Frozen stiff as a board in my baffled down sleeping bag and encased in an iced-over single wall tent, I awoke promptly at 4:45 am, just fifteen minutes before my Timex watch was to sound off. Cold weather has a way of draining the motivation to spring out of one’s encampment. The down in my sleeping bag and puffy jacket had become dampened by the condensation, rendering it ineffective at battling the surprisingly cold Panhandle nights. It is an odd paradox of nature that goose down—feathers of a wetland bird—cannot get wet. If it does, it is rendered useless to a hiker until the feathers can “loft” again. Insulation rating value is a topic outside of my limited understanding; therefore, any opinion I give on this most technical matter would be invalid.
What I would like to share, however, is where my mind was drifting in those fifteen minutes of pre-dawn delirium in the Apalachicola National Forest. I was reflecting on how I got here. By that I mean, precisely what or whom prompted me to hike the Eastern Continental Trail? Was I a desperate runaway? An eccentric kook? Maybe I was a wandering soul attempting to find solace on account of past fears and personal failure.
Thru-hiking allows one to experience something many people never undergo—a “push” for physical, mental, and spiritual strength, all wrapped up in one package. The results look different for each person, but the process is unavoidable. For me, the physical and mental aspects have already been largely overcome; this was becoming something bigger, an emotional and spiritual journey—a modern-day pilgrimage. I was brought here for a reason. A compulsion of the heart is something that the head knows little about.
Dismiss me as a delusional religious nut if that is your usual tactic, but I am hardly even a regular church attender. With both a Catholic and a Protestant background and numerous friends with atheistic and agnostic leanings, I come with a fresh take and an open mind. Actually I consider myself quite rational and philosophical, preferring intellectual banter with a snifter of cognac in one hand and a complex-tasting cigar in the other! I do believe there is more to life than mere existing as the product of primordial slime. Each person is uniquely and wonderfully made in the imago Dei. There is a suspense that reaches beyond an Agatha Christie novel; indeed, life is a sacred mystery and an active mind searches for answers. The space between birth and death is a prelude for those who believe in a hereafter; however, if one does not believe in anything beyond this life, then this life is all there is and one’s decisions will be determined accordingly to that end. A perpetual struggle exists between two opposing forces, and the interior life of humankind is bound up in this struggle. There is, in the final analysis, a confrontation one must have with a higher power.
The trail is a place for me to help sort my life out and come to terms with personal conviction. Although popular hiking culture would promote otherwise, there is much more to hiking than UL gear fashion, backpack base weights, and tricked-out alcohol stoves. The trail affords those who walk upon it with the opportunity, if they so dare, to listen and hear from God.
Life is about decisions. One can dawdle their time away or embrace what has been given and use it purposefully, despite one’s flaws and past blunders. The widely-published British literature professor Clive Staples Lewis argued persuasively, “You cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
There are few things in life as sneaky as the passage of time, for which there is no reset button. One minute we are born and before long we shall turn to dust from whence we came. The world is barreling past me like the trucks that zip by (and sometimes purposefully drift over!) on the Florida highway roadwalks. It would be foolish to think time is anything but a precious and scarce commodity. What then will we do with this sacred allotted time?
“Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” —John Donne