Last week, Kevin and I went backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. I loved it. And I hated it. And now, days later, I still want to go back.
Identity intrigues me, the way we allow the details of life to shape our perception of possibility; the way I have limited my own view of who I am, the shape of the vessel God still molds in His hands, its function. I read the dent of His thumb in an unexpected place and think I know so much about where He’ll take me and where He won’t. And the closer I step toward surrender, the more He expands my view, even of who He is in me. In His arms, I see vast and limitless possibility.
I’ve never been able to imagine myself enjoying a trek up a mountain with a fifty pound pack on my back, much less sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag. I don’t know why. On the shore, I could care less about the regularity of a shower, the salt in my hair, or the grit of the sand beneath my feet. I shed everything for a love affair with that place, pressing my face up against the chest of God, listening for His heart beat. I sweat out there and I don’t care. I ride waves, and I walk for hours, and when I’m tired, I lay on a towel and close my eyes. So, I don’t know why I thought I would care about sleeping in a tent in an alcove of trees, with nothing to hear except muted birdsong and crickets.
We drive into Grayson Highlands State Park, and my cell phone complains about a lost data connection. I smile, stretch the two bars of cell signal into three broken calls to my parents to let them know we are okay, and then switch my phone to “airplane mode” to conserve battery life. My introverted soul sighs contentment. We are officially unplugged, and that sort of break is a balm I need.
The wind whips sharp as we get out of the car at the ranger station to make our presence known and tie up loose ends. Kevin buys a trail map, and then we drive a mile or so more and park. We strap on our packs, walk down a path to a little gate, thump across a wood plank walkway, and then take a trail straight up. I love hiking, but immediately I know that this experience, my first carrying a heavy pack, will be new. And new is usually amazing, but never easy. We cross one stream and then a second on our way up the trail, in my first few steps getting used to ascending beneath the weight.
“I hope we don’t have to cross too many of these,” I say to Kevin. It’s funny how something can seem so significant in first moments and then, miles later, hardly important. The snow on the ground, just a dusting in the first steps, surprises us. We’ve left the mildest temperatures of the season at home, and though we knew the mountains would be cooler, the numbers suggested nothing particularly harsh.
“I don’t know about all this snow,” I say, thinking aloud. I’m a girl who loves heat, and I’m easily cold. I pray often for those who cannot get warm.
Kevin knows this about me. It’s why I carry, at the bottom of my rust-colored pack, a zero degree sleeping bag. He hadn’t expected the ground to be all that cold, but still, he knew I needed to be warm. The wind flys through my gloves and chills my fingers in the first half hour of our hike. Early, we dig out hand warmers, and I shake them in the air, stuffing them as close to my fingers as possible. I grip my trekking poles hard, turn my face away from the wind, climb on.
“I like the snow on the ground,” Kevin says happily. “It’s beautiful.”
It is…gorgeous. Everything looks pristine and untouched, glistening in the afternoon sunlight. But the powder thickens as we hike, and soon we find stretches of the path covered in solid ice. I test the ground in front of me with my trekking poles, groaning inwardly. I don’t like ice, especially when I am climbing, especially learning to balance under a backpack. Still, this early we still have plenty of space to skirt the ice, and after a while the wind dies down, and in the late afternoon sun we explore quiet trails and hills dotted with horses. As long as we are moving, I feel warm enough. And I don’t mind pausing here and there so that Kevin can photograph the landscape, which makes us gasp. We walk in a majestic painting, touching rocks shaped by God’s fingers, looking out over wide open spaces that melt into the horizon. Here and there, we consult our map, knowing we’ll have to exit the park and hit the Trail and federal land before we can camp. As we breathe all that beauty, sucking it in deep, reveling in the quiet, the day dies quickly.
We find our way to the Appalachian Trail and a camp site just before sunset. And as the sky washes purple and orange, I start getting cold.
