It was 20 years earlier that I read an article in the Lansing State Journal about someone walking the Appalachian Trail. I could not shake the image of just walking day after day.
There are several reasons people want to hike long distance trails and specifically the Appalachian Trail. There are the casual hikers; those who love a short nature walk, a few minutes away from it all, to say they have been on the trail, or the section hikers who do modest stretches at a time. These are the holiday hikers, the one day or overnight campers.
It is the fanatics who endeavor to thru hike it regardless of experience, resources, or obstacles. There is the physical challenge. The fact is that there is enough reason to make the attempt to climb the mountains, endure the pain, and walk over 2,000 miles. It is the physical challenge and accomplishment. There is great satisfaction in knowing I was able to build up my strength, endurance, and had the mental discipline to achieve something most people will not even attempt.
The second category of people are those who simply need a time of reflection. It is taking a break from life. There are numerous life events that trigger this need. It can be divorce, death, illness, loss of job, mid-life search for a deeper purpose, spiritual searching, unemployment, and such. It surely is a time of asking deep questions. It may not always bring answers but often brings a sense of peace and purpose.
My hiking had to have a higher purpose than the walk alone, as good and rewarding as that may be. Before starting out, I wrote letters, articles for magazines, emails, and speeches, all with the purpose of seeking support for the hike. Pledges were made, and money was raised… Over $115,000 went for business and community development programs in Africa.
Growing up on a small 60-acre dairy farm in South West Michigan gave me ample opportunity to hunt, fish, and explore all our neighboring farm fields and woods. My high school friend, Armond, and I used to spend afternoons smoking his grandpa’s cigars in the woods. I had never done any long-distance hiking, nor even thought about it, but the hiking seed had been planted.
I was attracted to the loneliness of the adventure, the challenge, the opportunity to reflect, and even the little glory that one might receive having walked an unimaginable distance. It was achievable. When the time came to think about raising money for Africa development programs and taking something so common as walking and making it mean something, I became committed.
I remember a person in Limpopo Province, South Africa, taking me to a sacred place where young boys were kept for two weeks for circumcision. I was so impressed at being unimpressed. There was absolutely nothing special about the place, a place that was secret to the public. It was only sacred because a decision had been made to make it so.
Nothing is more common in our lives than bread and in ancient times, wine. Yet these common food items have become sacraments in the Christian faith. The common became sacred.
For me, the Appalachian Trail became the central point of reflection, a metaphor of life. It was an opportunity to ditch the mundane and embrace the moment, but also intentionally impact the world. The little dirt path in the woods became “holy” ground for me, much more than the regional values anchored in the communities along the way, good as they were.
I wanted to make a statement and do something worthwhile, significant. One way to do that, I thought, was to do something that all poor people do.
In the poorer African communities, everyone walks. It is common for women and children to rise early in the morning and walk a mile or more to collect the water they will drink and wash with before the sun rises. Nor is it uncommon to see children walk several miles to and from school every day. Farmers walk miles to and from their scattered farm fields and young boys and men walk dozens of miles shepherding their sheep, goats, and cattle. How could we more closely identify with the poor than walking, raising money for development programs, and being engaged in worldwide partnerships?
What I soon discovered was that long distance hiking is also an inward journey. Since you carry everything on your back, you soon discover what is important and shed the unnecessary, heavy, and luxury items. There is also internal baggage we carry. Resentments, intolerance, pride, self-indulgence are slowly eliminated and hopefully dropped forever.
It was only after I completed the trail that I realized something more intangible. I wanted to discover the wisdom, sadness, beauty, happiness, and transcendence of life, all of which seemed to be lurking in the wilderness. Perhaps, it was all within my soul. I just needed to remove the cobweb of distractions to discover more significant truths.
It hit me between the eyes and right in my heart when I read what a friend wrote in her South Africa reflection.
“This place, my work…this family has changed my life to the core. They have taught me to open my eyes to the world — to fully see the beauty and sweetness of raw life, to embrace brokenness in order to become whole and alive. Working with the poor is not glorious — in a sense of feeling warm fuzzies because I made someone smile today or tried to play the role of God or Santa Claus in their life — those things are fake. Caring for the poor is easy, it’s knowing the poor that ties you in knots.
It forces me to wrestle with tough questions that I didn’t have to before because they were hidden by my privilege, by my whiteness, by my ignorance. To be honest…it stings…this whole refining process…sometimes I wish I could just purge parts of my identity out of me. Why is it that I have grown up to reduce Christianity to judgment, morality, tradition and even habit? Yes, it is about having an authentic relationship with Christ, but why did I slap my neighbor in the face by doing nothing? When my poor brothers and sisters read the scriptures, they cling to Jesus’ words when he speaks about the poor — why am I finally waking up to them? Because I grew up in suburbia does that mean that these verses don’t apply to me? That I can simply reduce them to charity if I have time?
God is teaching me that engaging with these complicated, integrated issues of poverty (oppression, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, exploitation, poor housing, crime, hunger, exclusion…) is not optional for someone who claims to follow Christ — it is a mark of a Christian. In this life I have been born into a land of plenty and my privileged skin has given me a voice — how am I going to speak, and will it be worthwhile? Repenting of this ugliness inside me is only the first step — how am I going to live the rest of my life? Ali Jacobs October 22, 2007.
That was the central question I asked myself every day of the walk and continue to do so.