enjoy the journey left; it’s roughly 80 miles back to Burnsville, and I’m aiming to be there in 4 days.

A little less than four miles south of Little Laurel Shelter, I cross Log Cabin Drive and start to ascend. I’ve got one earbud in, half-listening to some podcast and dreaming of dinner, when I hear the unmistakable snuff-snarl of a bear.

I instantly freeze, tear out the earbud, and begin tentative negotiations.

Hey, bear. Just passing through, bear. Nothing to see here, bear.

To each calm pronouncement, the bear’s snorting grows more agitated, and I back up a few steps to think what to do.

The trail where I stood was cut into a steep slope; above and ahead of me, switchbacks were carved into the dirt, and below were the tops of trees, thick brush, and the bear. I couldn’t see him clearly – just a darkness through the leaves – but I estimated he was about 20 yards from where I stood.

Too. Close.

Perhaps desperation and fatigue are not good metrics for decision making; looking back, I’m not sure I would do what I did again, but I was almost out of water, it was the end of the day, and I just wanted to get to the shelter.

Moving forward, I stop talking to the bear and began talking to God, loud, averting my eyes from the black blob and purposefully marching by where it sat snorting below.

Maybe Bruno was also tired, thirsty, and just longing for his cave, because as I pass above, I hear his rustling retreat. I keep walking and do not look back.

Me – 2. Bears – 0.

Something strange was up with the wildlife that day, as a huge black snake refuses to move off the trail a mile or so ahead and I am attacked by yellow jackets.

This is their home, I try to remember, even as we build ours among them and chip away at the margins of their habitat.

Still, shelter never looked so good.

Day 15: Hot Springs to Little Laurel Shelter – 19.9 miles

Balds

Closing in on 300 miles, the trail leads me gently in and out of the woods and up and over more beautiful balds.

Big Butt, Big Bald, Big Stamp: such pedestrian names for so beguiling a landscape.

Mountains over 4,000 feet in my native New Hampshire are spiny, severe; in contrast, the southern balds are subtle and soft, beckoning like lovers leaning in for a kiss.

So, I lean in.

Linger.

Let wind and sky have their way.

And just like that, the longing to leave evaporates into cloudy mist.

Day 16: Little Laurel Shelter to Hogback Ridge Shelter – 23.3 miles

The Burnsville Connector and How It Nearly Broke My Heart

I chose to walk the Appalachian High Route in a clockwise direction, starting in Burnsville, North Carolina, which means my hike will end on the last 22 miles of the newly mapped Burnsville Connector.

If all goes to plan, some 17 or so miles ahead, the AT will pop out onto Flat Top Road and I will string together some forest service roads, some trail, and finally some pavement to return to town.

Back in Balsam, where I picked up a resupply package the week before, a fortuitous meeting with a kind gentleman has made finding these turns exponentially easier.

Having initially planned to use the fringes of the FarOut app, Runkeeper, and Google maps, I rejoice as this angel introduces me to CalTopo, a more precise mapping app. I’ve taken pictures of the sections I am about to encounter, but doesn’t everything always look so much simpler on a screen?

Let me emphasize that the AHR is new and Davis, Jake Blood, and others who were instrumental in creating it are volunteers, working out of sheer love for these cherished mountains.

It appears I was the first to thru-hike the route, so if there happened to be any kinks that might need to be worked out, I was probably going to be the one to find them. That being said, I also have a propensity to get lost, so the mistakes I made on the Burnsville Connector were also my own.

For days I had been anxious about finding the turns on the Connector, but I am expectant waking up on Day 17 that the research I have done will translate into finding my way.

Sunrise finds me at Sam’s Gap, where kind Steve from Unicoi has left water. Many of the road crossings boast Steve’s signature water, and it’s trail angels like him that make some of the onerous chores on a thru-hike – finding, gathering, and filtering water being one – less onerous.

Thanks, Steve.

It’s Sunday and the trail runners are out. It feels good to talk to someone, anyone, even if it’s just the exchange of quick hellos.

Of course, another storm rolls in late in the afternoon. I’m soaked in the short time it takes me to pull out my rain jacket, and worry gnaws again as I wonder if I can keep my phone and the paper directions I’ve printed from Davis’s website dry when I get to the first intersection, Devils Creek Gap.

I’m looking for “a gated/unmarked Forest Service Road from the intersection of the AT and Flat Top Road.” Hmm. There are two gated FS roads when I reach Flat Top Road, thankfully drying out after the storm has passed. One is marked “FS 5506.” That sounds marked to me.

So I take the other, as just as fair, noting how after a hairpin turn, it will join FS 5506 and take me (pleaseohplease) to the Devils Creek Trailhead.

Right from the start, this feels wrong.

Unmarked Gated is an overgrown, marsh-suckingly awful mess, although still fleetingly navigable.

At the hairpin turn, however, the route dead-ends into a massive, impenetrable blowdown. What to do?

CalTopo shows that the “road” parallels a river until meeting FS 5506. I see no river, only a dry bed of boulders littered with years of broken branches and fallen trees, but I follow it hack-and-slashing for a half mile until, gratefully, it plops me unceremoniously out onto 5506.

Good ol’ 5506 – so much better than Unmarked Gated.

Chest high thorn bushes, bear scat, snakes.

Just get to the Devils Creek Trailhead, I preach to my audience of one. Everything will be better at the Devils Creek Trailhead.

I watch my progress on CalTop, that peppy little blue arrow optimistically pointing to where I am, until I reach the “trailhead.” Below, you can see a black dot where 5506 takes a sharp right onto the red Devils Creek Trail.

I stand at that dot, pointing my phone toward the red-dashed line, but this is all I see:

Yikes.

No sign, no opening in the trees, no cairns, no nothing.

Just a solid wall of bracken that I try to part with my poles; if there is a trail in there, I cannot find it. I spend another half hour or so wandering along the perimeter on a game trail, pointing CalTopo hither and yon, but it’s fruitless. I’ll need to find another way.

You can do this, the inner voice chirrs. Remember that we glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4) 

Calling an audible, I backtrack, taking 5506 the whole way. Legs and arms bloodied, I re-emerge onto Flat Top Road – really, just another overgrown FS road, #278 – and take it around Devils Creek Tail and contiguous Lost Cove Trail. It will have to do, but I leave part of myself, literally, figuratively, back in that overgrown meadow.

Just north of where the pavement will begin, I am surprised to find a piped spring right next to the sliver of flat where I balance my tent for the last night on trail.

Hope.

Note: The AHR is a spectacular route. Many hours of love and commitment went into its founding, and I highly – HIGHLY – recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly shorter thru-hike with some kicker peaks and inspirational terrain. As more people complete this trail – and volunteer to maintain this section – the turn-off to the Devils Creek Trail will become more pronounced, particularly at this time of year, when vegetation is high. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to complete the 3.7 miles of DCT and LCT, but not in any way with the AHR itself. Hike on, friends.

Other note: When I reached the clearly marked eastern terminus of the LCT, I thought about hiking back to that overgrown meadow, turning around, and hiking back, thus completing every single step of the official AHR.

But I’m not a lunatic.

