On Climbing Cardigan: August

A dear friend gifted me a couple kayaks recently.

One was a large yellow ocean behemoth that requires two brawny handler-paddlers, so I left that one leaning against the shed and lifted up the sporty little red model.

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Placing it on its two-wheeled axel-pulley-thingy, I felt bold and adventurous as I tugged it down my street to the lake.

The launch was sandy but uneventful, and soon I found myself in the middle of the water looking around at a totally different landscape.

The lake that I had been driving around, walking around, running, biking, praying around for the past year did not appear, from my kayak perch, to be even the same lake.

Houses that, from the road, seemed small and perhaps a bit dingy, looked inviting and friendly with their shorelines crowded with raft floats and deck chairs and fire pits.

The road hugging the lake seemed straight where I remembered it twisty and twisty where I imagined it straight. This optical illusion, I discovered, was caused mainly by the many rivulets and inlets that studded the lake that one could not see from the road-looking-out.

The more I nosed the elegant little vessel around, the more surprising the view became until I finally coasted into a sea of lily pads to think.

It was all about perspective.

I realized that sometimes we can look and look and look upon a thing, sometimes for years, and never really see it for what it is, or even in its entirety.

Perhaps this is a gift of another sort, a kindness God bestows, because if we were ever to see our lives – the blessings and trials, summits and sufferings – unveiled all at once, I don’t imagine any of us would be able to bear up under the force of it all.

The small peeks and partial gazes we get of harvest and famine help us to maintain our focus on the One who can sustain us, through all that messy plenty and drought.

Speaking of summits, I’ve had an experiment in my head the past few months that I thought might be able to teach me more about this idea of perspective.

I’ve decided to climb a nearby mountain, Mt. Cardigan, once a month for the next twelve months and try to see how and where and why my perspective might change each time I go.

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At 3,155 feet, Mt. Cardigan is not particularly grand on the scale of, say, a Mt. Washington or even one of the lesser Presidentials, but it holds a place in my heart that is perhaps dearer than any other New Hampshire peak.

Cardigan is the namesake of the place I live and work, eat and dream, laugh with friends and daily attempt to instill stillness into always-active, mostly-mischievous middle school boys.

Cardigan is the namesake of the school that shaped my own three boys into someone’s quite nearly resembling men.

It is one of the few mountains my son, the one in heaven, agreed to climb on multiple occasions with his classmates and friends, a school tradition of new students watching the sun rise and soon-to-be-graduates, its set.

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This was the same boy who, at the age of eight, standing with his mother and sibs on the flank of Mt. Monadnock with only a rock-scramble standing between him and the pinnacle, declared, “I’ll just sit here with the lunches until you guys get back, Mom.”

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I laugh now, remembering.

I can see Cardigan’s granite crest from most places on campus, can watch the trees that skirt the ridge color and fall, glimpse the first white crown descend like a halo when the snow spills.

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It’s a peak that requires very little in the way of athleticism or ability to reach the fire tower on its bare summit slabs; I’ve seen toddlers in flip-flops, out-of-shape middle-agers in blue jeans, puppies, and scores of other unlikely hikers all happily pulling themselves up Cardigan’s pitch. Resolve is really all it takes to walk the 1.5 miles from trailhead to top.

Sometimes the climb up a mountain is an embrace, but time was short the summer-waning day I chose to look afresh at the mountain I loved, so August’s inaugural ascent was more of an assault.

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The parking lot was full and woods busily traffic’d as I trotted up the trail, making the summit in a respectable 38 minutes, stopping only to take photos of the one waterfall en route, barely flowing, and the many people crawling around above treeline.

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It was windy at the top.

Cool.

Clean.

I snapped a photo of the bracelet I wear as a reminder that my son was loved, that I can carry him with me until we see each other again.

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On the car ride up to the trailhead, I had been sad and burdened by many things, but as I looked below to where Cardigan School sat spooning in the valley, I could only see myself as highly blessed: I am employed, I live in a wildly beautiful place, and my feet still take me where I want to go.

The apostle Paul once wrote a letter to the church at Corinth cataloguing the many brutalities he had suffered for the simple crime of telling people about Jesus. His perspective is one which leaves little room for capitulation:

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

I suppose if Paul can call being stoned, ship-wrecked, and beaten with rods small, then we can continue to find the strength to fight through our own present troubles.

