Holy Week on the AT
I Can’t Wait to Soak My Feet
After 13 miles of hiking, I stop to take off my trail runners. I’m somewhere in North Carolina (or is it Tennessee?), and my feet are talking. Begging me with every step to stop and soak them in the stream.
I do so a ways down from the water source, where a fellow hiker named Tumbleweed stops too.
Young and long-haired, he has a prominent tattoo of a cross on his forearm. When I ask him about it, he reads the words “His will, his glory.”
I stare down at my feet, gloriously shocked now by the cold rush of water. I think of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and the startling gift of that.
Today is Maundy Thursday in the church liturgical year. I know that my colleagues will be washing their congregants’ feet this evening.
They will kneel down with bowls of water and towels at The Reformed Church of Bronxville (NY), where I was privileged to serve for the past 12 years.
“This is the first year I probably won’t be in church on Easter,” Tumbleweed says.
I look up and say, “Yeah, me too.”
You Can Take the Minister Out of the Church, But…
It’s hard to take the church out of the minister.
Especially during Holy Week. Especially if you put her in the woods and surround her with a million sermon illustrations in nature.
This is the first year that Holy Week has come (and almost gone) and I haven’t spent a single hour in a service of worship.
It’s hard to plan anything definite on the trail, but tomorrow is Sunday and I’m in a town and I bought an Easter dress at Dollar General just in case.
“Easter dress” is a generous term here, but it feels fancier than walking into church in my sweaty Smartwool.
Here Is What I Didn’t Expect
Most of Holy Week I may not be in church, but the church is still in me. And a part of me wishes I could be there.
It’s more than religious duty or missing my job. It’s surely not missing high heels. My trail feet wouldn’t even know what to do with those.
It’s the feeling that a sacred event is taking place, and I’m not there to lead it or receive it.
There are faces and voices and stories I don’t get to be with this week. There are kids dressed in their best pastels and seersuckers I don’t get to take pictures with, meals of roast beef and mimosas I don’t get to feast on.
But it’s more than that. Being a pastor isn’t like any other job. Episcopal priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“I learned to perform baptisms, marriages, house blessings, and funerals. I learned how to name and handle all the ritual items involved in Holy Communion. As an alchemist of God’s grace, I was allowed into the most private rooms of people’s lives, which gave me a more spacious heart.”
A Spacious Place
So often the biblical writers speak of being delivered into a spacious place. This is what my soul needed on the Appalachian Trail.
But not even the heart-stopping beauty of nature can take the place of the rooms of people’s lives in a faith community, and that spaciousness of heart.
I know this hasn’t been everyone’s experience. I meet a lot of people who are disillusioned with religion, and I get that. Churches and church leaders let people down. Those claiming to speak for God often speak for things I don’t believe in.
There’s something so dear about the way my church walks with me on this trail. They have poured out prayers and packages and parties for me. They have sent me fresh ginger and old sleeping bags. One bought an Easter lily in my name and another planted a tree. They know about the alchemy of God’s grace.
This Is What Holy Week Looks Like on Trail
On Maundy Thursday I hike mostly alone. I think of my grandmother, who died a number of years ago on Holy Thursday. That night I preached at church about Jesus’s words to his friends: “Later you will understand.”
I think about all the things I wanted to better understand out here. The space I needed for the “later” to happen.
What happens this day is that I hike more miles than I ever have, thanks to a lighter pack.
Go with the Flow
A fellow hiker named Flow, an ultralighter (someone who carries very lightweight gear and very little of it), gave me key advice the night before. It’s a conversation I will never forget.
As a 5-foot, one-inch, 110-pound woman, I am smaller than most thru-hikers. Flow and I talked about the physics of what it means to carry a pack that’s nearly a third of your body weight. It means stress on the joints. It means fatigue and exhaustion. It means low morale. And it can mean what no thru-hiker wants to hear: having to leave the trail.
Packing Our Fears
“We pack our fears,” says Flow.
I can’t stop thinking about this as I later turn over in my sleeping bag. What fears am I packing? Sure, I have the obvious desire to avoid hypothermia and hunger and danger, but Flow said something else.
He said we rob ourselves of what we came for when we pack all those “necessities” on the gear list. We try to create a bubble of comfort to buffer ourselves from the very nature we came to experience.
At an elemental level you just need to be safe, fed, and warm. You don’t need to recreate your life back home. Hiking lighter teaches you to make peace with lack.
And from another thru-hiker named Monk:
“If hiking is what you came to do, then make the bulk of your day enjoyable through a light pack. If you’re slightly less comfortable at camp, so be it. You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I a thru-hiker? Or a thru-camper?'”
In the Name of All That’s Holy
The word holy means “set apart,” or “sacred.” Maundy Thursday feels holy because I sent home nearly seven pounds of gear at Standing Bear and now I’m flying through the miles. It’s like aging backward ten years in a day.
My knees thank me. My feet weep with joy. What if it’s more than gear? What if I’m free to off-load other fears too—around belonging, aging, and my unconventional path of adulthood?