Day 17: Hogback Ridge Shelter to west of White Oaks Flat Road – 25.9 miles (including the 1.7 backtrack)

Pennies

I’m up early for my last day on the AHR, stirring my last remaining packet of coffee and looking forward to the road walk. No way was I getting lost on pavement.

I’m used to long road walks from section hiking the Florida Trail the past four spring breaks. Staying attuned to one’s feet is critical, given the grind of asphalt on tender toes, so I walk the first half in crocs. It’s a muggy morning but there’s lots to see, a diversity not often found in forest.

Stopping to snack at an abandoned gas station, I look down and see a penny.

I think of how God always knows when I need a reminder that He’s thinking of me.

I find another just before crossing the street.

As the shade disappears, my pace slows. Finally, the turn into Burnsville and a quick stop for a smoothie before retrieving my car from the Carolina Country Inn.

As he hands me my keys, the owner and I chat amiably, when suddenly he asks Were you carrying?

Carrying? Like a gun?

Haha. I was carrying lots of things, but a gun wasn’t one of them.

Way too heavy.

I think about his parting words driving north: You’re braver than I am.

But I don’t think it’s bravery, necessarily. If we allow our fears to dictate what we will and will not do, I believe we would miss out on some of life’s sweetest moments, its most winsome triumphs. Suffering, perseverance, character, hope. All worth it, in the end.

The next day, I reach the Big Apple, where my older son needs help moving apartments. Honestly, I feel safer in the woods.

Waiting for him, I look down.

This one, sunk deep, cannot be gathered.

But like the Appalachian High Route, I’ll always know it’s there.

Day 18: West of White Oaks Flat Road to Hot Springs – 14.9 miles

Appalachian High Route, Part 1: Burnsville to Cherokee

Preparation

I was looking for something longer to hike this summer when I read about Jennifer Pharr Davis’s newly minted Appalachian High Route. Davis has long been a hero of mine since setting the FKT on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has since used her platform to encourage others to pursue lofty goals and even, in a recent trip, to help Indigenous Fijians access clean drinking water, so I was curious to discover what sort of challenge she had envisioned.

The 350-ish mile loop was the perfect length for the time I had between some summer school duties and helping a son move apartments, so I started researching the particulars, as a specific map, guidebook, or online GPS data were not yet available.

Not that there weren’t resources out there. The AHR traverses the Black Mountain Crest Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and my dear old friend the Appalachian Trail; linking these trails is a road-and-trail stretch called the “Burnsville Connector,” which nearly broke my heart (more on that later).

I simply had to order a few maps, download some directions, and dust off some resources from my 2010 AT thru-hike with the youngest lad. I also planned my resupplies, including sending a box to Balsam, NC, making sure I knew its hours of operation and days it was open.

For the Burnsville Connector, I printed Davis’s directions and used some mapping apps to get an overall sense of what it entailed.

Because one of the sections on the MTS required a bear canister, I borrowed one from The Princess, ruthlessly cutting down the rest of my pack weight knowing how heavy that sucker was. I even added a loop secured with duct tape knowing there would be bear cables in the Smokies and beyond. If Yogi wanted my food, he was going to have to battle me for it.

Turns out the mice were also looking for an easy meal, but all of their nasty nibbles were for naught.

All that remained was grabbing a room in Burnsville for the night-before, packing the car, and heading out.

As an aside, the Carolina Country Inn is an awesome place. Clean, comfy and convenient, with wonderful hosts, this Inn is a no-brainer for anyone wanting to attempt the AHR. They even watched my car while I was gone.

First Lost

The streets of Burnsville were lovely and luminous as I set out toward the Black Mountain Crest trailhead on the morning of July 8th. I’m always optimistic in the early miles of any endeavor; it’s almost as if my brain doesn’t remember past pains, only the wonder. It’s just as well. Not knowing what is ahead keeps one from discouragement and refuses even the idea of a quit.

Of course the climb up to the ridge leading to Mt. Mitchell was relentlessly steep, but I took my time enjoying the switchbacks when they appeared. I stopped to fill up on water about a mile before breaking out of the woods onto a grassy meadow of fluff.

Wonder.

It was strange not to see the mountains’ rocky bones sticking out, as they are back home in the Whites, not covered, as these were, in verdant green. Somewhere in all that charming distraction, I drop my brand new Garmin inReach Mini in the weeds. It was an expensive purchase, and I feel sick that I’ve lost it on the first day. Also, the irony of not being to find the thing that is supposed to find you does not escape me.

When I realize it’s gone, I have a short pity party before trying to figure out what to do. Had I dropped it back at the water source? I’d have to go look, so, whimpering, I trudged one steep mile back downhill, only to discover the place clear.

I hack and slash my way back uphill, looking for the tiny device on both sides of the overgrown trail, when I remember its purpose: I had bought the Mini to let my kids know where I was, so I call the youngest, who happily picks up on the first ring.

What a good boy.

He texts me photos of its last data transmission, and I see it’s near a prominent rock called Horse’s Head.

Just the place when I realized it was gone.

Why hadn’t I looked around there first, before backtracking? Ugh. Yet, there it was, sitting in plain sight. The joy of finding it softens the frustration of those extra two useless miles.

Attaching the Mini more securely to my pack, I hike on, worried that I might not reach the Mt. Mitchell concession stand before it closed. I was hoping to fill up my water and buy a treat-y reward, but there was nothing I could do but shoulder on. The going is rugged, with lots of gain and loss, and even some ropes to help on a few of the steeps.

I reach the Mt. Mitchell parking lot 15 minutes before closing and desperately ask an older couple packing up their picnic where the concession stand is. I sprint up some stone steps and arrive, breathless and ready to eat.

The nice young lady behind the counter charges my phone while I sit and enjoy a club sandwich. The older couple pulls up and trail magics me some ginger ales and chips, so it’s a full-on feast as I watch the first storm of the trip skip over the pavement. Soon, torrents of water are splashing in under the overhang where I’m sitting on the bear canister; nothing to do but wait for a potential opening. Concession stand lady gifts me an ice cream.

Soon, the rain subsides and I tag Mitchell, then head a few miles downhill to spend my first night on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which has replaced the BMCT at the park. Over the next week, I’ll follow the MST for 155 miles to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the AT; until then, I tuck into my tent just in time, as the skies open again and lightning cracks the night.

Day 1: Carolina Country Inn to stealth camp, Commissary Trail – 18 miles

Only One Pisgah

A rhythm develops over the next few days. Climb, descend, climb, descend. Storm, clear, storm, clear. Look for a potential creature comfort up ahead and set sights to reach it.

The MST parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway for much of this section, so there is a frequent popping out of the woods onto busy “overlook” parking lots with stellar views one cannot find when one is wrapped in the trees.

Also, snacks and water, though the latter is from containers that the workers must themselves bring up to their overlooks, since there seems to be no running water on the Parkway. The generosity of these folks warms my heart as they happily fill my bottles from their private stashes, freeing me from having to filter later on.

On day 4, I realize if I hustle I might make it to the Mt. Pisgah Inn in time to snag a room. Situated right on the trail, the Mt. Pisgah Inn is one of my resupply stops; why not also stay a while?