I sometimes wish I had known in advance that my son was going to die, or my marriage. How this knowledge might have changed the way I lived, loved, only God knows.

Sometimes I’m mad that He didn’t intervene.

What I do know, however, is that one day, as we continue to gaze upon things eternal, our perspective of everything we can see now will be a glory so vast it will take our collective breaths away.

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I paused for a moment away from the crowds, then jogged back down the way I had come. The whole enterprise took an hour and eleven minutes.

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I wonder what I’ll see in September?

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On Going Ultralight

I heard a commercial on Pandora recently while biking on the rail trail near my house.

Can I first describe how a rail trail is the perfect complement to an aging hip-and-knee’d athlete, for whom running, once an activity that held all the sweet answers to body and soul, has become like medieval torture?

Even I – even now – can fat-tire bike on a flatly graded, always shady, rarely rocky rail trail and can even, at times, illicit a comment from a small boy leaning upon handlebars who calls out as I fly past, “Wow, you like to go FAST!” while his sister, nearby, thoughtfully picks a bug out of her nose. It’s AARP thrilling.

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Without cars to contend with, I generally feel safe riding with my earbuds in, which is why I was listening to Crowder when this commercial came on.

A woman’s voice spoke of California Closets, describing how she asked her “closet consultant” if she could have a drawer devoted entirely to her sunglasses.

An entire drawer? Closet consultant?

I cannot tell you how much this disturbed me, having recently returned from a backpacking trip where I was trying ultralight for the first time.

For many trips, including Appalachian and Long Trail thru-hikes in 2010 and 2013, I used a standard weight backpack, full tent with fly, and carried not only changes of clothes and camp Crocs but also a stove, fuel, full-length sleeping pad and down bag.

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While there is nothing wrong with any of these items, I felt they were hindering my ability to walk longer days with speedier recovery times.

Lighter pack, happier feet.

This summer, I decided to ruthlessly evaluate the worth of each item I had been carrying and eliminate anything I deemed unnecessary, anything that I felt I could live without.

Camp Crocs? Nope. Longer days meant shorter times in camp, much of which would be spent in my sleeping bag, barefoot.

Camp stove? Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes! Coffee. Enough said.

Tent? How about a small tarp-and-Tyvek combo instead?

iPhone? Haha. Stop it. I may not be a digital native, but camera, iTunes, Audible, and emergency exit strategies are not optional.

Backpack? This was the tough one. Obviously, I needed a vessel to transport what gear made my cut, but my old Osprey was not only heavy, but also not waterproof. Don’t gear manufacturers think we will use their products outdoors? Where it rains? 

Sigh.

After visiting some local stores, reading various hiking blogs, and searching the internet, I settled on a Hyperlite pack with a few external pockets and smaller cubic capacity, which would force me to leave everything but the essentials behind. It weighed less than a loaf of bread.

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Armed with all this lightness, the Princess and son-in-law dropped me off in the Catskills for a week-long shake-down.

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One of the first benefits I discovered with my Hyperlite were two small hip belt pockets. These were the perfect size for snack and phone in the right and map and chapstick in the left, thus negating frequent stops with the takings-off of pack.

Two easily accessible water bottle pockets also allowed me to drink and walk without the awkward twisting required of my old pack, which kept the feet moving.

While pleased with my new kit, there is always an exchange.

Because I didn’t carry a tent with bug netting, I had to douse in DEET and camp at altitude – where wind could drive the pests away – making for long climbs on all-day tired legs.

Some nights were colder, and without the puffy coat I left behind, I had to crawl into my sleeping bag earlier than I might have previously, but, with judicious placement, I could still catch all the glowy rises and sets.

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There were other adjustments I had to make, but it felt good to go light.

I know I will continue to trade out and weigh, what is worthy and what is not, but in this season of my life, I feel it is time to let go of some sizable things that I was never meant to carry alone.

Fear of the future.

Unrealistic expectations.

 Sorrow.

