Getting Unstuck In a Rut (-land)

The power of rest

Taking a sabbatical from my sabbatical

I push myself up Mt. Bromley, my knees screaming, “Slow down!” My athletic friend Amy hikes in front, setting a good pace, having taken some vacation days to join me for a week. My dog Ollie looks back at me like, “Are you coming or what?”

Now I feel a tweak in my right shoulder and a stitch in my left hip. But I’ve eaten most all my food and my pack’s at its lightest. What in the world? Why am I struggling to chug this train up the hill? The elevation’s not even that steep.

It’s astonishing how quickly we can find ourselves competing, comparing, and beating our bodies into submission. “I used to be good at this!” I wail.

And then I do the math: I’ve only just come back to trail, there’s been a fair bit of rain, I’ve had nine straight hiking days of 8-14 miles a day with no break, and Vermont’s not exactly a cake walk. Also I ran out of all coffee and caffeine products three days ago- a rookie mistake.

Embracing the AT for the aged

“Cari,” I think, “Let’s just embrace the geriatric plan.” Back when I was trying to become a “single mother by choice,” NYU Fertility Center labeled everything in my charts “geriatric,” even though I was barely 35 when I froze my eggs.

Why do we chafe at this word? The dictionary just defines it as “older,” and “needing special care.” Am I older than most hikers out here? Yes. Am I fresh off civilian life, needing extra care and a slower start-up? Also yes. Am I allowed to actually rest, with a full three months to finish 600 miles? The soles of my feet shout a resounding “Hell, yes!”

What even is a sabbatical?

In Tish Harrison Warren’s excellent NY Times column this week, she writes that sabbaticals shouldn’t just be for pastors and professors:

She quotes Olande Obohemin: “He came to view sabbaticals as a way to resist the destructive ‘work, work, work’ culture that he grew up in and that he says characterizes Silicon Valley. Instead, offer a path ‘to rest and restore our connection to our God and our calling on earth, and to birth new iterations of our purpose and find new layers of our calling,’ he told me. He now thinks this change of pace is necessary for quality work to be sustainable, a way to ‘step back to level up.’”

It’s funny to me how even in the absence of official “work,” we invent work and roles and chores for ourselves out here- measuring sticks we hold up to ourselves and other hikers.

Step back to level up

I know most of you reading this don’t get a sabbatical. And I don’t take the privilege for granted. But remember, pastors and professors don’t tend to have lucrative careers, so the built-in pause feels like a welcome professional perk.

I also realize that many thru-hikers have to race the clock to get to Katahdin before the snow, or have to push a tight schedule to get back to work or family obligations. A break might be an unaffordable luxury.

The beauty of the 4-year plan

But this is the beauty of the multi-year thru-hike (the M.Y.T.H.!)-  you can take your sweet time.

One guy passing me uphill last week saw the red 2019 thru-hiker tag on my pack and said- “Wow, you’ve just been slow-rollin’ it out here in the woods for four years?” And we both laughed.

I tried to calculate how many miles I’d be averaging, if I’d started in March of 2019 and never left the trail: about 1.51 miles/day. Now that’s more like it.

Another guy said, “Sprout, you’re just getting your 4-year bachelor’s degree in A.T. Studies.” When other hikers sit around at meals comparing notes and one-upping each other on the miles they’re crushing, I happily “one-down” them.

Still, they teach me things. They started in Georgia or Harper’s Ferry this spring, and they know more about the latest gear. They fill me in on the new hostels. They all like my dog, so that’s an immediate bond.

Disclaimer: the above photo does not reflect best practices in dog training, and in no way represents the views of my highly esteemed dog trainer back in Woodstock. (Please don’t tell her).

Hiking with a dog

This is also new for me. There’s only so light my pack can go without shortchanging Ollie his food or sleep system. His health and happiness are paramount to me, and I’m touched at how many of you have asked about him.