The day is hot and my mind is melty as I scan maps and data pages. Looks like two major Pisgah mountains to climb before the descent to the Inn. I bury my head and plod up the first, “Little” Pisgah, topping off at 5,283 feet with seemingly thousands of feet of elevation gain.

Shower I tell myself when the feet start to slow. Dry your wet gear. Hot supper.

It’s 4:30 and almost 20 miles into my day when I reach the summit of Little Pisgah, tearing off my hot pack and collapsing onto a rock. Must I do that again? I whine to myself, pulling out the maps. Can’t.

Let it be said that when wearing my contacts, as I do on most hot trail days, the fine print of things, like elevation profiles and data points, is oftentimes hard to discern. So I am surprised and delighted when, squinting, I see only one Pisgah that must be climbed before reaching the Inn.

Only. One. Pisgah. And I’m sitting on top of it.

Hurray!

Game on. I roll the last 1.9 down Little Pisgah and check into the Inn with plenty of time to rest my feet, explode my gear all over the room, and reserve a spot for dinner.

Later that night, for only the third time since he died, I dream of my son.

Sunrise the next morning is glorious.

Day 2: Stealth camp to Tanbark Ridge Tunnel Trail – 22 miles

Day 3: Tanbark Ridge Trail to stealth camp north of I-26 bridge – 21.5 miles

Day 4: Stealth camp to Mt. Pisgah Inn – 21.4 miles

Second, Third, and Fourth Lost

The next stretch out of Pisgah passes through some remote wilderness where camping is prohibited due to aggressive bear activity.

One of the areas is ominously called Graveyard Fields. It does have a spooky feel about it, and I’m eager to hike through and put it behind me. Other than some trail runners a few days back and the crowd at Skinny Dip Falls, I have seen no one else out hiking. It’s not what I had expected, and I really would have liked some company through this section.

At the end of a long climb out of Dark Prong Gap (who names these places??), I reach a rocky outcropping and follow what looks like the trail off to the right. After a few minutes, the “trail” becomes a maze of herd paths, each dead-ending into something marshy and decidedly not-trail.

What to do?

Go back, always go back, to the last place you know you were right, so after wasting a precious 45 minutes, I return to the rocky outcropping and see what I missed the first time around: a faint white blaze on the rocks below to the left. Sigh.

.8 miles more leads me to a cushy pine needle site to tent with pretty views in the morning, small concessions for the frustration of getting lost again.

The next day, the MST enters the Middle Prong Wilderness where (according to the data pages) “due to US Forest Service regulations, the trail is not blazed…and can be difficult to follow.” Great.

Having done my homework and studied the map and turns the night before, I march somewhat confidently into this 4.5 mile stretch hoping to come out the other side.

Surprisingly, I meet a group of young campers who are headed in the opposite direction, and we compare notes on terrain and intersections. Somewhere along the way I hit 100 miles, which feels pretty good.

Everything is going well. The descriptions on the data pages are accurate and obvious and I’m starting to think happyfuzzy thoughts when the inevitable happens: I reach a three way intersection with no description of which way to go in the data. You can see it below – it’s that big black dot just above the Mt. Hardy Trail.

Who puts a dot right over the very details one needs to figure out which way to go? I explore each branch, trying to think like the white MST line squiggling across the page. I call the son again, but I’ve set the Mini to log every 4 hours, so there’s no relevant recent data to mine. He talks me off the ledge, however, and I take an educated guess and start downhill.

When I finally reach some logs over a boggy area, accurately described on my pages, I relax a little. But it’s not until I see that sign signaling the end of the wilderness area and that first white marker that I finally feel like I’ve made it.

Of course this latest lost prompts the mocking of the fam. I must admit the youngest is right, however; it was me who always got us lost when we hiked the AT all those years ago.

The last lost of this section happened under cover of dark, so I feel a little slack is in order. After one of the most beautiful mornings of the trip and another night spent stealthing right on the trail, I set my sights on my next resupply in the town of Cherokee.

To get there, I’d have to follow the trail in and out of the woods as it danced with the BRP up to Waterrock Knob Overlook, the highest on the Parkway at 5,820 feet. The day would end with a series of gravel and dirt roads, culminating in a 7.7 heat-rash of a descent on the BRP itself: 23.4 miles to the turn into Cherokee plus some bonus miles to get into town.

I get up real early.

The moon was out as I emerged from the forest to the first foray onto the BRP.

A short hop on the pavement and I’m back in the woods for a 2+ mile parallel of the BRP. I walk for a while, answering age old questions, filling my water bottle, and taking off my pack to tuck my coffee mug into an exterior pocket.

I’m puzzled when when the trail emerges out onto the road again, way too soon. I look right and left, recognizing the very landscape I had left not a half hour before. How could this be?

And yet, it was. Somehow, in grabbing water and putting away my mug, I had turned back the way I had come and retraced the very steps I had just hiked. I am surprisingly calm accepting this turn of events. Extra miles on an already long-mile day. For a moment I am tempted – so veryvery tempted – to just hike on the road up to Waterrrock Knob, but this is cheating and I am not a cheat. Instead, I gird my loins and head back the way I came, again, on-trail, and try to find the light in this self-inflicted darkness.

Views appear, and a penny where no penny should be. Pennies always remind me that God is watching with his sense of mercy and humor, even when I don’t always get him. Find the light.

Waterrock Knob is fabulous, completely deserted at this hour. I can see all the way down to the pink Cherokee Casino and off into the yesterdays I’ve already hiked.

A bunny wishes me luck as I start the day-long descent into Cherokee.

I’m scorched and beaten by the end of the day when I face the 7.7 BRP road walk, but at least there’s never a dull moment. Cars stop to warn me of a bear frolicking up ahead. I pass a rattlesnake smushed in the opposite lane, looking, if uncoiled, easily as long as the lane is wide.

Snakes. I had forgotten about snakes. An Eden-istic desire in me wants it smashed, and I become much more choosey about where I put my feet when stepping off the shoulder.

Two tunnels require two climbs into the woods and up and over, as walking through tunnels on the BRP is illegal.

Traffic is stopped when I finally arrive at the turn toward Cherokee. Elk graze along the side of the road, wandering wherever they please, as rangers direct cars around them.

I think I’m going to like this place, I think, as I head toward town.

Day 5: Mt. Pisgah Inn to Black Balsam Knob Road – 17 miles

Day 6: Black Balsam Knob Road to campsite – 23.8 miles

Day 7: Campsite to stealth camp south of Fork Ridge Overlook – 18.2 miles

Day 8: Stealth camp to Cherokee turn-off – 23.4 miles

~To be continued~

Let the Waters Rise

March break was a little longer this year due to – what else – Covid, and I was looking forward to walking another section of the Florida Trail.

Starting back in 2019, I had been chipping away at the 1,000-mile plus national scenic trail 100 or so miles at a time, and this year I had hoped to do a beautiful stretch along the Suwannee River.

The logistics of planning my walk every year is tricky.

I need somewhere safe to leave my car, someone safe to drive me 100 miles away, and sometime safe to arrive when the waters along the trail are at suitable levels so I won’t drown.

I had been checking the Snoflo app every day in the weeks leading up to my hike to determine the height of the Suwannee.