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Actually, I think that last one might be with me a while longer, perhaps even forever. The excessiveness of it has shifted, though, and I know that I have a burden-bearer who lightens it day by day. He once said to the multitudes:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

I really don’t ever want to get to a point in my life where I need a bigger closet to store the distracting weights that drag me away from the walk my Creator has mapped out for me, no matter the obstacles in the way.

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I want to yoke myself to Christ’s ample shoulders and let Him pull.

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The other day, The Princess called me a hoarder, and it stung.

I know she was talking about my propensity for stuff, which I am working on, truly; but sometimes we get so distracted by the challenges we face in this life that we forget the only thing of value that we can take into the next life IS life.

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So, be ruthless.

Why not start trying to live ultralight now?

On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Three -Two Nights in Shenandoah

One of the most peopled corridor of Appalachian Trail is the section through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Yep.”

“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.

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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.

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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.

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*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

 

 

On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Two, A Cautionary Tale

So I wrote a book.

It took five years, and the process was messy and magical, frustrating and joyous, arduous and effortless. It made me feel competent one day, helpless the next. It wracked me with guilt sometimes, blinking cursor mocking me from that blank screen; other days, I lost track of time bouncing between iPhoto, the reverse online dictionary, my journal, Google-searching synonyms for the word eerie, and http://www.funnycatpix.com

In fact, the writing process eerily (sorry – couldn’t find any good ones here on easysynonym.com) mirrored the journey about which I was writing: the 158 days Owen and I had spent hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I loved remembering those days. Back then, everything was, although remarkably uncomplicated, a study in contrasts. Trying to voice what it had been like was a labor of love.

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I’m learning that writing a book is the easy part. Getting published is a whole ‘nother…well…story.

Anyway, one day, Owen and I had hiked 22 miles in the rain. We were cold, wet and miserable when we reached the shelter where we were planning to spend the night. Inside, we discovered a group of camp counselors-in-training who had hiked five miles and had called it a day because their stuff was all wet. It was raining. DUH. The shelter was littered with their soggy gear, and they begrudgingly let us in, pointing us to a corner of the structure that was small and puddled and dark.

When we had arrived, the four of them had been arguing whether or not to brave the night. They were supposed to, for their training, but one of the girls lived close by and finally, after a long contentious debate, convinced the others that having her dad pick them all up was a better alternative. They were whiny and rude and completely clueless about shelter etiquette, so we were not disappointed when they decided to leave.

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Here’s an excerpt from that chapter….

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. -Aristotle

Chapter 12 – Two Days in Dixie

June – Maryland

Owen and I made ourselves small, voicing sympathetic noises as gear was grabbed from above our heads and out from under our feet; we were not worried about them taking anything of ours, of course, since we had not been afforded any space in which to unpack in the first place.

At last, ponchos on, they headed reluctantly out into the weather. Given the spectacle in front of us for last two hours, Owen and I had not taken any time to orient ourselves to the shelter’s surroundings – the location of the privy, for example – still, it was with surprise that we watched the camp counselors turn left out of the shelter, away from the AT and the approach trail we had come in on. Perhaps they knew an alternative route to their meeting place? Left sure looked like the way to the privy to me, but I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to impede their departure in any way by an uninformed comment. They disappeared, and Owen and I busied ourselves by unpacking into the cavernous space they had left behind.

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It was no surprise, therefore, when five minutes later in the dusky light, the sorry group came cursing back and marched silently past the shelter in the direction of the AT. By then, we had not only made ourselves cozy, but had discovered a few odd items they had left behind in the rush to bail out. Wordlessly, Owen held them out, relay-race baton-style, and each item was snatched out of his hand by the passing pilgrims without a backwards glance. It must have taken a lot of practice to become that helpless.

We waited until they were out of earshot to raise a cheer.

Settled comfortably into our down cocoons, Owen and I began listening to Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess on my iPhone. On the nights when we were too tired to prop ourselves up and read, we were working our way through many of Burgess’s delightful animal adventures.   We were particularly enamored of this Audiobooks narrator. Headlamps off, rain pinging lightly on the roof, we snuggled close together, dry and content.

“Hey. Look, Mom,” Owen’s voice rose drowsily from the dark. “Over there.”

“Over where?” I said, leaning up on an elbow and straining to peer over his fluffy bulk to where he was pointing.

“Over there, down low,” he breathed. “On the other side of the shelter. Do you see it?”

