“Spiritual Lessons from the Trail”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 21, 2016
University Baptist Church
Howard Johnson pulled out of the grab bag the statement that said, “I want to hear a sermon about what you learned on your Sabbatical.” As you may know, I hiked the entire Superior Hiking Trail in May and June. It took me a little over three weeks to backpack 325 miles. I had a lot of time to think and I carried a journal. So, I’ll share with you some of the things I learned. Psalm 61 speaks to me, especially the line, “Let me abide in thy tent forever” (v.4).
I went into the Sabbatical knowing that I needed something to renew my spirit. I wasn’t necessarily in a spiritual drought, but I knew that I had spent too long without a truly renewing break. The nature of the spiritual or church business is that it’s never done. There’s always another cause. There’s always more pastoral care needs than there is time. There is always a church building that springs leaks. There are new people to welcome, and new initiatives to try. There is also the tendency to get caught in a rut of the same-old, same-old. It was time to renew my spirit.
I know that I am renewed by adventure and music. I did some Sacred Harp singing in Boston and Alabama on the Sabbatical and I’ll talk about that in a forum in a few weeks. But the main adventure was the backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail. I love backpacking and I used to do it a lot when I was in my teenage years and in my early adulthood. But then I got married, had kids and didn’t have the time to hike. We still camped as a family, but it was car camping. You know, drive to the campsite, with a cooler and a minivan full of stuff, and camp out. It was fun, but when you are car camping, you always have the option of driving away in inclement weather, buying more stuff, and seeking shelter or a B&B. We camped up at Mount Lassen in California when the kids were very young. We made it one night in the gear we had and then went to town to get better gear that would actually keep us all warm when the temperature got below freezing.
Another summer, we went camping at Beaver Creek in southeastern Minnesota. The kids got bored, so we went to the store to pick up some things to keep them occupied, plus copious amounts of bug spray. It was then that I bought a paperback version of the first Harry Potter book. We read it out loud around the campfire and were quick fans.
But I loved the idea of backpacking. Traveling light and taking all of the supplies needed on your back. I pulled out my 1970’s Kelty Tioga external frame backpack, bought some new socks and a lightweight tent, a water purification system, an insulated air mattress, and a guidebook to the Superior Hiking Trail. I got trail mix and oatmeal and ramen noodles, and instant coffee and started out, trying to reclaim a bit of my lost youth.
The trail is designed to have stops along the way for day hikes and opportunities for food and gear drops. I arranged three gear drops which became five. More on that later. I had all sorts of people who were going to do this with me. But one by one, they all dropped off. Not a big surprise. But a disappointment for this extravert. It made me exercise some different muscles.
I never got bored. I got tired. I got blisters. I swatted my share of mosquitoes and flies, but I never got bored. There was way too much to see. I reveled in the ability to spend the entire day in the woods. Some people work for 8 hours. Me, I walked for 8 hours, or more. I saw a porcupine climb a tree. I saw deer. I saw moose tracks and moose poop, but no moose. I rousted some grouse from their nests. I even saw 4 bears. Three were just south of Spirit Mountain. The other one was near the Devil Track River close to Grand Marais. They say you should wear bells to let bears know you are in the area. I didn’t, of course. I saw lots of bear tracks, almost the size of my boot. I also saw bear scat. Black bear poop has berries in it and squirrel fur. Grizzly poop has little bells in it.
When I saw the bears, they crossed in front of my trail about 50 feet in front of me. A momma and two teenagers. 500 lbs. and 300 lbs. Yikes. I froze and watched them pass me just uphill. The momma looked at me after they had passed. That’s when I decided to leave—quickly, while looking over my shoulder. The other bear I saw a few weeks later was coming down a hill behind me. It saw me and scampered back up the hill. Not knowing if there was another bear in the vicinity or its cubs, and knowing that the trail was switching back in the direction that I had seen the bear, I started singing “Wa, wa, wa wa, wa,Walzing with bears. Raggy bear shaggy bears saggy bears too. There’s nothing on earth uncle Walter won’t do so he can go waltzing, wa wa wa waltzing, so he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears.” I sang all the verses a few times until the trail crossed a river. I figured bears didn’t cross rivers, right?
Here are a list of spiritual lessons from the trail, according to my trail journal:
1. Follow directions. Sometimes they are clearer than others. The trail is pretty well marked, although I did miss a few turnoffs near Duluth. So, I learned that you need to pay attention and not simply go where you think you ought to go. In some places this is more obvious than others. There’s nothing like ----- a blue blaze when you think you’re lost and you’re by yourself.
2. Remember that you are in moose and bear country. Respect your place on the food chain. I sang when I saw the fourth bear because I didn’t want to become bear kibble.
3. Grouse not, of little grouse. I occasionally walked near the nest of a grouse or two. Invariably the little grouse, not much bigger than a pigeon would squawk at me and flair its tail feathers. Sometimes it would even chase me. I would say, why grouse? It was no match, but it let me know that I was in its territory. This led to another ear worm: “If it should chance to be we should see some harder days, empty larder days, why grouse. Always a chance we’ll meet somebody to foot the bill and the drinks are on the house…”
4. You can’t control the weather, only your attitude. It’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. There were many days with lots of mud and bugs. I set up my tent in the rain on a number of occasions. There were days when I saw nothing but clouds, but other days that I was treated to beautiful overlooks. It was kinda like Lent. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. I bet it might have been muddy. It might have been rocky. Life is not all mountaintops. Sometimes you need to slog through the mud.
Sometimes a storm comes up and you need to hunker down until it ends. And then you reach an overlook, and it’s finally clear. It’s like Easter all over again.
