Greetings from the Huntington

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John Sloane, McSorley’s Cats (on display at the Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Gallery)

As Dr. Gehrz mentioned a few posts ago, I have been spending my time of late at the Huntington.  Located in San Marino, California, the Huntington boasts several gardens, terrific art galleries, and an incredible library.  Daily I walk past lemon, orange, fig, and kumquat trees, and the abundant jasmine and lavender infuse the smog with a hint of perfume.  Sir Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” resides here in what was once the Huntington mansion (but since 1924, a full-fledged art gallery). I definitely preferred the collection of American art at the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery, however, including John Sloane’s “McSorley’s Cats” (shown above).  Given my research interests, let’s just say that scene is fitting. The library, too, is home to several masterpieces, including some from my neighborhood’s namesake, John J. Audubon–just one example from a collection of 420,000 rare books and 7 million manuscripts.   So, if you’re still looking for summer travel ideas, the Huntington is worth a visit.

The Huntington is also a great place to research.  Summer is peak research time here, and you can find folks like me in the Ahmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Center.  I’ve spent most of the last week and a half poring over the collection of  “Los Angeles area court records, 1850-1910” for my book, Gender and the Business of Prostitution in Los Angeles, 1850-1940.  The research has been rewarding, but in surprising ways.  The criminal records, for example, yielded a few nuggets of new information, but they mostly confirmed what I knew from extensive newspaper research.  The records dealing with property–whether in the probate or superior court–were a different story.  They painted an extraordinarily detailed picture of the everyday lives of individuals involved in the business of prostitution.  When people fight over assets, they tend to list every one of them in the court documents they file, down to the “one petrified greyhound” in the “rooms off the parlor”–what?  Digging through such inventories has made me feel like more of an archeologist than a historian, but such an experience speaks to the craft of our discipline.  History requires not only the work of uncovering the artifacts, but the skill (and discipline) of interpretation and narration.  I only hope that NE Minneapolis is as beneficial to the latter as the Huntington has been for the former.

Reporting from MUHS 2017

Senior Seminar at Kooistra's House (Sp 2017)

This year the University of Northwestern St Paul hosted the fourth annual Minnesota Undergraduate History Symposium.  In addition to closing remarks from our very own Dr. Gehrz, twelve Bethel University students also gave presentations.  Attendees had the opportunity to hear:

Ryan Auer, “People of Influence in the Life of Caesar Augustus”

Mitchell J. De Haan, “Hamilton and Popular Culture: An Analysis of History, Legend, and Music”

Lauren Gannon, “Stifling the Sideshow: The Resilient Nature of American Freak Shows, 1860-1940”

Lauren Kent, “Victorian Corsets and Tight-Lacing: A Look at the Promotion, Broader Implications, and Heath Consequences of Corsetry”

Connor Larson, “The Evolution of American Cooking and Technology, 1750-1850”

Eamonn Manion, “Engaging Roman Civic and Religious Knowledge within Iconography of the IMP(erator) CAESAR Numismatic Series”

Mikalah Pruss, “A Shift in American Birth Control, 1950-1969”

Grant Martinson, “Gold Medal Man”

Emily Ruud, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Religious Violence”

Angela Stephens, “What Were They Thinking? Contraception during the Middle Ages”

Grace Wiegand, “An Analysis of the Reign of Catherine the Great”

Emma Young, “Nursing during the Civil War”

These presentations represent progress these students have made already thus far this semester as part of the History 499: Senior Seminar course.  Students will present again at Bethel on May 15 and May 22 at 6pm in HC413.  Danny Jaderholm, who completed his Senior Seminar paper in Fall 2016 on “Chicago’s Front Lawn: A Balancing Act of the Natural and Built Environments surrounding Grant Park, 1890-1927” will join them in presenting his research.  If you love history, and you want to see some interesting and intelligent work from Bethel students, please join us for these final presentations.

