So, when did this journey begin? The plan was to start in the spring of 2019. But as I found out it’s so much more than just a hike. Many months ago, I was visiting at Rivermont Presbyterian Church. Pastor Clay Thomas was answering my questions about the Presbyterian Church. I veered off topic mentioning my plan to retire and thru hike the entire 2200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. He listened as I explained all my research and planning. I revealed my reasons for going as well as my hopes and expectations. Up until that point I hadn’t taken a single step on the trail and the start was still more than a year away. I expressed my frustration about the long lead up to the actual hike. I was eager for the positive changes and adventure I anticipated. After a few minutes Pastor Clay replied “Sounds to me like you’ve already started”. For some reason I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Yet at that moment it became very clear. The Trail as it will be called from here on out had already begun to change me in ways I hadn’t perceived.
This part of my journey began with the decision to retire. Or more precisely the thoughts of retirement. I began thinking about it at around 60 years old. Up to that point I had not once thought of hiking the Trail. Two of my sisters had recently retired as well as two coworkers. I looked around the shop and it occurred to me I was the second oldest person in the room. Though I didn’t feel old I must admit I did feel older.
I purposely started to think about if and when I might leave my job and begin a new chapter. It seemed prudent financially to work another 3 years. As I debated if I could retire, the question of what I would do in retirement proved to be much more interesting. I began making lists of things which added joy and happiness in my life. One thing seemed to stand out over all the others. The time I had spent hiking, camping and backpacking. Being in the outdoors had always provided a sense of adventure and challenge. It was a wonderful bonding experience with my two daughters, my brothers and close friends. It provided a peaceful time away from the fast pace of everyday life. The peace of mind I experienced was always magnified the more time spent, and farther into nature I ventured. That was followed by a feeling of belonging. A belonging to the earth, not just a witness to but a part of creation. Was that what I wanted most? The answer was a enthusiastic yes. But was it really possible?
The Trail by this point had become a magnet pulling me towards it. Would I be able to do this hike at 66 years old? The answer this time was “maybe not”. It felt too important to wait yet I felt anxious and afraid. Not only about the hike but I was leaving the workforce, and a job I had performed for 22 years. I would be leaving friends and coworkers and committing to a path fraught with uncertainty. It’s was a difficult decision. On the other hand, I had been working for 50 long years. I had been on a “get up at 5 in the morning” schedule since I was 11 years old. I’ll probably still get up at 5 but there is a difference. After weighing all the pluses and minuses I simply but assuredly took a leap of faith that God would provide all the things I need. The Trail would begin my retirement! What I learn and experience along the way will tell me which path to follow upon my return.
That was months ago. Since then the process continues. The following days my mind began walking the path that brought me to where I am today. I saw the missteps as well as successful ones. Sorrows as well as joy. The proud moments and regretful ones. I felt a strong need to dwell on these and process their impact upon me and others around me. To accomplish this, I seek time and solitude apart from distractions. I’m confident the Trail will provide all of these things and more.
I view the six month journey as one stage of a much longer hike. That hike is simply put, my life! Each day takes me step by step from one place to another. Decisions, good and bad influence the direction of the hike yet the journey always starts where I stopped the night before. I can choose to get off the trail yet I cannot stop the hike.
The Trail is linear as is much of life. By putting one foot in front of the other many miles are covered, and mountains climbed. Each step is a new arrival revealing a never- ending change of scenery. Strangers met along the way become friends. Some for minutes, others weeks or even months. A few for a lifetime.
Though parts might be fun and beautiful I must learn to accept the good and the bad. In such a test of will and emotions coupled with the enormous physical challenge there is also the promise of an even greater reward.
A pilgrimage for the body, mind, and spirit. Let the journey continue!