Lessons from the Trail

1 01 2011

It was cool up on the mountain – mist filled air while mountaintops kissed the sky. I had water, my lunch, and my camera as I began a steady climb along the Appalachian Trail from New Found Gap to Charlie’s Bunion.

I love hikes ending with a breath-taking vista, and from the description (100 Hikes in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Russ Manning, second edition, p. 161) – quiet, a view of endless mountain, a 1000-foot sheer drop – Charlie’s Bunion fit my fancy. Somehow, though, I over looked the “four miles one way” part of the description.

One foot in front of the other – up mountains and through mist; over rocks and roots; following switchbacks and side trails…silently I made my early morning trek. Excitement ran high in the beginning and the vision of “endless mountains” soaked my imagination. However, after a couple of miles, there were no longer “visions of endless mountains dancing in my head.” It was more like a self-imposed inquisition taking place: “Why did you get up so early to do this?” “What did you miss in the phrase Smoky MOUNTAINS?” “What is this conspiracy against your own body?” The cloud of questions had a smell of paralysis – teasing me into discounting my experience of the climb…the “on-the-way” moments. But grace and the waft of Frazier Firs brought me back to my senses – literary…the aroma of fir and fall soil…the sight of moss covered rocks and a canopy of trees. Now, the “on-the-way” moments were giving me life. They became just as an important part of the journey as was my destination – without these steps I would never make it to see the endless vista.

It is one thing to read about a destination – beautiful views and a sheer drop of 1000-foot – and another to experience it. The trail guide did not lie…breathtaking. Mountain upon mountain…valleys being touched by morning’s first light…waves of mountaintops bathed with sun and clouds. Words could not capture what my eyes were holding in this moment. I believe that’s what happens when one is captured by the beauty of the present moment – by the awareness of being in the presence of the One who is always present.

Charlie’s Bunion’s was magnificent…huge boulders clinging to earth, seemingly teetering on the edge of the world. As I began my way around the trail just below the crest of Charlie’s Bunion, there was a sign, “Watch Your Children, Danger Ahead”…hmmmmm?

The first thirty yards past this sign, the trail was wide, weaving around and over rocks. As I approached an outcrop of rock cantilevered over the valley below, a couple had already taken their place here, so I continued around the trail. As I emerged from behind this rock outcrop, my stomach sunk and I became a light-headed. I had stepped onto a path about six feet wide covering a space from the mountain wall on my right to that 1000 foot sheer drop I had read about.

I wanted to escape and yet I didn’t. I felt fear, anxiety, and panic…but also awe, exhilaration, and joy. After a few moments, of just being in that space…just waiting… a comfortableness came and I was awakened to the beauty surrounding me – unhindered vistas, a quiet-filled peace, birds floating on the air below me…the miracle of creation. This was the place…I took off my backpack, found a rock to lean against and had an early lunch…communion.

Even standing in this spiritual place, I was still unaware of the deeper meaning this space would have. It’s just like God…new insights and awakenings taking me deeper into faith, into myself, into the heart of God.

That feeling of stepping out from behind the rocks onto the ledge – that’s how transitions and change can feel – stomach sinks, lightheaded, fear, anxiety, panic…even with God’s presence so evident. But if we take in those “on-the-way” moments, if we stay in the present, if we do not turn back to what we believe is more secure…our spirit begins to settle and our soul’s eye begins to adjust and we become aware of God with us. Perspective begins to change and we begin to see new vistas…new possibilities…new insights…there is awe, exhilaration, and joy. Who knows, we may even feel comfortable enough to lean on the Rock and enjoy a bit of communion!




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