He wants you to know he’s good, but he wishes I could keep up with him. And that I would let him try out other hikers’ sleeping bags in the shelters. He also wants you to know he has mixed feelings about the mini-sombrero we put on him at the Mexican place yesterday:

“Not this”

Liz Gilbert once said that sometimes you know your calling through a distinctive sense of “Do this thing,” or “Follow that path.” Other times you discern your call only in the negative sense- surveying the situation you’re in and saying, “Not this.”

That was me on day nine of backpacking in Vermont without a break. “Not this.”

My body began to protest every climb, and my left leg throbbed even in the night.

It’s okay to be older. It’s okay to be slow. It’s okay to “need extra care.”

Also: It’s okay that there are loads of 60-and-over retired men out here who are rockin’ the Green Mountains and looking at me with thinly disguised pity. They are not your master.

“Where are the retired women?” I think. “How ‘come they’re not here? Is it anatomical or cultural?” The former Eagle Scout men want to explain things to me like I’m their daughter or niece- and it’s all well-intentioned, but this isn’t my first backpacker rodeo. And my body isn’t built like theirs.

That’s when I roll into Rutland

And I am so, so relieved. Have I done less than 100 miles? Yes. But my dog and I pull up to the Yellow Deli with nothing short of euphoria.

I write myself a permission slip to take a “double zero” here and feel zero percent shame. A double zero is two days of no hiking, and my joints rejoice. “A sabbatical!” they sing. “At last.”

And now my soul goes from “not this” to all the YES’s I can nod to: Yes to this green drink. Yes to this waffle. Yes to this iced coffee. Yes to the strawberries. Yes to the 1860’s fiddle music playing on the speakers, reminding me of my dad’s Civil War records. Yes to the wooden hand-carved barstools. Yes to the fairy-nymph of a girl on the stool next to me from Atlanta who grew up in the foster care system and now has thoroughly convinced me that fostering is in my future. Yes to all of it.

Ollie & me? We’re stayin’ put.

Warren continues, on the topic of sabbatical and honoring human limitations:

“The business owners and nonprofit leaders I spoke with often view their commitment to sabbaticals as an extension of the practice of keeping the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest, and a way to honor human limitations and needed seasons of fallowness. They frequently cited Leviticus 25, in which God speaks to the Jewish people, saying: ‘For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest.’

Obviously, this year of agricultural rest didn’t mean that ancient Israelites sat around bingeing Netflix all day, but the seven-year rhythm afforded extra time for physical and emotional renewal, as well as a regular cycle of religious festivals, pilgrimages and community life.”

Sweet farmstand strawberries from Mara

Pilgrimage on trail

I didn’t come out here to break speed records. I didn’t come out here to prove I could finish what I started. I came, in large part, as a pilgrim: one walking an established route with fellow sojourners- toward a goal both geographical and spiritual.

I came to discover delight along the way. I came to heed the original AT purpose set out by co-founder Benton MacKaye: “To walk, to see, and to see what you see.” And you can only really see what you see, when you walk slowly.

Mary Oliver once said, “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

That’s what I came here to do. But I can hardly do that when I’m punishing my body and spirit by wishing I were something faster / younger / stronger / lighter than I am.

Speaking of spiritual

For years I’ve been hearing about the famous Yellow Deli. Some say it’s a cult, others a community, others just a really friendly and affordable hostel & restaurant. Either way, I’m here for it.

I’ve long been fascinated by intentional communities and back-to-the-land movements, especially ones that came out of the 1970’s.

Maybe because I was born in ‘76, I feel like some part of my generational DNA holds the code of questioning societal norms and seeking a better alternative: a simpler connection with the land, others, and God.

The dish about the Deli

I’m not here as an investigative reporter, nor am I here to defend whatever’s been rumored or written about the Twelve Tribes (of which the Rutland Yellow Deli hostel-farm-restaurant is a part).

As a pastor, I know that any and all human organizations- including and especially religious ones- are prone to divisions, abuses, and a few bad actors.

