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Look to the Mountains

Aug 1, 2008
What is a Trail Thought? To me it is what happens when you venture outside on a clear, cold winter night and gaze into the heavens. It happens when you stop to see millions of tiny stars speckle the dark expanse, lighting up the world in all its glory, beauty and mystery. It happens when we face the natural world straight on without the clutter of diverting gadgets. It happens when we hear the music of the spheres while others hear absolutely nothing. "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord...." (Psalm 98:8-9)

In our ultra-connected world, it is difficult to step back from the millions of electronic darts that besiege us everyday. It becomes crucial to stay in touch by chaining ourselves to the screen of the computer, but in another sense, the computer can be a cyber prison that ties up our minds and our lives in ways that isolate and separate. Eventually, we submit or devise ways to escape. For me, it is a need to escape to the hills and mountains that exist beyond the shores of the wired city that allows me the time and tranquility to contemplate the path I have been walking verses the path I need to walk. While I have not abandoned the city, it is on the trails that lead into the natural world where I regain the rhythm and pace and harmony that seems to exist beyond the helter skelter of our detonating civilization. It is there that authentic life often reveals itself in large and small ways. And it is there that I enter the world that I choose to call Trail Thoughts.

Don't get me wrong. Hiking the trail is more than mere walking and climbing. And no amount of study can prepare the new hiker for what lies ahead. Nature is beautiful and alluring and very hard. There will be sore knees, turned ankles, persistent thirst, lonely nights and lingering doubt. On the Appalachian Trail there will be blizzards in the Smokey Mountains, lightning strikes in Virginia, searing summer heat in Pennsylvania, downpours in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and everything you can imagine in Maine.

But, as the hiker walks this or any other trail and become hardened by its challenges, he or she will experience a change of heart and mind. With time and miles, a veteran slowly emerges; the novice at Springer Mountain in Georgia becomes the confident and knowledgeable thru-hiker who is determined to face every adversity on the long trek to Katahdin. The postcard landscape of the armchair hiker has given way to a more profound understanding. What began as toil and trouble has become something akin to joy.

So join me here as I recollect a few of the many trips that have reconnected me to a world beyond the screen and keyboard. Let me begin by telling you about my first extended trip on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire.

Late one day, after an easy ten mile hike, I began to search for a place for the night. About a mile or so beyond a small town, I found an open cabin slightly off the trail. It was dark and empty inside; reluctantly, I resigned myself to another night in the woods alone. After a light dinner, I felt a strong desire to get out of the cold gloom of the shelter, so I left that place to take a walk toward an open field on a hillside surrounded by thick woods. The colors had turned to the deep contrasts and long shadows of a late summer day; stillness permeated the scene.

It was as if I had walked into a beautifully painted landscape. In the middle of this picture stood three deer grazing on the hillside. They didn't notice me, and so I gazed in wonder on this scene of magical beauty and perfection -- no noise, no breeze, just an intuited sense that God was there and that I was witnessing the magnificent splendor of his creation. Then a sound intruded and the deer lifted their heads, sensing danger. Without further warning, they vanished and once again, I was alone.

Now, years later, I remember that momentary scene as if it were an image painted by God himself. I felt the warmth of God's presence that day, but I had to turn back to the shelter of the solitary cabin. I did not know then that the journey ahead would be hard and long. Yet wherever life has taken me, I have carried with me that image as sustenance for the times when I have experienced hunger and thirst.

On another extended trip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana, I took a wrong turn. I thought I was on the right track and I was comforted by the fact that the map showed a small body of water up ahead so I continued on.

But as I climbed higher, the land became parched; trees and vegetation gave way to dust and unrelenting heat and my supply of water quickly dwindled to a few drops. I thought about turning back, but I foolishly decided to forge ahead to what became even dryer and more isolated ground.

Within an hour, the water on the map became a longing, then an obsession, then an urgent necessity. I was becoming desperate when I finally stumbled upon a shallow pool of still water. Without hesitation, I drank it as if it were the sweetest water I had ever tasted. I experienced great relief and great joy at something as common as water because my body desperately needed replenishment.

What is true for the body depleted of life-giving water is just as true for the soul of any person wandering in a spiritual wasteland. Our physical thirst mirrors a thirst deep within the human heart. Will we turn and find drink to quench this thirst or will we continue farther into the dry land where there is little water to be found?

On another trip the trail took me up to a ridge on a low-lying mountain range in central Pennsylvania. Often, when walking the trail, I can hear the familiar noises of civilization: the distant rumble of a passing freight train, or the subtle hum of an interstate or just the low-grade sounds of far-off activity.

But on this day everything was different, for as I moved further along the rocky path, I began to notice the absence of sound. It seemed as if I had walked into a vacuum. The feeling of isolation became palpable and the sense of sudden vulnerability was haunting.

It is at times like this that you feel a deep appreciation for the power of two. If I had fallen while alone, I would have been in trouble, but if a companion had been with me, I would have been helped. If I had become lost, my friend would have assisted finding the way back to the trail. Alone, my chances of success would have been greatly diminished.

This noiseless world, beautiful and intriguing as it was, left me with a feeling of aloneness. It seemed like a world outside of God's design for us. So, while the walk was memorable, I was relieved, in the end, to hear all the familiar sounds of human activity once again. To me, these noises were the sound of companionship, friendship and most importantly, the sound of love. It felt good to be back.

The joy of the trail need not be found only in majestic sunsets or large panoramic mountain landscapes. You need to walk the earth to experience the tiny marvels that inhabit it. Whole worlds of small beings going about their mysterious business catch your attention with every passing step. The big things like the mighty Susquehanna River, or the powerful midnight storm, or even the rolling hills of cultivated farmland cause one to stop in wonder because the small things of the land, the insects and small animals, are just as likely to suggest design and purpose.

Often when starting out on a backpacking trip, I am distracted by all of the unknowns: Where will I spend the first night? Who will I meet? Will it rain or snow? Have I forgotten something crucial? It takes time to unload all the civilizing baggage that I seem to want to carry with me into the wilderness. But with time I begin to peal off the layers of weight and distraction that separate me from the world I am entering. Soon I am resting under the stars, looking up into the fathomless heavens as our earth sails silently through space. And it is at moments like this that I feel in my heart the truth of the psalmists words: "(The Lord) determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name....He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love."(Psalm 148:4-11)
About the Author
Eric Kampmann received an undergraduate degree from Brown University and a graduate degree in English at Stony Brook. Eric is the author of two other books: Tree of Life (2003) and The Book Publisher's Handbook (2007). For information on his newest book, Trail Thoughts, visit: Trail Thoughts.
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