“Well, I’ll be darned,” I whispered back. “Let’s turn off Jimmy and watch what happens.”

In the perfect blackness of the quiet night, a tiny life and death battle was being waged on the opposite wall of the shelter. How the spider’s web had remained intact through all of the earlier commotion I could not fathom, but there, entwined in its silken grip, was a lone firefly. Like a heartbeat, the orange glow of its tail pulsated rhythmically as it thrashed to break free. As Owen and I watched, the intervals between blinks began to grow longer as the firefly’s strength waned.

“I’m going to see where the spider is,” Owen said.

“Okay. Just don’t disturb it.”

He inchwormed his way across the floor of the shelter, sleeping bag still attached to his nether regions, flicking on his headlamp only as he neared the far wall.

“I see it, Mom!” he said in a stage whisper. “It’s down here, by the floor.”

“It’s probably waiting for the firefly to tire before closing in.”

“Poor firefly.”

“Everyone’s gotta eat.”

“But what a way to go. Do you think it knows it’s doomed?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s probably going to keep fighting till the bitter end. That’s what I would do.”

“Me too,” I said. “But why don’t you c’mon back over here and shut off your headlamp so you don’t interfere with the laws of God and nature.”

Obediently, he scooched his way back to me. We repositioned ourselves head-to-head, two exclamation points stretching out toward opposite ends of the page, so that we could both turn our faces toward the combatants.

Owen’s breathing gradually slowed until its cadence melted into the dying glimmer-beats of the firefly.

As he drifted off to sleep, I considered our four former sheltermates.

Perhaps that night they had dined on real plates, washed their grilled steak down with some iced drinks, brushed their teeth in tap water that did not need to be doused with chemicals or filtered through a pump. By now, they were probably showered and changed, lying clean-clothed in crisp sheets, alarms set to waken them in the shade-drawn darkness of their private rooms. No doubt they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune.

But what had they forfeited?

To begin with, the opportunity for competence. I pitied them their eagerness to take the easy way out, their inability to work through the uncomfortable, their lack of belief in themselves to stick with something despite the cost. But it was more than that. What of true value had they really lost when they had packed up and fled?

The genuine measure of a mile.

The sound of rain tickling the leaves.

The patient watchfulness of a spider.

The quiet wonder of a little boy’s heart.

This is what I knew: something pure and honorable and sacred had been sacrificed, and I would not have traded places with them for all the comfort in the world.

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On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part One

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The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that traverses the spine of the ancient mountain humps of the eastern United States. Due to land acquisitions, changes in rights-of-way, and relocations, its length fluctuates to within a few miles from any given year to the next. In 2010, the year my then 10-year-old son and I became part of the eclectic band of travelers known as “thru-hikers” – those who walk the entire AT in one shot – the trail measured 2,179.1 miles.

There is a lot one can learn about a child in that distance.

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In an age when many 10-year-old boys might be found glued to their video monitors chasing nazi zombies or being furiously driven from after-school care to play date to soccer practice, my little 80-pound rascal believed he could walk alongside me across 14 states, forgoing nearly all modern conveniences and luxuries to become not even the youngest somebody to attempt such a thing. (The governing body of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, discourages such age-related record-setting, but it is widely known that, in 2013, a 5-year-old named “Buddy Backpacker”completed a thru-hike with his parents, earning him the “youngest person ever” distinction. You can read about him here: http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/.)

Thru-hiking the AT had been a dream of mine since high school, and I had introduced all of my four children to the mountains – with varying degrees of success – as soon as their little legs could propel them up a steep slope with minimal complaining.

But for Scooter (the trail name he would choose for himself on our hike), walking the Appalachian Trail would have to become HIS endeavor. Although many a youth hockey parent might disagree, prodding from without is a poor substitute for desire from within. The good news was that Scooter was the Borek child my neighbors called whenever they wanted rocks moved, logs stacked, or snakes relocated. He had climbed 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock at the age of six, prompting some teenagers from an urban high school also hiking the mountain that day to point at him and exclaim, “C’mon fellas! If he can do it, we can do it!”

I felt that if he was willing to own his own hike, then there was an excellent chance that he just might be able to finish the entire trail.