What I will say is this: when you’re a hungry achey hiker, desperate for food and sleep and hope- the Yellow Deli delivers.

Not only is the farm-fresh food generously served, but the homemade cotton loaner clothes (traditional modest dress for women and men) feel so light on the skin after smart wool and itchy synthetics on trail:

The highlight was boarding a dozen-plus hikers into a pick-up and heading to the Friday night sabbath kick-off. We arrived to find an outdoor picnic, circle dancing, tambourines, flutes, and singing. Long-haired girls grabbed our hands and led us in the steps, while earnest little boys hugged my dog.

My 12 Tribes disguise

Evidently I pull off the Yellow Deli look a little too well, though. At the circle dance celebration picnic, I’m momentarily flattered at the cute hiker guy chatting me up, until he asks, “So how long have you been a member of the 12 Tribes?”

“Wait, what? I’m just another hiker!” I protest. “These are loaner clothes” (the ones you wear while your dirty clothes are in the wash).

“Yeah, we’re all wearing loaners,” he says, “but yours actually fit.” (I’m good with safety pins). “If it helps,” he adds, “I kind of thought you were a new recruit. You’re just friendly and somehow seem at home in all this. Are you religious?”

I laugh, “Funny you should ask…”

He will be the first of three people who will mistake me for a Yellow Deli member this weekend, to the point I’m thinking maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

I do respect a lot about their way of life. I also love that women get a separate floor so I don’t have to be so careful with coming and going from the showers. It feels like there’s space to breathe here, and while you do, you get homemade muffins, fresh salads, maté tea, and vaguely apocalyptic literature about how the 12 Tribes bases their beliefs on Messianic Judaism and an Acts-chapter-2 communal life from the New Testament.

I’m not pretending to know all about their practices, but they do seem to take to heart Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew- “I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Jesus says that how we treat the foreigner among us, and how we reach out to the weariest and neediest, is how we’re treating Christ himself.

From Yellow Deli to Drag Queens

If the first night here was a throwback to an earlier era, the second night at a karaoke bar across the street, was decidedly modern. Hikers took turns singing 80’s tunes with decked-out drag queens, and the latter outperformed us by far.

Both nights my face hurt from smiling and singing so much- amused at the varied forms community can take. From sequins to home-spun fibers, maté to tequila shots, we lean in to any chance to laugh, connect, and relax.

Call in the reinforcements

I remember someone telling me in 2019, “Remember, if things get tough, call in the reinforcements.”

My ‘23 trek has already been bolstered by friends who’ve shown up from near and far for rides, meals, miles, and hugs.

I’ve received abundant kindness and generosity (“trail magic”) from Janice and Brendan, Sarah and Amy, and a few newer friends who will forever bless the trail for me:

Carol from Pawlet, VT, who thru-hiked in ‘89, and Mara from Burlington- whom I met at a Cheryl Strayed writing conference last fall. (Yes, that Cheryl Strayed, of the book & movie “Wild”).

The love from all these friends, along with a specially-made hiker-recovery yoga video from Master Yoga Teacher Kate Vantucci (check out her YouTube channel- have been balm for my soul.

Wait, why worship?

I also feel indebted to Reverends Nancy and Sarah, at churches in Pawlet and Rutland, respectively, who led the worship services I attended the past two Sundays.

Trinity Church Rutland

You might assume church to be the last place a minister on sabbatical would want to go. But I can’t tell you how I relish the time to sit in a pew, produce nothing, put money in the plate, and take notes on what I want to copy once I get back to my own church.

Even more than that, it’s a welcome respite for my thoughts to wander beyond caffeine and calories, elevation and distance. I notice God differently and hear the words more deeply, when I’m allowed to be a recipient and not in charge.

Holy hunger

Yesterday at communion, we all went up to the rail to kneel down, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, our hands face up- outstretched like baby birds awaiting their mother’s food.