Because the trail runs along its banks for miles, the Suwannee must be respected; when its height reaches 60 feet or more, water will cover the trail, making it not only hard to follow but also crazy-dangerous. You don’t want to mess with the Suwannee, especially when you hike alone, as I do, and are already feeling vulnerable to the vagaries of the Florida backcountry.

I’m happy in the days leading up to my departure, as the Suwannee hovers below 60, at one point bottoming out at 53. I had arranged to leave my car at a canoe outfitters in White Springs and had scheduled a shuttle with its owner, who agrees to drive me to my stopping point the year before.

I’m relaxed driving down knowing that the hardest part – those difficult logistics – have been taken care of, and all I will need to do when I arrive is walk.

I’m incredulous when my phone rings somewhere in the Carolinas and it’s Trish from American Canoe. After three days of punishing rain, the Suwannee has risen seven feet overnight, making it all but impassable.

Do you still need a ride she asks, and I realize that all those well-researched plans will have to go out the window.

Crud!

I pull over at a rest stop and check my maps. If I could get dropped 100 miles south instead of north as I had hoped, there is only a small stretch at the end along the Suwannee I’d have to traverse. Perhaps the river will cooperate and recede as I walk back toward White Springs; if not, it looks like there’s a high water bypass I could take to avoid the surge.

I call Trish back and confirm the new plan.

I’d like to report that skipping the Suwannee section meant that my feet stayed dry. Optimistic on day one when the trail wound through gently rolling hills in Gold Head State Park and Camp Blanding Army Base, I hummed along, covering 23 miles and passing not one, but two Sunoco (official fuel of NASCAR!) convenience stores along the way, where I sipped cold drinks and ate salty snacks.

At the second one, in a deflated little town called Hampton, a small shirtless boy approaches me, trailed by two younger companions. None of them has on any shoes.

Want to buy some eggs? he asks hopefully, holding up a wicker basket. Clearly he is the leader of this entrepreneurial enterprise.

I answer him seriously I don’t have any way of cooking them.

He seems to puzzle this a moment, then responds O, so you’re one of those walkers!

I wonder how many hikers this Sunoco has seen this season.

I am I tell him. He thinks some more.

Do they pay you to walk? he asks.

Now it’s my turn to think. Who are “they”? And would “they” pay me…?

I come up with the best answer I can: No, we do it for fun.

Unconvinced, he nods and disappears with his cadre in search of more willing customers. Wait, I want to call out, I’ll buy the whole lot. But they’re gone.

That night, I camp right on the trail as every spot suggested on the FarOut trail app is flooded.

It was the last time my feet would be dry.

The next day ends in a long road walk out of the town of Lake Butler; after gorging on Mexican food and a Shamrock Shake, I hug the shoulder of busy Route 100 when it starts to rain.

18-wheelers whiz by at 60 mph, baptizing me in wash and grit. It’s a miserable seven miles, and when I reach the next turn, I am soaked to the core.

What’s that over there?

Standing nobly in a grassy, flooded field outside the Union County Fire Station is a huge roofed pavilion with a cement pad underneath. They won’t mind if I just duck under there for a moment until the worst of this passes.

I take out my phone and check the weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. Then, thunderstorms. All night and into the next day. Yikes.

I call the station – it appears to be a volunteer operation, as there is no one around – and leave a message asking permission to spend the night. I don’t want to officially unpack until I hear back from someone, but I’m starting to shiver. I put on dry clothes, eat a soggy leftover taco, and gradually make myself more at home. Eventually, kind Fireman Mark calls me back and it’s a go! I burrito myself in my down quilt and tent footprint as the wind whips rainy pellets under the pavilion for hours.

I awake to calm, fog. Guess the weather app was wrong – no water falling from the sky, but there are miles of squishy dirt tracks ahead to traverse.

I hustle off in the dark, thankful that I didn’t have to pack up a wet tent.

Critters have been there before me, and I make good time until hitting a section of trail that crosses the Olustee River and two smaller branches. There’s a sketchy old railroad bridge over the Olustee, which has flooded the Jeep track. It’s been there so long that things are growing out of it – I gingerly tiptoe across holding my breath.

I ford the next branch in shin deep water, but the second one is horrifying. For about 10 yards, the creek has spilled over its banks and is rushing across the trail. There is no way of telling how deep the dark water is, so I stand there whimpering for a scooch, staring into the froth and trying to garner courage.

Finally, I secure my phone in my shoulder pouch, undo my hip belt, and set out with poles in front, trying to find the shallowest channel. Midway, the water is up to my chest and I try not to panic while praying it doesn’t get any deeper. It’s one of the few times I wonder if being out here alone is the smartest choice.

The rest of the day is no drier. It’s tiring to slosh through standing water, and I’m pretty excited to reach the turn off to Ocean Pond Campground late in the day, though the sign and I are standing in hip-deep swamp.

When I make the turn, I spot a snake just off to the right. Come on. Really?

Not wanting to touch it, I agitate the water in hopes it will slither into the underbrush. Instead, it streaks ahead – right into the water I’m about to walk through. Idiot.

What’s done is done so, near tears, I crash my poles into the slop and try to sprint though the gauntlet. I’m never more relieved to reach the dry pavement of the campground.

Osceola National Forest is much of the same the next day, though thankfully the water never gets more than thigh deep. I take the high water bypass around the Suwannee section, as the river is still too high, and plan on staying at a shelter on private land.

Finding this Shangri-la is the last challenge of the trip, as it involves ducking under barbed wire, crossing a muddy slough, and hacking through a stand of saw palmettos to circumnavigate a sketchy lagoon.

The bloody legs are totally worth it. The place has a table and chair, screens, a privy!

All I have left in my food bag that is dinner-ish is some tuna, hot sauce, and a packet of mayo, so I make soup and sleep tentless on a dry floor listening to the comforting burble of Robinson Branch.

Walking into White Springs that final morning, I cross over the Suwannee on a bridge along the road bypass. Looking down at shoreline trees engulfed in its waters, I am relieved to have made it back safely.

There have been so many times in my life when the plans I have made have not turned out as I had hoped. For a while it seemed that everything I held dear – spouse, child, health – had turned to dust, and years passed overhung by a patina of grief.

But God.

Without his steady presence, walking alongside in threat of flood or snake, I would have certainly drowned.

He was with me all those long years, and he was with me these last long miles when adapting was the only way forward.

On the drive home, I hear a song and smile.

Let the waters rise
I will stand as the oceans roar
Let the earth shake beneath me
Let the mountains fall
You are God over the storm
And I am Yours

Maybe next year I will walk the Suwannee.

Until then, I’ll keep advancing, secure in being his.

Monster

I feel as dark and dry as the desert tents
of the wandering nomads.
~Song of Songs 1:5

This past week, I finally climbed the slide of North Tripyramid.

The North Slide is not exactly a trail per se, but a jagged, rocky scar slashed into the forested flank of North Tri. It’s one mile of living hell that has earned a spot on the “Terrifying 25,” a list of the 25 most challenging hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (I’ve done 11 of these so far, most unwittingly.)

I had attempted this “trail” a few years back but was forced to retreat when the slanted slabs became too, well, terrifying. I didn’t feel capable of that route, that day, and choose to backtrack and climb the mountain by a longer, safer route.