5. Trail angels exist. Volunteers donate countless hours to maintain the trail. There are miles of boardwalks in the swampier sections. But when the boardwalks aren’t there, strategically placed rocks in a muddy section are godsends. I made sure to thank the trail gods for each one of those. One of my food stops was at the Hungry Hippie Hostel in Grand Marais. The owners not only let me charge my phone and take a shower, but they even drove me to the trailhead and gave me a fresh apple and a small bag of cherries. They’re my new favorite people.
6. Hurry is a spiritual condition. That’s a Thomas Merton quote that a doctor in Two Harbors told me. We can be driven and on time and productive. But to hurry is to lose your focus and to panic. It’s fraught with anxiety.
7. $1.49 head net. Best. Investment. Ever.
8. The trail does not go the shortest distance from point A to point B. It takes the most picturesque route. If you saw a nice cliff or mountain up ahead, you could be sure that the trail would go up to the top of it. And you needed to let go of your desire to get to your destination in a certain amount of time. The journey is what it’s about. Enjoy the view. You’ll get there eventually.
9. Pack what you need and get rid of superfluous stuff. This can be said of life as well. I started off with a lot more things that I didn’t need. I carried gloves, a turtleneck and a neck gator that I never used. When I hiked, I was in a t-shirt and shorts. Anything else would get soaked with sweat. I saved my rain clothes for the campsite, same things for my warm clothes. I had a small radio/cellphone charger that worked fine at home, but didn’t work on the trail. The first chance I got, I left it. I had an old ground cloth that I used in the 80’s. As I was folding it up after the first night, it cracked and disintegrated in my hands. Luckily, I had a light space blanket leftover from a marathon. It worked just fine as a ground cloth. The problem was finding a place to toss out the wet fragments of ground cloth. Eventually, when I got to camp, I emptied my pack and used everything. What is clutter in our lives? What weighs us down? What do we really need? This extravert needed company and I looked forward to seeing people.
10. Enjoy yourself. I mean enjoy being yourself. Find joy in who you are and who you are becoming.
11. I don’t miss the news.
12. I did miss my family. It made me put in more miles as I got stronger. More miles meant fewer days until I could see them again.
13. You lose weight, on your pack as you eat down the contents and rid yourself of clutter, and in your body as you burn off calories.
14. You can always do more than you think. I set modest goals and always exceeded them. One of the nice things about being by myself was that I could set my own schedule. I could awaken at sunrise and hike until dusk, if I wanted to.
15. Take care of your ailments. A week or so before I started the hike, I was in Alabama at a Sacred Harp convention. I got bit on the back of my leg by a tick. I asked a friend to take it off and she did. We watched the sore for a few days to make sure it didn’t develop a bulls eye—the sign of West Nile disease. I didn’t think much about it until I started my hike and realized that the area was still sore, especially when it rubbed against my shorts. On the morning of the third day of the hike, I noticed that my leg had developed a large set of pus-filled blisters. Realizing this was infected, I got off the trail and walked most of the way in to Two Harbors. I tried sticking my thumb out but no one really wanted to pick up a sketchy smelly looking dude. After walking about 8-10 miles, someone finally picked me up and took me to an urgent care clinic. The doctors didn’t think it was a tick bite. When I told them I was in Alabama, their eyes lit up and they said it appeared I had been bitten by a brown recluse spider. They did a blood test and found that my kidneys were operating at 30% and my liver enzymes were five times the normal level. They gave me an antibiotic to take for the next two weeks and they wanted to see me in three days. So, I stayed in a hotel in Two Harbors, did some laundry, arranged for a ride back to the trail and another ride three days later so I could go back to the clinic. Luckily, the wound started healing almost immediately and my blood work was getting back to normal.
16. Enjoy the people you meet. I met Steve Booth, a teacher from Bemidji. His daughter is a student at the U and had studied for finals at UBC in the Spring. Bob and Lu Carman told me that they saw an article about Steve in the paper at Leach Lake. The story said that he had met a pastor from Dinkytown on his sabbatical. Another time, I met Cordelia from Marcy Holmes. She was with her son’s boy scout troop. And so many others.
17. Always sign the register. This lets people know who you are and where you are. You can also get info on the others who have hiked with you over the trip.
18. I like the hiker’s high—that feeling you get when you get in a rhythm and your pace picks up, the endorphins kick in and you can take on the world. I even enjoyed the solitude.
19. I smelled worse than I thought I smelled. This was clear to me when Kim met me at the end of the trail. For some reason, she wouldn’t hug me until after my shower, which could not some soon enough. Luckily she brought clean clothes with her when she met me.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I’d love to try it in another season, maybe September or October. When the colors are changing and the bugs are gone. Mostly, I loved pushing myself. I enjoyed seeing the country. I enjoyed having time to think and to walk. It was my work, my task, my discipline. And it did take discipline. I enjoyed the rivers, so many of them and striking a balance with my environment. Hear again the words of the Psalmist: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I…Let me abide in your tent forever.”
My blisters have healed. I’ve gained back the weight I lost. But my spirit was renewed. It’s like running a marathon. It’s part physical, but mostly psychological, emotional, spiritual. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. My most important lesson is that beauty is all around us. We need to look for it. It’s there when the bugs chase you. It’s there when the mud drowns you. It’s there when the weather doesn’t cooperate or your body fails you. The discipline is to recognize and focus on the beauty when ugliness conspires to consume us. It’s not Pollyanna. It’s choosing to see beauty. It comes from hard work and it’s all around. That’s what the psalmist was singing about. It’s my song, too.