It reminded me of my niece Kennedy, when years ago as a baby swaddled in her crib she’d smack her lips in quick succession: “Feed me feed me feed me feed me,” and we couldn’t get her the bottle fast enough.

The sacrament of communion for the first time felt like this desperate primal cry of our stomachs and souls, leaving us fully at the mercy of our mother to feed us whatever we most need.

They call the priest here Mother Sarah, and I wonder what it would be like to have my congregants call me “Mother Cari.” Would it feel almost mocking, since I couldn’t be a mother? Or would it change something in how I live and work among them?

With her long piano-player fingers and confident voice, Mother Sarah moves in her green brocaded robe, distributing wafers and wine with a kind of regal elegance: “The bread of heaven, the cup of salvation.” Not used to real wine in communion, I feel my throat burn slightly as I swallow.

When I go to shake Mother Sarah’s hand after service, I wait as she answers  congregants’ questions about the Gospel text of the day. “What did Jesus mean when he said ‘I do not come to bring peace but a sword’?” they ask. She explains the urgency of the biblical times, the high stakes of the first-century faith community.

Earlier in the service a lay reader had read from The Message: Jesus said, “Do not think I’ve come to make life cozy for you…” I choke up at the words, thinking of my days on end of wet socks and dripping tent.

Last in line, I nearly collapse in tears when Sarah asks how I’m doing.

I feel like I’ve been holding it all in for days- the beautiful, the awful, the bewildering, the wearying: buckling under the weight in my pack and the weight in my heart from the past year.

Rev. Sarah

Reverend Sarah looks me in the eye, almost like a mirror of my own pastor self. It’s rare to feel so seen. As soon as she starts to ask, “Would you like me to…” I nod, assuming she’ll offer prayer.

But instead she says, “… give you a hug?”

Yes, I say. All the yeses.

Everything old is new again

Then my pal Audible gets to town, and suddenly my 2019 self resurfaces. Audible was in my trail family back then for much of the hike, and also part of a group of us that did 85 miles of the Arizona Trail in ‘21. He knows my strengths and weaknesses out here like no other, and came out to see me through.

He’s also here to say, “Sprout, put away your phone and you’ll hike faster.” “No, you do not need a knee replacement.” (He’s an ER nurse). “Yes, it really is possible to open your eyes before you have coffee.”

And: “Sprout, what’s the name again of that one hiker with the beard who did a 30-miler? You remember everything and you know everyone. Also you are good at getting us free stuff.”

Embrace your unique value-add

Audible knows that my “value-add” on trail has never been about the hike- but about the soft skills I bring:

I ask a lot of questions, have a good social memory, and am never afraid to ask for extra snacks. I also bring my signature trekking-pole dance moves and a willingness to get people water at the end of a long day.

Will we hike together? Mostly no. He is fast, and as we’ve established, I’m in the “turtles” group out here. But we will likely leap-frog hiking and sometimes camping together and if I’m lucky he will occasionally hang my bear bag.

For now Audible is about to stage a virtual intervention with the other members of our trail family, because it’s been three nights for me at the Yellow Deli, and I am now reading him excerpts from the 12 Tribes pamphlets over dinner.

Extolling their virtues, I am interrupted by my fiercely atheist friend Audible- “Sprout, we’re getting you out of here. Departure time: noon tomorrow.”

Customize your hike

Sweet Moon Bunny

They say out here, “Hike your own hike.” But what many really mean is, “Hike it like me. Crush the miles. Rock the ultra-light. Get to the shelters first. Race to the finish line for a flat tent spot. Be the best.”

And the thing is, I don’t care about being the best. I care about doing the hike, discovering new foods and friends and towns and stories along the way. I care about finishing the trail somewhere other than a hospital.

Here’s to 47

Next week I’ll be 47. It’s a great age to be. Your body still functions mostly well, your life experience provides perspective, and your brain integrates knowledge with wisdom.