It had taken me years and hundreds of peaks to gain the courage to attempt the North Slide again.

Buzzing up the wooded approach trail, I felt happy. Confident. Only a little scared.

Knowing there were going to be some tricky spots, I would take my time and get to the top in one piece.

The weather could not have been more New-England-perfect; sun beat down and cool breeze blew as I grasped branches, found foot cracks and finger holds, puzzling out the route inch by slow glorious inch.

Half way up, my son called. With all four of my appendages gripping granite at the time, the phone rang and rang and rang, the only time on the slide I felt a little rattled. I was in a position where I couldn’t even pull out my phone.

Later, I did manage a few photos; the wide open nature of the slide provides some of the sweetest views in Waterville Valley.

The last one I snapped on the slide, looking down the great gully, can only be described as prophetic.

My left foot is out of the picture, otherwise occupied in keeping me from tumbling down a scree field.

Pretty soon it would out of the picture for a long while.

I knew from previous ascents that the summit of North Tri is but a muddy clearing, nothing much to see, so I lingered the last hundred yards of terror, enjoying the pure joy of being-fully-alive, until the slide disappeared into the security of the pines.

I hustled over to Middle Tri and back, then headed down the longsafe way as light began to wane.

And isn’t this when disaster always overtakes us? Least expecting, we are almost comically surprised when the badthing happens.

Jogging along the long dirt access road back to my car, my left ankle just decided to bow, pitching my entire weight onto lone left thumb.

Both.

Broken.

In an instant, still two miles from the parking lot, I was stuck.

All that hard fought joy leached out of me as I struggled back up and took tentative step.

Could I take one more? And another and another? As I told the ER doc later when he asked, what choice did I have? Yes, I had just passed a group also coming down, but I couldn’t possibly wait for them, ask them for help, could I? Hadtheyseenme? How embarrassing. I whimpered my way back to the car.

It would be the first of many helps, either offered or inferred, that I would reject in the coming days. Turns out, I’m not very good at asking for help.

I don’t want people to make my life easier for me; I just want to endure the hard thing quietly and get on with it. To deny independence is to admit weakness, and let’s face it: there are some hurts that can’t be quelled.

Later that week in Chapel, I read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together…But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.

I look down and hardly recognize my own limb. The fattened, blackened foot at the end of my leg is a monster, a monster that has taken over all the other parts, demanding deference and complete submission.

Hip? Too bad that you don’t like the skewed angle by which you are forced to hang. Thumb? Sorry that you’re broken too, but try to keep up. Those crutches aren’t going to move themselves.

Smug, self-important appendage tyrant.

Our body, Paul says, is a model for understanding how our lives function as a church (or community): every part is dependent on every other part. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

Okay, God, is that what you need me to learn?

To be willing to allow others to bless the broken parts of me, to open door or carry plate? To invite them into the hurt, rather than push them away?

Who but a monster would reject help rather than embrace it?

Like putting on pants with my leg in a boot, this is hard work. But if my weakness empowers others, allows them to function as Hand or Foot, does this not strengthen the whole body?

And haven’t you promised you’re always alongside? The perfect helper?

Psalm 59 says,

My strength is found when I wait upon you. Watch over me, God, for you are my mountain fortress (O, mountains! How I miss you already!); you set me on high.

I like to be up high.

So this is a promise I will tuck in my heart.

I don’t want to be a monster.

On Perspective

A few weeks ago, I had planned to “Grid out” July – to finish climbing all 48 peaks in New Hampshire over 4,000 feet in that month.

So far, the only two other months I have finished in my attempt to hike all 48, every month, were June and August; I was looking forward to having three full months in a row checked off.

Time for new shoes

The last hike on my list included a 20-mile out-back hitting five peaks (Zealand, Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff); three of these humps I would have to hike twice (out; then back), one of which was not even an “official” Appalachian Mountain Club 4,000 footer. Mount Guyot’s sin? Choosing to stand less than 200 feet from its official neighbor. Cheeky peak.

July had been an unusually stormy month up in God’s country, limiting my opportunities.

Also, working a summer school left me little time to execute a longer hike, so as July waned, I had my eye on either the 30th (lightning and rain predicted) or the 31st (high winds). Since much of the trek is above treeline, I opted for getting blown over as opposed to electrocuted.

The way up to Zealand from Zealand Road is one of my favorite stretches of trail in the Whites. Elevation gain is so subtle you barely feel that you’re climbing, and water abounds: rivers, streams, marshes, ponds.

With such a gentle invitation, you’re not offended when slammed by the profile up to and beyond Zealand Falls Hut.

Once up high, the ridge walk is delicious: shady and cool, bog-bridgy comfort with tons of views.

Soon, you meet the short side trail to Zealand.

Someone had been there before me, so I didn’t linger.

Next, it was up and over Guyot and on to the Bonds.

The winds felt windier than predicted, but luckily the views were viewier up there. Hikers struggled to stay upright, often crouching or sitting down during stronger blasts. My hat was blown off my head and an inner debate ensued: stay off the fragile alpine plants or Leave No Trace? LNT won out, and I found myself wading through blueberries as I nibbled my way over to where my hat was stuck.

I took a break on the way back at an overlook where, years before, my youngest son and I had celebrated his 11th birthday with a similar hike and overnight.

All in all, it was a brilliant day. I couldn’t wait to get home to add the dates to my Grid doc.

Let it be said that this is a busy doc, particularly center-page, with the mountains in rows across and the months in columns above. It’s a, well, Grid – and making sure one has the correct peak, written in the correct month, in the correct format (2-digit day, comma, apostrophe, 2-digit month) is important. In June, I had made a mistake and written some peaks in the July column, but I didn’t have white-out at the time, and corrected the mistake later.

Weeks went by, I hiked Zealand and the Bonds on the last July day of 2021, and was ready to see those three fat months all checked off.

As I was adding the days’ peaks, I noticed with horror that I had written down the Twins twice on the same day and year. WHAT-???

Quickly checking my workout calendar, I confirmed what I already knew: I hadn’t hiked the Twins in July, this year or ANY year. They had been part of that mistake last month, but I had neglected to white them out. Distraught, I quickly crossed them out in pen, not caring how it messied up the document.

July was over.

I’d have to wait a whole another year to Grid it out – possibly two, since I’ve been planning a Camino de Santiago hike that Covid keeps interrupting, and I was hoping to be in Spain next summer.

Adding insult to injury, for a few extra miles, I could have added the Twins to my hike that day. They could have been satisfyingly my 399th and 400th peaks.

UGH.

I suppose I could have remained there in my disappointment and frustration, keen on my inability to fix an unfixable situation.

But lately, and with great surprise to myself, I’ve been trying to invite God into those vexations, big and small, that litter the road of our days.

How else can I see this, God?

Instead of obsessing over two lost peaks or two lost years, I felt a nudge back toward the simple reason why I started The Grid in the first place: I like to hike.

And having more peaks to hike – 178 to be precise – isn’t that a good thing? And doesn’t that also take the pressure off forcing myself to finish the hikes I still have left in the winter months?

I could be more selective. Safer.