Check out other reports of MUHS 2017 via Twitter. #mnuhs  Oh, and if you want to see other photos of Senior Seminar students eating together, I hear you can find them on this thing called Instagram?

 

Happy Trails? Welcome Back?

“So the Midwest nourishes us … and presents us with the spectacle of a land and a people completed and certain. And so we run to our bedrooms and read in a fever, and love the big hardwood trees outside the windows, and the terrible Midwest summers, and the terrible Midwest winters …. And so we leave it sorrowfully, having grown strong and restless by opposing with all our will and mind and muscle its simple, loving, single will for us: that we stay, that we stay and find a place among its familiar possibilities.”

-Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

Many of you know that I grew up in a tightly-knit, largely Dutch, Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I did feel nourished by that community, the people did seem completed and certain, and my mother probably saw my leaving as almost a kind of betrayal.  My immediate family remains in Grand Rapids, and sometimes when I think of “home,” it’s Grand Rapids rather than Northeast Minneapolis that springs to mind.  I remain grateful for that place, the people, and the identity that community helped me to create.

I hope Bethel has nourished you, but I guess I think it’s okay if our community doesn’t always seem completed and certain.  And, while I miss you, I’m glad to see you leave.  It would be selfish to keep all of you, with your attendant gifts, to ourselves.

Still . . . I really like it when you come back, and I hope that sometimes you inadvertently think of Bethel, too, as a kind of home.

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Katie McEachern and Hilary Ritchie (both class of 2013) visiting in Northeast Minneapolis before their respective departures to Fuller Theological Seminary and Princeton Seminary in September 2016

Homecoming at Bethel this year is scheduled for October 1.  We hope to see many of you on campus.  In light of our tremendous losses over the past academic year, we are planning what I like to call “the Memory Project.”  Come to campus, share your favorite memories of Professors G. W. Carlson and Stacey Hunter Hecht, and then join us afterward for a walk to the Royal Gardens where will dedicate a pair of apple trees to their memory.  None of this will bring them back, but it does help remind us that they are an integral part of the cloud of witnesses we share.

The End of the Summer

Professor Emeritus Kevin Cragg always used to tell me that the summer was basically over when we reached the 4th of July. That always seemed about right, but there’s also the tradition of summer ending at the closing of the Minnesota State Fair. This year, however, Bethel begins its semester before Labor Day. So, while it doesn’t seem quite right that students can attend class one day and the “Great Minnesota Get-Together” the next, that is the reality.

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Spring 2016 Graduates

The end of the summer. When I think about endings, the graduating class of 2015-2016 comes to mind. Every year, it seems, we lose our best students. Many of you are out there now, about to start teaching in your very own classroom for the first time. Some of you have gotten married. Others are off to graduate school. Wherever you are, I hope you are thinking critically about the world around you and your place in it. I hope you are reading books. I hope that you see the beauty of the world around you even as you are sensitive to its pain.

The end of the summer also means a sabbatical for Dr. Chris Gehrz. If you stop by his office, you’ll notice that hanging on his door is a photo of his temporary digs for the fall semester out there in the wilds of Virginia. Even as he rests, however, I am certain he will keep busy. If you miss him, you can always “follow” him at his blog. And, don’t worry: he’ll be back in time to join Professor Mulberry to take students to Europe for the WWI course in January. Then, there’s always Christianity and Western Culture, Introduction to History, and World War II with Dr. Gehrz in Spring 2017.

Typically, endings also mean beginnings. This academic year brings Dr. Charlie Goldberg to our department. It brings the beginning of a new major: Digital Humanities. It brings us our returning and new students, our best students of the future.