Jesus says, “Come, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This day shows rain. All-day kind of rain. Thankfully the forecast doesn’t predict temperatures below 45, but it’s not going to be easy. Big elevation changes, and nearly 18 miles to town.
Soon I am joined by Adam and Radagast and we hike most of the day together against the wind and sleet and mud. But the beauty of the rain is how it cushions the earth for your knees, and makes you move quick to stay warm.
I have not hiked with these two before but soon we are like old friends, talking about nutrition, CrossFit, cycling, and travels. Which leads to family and loss and why we need to be here.
Radagast and I actually met earlier but as he says, “Sprout!* I didn’t recognize you without all the sunscreen.”
It is almost noon when we stop at a shelter for a snack. I think about the Good Friday service my church is having at this moment and the song that will be sung—Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
I think about one Simon of Cyrene who joined on Jesus’s hike to Golgotha. How he found it in himself to carry Jesus’s cross for a spell. Showing up alongside someone in the rain to carry something heavy, uphill, on the way to death. That is friendship.
On the trail we carry for each other the weight of what we brought out here with us. “Free therapy,” says Adam.
He is section hiking this weekend after thru-hiking two years ago. “This is a great place to heal,” he says. “The mountains and trees have heard it all. They don’t care where you’ve come from or what you want. But they’ll listen to everything you tell them.”
Trust Among Strangers
The three of us arrive in town late that afternoon and share a room. We wash and hang our clothes on a line of cord strung from the door knob to the kitchen cabinet. We buy each other avocados and beer and get the guitar player at the restaurant to let us sing Jackson by June and Johnny Cash.
It’s hard to describe the way the trail builds trust between strangers. It’s not just the time spent together, or even the talking. It’s the terrain. The weather. The blisters and wet food and ripped packs.
It’s the fact that we already have so much in common just by being here. We are doing something hard and lovely and unpredictable, and are literally walking each other through it.
I wonder what it would look like to create opportunities like this in the wider world. Spacious places apart from class and geography and politics and age and all the categories that divide us.
Where we could hike together and brave the weather and hold space for each other’s stories.
The eastern mystic Ram Dass says, “In the end, we’re all just walking each other home.”
I have never known what to do with this day. Church-wise, nothing happens. It’s silent Saturday. For clergy it’s a brief buffer between three days of planning and preaching and putting on the right stole.
In town today there is more rain. We are taking a zero day with all rest and no miles.
Adam wishes he could stay but he has to leave and go back to work in his small North Carolina town. I hesitatingly offer to pray for him—he has a lot ahead. So the three of us—strangers just over a day ago—sit at the kitchen table and briefly bow our heads.
When Adam’s ride comes to pick him up, I don’t think I’m imagining it—that Radagast and I both blink back a tear.
Because part of the trail is always saying goodbye. Leaving and letting go and blessing these brief but significant connections.
They are like the gift of a butterfly on the trail that lands on your hand while you stop for a snack: you marvel at its delicate beauty and want to take a picture, but then, just like that, it flies away.
Which doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
A Trail Family Reunion
I head down the road to the outfitter shop to pick up a package and as I stand at the counter, out of nowhere someone comes up from behind and hugs me high up off the floor.
I turn around and laugh: it’s Tree-beard, from my first trail family. He is here with 50/50 and all the rest—Moonpie, Freight Train, Megan, and Jim.
I thought I would never see them again, figuring that they were miles ahead! When we reunite I feel such fierce affection for them and the way they got me through my first two weeks. They were so patient and fun and caring.
“In a little while you will see me, and then in a little while you will see me no longer,” Jesus told his friends before he left them.
I wonder if he wanted to teach them about impermanence. About savoring the gift—but not clutching it.
When it comes to trail friendships, I can so relate to the disciple Peter. In this one scene in the Gospels, he’s hiking with Jesus and two other friends and they have this epic moment on the mountain: ghosts of prophets past, lightning storms, spiritual revelation—the works.
Peter says, “Let’s keep this thing going! Let’s hang out here and freeze time and set up tents and never let it end.”
But that’s not the way it works – not in the Bible and not on the trail. Jesus says, “Nope. We’re leaving.” People move ahead. Others stay behind. Injury and illness come. Weather detains. Priorities change.
Then later we arrive in town and reunite when we least expect it, and there is all this outsized joy.
Easter’s Around the Corner
On Friday night two places in town have live music. We dance in our flip-flops and hiker skirts to a loud cover of Paul Simon’s “If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal…”
Shoelace laughs, “Sprout, you look like a normal person!” Which means I have showered and put on a patterned shirt.
We are dancing because the rain is over. We are dancing because our feet made it down the mountain. We are dancing because it is holy, all of this holy, and we’re here together for just this sacred sliver of time.
*Sprout—I got renamed from the original Jolly Green Giant. Too many syllables to say, plus people who heard it kept expecting a big guy in a green coat to show up.
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