I could even do peaks I’ve already checked off, like Moosilauke in the rain with actual company.

Or Mt. Cardigan – it’s not even on the list!

Like blueberries on the way to retrieving my hat, I’m learning how to find beauty in the hard.

I think it pleases Him when we can trust that His perspective is best; there have certainly been some big trusts He’s asked of me, when I couldn’t see what He could see.

This past weekend, we finally put my son’s ashes in the ground. They’ve been moving around with us, tucked away in an urn, for the past five years.

It was time to give him a permanent place, pretty and calm, surrounded by flowers and trees and grass.

But here’s the thing.

His short happy life did not end in that hole in the earth.

No.

As we stood quietly saying good-bye, I was reminded of something the great preacher and evangelist D.L. Moody wrote in his autobiography, and it is as true for Moody as it is for my son:

Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.

Would that our perspective be ever that simple.

It’s only a matter of trust.

Halfway

Sometime back in May, I passed the halfway mark of The Grid.

So much has been happening over the past month that this milestone came and went without my noticing.

Other milestones distracted me, good ones and rough.

A college graduation of sorts, to start. Despite a miscalculation in credits, a canceled hockey season, and classes over Zoom, the oldest earth-boy finished his educational journey and is off to the Big Apple to chase dreams.

In lieu of a march across the stage – there wasn’t one – frowny face – he and I walk the campus visiting old haunts and marveling at the time in-between. Four years ago, his convocation was also a bust when we had to rush him out of the line to the hospital, deep in abdominal distress. The absence of pomp on either end seems meet somehow.

Later, I’m weepy driving his stuff to New York.

I’m not sure I can handle another departure.

Back at the ranch, his brother, more gifted, shall we say, in the organizational arts, redecorates their room. I suppose a new area rug can say I miss you as much as a hug.

Then there’s the other boy.

Five years is a long time, but we are blessed by the full funding of his scholarship. The radical generosity of friends somehow makes this milestone more bearable.

The final push is actually a party where I eat too little and drink too much (Jesus. Take. The. Wheel.), but the joy of seeing his myriad friends and hearing how they are living their beautiful lives enthralls. Maskless and giddy, I toast and tear with those who knew him well.

Then there’s the littlest one.

So like her mother in sass and smarts, her milestones race by between visits and I can’t keep up.

And somehow, in the midst of it all, the season changed.

576 is a lot of peaks.

Month by month and year by year, I’ve been chipping away at them, faithfully filling in the form, until, somehow, unacknowledged, the midway comes and goes.

In many ways, The Grid has saved me.

It’s the place I go where I can always depend on God showing up.

He’s everywhere, of course, but sometimes just more everywhere than most.

Sometimes He’s veiled and sometimes on full display, but He’s never, ever not there. It’s easy to lose oneself in all His showy splendor.

Halfway in The Grid is 288 4,000 footers.

It’s meant hiking in negative degrees, rain, wind, fog, bugs, and heat.

It means planning routes, nutrition, hydration, footwear, and gear.

It means checking trip reports, weather updates, forest road closures, parking lot conditions, and water levels.

It means leaving my itinerary with the kids because I mostly hike alone. Texts from trailhead, summit, trailhead, and home are what have kept me safe; or, if not safe, at least findable, should that become necessary.

I don’t take stupid chances because there are some milestones you just don’t need to rush. Mistakes are part of the process, but I mitigate as best I can.

I want to make it to 576.

The thing is, we may not know when we are halfway to something.

It’s easy to forget when you’re in the thick of something craggy that you could be halfway through it – or even a wisp away from the terminus.

But He knows.

And that’s enough for me.

When You Pass Through the Waters

Embrace the Unexpected

I didn’t expect to find myself once again this March huddled in a tent on the Florida Trail, listening to big-somethings crashing through the night on the other side, but, once again, Covid interrupts in ways none of us foresee.

When the virus hits our school, opening a brief window of opportunity, I do some counting. Are there days enough to drive 1,400 miles, hike a 160-mile section, then drive 1,400 miles back? Enough to quarantine for 2 weeks before I must return to work?

Perhaps.

If I walk fast enough.

Swamps

Walking fast was not a problem on the previous two sections I had hiked in 2019 and 2020. The trail between the northern terminus at Fort Pickens National Seashore and Blountstown was sandy, dry, and gloriously, ludicrously flat. One only slowed to marvel at a cypress knee or the surprise greening of a freshly sooted controlled burn.

I had heard of the soggy sections south of Blountstown – the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, Apalachicola, the Aucilla Sinks – but had no frame of reference to comprehend the magnitude of what was ahead.

It wasn’t until the end of my first half day of dirt-road-walking, where even the swamp dwellers seemed happy and dry, that I realized my miscalculation.

To be fair, Florida had been experiencing a heavy load of rain over the weeks previous, so perhaps the swamps might have been, in other years, merely ankle deep.

Or perhaps the trail sections now ankle-deep in mud might have been, in other years, just a thin patina.

No matter. The trail is what the trail is on the day you choose to hike it, so hike it as it is you must.

I suppose I should be grateful for that first half day of dry; it marked the end of dry-anything for the rest of the week.

When I came to end of that first half day, it had gotten dark and I was navigating by headlamp and Guthook. The app told me that I was .1 from the tent sight I had been shooting for, but the trail ahead disappeared into a vast expanse of murky water. I shone my beam as far as I could, but there was no way to tell how far the water stretched, nor how deep it was. One thing was certain: I was not going to try to find out that night.

Unpacking my stuff and setting up my tent right on the trail, I wondered if any other hikers might happen by. Though unlikely, I thought they could walk around. Nothing to see here – just a deep dark swamp with suspicious splashing. As you were.

Turns out this was just the first in an endless cascade of varying types of water features through which the trail slopped.

There were the sinks – eroded craters set in limestone where the Aucilla River flowed, disappearing underneath your very feet only to reappear a half mile up ahead in a different hole.

There were deep gullies v’ed with water, steeply banked on either side; in one attempt to leap across, I miscalculate and am shredded by a nasty saw palmetto.

There were levees, spillways, streams, flooded jeep tracks, the ever present swamps, rain, and even the St. Mary’s River, where hikers have to call a marina on the other side to be shuttled across.

It was no use trying to stay dry.

If the miles were to be hiked, there was only through. At times, my battered feet even enjoyed the soothing wet, though every morning was a struggle to wedge them back into cold, sandy shoes.

Later, when I get home, it takes multiple soaks before I trust my socks to the washer.

They’ll never be the same.

Community

This year, I am fortunate to run into a few thru-hikers and even hike some miles with them.

The Florida Trail is not one of the more popular of America’s long distance trails (see previous section), but it seems to be gaining in stature, particularly during Covid, when other types of travel are restricted.

It is impossible to stay on pace with them – they’ve hiked over 750 miles and I’m just out for the week – though I spend one morning chatting companionably with two young guns who, when they hear what I do for a living, ask, “Do they know their teacher is a bada**?”

Warm fuzzies.

Of course, I could not have completed this section without the help of some amazingly generous friends and trail angels. Wilton, who supports hikers through the Altha Hillcrest Baptist Church, drives me the 160 miles to my starting point and keeps an eye on my car for the week. Talking theology with him is always a treat.