I help Kevin gather small pieces of wood for a fire, but the wind makes the lighting difficult. We struggle to shelter and blow our little flames into popping heat. My toes and fingers hurt, and the wind cuts into me and makes me shiver despite my layers. Turning in, burying my discomfort, wandering in the deepest reaches of my still burning soul, I ask God to light the fire.
“Please,” I beg. “Send the fire. You sent fire from heaven to burn up sacrifices. Please, would you light this fire?”
I stand as close to the struggling little flames as I can get, squinting against the smoke dancing up from the snow-wet wood. The wispy, gray ribbons float up like ghosts and sting my eyes. I want warmth so badly that I don’t care. When the wood starts popping, I stay glued to that spot, daring a spark to fall on my feet. Briefly I think of shows Kevin and I have watched on television, people climbing Everest or trekking their way across the Alaskan wilderness for months. I don’t know how people do that stuff, I think, standing there in obvious weakness, focused solidly on the chill.
Finally, Kevin suggests that I go in the tent, where at least I can find a bit of shelter from the cold wind, and stuff my frozen feet into my sleeping bag. He seems undaunted, whistling as he works on the fire and pulls out everything he needs to make coffee and dinner. I shiver in the tent, pulling off my shoes with stiff fingers, thanking God for foot warmers and goose down as I pull out my sleeping bag and tuck my legs inside. While Kevin works outside the tent, commenting about the beauty of the night sky—oh, all the stars, the moon, I wrap my arms around my knees and stare at the lantern stamped on the tent wall.
He cannot get the Jetboil lit for the coffee. The wind wickedly extinguishs every match. I hear him moving, trying different locations, searching for some natural shelter for the flame. Finally, he pushes his way into the tent, away from the wind, kneeling in the corner. At last, a flame holds, and soon, he presses a cup of coffee into my hands.
“This should help warm you up,” he says hopefully, smiling into my eyes.
I eat dinner that way, crouched in half of my sleeping bag. Some sort of southwestern pasta I eat out of a bag with a plastic spoon. Kevin hasn’t quite mastered the Jetboil yet, and the food is warm, but not hot. I don’t care. I eat quickly and pull out my sleeping pad, opening the valve so it will inflate. Apparently this takes a while, maybe should’ve been done an hour earlier. I can think of nothing save getting warm. Impatiently, I blow up the pads myself, forcing my own breath into the open valves. I stretch out my sleeping bag, unzip my outer jacket, and climb inside. I have a foot warmer stuffed in each sock, hand warmers in my hands, and I pull my zero-degree mummy bag tight around my shoulders, yanking the draw-string closed at the neck. For a while, I just lay there, listening to Kevin moving around outside the tent. When I finally stop shivering, I think about how single-minded I’d been for so long, how nothing has mattered like warmth. I whisper a prayer for those who can’t get warm—both the unsheltered and the lonely. So many people live desperate for warmth. It is a consuming, bitter need; the cold and wind such harsh, painful company. I think about the balm of love, Kevin seeing me to shelter, whistling while he serves me coffee and dinner. It bothers him that I feel cold. He keeps saying, “I am so sorry you are so cold, honey.” My warmth has become his priority. I realize, laying there in the sleeping bag he knew I’d need, how I should feel toward those who cannot get warm. I feel their need, have known it myself. They need my compassion, not my impatience or my judgement. How would I have felt if Kevin had judged me less because I struggled so hard against the night, the wind, the temperature? How little we truly know about what makes another’s journey harder.
I have room to move in my sleeping bag, and finally, when at last I can breathe and not shake, I pull a book inside with me and sink down in a tight space to read. Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral. I read the dedication by Kris Radish and chuckle, hunkered down inside that goosedown.
This book, which some might think is about dying, is really about living. It is for any woman—every woman—who has ever lost something or someone she loved and then grieved, touched the sorrowful edges of her own soul, embraced the heart of loss—and then moved forward.
So much of the dying in life is really about living.
And then, I read the acknowledgements and laugh out loud, the first time I’ve laughed since the sun went down and I got cold. This woman could be my sister.