Beginnings also represent opportunities for fresh starts. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer [BCP] that guides my religious life contains a litany for “Morning Prayer,” which offers me a chance to dedicate my soul and body to God’s service anew at the beginning of the day:

AND since it is of thy mercy, O gracious Father, that another day is added to our lives; We here dedicate both our souls and our bodies to thee and thy service, in a sober, righteous, and godly life: in which resolution, do thou, O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The litany helps me see each day as a fresh start. The beginning of the academic year represents a fresh start on a grander scale. Maybe this is the year I am kinder. Maybe this is the year I am more patient. Maybe this is the year I get all my work done in a timely and efficient manner. Maybe . . . .

Of late, I’ve been listening to an artist named Mason Jennings.  I find it helpful to adopt theme music from time to time. This year, I think Jennings’ “Instrument” will be in heavy rotation. This is no B minor mass by Bach, but I sort of find its sincere simplicity fetching. Maybe you will too.

MUHS 2016: Academic Freedom

The closing session of this year’s Minnesota Undergraduate History Symposium featured a faculty roundtable on academic freedom. Professors Tycho de Boer, from St. Mary’s University, and David Sellnow, from Martin Luther College, also spoke. The following were my remarks:

AnneMarie speaking at MUHS 2016In October 2015, the Atlantic Monthly carried a story about the ways in which sex-harassment policies were being used to “diminish” free speech on a variety of college campuses. The article claimed that compromised free speech was due, at least in part, to pressure from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights which has helped perpetuate the idea that “illegal sexual harassment extends to campus speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.” Professors, consequently, have found themselves under attack to the extent that professors at Harvard are apparently “jettisoning teaching tools that make any reference to human sexuality.”

As a person who both researches and teaches in the field of sexuality and gender within American history, I found the article interesting and yet not surprising. The refrain of sexual misconduct and/or sexual scandal on college campuses is by now rather commonplace. From my vantage point, the arguments surrounding academic freedom and sexuality are minor compared to the problems confronting students in their navigation of the treacherous concept of what passes for “consent” with regard to their sexual activities. But. Here we are.

The Atlantic Monthly article noted that the harassment policy which seems to have diminished free speech has at its heart the goal of protecting students from exposure to ideas that make one uncomfortable and that such a goal is antithetical to education. It is unfortunate that even in the larger academic context, ideas surrounding sexuality and/or gender tend to be ones that are linked to creating a particularly uncomfortable situation. But it also makes me feel a little better about the peculiar context of talking about sexuality here at Bethel.

A couple of years ago, Bethel University had a conversation about a proposed gender studies minor. The pressure against the minor came not from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights or from students but from a number of faculty who expressed skepticism about the minor. One colleague, for example, asked if it was possible that those working in the field really had the “academic freedom” to “work from within a framework of biblical sexuality, as Bethel understands it,” a reference, I presume, to Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together which claims that sexuality is one of God’s good gifts but states that “monogamous, heterosexual marriage” is the proper context for “sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity” and condemns pornography, and sexually exploitative or abusive behavior as well as sexual harassment.

I think it is, and while I certainly strive to be transparent about my own beliefs, preferences, and feelings about sexuality, I also believe my commitment to a truly liberal arts education means that my students and I together confront ideas that make us uncomfortable. It is sometimes uncomfortable, for example, to acknowledge that in spite of Bethel’s commitment to a particular sexual ethic, Christians do not agree among themselves what “biblical sexuality” is. Views differ among individual Christians, by denomination, by culture, by time period even. Acknowledging those differences is often more uncomfortable than, for example, studying the history of homosexuality, pornography, venereal disease—all topics which we discuss in the History of Sexuality in the United States course. Studying the history of the sexual landscape of the past, knowing it too had its own pitfalls and complexity, I think makes us better equipped to enter into dialogue about how to approach the current sexual landscape—one that we share with a diverse group of people and communities, not just Christians who subscribe to Bethel’s interpretation of biblical sexuality.

