“Inch by inch by/Foot by foot by/Step by step by the mile/We’re takin’ it inch by inch by/Foot by foot/Till we find ourselves/In the wild.” From the song “Walking with Spring” by the Okee Dokee Brothers
Fall classes have begun at Bethel University, and many of you are fully present in the hubbub of academic, social, and spiritual activities that constitute a new academic year. If you’ve passed by my office at AC209, however, you may have seen a note announcing that I am on medical leave this semester. In March 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy followed and has just concluded, but surgery and radiation await. It is quite the journey.
Not coincidentally, during the process of diagnosis I began reading a series of memoirs and books related to long distance hiking. The first of these books was Earl V. Shaffer’s Walking With Spring: The First Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail. Shaffer completed his hike in 1948, and his book is more of a mini-documentary of the AT in its early years rather than an emotional rumination on the personal issues that motivated him to attempt the trek. And yet, even Shaffer reports, rather matter-of-factly, that the loss of a buddy at Iwo Jima and the desire to “walk the army out of my system, both mentally and physically” encouraged him to tackle the trail. In marked contrast, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is much more an emotional journey occasioned by her mother’s death as it is a reminiscence about hiking large portions of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. Despite their differences, however, both books speak to the potentially healing power of nature and, more importantly, to the necessity of living in the moment, quite a discipline when facing hundreds of miles on foot.
For Shaffer, the goal of completing the AT itself was daunting, but the hiking itself seemed less of a trial than it was for Strayed. Unlike Strayed, Shaffer had spent considerable time not only hiking but also researching the trail prior to embarking on his historical journey. Strayed admits freely that she had little experience, knowledge, or general know-how about backpacking before setting out on the PCT. For Strayed, then, hiking the PCT sounds like more of a journey through purgatory: “Every time I moved, it hurt. I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again. The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one.”
At the beginning of the tests that would lead to my diagnosis, one radiologist commented that I was likely facing a bad year. It was therefore easy to imagine myself with Earl Shaffer at Oglethorpe, Georgia, the AT’s original southern terminus, facing a 2,100-mile pilgrimage through the wild. The experts claim, however, that women excel at endurance sports. This fact seems born out by the data that indicates that soon after Shaffer completed the first thru-hike of the AT, three women (one of whom was in her 60s) did so as well; and, until just this past summer, Jennifer Phar Davis held the record for the fastest thru-hike of the AT.
Still, nothing about this expedition has been easy. While being vaguely aware of the goal, for example, there is little chance of seeing the end until one is almost on top of it. There is also a great deal of uncertainty at every new length of the path. Much like both Shaffer and Strayed, therefore, I have had to surrender to the discipline of being present in each step, counting each one as a valuable moment in itself (even if painful) as well as an important movement towards the ultimate objective. Any serious student of literature (and history, I should think) will tell you, however, that the best journey stories are also tales of redemption, or perhaps, sanctification. In Psalm 90:12, after all, we read: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”