I started a thru hike to Maine at the beginning of March. My intention in starting the thru hike was to go to the wilderness to heal my body, mind, and spirit after spending several years for purpose and meaning after leaving a career as an academic scientist. It was my thought that the 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail would reveal a path forward. In my vision for this trek, I saw coming up with a way to write a book about how nature can heal. I started to make connections in the community to help me tell my story. The idea was to document my transformation up the trail electronically and in writing to share a path of spiritual healing. In preparation for this book writing project, I searched the book market for a book that might serve as a template. I stumbled into a book at the Michael C. Carlos Museum Bookstore called “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice.” I read the book cover to cover and then sent it to my friend Raven to read. Backpacking with the Saints is written by a now retired theology professor from St. Louis University. It documents a series of journeys taken by the author into the wilderness where the author reads the writings of the saints. The author discovers hidden meaning in the saints’ texts that are invisible within the confines of society. I feel the author’s method of going into the wilderness to listen to the voice of Spirit through the reading of texts of wisdom resembles my own. On my hike on the Appalachian Trail this past week I received some clear guidance about where to go with my life. As with most things that happen in life, the experience was a culmination of different events that all while seemingly random point in a single direction.
I started my Appalachian Trail hike on Sunday (3/1/2015) with a twenty year old named Derrick from Indianapolis. I met him on Saturday night at a Megabus stop in downtown Atlanta. He showed up excited and ready to hike the trail. We went to sleep that night and woke up around nine in the morning to a breakfast of waffles, green smoothie, and coffee prepared very kindly by my mother. I shared several important pieces of gear with him and we drove up to the trailhead. Arriving at the trailhead on Sunday we discovered several inches of snow on the ground from a storm several days before. We checked into the visitors’ center at the Amicalola Falls State Park. The park ranger asked us if we had crampons and hiking poles. We said, “No.” She said we were in for a hard journey then. Feeling a little discouraged but undaunted, we decided to forge ahead. We hiked up the steps along the path of the falls and hit the trail around 2 pm. We passed a group of nuns out for a day hike and talked to them for a while. We talked about our goals for the trip. We hiked for most of the day, running into several different groups of people along the trail. The weather was quite cold, around 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and wet with rain. Both Derrick and I felt the weight of our 35-40 pound packs, and as we clicked off the first few miles we felt the reality of how significant a thru hike really is physically. A couple of miles into the hike, we started to encounter patches of snow and ice. Not having hiking poles or crampons, I struggled to maintain my footing. The hike that afternoon was quite a struggle with the cold, wet weather and unsure footing of snow and ice on the trail causing me to have doubts about the wisdom of starting the hike so early in the season.
We arrived at the Black Gap shelter along the trail around five pm in the afternoon. The shelter was a little crowded, but I was able to find a spot to sleep in it. Derrick camped outside in the snow and rain. I cooked dinner of oatmeal and butter and went to sleep with the arrival of dark. As night came on, I settled into a restful sleep in my sleeping bag. I listened to the falling rain outside the shelter and was very happy to be warm and dry in the shelter. Everyone in camp fell asleep by the arrival of dark together. A couple of hours passed, and someone showed up in the shelter who would serve as a catalyst for me to reexamine my motivations for doing the thru hike. I would hike with him for several days, and he would eventually acquire the trail name Prospector. I do not really want to go into all the details with the story here, but I can say that I had a close spiritual connection with Prospector. Prospector and I share many things in common. Derrick invited Prospector into our hiking group and we eventually became a team of three. The conversations that I had with Prospector forced me to think about why was I hiking the Appalachian Trail. Was I doing in out of ego or was I doing it out of a true desired to be with Spirit in nature? As I hike for a couple of days on the trail, I realized that for now I belong in Atlanta. On Wednesday, Prospector and I reached Cooper Gap. I saw a trail shuttle and decided to hitch into Suches. I arrived at the Wolf Pen Gap Country Store and stayed in the hikers’ hostel there. That night, while I was staying in the hostel Prospector’s mother arrived looking for him. She appeared very worried. I told her that I had been hiking with him and I eventually got in the car and helped her find him. I told her that Prospector had helped me to reach clarity on my own motivations for hiking the trail. She was a Methodist minister and shared with me that I have a good heart and that my head is screwed on tight. She was very thankful to me for the help in finding her son. We parted ways and I returned to Atlanta on Thursday.
The several day hike on the Appalachian Trail caused me to think carefully about how I go into the wilderness on hiking pilgrimages. In the future, I want to take extra care in selecting the right people to be around during my journey who are in tune with the spiritual needs I have on the trail. I foresee doing another wilderness journey soon, perhaps out west. In the meantime, the wonderful experience I had this past week provides enough food for development for now. The Appalachian Trail is a wonderful community, but one has to be careful on it to find the right spiritual environment. Lessons learned from this past week will be invaluable in how I make future plans. I want to get involved with hiking groups in Atlanta to try to meet nice people to hike with for future trips. Striking a balance between escaping to nature and returning to civilization to be part of society is very important.
InnerLight Enlightenment by Dr. William Kaya Erbil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.