I think that we do a great disservice to ourselves if we believe that silence and avoidance of uncomfortable topics or subjects will cause them to go away, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to engage in frank discussions with students about such topics. I am also grateful that the students taking my class seem to see the value of developing historical empathy for a range of views that don’t necessarily align with their own. Part of the success of the course, though, relies on what I think the original intention of the sexual harassment laws may have been, namely, to treat the people around you, with respect. Again, Bethel approaches this goal from a fundamentally different direction from the Department of Education. I doubt, for example, that the concept of imago dei appears in any of their documents, but possibly we may be trying to create what could amount to a similar learning environment which seeks to create a safe space for all people to learn together even while working through uncomfortable, even earth-shattering and heartbreaking ideas.  Because, really, as much as the world is beautiful, it is often, too often, one that breaks our hearts. And that is more than uncomfortable, it is tragic. We won’t be better at coping with tragedy, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist.

– AnneMarie Kooistra

Reflections on GW: AnneMarie Kooistra

The Faculty Senate President asked me to do devotions for our Faculty Senate meetings today, because, as he said, “I’m hoping you might be willing to say a few words about G. W.”  Here are my few words:

In their first years here, Bethel students are encouraged to learn about the past—in part—to see their story in the context of the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before them.   While Hebrews 11 points them to figures like Abraham and Moses, it is perhaps instructive for us to look at the example of a more recent addition to this cloud of witnesses, namely GW Carlson.

The word that springs first to mind regarding GW is “avuncular.” I’m not sure, for example, that any of his advisees ever knew that there was such a thing as a degree evaluation, because GW basically just told them what they were going to take. And, he adhered to a strict code of patronizing locally-owned restaurants, sometimes much to the chagrin of his colleagues. Although I have forgotten much of my 2-day interview experience at Bethel University, one vivid memory that remains is of dining with the History Department faculty at Roseville’s Countryside Restaurant, famous as much for its down-home atmosphere as for its broasted chicken. Broasted chicken?

As I continued to ponder GW, however, I thought it might be more fitting to describe him as an evangelist. And although GW would deny he adhered to any formal creed, he certainly had a particular message.

#1. Love and read books. Lots of them.

#2. Love Bethel, but make sure you go see the rest of the world too. At the information sessions for potential students, GW always told them they needed to figure out how to leave this place, at least for an interim, preferably for a whole semester.

#3. Love people. For over four decades, GW was the heart of this institution, and his pietism was evident in the way that he treated people. He recognized difference as an asset and embraced it. He relished personal contact, and he was a strong advocate of resolving conflict—not through the impersonal medium of telephone or email—but by walking the halls. He made an effort to see and know people, and in that way, he demonstrated for me what pietism could mean.

When I think of GW’s legacy, what he leaves behind, I immediately think of all of his disciples out there in the world: particularly the social studies education majors. Few escaped with a stand-alone Education major, because GW felt that a second major in, say, history helped such students understand they needed to love books. Few escaped without an off-campus experience of some kind. But, most of all, I like to think that none escaped learning GW’s central message, and that they are out there now, walking the hallways of their respective institutions, practicing GW’s pietism.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, who by a voice from heaven didst proclaim, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; Multiply, we beseech thee, to GW, Stacey, Lynda, and all those who rest in Jesus, the manifold blessings of thy love, that the good work which thou didst begin in them may be perfected unto the day of Jesus Christ. And of thy mercy, O heavenly Father, vouchsafe that we, who now serve thee here on earth, may at last, together with them, be found meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; for the sake of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc

If you’ve been paying any attention to my posts to this blog this semester, you’ll know that mystery novels, even those of a historical nature, are a bit of a departure from my usual reading.  A couple of years ago, however, a budding novelist contacted me after reading my dissertation.  It turns out she was writing a book featuring a female socialite who does a little sleuthing in Los Angeles.  The amateur sleuth, Anna Blanc, ends up encountering some bad eggs in the novel, including a madam, and the author wanted to verify some details about prostitution in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century.