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The thing is, I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling companion than my low maintenance, long-fused, open-hearted, single-minded, rugged, reliable little boy. He had a way of diffusing the most awful, ridiculous situations with his simple perspective or optimistic outlook.

One night, Mom decided it would be a good idea to tent atop one of the beautiful southern balds. These curious mountains – some as high as 5,000 feet – lack the trees you might typically find at their elevations further north. Scientists disagree as to why these gentle giants are covered only in wild, blowing grasses, but I had been eagerly anticipating this section of trail ever since hearing about the balds, had wanted to pitch our tent at one of their summits and lie under the stars with nothing but atmosphere pressing down.

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I probably should have noticed the pattern. For the week leading up to our entry into the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, although we walked each day in pleasant sunshine, every night like clockwork we had been assaulted with violent thunderstorms, forcing us to sleep either in the many 3-walled shelters along the way or set up camp under the protective canopy of forest.

Ignoring the heavenly signs, I timed our long day to end on Snowbird Bald. Standing on its flat peak, Scooter and I could look down a mile in every direction to where the safe treelike began.

Yes, let’s tent here.

I cannot begin to describe the horror of the situation as it unfolded. A few harmless-looking dark clouds skimming across the distant rim of the Smokies became an manic deluge punctuated by sky-splitting, eardrum-blasting rages of light that exploded all around us. As tent stakes were ripped from the ground, I clung to the nylon tent wall to prevent us from being sucked into the maelstrom. Nothing remained dry. Trying to reach the treeline would have been – if possible – an even more egregious error than my initial one, the mile in between an exposed minefield of electricity.

Cowering on top of my foam sleeping pad, praying that the lightning strikes would either kill me instantly so I wouldn’t have to explain my folly to his daddy, or disperse through the ground and not fry both our brains, over and over I cried out to my trembling son, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I was the adult. He had trusted me. How would he ever follow me again?

When at last the storm passed, its cold indifference more heart-rending than a breakup, Scooter and I sagged out of our ruined tent to take stock. And what did he do, this son of mine, who had every right to wail and accuse and condemn?

He laughed! Grabbing the soggy tent fly, he ran around shrieking and whooping in a youthful display of ebullient bravado.

I loved that kid.

Later, as we lay, spent, in puddles of rain and tears, he quietly thanked God for sparing us, tenderly offered me his forgiveness, graciously never brought it up again.

Was this what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”? Matthew 19:14 

Surely my little one seemed to get it. Got that finger-pointing and blame-gaming are not the passkeys to the kingdom, that kindness, forgiveness, and awestruck joy are what swing wide the door to Jesus’s crazy, radical, upside-down kingdom. Why do we, as adults, feel that judgment and effort and exclusion gain us entry, when all God really ever requires is worship?

From his ash-heap of suffering, even Job was able to glory, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10

Scooter was pretty good at glorying, too.

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Toads the size of softballs. Brilliant orange salamanders. Petting-zoo friendly deer barricading the footpath in Shenandoah National Park. Wild-maned ponies. A mushroom masquerading as a tee’d up golf ball, begging to be hit.

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All evoked a sacred wonder from my son, a response to pause, contemplate, adore.

Once, in a frenzy to get to the next shelter before nightfall, and somewhat annoyed at my dawdling son caboosing behind me, I hiked right over a coiled-up rattlesnake, eliciting a “MOM!” from his horrified lips.

I had missed it. He had not.

Hiking with a 10-year-old was frequently nerve-wracking, often frustrating, and occasionally downright terrifying. One thing it never was, however, was boring.

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Scooter could make the dullest of days a party simply by humming a tuneless ditty about why Mom was mean for not allowing Little Debbie oatmeal snack cakes to be breakfast. He could talk for hours about carnivorous plants, the Everest ride at Disney, or the composition of bear poop. He could laud town food, a found machete, or the attributes of the most comfortable rock to plop down upon. He made me laugh at silly signs, encouraged me when I felt I couldn’t go on, and was polite and generous to everyone we met. He alternated between exasperating and heroic, lived every day like it was a miracle, and made my time on the trail one of richest experiences of my life.

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I probably could have hiked the 2,179.1 miles by myself.

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But why in the world would I have wanted to?