I meet Mr. Tom at Porter Lake Campsite after I mistakenly bushwack a two mile section that apparently had been closed due to a property owner dispute.

I’m in an grumpy mood, scratched and bloody from the fight, but he offers me an orange. I put it in my pack, where, like a pearl, it shimmers all day, the thought of it enticing me forward. I eat it as a reward, later, for dinner.

Steps, a thru hiker I meet last year, offers to walk the longest swamp with me, but I elect instead to do the high water bypass. When you have to pull yourself across the first water crossing in a boat on a rope, perhaps it’s just not the year to attempt Bradwell Bay. Walking Fire Road 329 instead, I see a truck bumping up the track and out he hops with a cold Gatorade and a Subway sandwich. We catch up in the shade, talking trail and hikers we know.

No trip to Florida would be complete without visiting with my friend Nancy, who helps hikers on the Panhandle. I’m down to dregs in both food and water, ready to be back in civilization.

After 10 miles of marshy Apalachicola and another 7 of road walk, I’m so blessed to have her take my pack so I can finish the last 8 miles into Blountstown, thus connecting the dots from where I left off last year.

Frisky as a calf, I run the first 4.

Riding together back to my car, I am happy to share my last miles with Nancy. As with the trail, gap and distance make reunion all the sweeter.

When You Pass Through the Waters

Hiking the Florida Trail this year was a surprise treat; despite the challenges, I am grateful that the timing worked out.

I got to see my first alligator.

It’s close enough yet far enough away, if you know what I mean.

And perhaps because it was cool and rainy much of the week, the only snake I see is on a paved path.

A tentative poke to the tip of his tail confirms what I suspected: this fellow wasn’t going to bite anyone ever again.

Safe at home again, I realize that the prayer my besty gave me for this section has worked. I had whispered it under my breath, pleaded it through clenched teeth, sang it when my feet were finally firm beneath me:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you. Isaiah 43:1-2

I was in the woods last March when Covid hit. The year ahead was a dark swamp, and we, unable to peer through to what lay on the other side, had to stop, hunker down, wait.

There were no maps we could rely on – only the One who sees the end from the beginning and is with us in the waters.

So we walk on, confident that we will see the other side.

Two Miles Short

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.  ~Thomas Paine

Have you ever been so thirsty that it is nearly impossible to drink?

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I didn’t actually think this possible, but this past week, back on the Florida Trail for another spring break, I found myself huddled behind a propane tank display in front of a Dollar General desperate for some relief from the sun and unable to choke down any fluid.

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One of the many challenges of the Florida Trail – besides the obvious, like swamps, snakes, and alligators – is the frequency of road walks.

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While Florida Trail chapter volunteers try to parcel together more and more sections off the roads and into the woods where a trail belongs, gaining permission from landowners and other entities to allow smelly people to walk across private land is oftentimes problematic.

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No matter what time of year one chooses to walk the trail, however – most start at the southern terminus sometime in January – there will be countless stretches along roads, paved and un, exposed to a ceaseless, punishing solar barrage. To say that thirst is one of the side effects of these portions is a wild understatement.

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While toiling away on one such section, I made some lists in my sunburnt head.

Benefits of Road Walks

  1. Interesting viewsE2C44FF1-76E5-4987-A7C5-91A98593BAA235AC7DA2-6FAA-4392-997B-4B4104569EF2
  2. No coyotes howling on the other side of your thin fabric’d tent, oftentimes from the same direction toward which you are about to walk70769515-91D9-4C82-8FBA-EB2CD8E0B098
  3. Strategically positioned convenience stores (like the aforementioned Dollar General I found myself at, two bottles of cold liquids in front of me, too tummy-tied and dehydrated to sip even the tiniest amount)3D72BE95-8E5A-4281-AEB3-DFB20DBBFC73
  4. Loot7469C7A3-FB61-492B-82B0-CBF4101F9B6B
  5. Hard (but not impossible) to get lost59BBCEED-FFEE-4765-B219-D017B0B25D95
  6. Flat3ECB4124-35B2-40DD-9759-B334878904CC
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for no apparent reason

Disadvantages of Road Walks

  1. Same view, mile after endless mile0B8D00F2-579A-4303-A6DC-3EA4B3335C7C
  2. No coyotes: it’s strangely thrilling to hear these magnificent animals yipping and howling OUT THERE while you are burrito’d in a sleeping bag IN HERE. Shivers.) Also, snarly dogs, chained and un, that charge as you cruise by, scaring you out of your very pantsD4DFECFE-1B09-449B-AEE4-07F7D71D8035
  3. Convenience stores, right on the very trail – where’s the challenge in that? – with the only options for a gluten-free-dairy-free eater being jumbo pickles and Slim Jims. No more Krispy Kremes for this girl. Frowny face. Also, creepy guys in the parking lot who ask where-you-going-honey-I-saw-you-walking-in-Ebro-yesterday?F6DE7C1B-794C-4338-B25D-99DF5FE6A86B
  4. Loot: not willing to walk by a SINGLE PENNY despite the head rush that follows one of these swipe-and-grab episodes
  5. Getting lost – at almost every intersection, in spite of carrying the Guthook app which basically makes it criminal to ever go off-trailBA01C7BA-908F-4B3B-83E0-E700988AB733
  6. Flat. And hot. And did I mention no shade? And pavement, which causes massive blisters on the bottom of one’s tender, un-trail-toughen’d feet
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for decidedly nefarious reasons

Lest you think, dear reader, that the Florida Trail is nothing but a paved paradise, let me assure you of its staggering beauty and never-ending surprises. Here’s one more list.

Good Stuff on the Florida Trail

  1. Soft paths that go on forever2DB14723-A399-4084-8EAF-AE9C05A03E945794B52D-B3BB-43FD-B3E4-393FE194FA52
  2. Pines, everywhere, nascent and established8AD42E8A-872E-453C-B4E4-FD0508EC250AD43A0913-5D5D-471B-8938-D9AFD9E1E78B421276BB-45BE-4B25-9081-E0576DC30A9F07102280-D21E-4051-8FD0-A8B03AC1424984B1E23C-034E-4EA4-92FB-5331533494AC
  3. Boardwalks and bridges (especially when alligators are suspected)F27D08E9-4CCE-47B3-883B-738C60641F34F1EB41A7-8EDE-4FC6-9152-E5DFDA4308C7
  4.  Tannin-tinged, sandy-bottomed streams flowing high and cold10672DAD-3A42-4D25-B25E-7709D8AE3C40
  5. Fruit of the many selfless hours spent by trail volunteers clearing away damage from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. There would be no trail without these amazing humans.8C4E255F-7107-4C05-8CEE-4523FEB74323E7D48071-1104-4C34-86F3-F6454B2B8770
  6. Evidence of nature’s incredible resilience11AE16CB-5B81-4CCC-A70E-DE807768CF6556864FDD-0A3E-4500-9D8A-65937D7A3D9AA121DC2B-3A30-4C21-A74E-2DCB35A7A6F79E4E49F0-7C51-4B6F-AF0A-0A2DAD77CE08D35D5CCB-9177-48A3-BE56-9A68DD075F5D
  7. Cypress knees (Haha! Trees with knees – Florida is so weird)A01319A9-6541-44D4-AAF4-D6C7BDA49BB3
  8. Trail angels, especially Nancy and Wilton, who become instant friends6FAA3AB2-58A9-47A3-B05B-3316EDB61E629FB48A2F-E528-4F18-84C1-30B0ADD16752
  9. Other hikers. Shout out to Steps and Flattop, with whom I shared my last stretch of 2020, most of which was on the road. Of course.8F47737D-926C-425C-B98F-C2069F84930E
  10. Random beauty everywhereF279339C-87DB-495D-B710-E9A2B32A0FAC2193B177-0133-49F7-AFFD-0E0A1A01B2EBA72404DB-AFA5-48AB-83A5-B29071B4E193AA42B5EB-27FC-49BA-97C3-0E4105C58D7A60804C6B-760C-4BC9-8297-1B7ED42A3E99
  11. Other weird things, like tires in trees and gnomes in the forest330C57D0-1CAE-4858-A381-6CCDEFEB5B40762AD6E0-E493-40B5-AFB0-415DE1758CFB
  12. Sunrises and sunsets077E6453-4AD8-4129-8C49-61CF3E626F0ABB710AE7-2A5E-4FEE-B8E4-BAD6924A2F5F