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Well, research–particularly research on prostitution in Los Angeles–is kind of my thing.  So, we had several email exchanges, and I did my best to answer any questions.  Now, that budding novelist is the published author Jennifer Kincheloe, and the book, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, is available for purchase.

The book is an enjoyable one.  Anna Blanc, the title character, is a fun and spunky young woman that I, at least, was rooting for through the entire book.  (I’m not the only reader who finds comparisons between Anna Blanc and Phryne Fisher.)   Kincheloe is clearly a fan of early twentieth-century fashion, and so she paints a vivid picture not only of Anna Blanc, but also the clothes everyone else is wearing too.  Historical Los Angeles is also a fun place to visit.

So, check out the book.  I had the privilege of reading an early draft of it, and I’m looking forward to reading the finished product.  I got my signed copy in the mail today, and so I’ll be taking a little break from the hiking memoirs–at least until I zip through The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.

 

 

 

Along for the Ride . . .

The Ed Garvey Memorial Shelter is located on the Appalachian Trail at Weverton Cliffs in Maryland near Harpers Ferry, WV. See: https://hikeitforward.wordpress.com/tag/edward-b-garvey/
The Ed Garvey Memorial Shelter is located on the Appalachian Trail at Weverton Cliffs in Maryland near Harpers Ferry, WV.

“When Odysseus sailed to sea/ He left behind Penelope/ She waited years, patiently/ For him to come back from his Odyssey/ But I would rather have you sittin’ here next to me/ Lookin’ at the map and tellin’ us where we oughta’ be”

From the song, “Along for the Ride,” by the Okee Dokee Brothers

Of the hiking-related books I’ve read since my saga with breast cancer began in March 2015, the oddest has to be Edward B. Garvey’s Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime (Appalachian Books, 1971). When Garvey did his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1970, he was fifty-eight years old and had abruptly finished a long-term career at the National Science Foundation. Garvey, a former Boy Scout and member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, took his early retirement as an opportunity to hike the entire AT.

Garvey’s book is written primarily to aid other AT hikers. It therefore offers the typical sections on appropriate equipment (chapters include “Food,” “The Pack,” “Shoes and Clothing,” “Not Necessary But Nice”) as well as Garvey’s observations on shelters, water sources, trail markers, etc. It is clear, however, from the outset of the book that Garvey is a chipper, friendly sort of narrator. This is no “Lone Expedition.”* Instead, Garvey sets out on the AT with a travel buddy, and his daily diary-like descriptions of hiking the AT include numerous references to taking time off the trail in order to meet up with friends for coffee, a meal, sometimes even a sleep-over. In short, this has to be one of the most social accounts of hiking the AT I’ve ever read.

Even now, when I think of Garvey’s experience on the AT, I shake my head in wonder and amusement. His experience seems vastly different from what I consider a proper approach to long-distance hiking. Where, for example, is the solitude and stoic endurance of inevitable discomfort coupled with deep reflection on the grandeur of nature and the human condition?

But here’s the thing: at a certain point this summer (specifically during week one of what I call the “bad chemo”), I realized I could not continue to function without help. I had to become a little more like Garvey if I was going to continue to move even inch by inch. And so, despite my hardy dislike for feeling dependent on anyone, I asked for help. The help poured in, but it felt odd letting so many more people into what was such a deeply personal pilgrimage. Of course, from the start, I could never characterize myself as the “lone” anything. My “community” (which includes many of you, your professors, your co-workers, your friends) was there from almost the beginning. And I can’t begin to find adequate ways to express how thankful I’ve been for the palpable and myriad forms of support I’ve had.

Plus, I’d also like to point out that, like Garvey, I also set out with my own trail buddy. The epic journey stories, such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid, featuring the solo heroic man have never felt quite right to me. I would rather have someone sitting next to me helping navigate the difficult course ahead. When I consider the person who’s been in that position for the past thirteen (or twenty-three) years (depending on how we’re counting), that’s always a time I am sharply reminded of God’s amazing grace despite the present trial.