You’ve suffered a bit (or a lot) on and off trail, and you know some things. You know for darn sure you’re not made of sugar candy (thank you, Winston Churchill). And when your body and brain tell you to stop and take extra care, you listen.

So whether you’re on trail or off, for God’s sake:


Over & out,

Sprout 🌱

(& Ollie, who teaches me everything I know about rest)

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Comments 15

  • Charlotte : Jun 26th

    Wow! MYTH is such a beautiful acronym! I am a retired late 60s, female, getting ready for the AT Class of 2025-may start 2024 now that I’ve read this installment of you posts. We’ll see how God guides me over the next 12+ months. I’m grateful for you sharing your thru hike experience beginning in 2019!

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Hi Charlotte! I’m so excited for you!! How is your preparation and training going so far? There are definitely a fair number of folks in their 60’s out there on the AT, and no matter how far you go, you will have a blast, I just know it. Let me know if I can be of help at all; thanks for reading my blogs; and all the best of luck and blessings to you!!

  • Connie Knapp : Jun 27th

    Oh Cari, you are a terrific writer! What a joy to read this–how do you have time to write so thoughtfully.

    You have managed to quote many of my favorite authors-Liz Gilbert, Mary Oliver. And then you quoted from Tish Harrison Warren, whose column I read and sometimes agree with, sometimes argue with.

    But even more importantly, you have reminded me to listen to my body–I’m much older than you are and I still find myself thinking that I “should” be able to do what I did when I was, oh, 30.

    I’m going to post this where I can see it: “It’s okay to be older. It’s okay to be slow. It’s okay to “need extra care.” ” What’s true on the trail is also true in life’s journey.

    Walter Bruegeman talks about Sabbath as resistance–I think a sabbatical is also resistance–during our sabbatical time, we are not *expected* to be productive, to “do” things.

    Enjoy your pilgrimage, and thanks for taking us along with you!



    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Dear Connie- how fun to see you on this platform, and know you’ve been following along with me! That is so encouraging. I also love that Brueggemann quote you shared, re: sabbath and resistance. How true that is, and how much I’ve sometimes resisted learning this lesson! That I am more than my productivity and “usefulness,” but I matter to God and to others, just by simply existing. Looking forward to seeing you in months to come, at CPM and HRP meetings! XO

  • Barbara : Jun 27th

    What fun I’m having reading about your journey with Ollie. I feel Like your taking me along. Hugs to you and Ollie. Happy trails!

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Thanks for virtually traveling along with us, Barbara! See you in real time very soon!

  • Kelly Sinclair : Jun 28th

    Oh Cari, I’m laughing and crying, and crying and laughing, so good. Thank you thank you, sending you and Ollie big love on the trail. We miss you!

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Thank you for this, Kelly! Your words are such a welcome source of love and kindness. And guess what, starting 3rd week of Sept., I’ll be back teaching Tues. evening 5pm yoga after all! XO and see you soon, Cari

  • Sean O' : Jun 30th

    We are all so different…..
    You described so many of them/us
    Including the ‘uncle’types Mansplying,

    Hoping to avoid that, ijust try to paraphrase what you are saying: Be/accept yourself and continue… your own pace .

    God Speed !

  • Alexis : Jun 30th

    Love reading these posts Cari! I can hear your voice saying it as I read it!

    Thought of you today as I rocked out to an old ABBA cd!

    Safe travels my friend! An early happy birthday wish too! Xo

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Woohoo! Keep the ABBA dancing always! And enjoy those darling grand-girls 😀 XO, Cari

  • Barb : Jul 4th

    Wishing you a happy, happy, birthday one day early! Hope you and Ollie stop, and enjoy some cake!

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Thank you, Barb!! We did find a way to get some cake in there!

  • james ulrich : Jul 9th

    worried a little about you.

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 5th

      Haha, that makes two of us ;-D But things are much easier and smoother now, and the broken arm almost fully healed. So excited for your parables class, and looking forward to seeing you and the gang soon!


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