I Didn’t Cry On the Trail Until This
I did not cry in the rain
I did not cry in the rain or cold, nor during my first dark night in the tent when I knew no one.
The tears came one week into my trek, and it wasn’t even on the trail.
A barefoot man puts his hand on my head
He’s wearing a long white robe with a rope wrapped around the waist. A purple cloth covers the front, with a white shepherd’s staff embroidered in the center.
I’m somewhere in northern Georgia, I’m kneeling down on sore knees, and I cannot stop crying.
The man is tall, white, close to 70, and rests his hand lightly on my head:
Words of blessing
“Give this your servant your protection and healing in the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” he says, placing a small wafer in my hand.
Another similarly dressed man follows alongside, offering a chalice of wine.
Can I hold it and take a sip in spite of the saltwater dripping down my face? I just left my church minister job after 12 years. I was a professional Pray-er.
But everywhere I turn on the AT, people seem to be waiting to pray for me.
A detour from the trail
I am in church during one of our town stops, and these men are Anglican priests. I am not Anglican, but I need to be here. Especially today.
So when the priest says, “Place your hand on your head if you’d like a special prayer for healing and protection,” I touch my palm to my brow.
It is almost more than I can bear.
I hold the wafer in my dirt-stained hands. How bad I need this taste of home. Not home as in my church, but home as in a ritual I understand. A ritual I serve.
On the trail there are so many rituals new to me: taking down and setting up camp, hanging and retrieving a bear bag, lighting my stove for meals, finding and filtering water, remembering to put lunch in the outside pack pocket, nightly campfires for warmth and smokes. Thru-hiker communion.
All of this is new. And sometimes slow and disorienting. My friend Anna writes on her blog that we have to feel incompetence before competence: “That’s the way it works,” she says.
Looking to the past
This day- March 24th- marks the ways I try and fail and start over and learn something new. The incompetence and not knowing.
Twelve years ago this day I got married. And later divorced.
Two years ago this day I was pregnant. With a boy. Who later died.
(I was trying to become a “single mother by choice,” via sperm donor and IVF.)
A year ago today I called my doctor for depression meds. The month before, a man I loved had left.
Tasting the present
All of that is real. Events that feel at once recent and remote. Anna says, “I want friends who will tell me about their darkness and I will tell them about mine. I want people who can say, ‘This is what it feels like.'”
This is what my darkness feels like. Vast at points, almost consuming. Sometimes heaviest at night. Sometimes like a knot in my chest that expands and tightens, then frays.
Some people say to me, “You are all love and light and good.” Maybe they assume this because of my profession. A member of my trail family said, “You seem like the kind of person who’s never done anything bad in their life.”
Not my narrative
That is not my story. There are things in my past I struggle to forgive and accept. They are companions on this trail too.
I believe we are all a mixture of beauty and fear, jealousy and joy, self interest and compassion. I believe in the language of liturgy: “From dust we were made, and to dust we shall return.”
“This is Christ’s blood,” says the priest above me, “shed for you.” I close my eyes and drink the wine.
Staring down the dark
Here is what I have found to be true: the things that haunted you at home have a way of following you here.
The sticking places you can’t forgive, the wounds that haven’t healed over, the insecurities you thought were behind you.
I get up from my knees and walk back to the pew. My feet feel like lead, pulsing with a satisfying throb from the first 50 miles of hiking.
I stare at the bare feet of the priest. His black plastic flip-flops rest on the steps of the chancel. “Take off your shoes,” the Lord tells Moses,”for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
I have never had someone pray for me as the priest did today: “in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Unloading for the future
Today’s hike is hard. This mountain is the steepest and rockiest yet. The rest of the group is ahead.
This is March 24th, my pack is heavy as a boulder since I resupplied, and I have to keep trudging up the mountain like a pack-mule.
Like that movie “The Mission” where the man carries a huge bag of rocks up a hill and finally gets to let it go (to unload his penance and shame), I have a similar task.
To unload and release the dead weight I still carry from breaking a vow, losing a life, grieving a love.
I name each thing. I scream some of them. I spit out swear words and choke out song lyrics and tell off remnants of relationships that threaten to derail me. “Not here,” I say.
A gritty dirty Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth is the human Jesus- the man with dirt in his sandals, rejected in his hometown, calling out the frauds.
He had all the empathy in the world for people who’d screwed up their lives and knew it. But he saved his choicest words for those who said one thing and did another, calling them “whitewashed tombs.” Holy on the outside but vacant on the inside.
That’s the fierceness I need right now. The Jesus who turned over the tables in the temple. The Jesus who pronounced “Woe to you” to those who were trying to trap him.
But there is also this truth- the one conferred through the priest’s hand on my forehead, promising protection and healing- and that is this:
There is a place inside me so deep and rare and precious, nothing can touch it. A place only God can speak to – here, on holy ground.
This is Lent
In the church calendar this is the season of Lent, marked by Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.
And this is what I think that all amounted to: Jesus saying, “Nope. Not today. You don’t get to touch the truth of who I am.”
I need the Jesus of Nazareth who gets rejection and loss and scars.
He shakes down my pack and says, “Girl, you got so much more than what you’ve been carrying.”
Reaching the peak
I am so, so tired. Full body-mind-heart tired. All this unloading, all this climbing, all this revisiting.
As I stumble on tree roots and feel my feet burn, I am also this:
I realize something: if any of those March 24ths had turned out differently, I wouldn’t be here.
The tears wrung out
I jog into camp- the last one to arrive- and run toward the fire, raising my trekking poles in triumph.
“Where’s my prize? Do I get a prize? I want all the prizes!”
My friend laughs and snaps a pic; another hands me a beer. I shrug off my pack, set up my stove, and start boiling water like a boss.
I’m somewhere in northern Georgia, I’m kneeling down in the dirt, and I feel exquisitely, euphorically, light.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.