While I have been fortunate to have so many people willing to help out, I also still prefer to be more independent than less. Four weeks after surgery, and heading into six-ish weeks of radiation, I’m now in much more of a position to function fairly normally—if such a thing really exists in the post-cancer-diagnosis life. It has been a gift, however, to see how my weakness has been met by the variety of strengths in the community surrounding me.

*This was the trail moniker Earl Shaffer adopted when he completed the first thru-hike of the AT in 1948.

Lighten Your Load . . .

“Isn’t it funny, what we think we need,
to live a life, and succeed?
. . . You gotta lighten your load, kid, when you hit the road.
I woulda thunk you’d know, kid, you gotta lighten your load.”

From the song, “Lighten Your Load,” by the Okee Dokee Brothers

As I mentioned in a post to this blog a couple weeks ago, I’ve been reading a lot of books about long-distance hiking since beginning my saga with breast cancer in March 2015. For backpackers, decisions about equipment and pack weight are crucial to the success of the journey, and the holy grail in how-to guides in that regard is Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking (AdventureLore Press, 2000). First published in 1992, it is a book that Wild author Cheryl Strayed learns of through more savvy hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.  One of them helps her divest “Monster” (the name she gives to her unwieldy backpack) of items that have added unnecessary weight, and therefore unnecessary pain, to her hike. Strayed, of course, realizes her inexperience has led her to pack ridiculously useless stuff. So the scene in which she describes the process of lightening her load is meant to be funny, but—particularly in light of Jardine’s advice about lightweight backpacking—it got me thinking.

For example, I love my tent. I purchased it back in the late 1990s, and at the time it was the cheapest and lightest tent REI offered. I’ve gone backpacking with it in the Sierras, the Rockies, and taken it to numerous parks in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I’ve never considered it unnecessary weight. Jardine, however, is not a fan of the tent. In the chapter “Tarp and Tent,” Jardine convincingly ticks off the disadvantages of the tent, including the accumulation of condensation. As Jardine notes, “the hiker’s body gives off several pounds of moisture” during the night. That means much of the morning is spent trying to dry out the tent’s interior, wasting precious hours idling by camp when one could be on the trail. In contrast, the tarp allows for proper ventilation and offers a dryer and therefore more pleasant sleeping experience while still providing shelter from the elements. And, really what could be more proof of the superfluity of the tent than the experience of Earl Shaffer? In Walking with Spring, his memoir about successfully completing the first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Shaffer notes that the first thing he chucked from his pack was his army tent, preferring instead to sleep in shelters, under the stars, or—when raining—under his poncho.

Still, the embrace of the tarp over the tent seems an incredible act of faith. I tend to take the duck-and-cover approach to a crisis. In the outdoors, then, the tent has always served as a kind of psychological protection from the potential threats of wilderness nights. As Jardine points out, however, the tent offers only a false sense of security. Jardine claims that the greatest advantage of the tarp is that it allows us “to become more connected to the wilderness around us. The night is as full of wonders as the day, so why barricade ourselves off from them and spend the quiet, starry hours in oblivion?”

So often, the Biblical metaphors we embrace tend to be those that speak of light. Even one of Bethel’s “core values” claims we are salt and light. In these last several months, however, I’ve been drawn to the Biblical passages that speak about the God of deep places, of the shadows, of the darkness. In Psalm 139, in asking where he can go to escape God, the author observes that even if he makes his bed in the depths, God is there (v. 8). Psalm 91 claims that “[w]hoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty (v. 1). I can’t say it’s exactly comfortable to take refuge in these darker places, and in many ways I imagine it’s similar to how I would feel (at least initially) camping under a tarp instead of a tent. It feels right, however, to relinquish false security in favor of God’s deep, mysterious presence even in the darker parts of the journey.

Inch by inch . . .

“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.

Earl Shaffer at Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

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.”