…Then there are the women who read my books.
The women who send me letters and e-mails and come to listen to my wild writing tales. The women who get what I am trying to share and say and who see a part of themselves in one of my characters—the way she said something, the time she finally did something, that one conversation on that one page.
Just so you know, I am terribly grateful and I think of you—each one of you—when I write and growl and worry and cry and bend over the words that eventually move you to connect with me.
Thank you. Just thank you for giving me your own thoughts, sharing your intimate stories of survival and change and for fueling the flames of a passion I have had since the day I was born. It’s a wonder I do not explode.
I haven’t even read the first sentence and I lay there surrounded by sisters, thinking of my friends and the way they give to me and fill my life with the heat of their laughter, the warmth of their smiles, the fuel for this passion I have. It’s a wonder I do not explode. I’ve thought that…a million times.
So, I turn the pages in my book, past the curling title to the first chapter, a one in the corner with what looks like butterfly wings underneath. And I fly away from the sound of the wind lifting and dropping the tent cover, the wind shaking the snow loose from the trees outside, the cold wind obscuring the beautiful stars from my view, and I float off on the bubbling, rushing current of Story. I love that about words, how they build a boat and take you away, how they can fill a cold tent with the colors, and sounds, and faces of another adventure. I might as well have been sitting there warm, with Annie Freeman’s red shoes in my lap.
I can’t tell you that I slept well. When my eyes get tired and I set aside my book, I sleep fitfully, aware of my sore knees, or the tent cover whacking, whacking. I open my eyes a few times to guess how far away the light might be. And I listen to Kevin breathing beside me and rub my thumbs over the hand warmers in my palms, and I thank God again for so much grace, and I doze.
The moment I open my eyes to daylight, Kevin says, “Good morning, Love,” like he’s been laying there watching me sleep. He makes coffee again, and this time it steams, very hot. I zip up my jacket, pull on my gloves, and sit half in my sleeping bag letting the steam warm my nose.
We eat peanut butter oatmeal and trail mix for breakfast, then we pack up camp. Kevin takes pictures of our packs, sitting there by the fire circle without us, so symbolic of journey and adventure.
He snaps a few of us too before we strap everything on and walk away from the alcove of trees, the snow and dry, frozen grass crunching under our feet.
The thing I love about the Appalachian Trail, at least as it curls toward Mt. Rogers, is that the landscape seems constantly changing, wide open spaces blending into groves of rhododendrons, rocky passes, cliffs. For a while, I hike mesmerized by beauty, in love with the place. But the pack is heavy, and the ice unforgiving. As I lean on my trekking poles, careful to balance the weight forward as I climb up, I keep thinking, “At some point I have to figure out how to get back down this same way.”
Kevin hears me sigh when we make our way between two solid walls of rock, so close we have to kneel a little to get our packs through. In front of me, a wide sheet of ice covers the rock. I see no footholds, no way around.
“You’re doing great,” he says to me, testing the ice first with his poles, then his feet. Slowly, he inches through. “If you just step carefully, you can make it without slipping.”
I follow his lead, swallowing my complaints, working hard not to tell him how not fun I find this trip. I feel a shadow falling over my happy sense of adventure. More than once, I thank God for the trekking poles, thinking how like His Spirit they are, supporting me, warning me of dangerous spots, helping me balance carefully through the most precarious situations. Without them, I’d have fallen. Without the Spirit I am blind, deaf, wandering unsafe, unguided.
A few yards past the rock walls, we meet a man who has hiked the Trail near Mt. Rogers for 20 years. He tells us he’s been camping since Sunday, that one night he slept in a hammock and it rained, and one day it snowed three inches. He says all this smiling, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He wears an olive green fishing hat, the draw string pulled tight beneath his chin. He tells us he’ll have to be home by New Year’s Day, or his wife will be angry. He says this chuckling, scratching his five-day beard with one hand.