I had planned on walking 100 miles this year on the Florida Trail. I only had five days, and I was eager to get back North to watch the youngest’s lacrosse games, hug the middle guy,  and spend some time with The Princess and the grandbabe. While I was in the woods, however, oblivious to what was happening out in the world, a tiny, germ-y threat was snaking its way across the sea and canceling everything everywhere.

They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, and I discovered why this time around.

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I suppose I never really noticed before, but it became obvious with the moon full throughout the week: there was always a stretch between moonset and sunrise when all went black.

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It was a spooky time, especially when you are trying to wend your way through jumbled swamps, skirting sink holes while looking for the orange blazes that mark the trail by the light of a single headlamp.

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Perhaps that is where we are right now.

As this virus rages across our lives, our families, we need to remember it is only the in-between. Like those fire-ravaged pines, we humans are resilient in the face of affliction. There will always be new growth.

We walk through valleys dark, knowing there is a Good Shepherd who has water waiting ahead, a place at the table. We don’t need to be afraid.

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When I finally add up the miles I have walked this time around, I find it to be only 98.

Two miles short.

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Another time, I might have beat myself up for coming so close.

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But there is no need, not now.

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There are plenty of miles ahead; this is the time for grace.

God’s Isotope

“Living things carry an imprint of their environment recorded in isotopes.” ~Jason Moon

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I love high places.

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I’ve been visiting a few favorites this past week, and also paying calls to some I have not seen in almost a decade.

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On the weekend, while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail my son and I did in 2010 and knocking off some peaks on The Grid, I binge-listened to a podcast a dear friend suggested.

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Bear Brook by Jason Moon chronicles the mystery of four murder victims discovered in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park beginning in 1985, their eventual identification, and the capture of the serial killer responsible for their deaths.

One of the ways they uncovered the identities of the victims, who were (sorry about this) cut to pieces and shoved into barrels was by examining the isotopes found in their bones.

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Environmental isotopes are naturally occurring atoms that carry the signature of the geographic region where they are found, and they make their way into rocks, plants, animals, and even us, revealing our history with a mark that is as distinct as a fingerprint.

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While I listened and walked, walked and listened, I marveled at the complexity of isotopes and the unique map God creates for all of lives.

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What is in our bones?

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God’s vastness is so incomprehensible, and his thoughts and ways so much higher than ours.

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We are so small.

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The prophet Isaiah once observed: He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)

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Jesus, too, was drawn to high places. He frequently slipped away to a mountaintop to pray and spend time with His daddy. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about: bumbling disciples, plotting pharisees, the hurting, the sick, and the dead.

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Jesus needed this time to strengthen Himself, gather courage for the way ahead, listen to His father’s voice.

Things always seem so much better up there.

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Perhaps they even discussed Jesus’s answer to an expert in the law who once tested Him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?

Jesus didn’t hesitate: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

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So where do we go to find the map of own lives?

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At times, the way seems so obvious, so well-defined.

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Other times, we come to a crossroad and freeze, hardly knowing which way to turn.

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It’s murky. Unclear.

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We stumble and curse, wishing there were some way to control the swirling chaos and the deep ache inside of us like an imprint in our bones.

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Isaiah reminds us that 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 be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Spending time like Jesus did, up high, with our heavenly Daddy gives us a sense of proportion. While there, we also percolate in the immutable character of God, absorbing His most perfect isotope: love.

When we are confident of the Father’s relentless, passionate love for us, things down here seem less awful. We find ways to cope, to fight, to overcome.

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It allows us to weigh Paul’s words against our own experience and see the wisdom in his testimony: for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Whether or not we can see the way, we can be confident that God sees. He is the ultimate map-maker.

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And that is more than enough for me.

 

 

On Paying Attention

I got a speeding ticket this week.

It ruined a decades-long streak of clean driving and made me a little crabby, not appreciating the heft of the fine.

The truth is, though, I wasn’t paying attention, and this is something against which we must guard with all fury.

I had spent the previous weeks feeling marginalized at work, wishing the landscape of my life would change, and wondering if I was ever again going to be anything but alone.

Probably the best place to be when self-pity rears its wretched head is at a boarding school, where pace and duty leave no room for despair, where the presence of middle school boys presents endless opportunities for surprise and joy.

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Oswald Chambers writes that “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity because it removes God from the throne of our lives.

Ouch. Thanks, O.C.

Determined instead to de-throne myself, I tuck the ticket in the back seat, wish the officer a nice day, and drive on, albeit much slower.

It was Saturday, it wasn’t raining, I was done with school for the day, and I was headed to a mountain.

Rejoice, already.

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Thankfully, Tecumseh didn’t scold as I moved up her flank, her bottom half determined to be spring while her top half remained stubbornly mired in snow.

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Ill-prepared hikers skidded and fell in their sneakers and shorts.

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Were they simply not paying attention?

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The other day in chapel, I spoke about nostalgia and the need to be fully present. To not look to the next-next thing, lest we miss something along the way.

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The lyrics of a Talking Heads song came to mind, the song “Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne croons same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was over and over and over.

There is a not-so-subtle warning there; we must be careful to fight against the complacency of routine so as not to wind up, years hence, asking ourselves in bewilderment, “Well, how did I get here?”

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On this, Tecumseh-climb #9, it would have been easy to roll up and down, to not notice.

The unfurling.

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Red growth on a rock.

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My friend Chippy, who still doesn’t trust enough to come near.

 

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Life, pushing through.

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Signs, everywhere, if we pay attention.

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Each day a gift.

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A marvel of complexity.

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But we must be sure to look.

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On the way home, I plant bulbs at the base of the tree where my son died. Leave some pennies, a new bracelet to replace the one dissolved by weather and the years.

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Nothing really is same as it ever was.

So we find joy in hope, soldier on through tribulation, devote ourselves to prayer. (Romand 12:12)

Pay attention, lest we miss what matters most.

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