He doesn’t look particularly athletic, and he’s at least twenty years older than we are. I stand there listening to him, hearing Kevin tell him where we’re from, that it’s my first time backpacking, and I think, “He seems so nonchalant. ‘Yea, it rained all night…so cold…then the snow, and now…’ Who is this guy? I.am.so.pathetic.”
Later, I say as much to Kevin, and he smiles back at me. “Did you hear the part where he said he’s been doing this for twenty years? You’re doing amazingly well. You’re carrying fifty pounds on your back, Babe.”
I think twenty-year guy, who is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long time, could see the shadow creeping up over all my joy. While we were standing there with him, he told Kevin about a horse trail we’d hit a little further down the Trail. “It’ll take you back to Grayson Highlands Park,” He’d said, looking at me, smiling. “It’s an easier hike down, at just a slight decline, too.”
“Oh, that sounds good,” I’d said to him, which only made him smile deeper.
“I thought you might like that,” He’d said, already starting to move past us.
By the time we near the horse trail, I am exhausted. My shoulders feel sore beneath the pack and my knees ache from all the jarring on the rocks. Kevin consults the compass, the map, the surrounding hillside, and then decides that we should not try to reach the peak this time. He can see that I am worn down, and we both want to reach the parking lot before sundown. We find the horse trail and set out, knowing we have a few miles still to hike before we finish. The trail is wide enough for us to walk side by side, but soon we find ourselves walking down what feels more like a babbling stream than a trail. We navigate through miles of water, mud, and ice, skirting the sides where ever we find sides to skirt. We pass through a gate, by waterfalls, and I am so tired I find it difficult to take joy in any of it.
I have been quiet for a while, but finally, Kevin says something loving about our sixteen years, and I realize that it’s our anniversary.
And this is marriage. The love flowing straight through the struggle, even when it gets exhausting and ugly.
“I don’t feel like it’s our anniversary,” I say to him. “This is not what I expected it to be. I thought we’d have more time together last night, that I could sit with you and look at the stars, maybe talk. But the cold…I couldn’t do anything but get in my sleeping bag and try to get warm. And I thought we’d get to stop and look at things today, hike together, but it feels like we’ve just been doing it individually in the same space. All this ice, the snow—I hate all this ice and snow. It makes it so I can’t look around and see. I’m too busy watching the ground. Every step is hard. ..I’m not enjoying this right now at all.”
All the words I had worked to swallow spilled.
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t know there’d be snow on the ground. It hasn’t been exactly what I expected either, but I’ve loved doing it with you, being here with you. Thank you for doing this with me, trying it.”
In that moment, I don’t like myself at all. I am angry that I have tainted his day, this adventure, with my grumbling. “I hope you understand,” I say. “It hasn’t all been bad. Some of it has been wonderful. It’s beautiful here, and I love the quiet, and I love trying new things with you. Anything with you is good…I just wish it wasn’t so cold.”
“I understand. Listen, I feel the same way about some of it.”
We walk on, and it seems like the trail will never open up. I know it has to open up before we reach the gate that leads to Grayson Highlands. I grow single-minded, pushing hard, willing myself to finish. I am ready to unstrap the pack. For a while, we are quiet. I am praying, “Please, let this trail end soon.”
It isn’t until we pass through the gate into the state park, until I know that soon we will finish, that I realize I am glad we have made the journey together.
“I want you to know now, while you know how tired I am, how hard this has been, that I want to do it again,” I say to Kevin, smiling.
He seems pleased, not surprised. We have shared something, something beautiful and terrible all at once, and even though we have struggled and ached and fought the cold, we are closer and stronger because of every moment, for all the pressing on, the encouraging, the climbing through together. This, after all, is the very best of life and love and relationship. Bearing each other through the beautiful and awful all at once, well past comfort and the places where the struggle spills messy, and loving each other still, for all of it.
When he asks me a day later, when I am sore and still tired but warm and comfortable, I still say I want to go again, maybe to the same place, in a different season. I want to see the rhododendrons in bloom.