Seven or eight years ago, my dad and I went hiking for a week in Pennsylvania on a section of the Appalachian Trail. I had just moved to New Jersey for a year-long internship at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Toms River, and we decided it would make for some good father-son time to spend a few days hiking the trail together.
Dad was in charge of gear for the week. He borrowed tents and sleeping bags, bought a water purifier and I don’t remember what else. I was in charge of researching the sections of the trail closest to my temporary home in Jersey, which I did mainly by internet and guidebooks the scoutmaster at my new church lent to me.
Dad flew into Philadelphia I think, and we drove back to my apartment on the Jersey shore to pack and get ready for the week. We did some meal planning, figuring out how much trail mix and sausage and cheese we thought we needed. We had conversations about how much everything weighed, because we didn’t want to be overburdened with heavy food items on our backs all day long. We definitely brought instant coffee and hot cocoa though, those were non-negotiable.
The day we put in on the trail was going to be a short day of hiking. We had to drive from Jersey back up toward Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania near the Delaware Valley Water Gap, park the car, and then head in to the trail. We didn’t really know how much ground we’d be able to cover in the remainder of the day. The first half hour of hiking gave me a bit of a scare, because I strapped my new hiking backpack on – the kind that has all the waist stabilizers and adjustable straps for distributing weight over your back and shoulders – but I’d done it all wrong. Somehow I’d managed to adjust my pack so that I had the most awkward, uncomfortable load possible, only I didn’t know it. I thought it was just that heavy.
The first half hour on the trail was a somewhat steep hike up, since we were making our way from the base of the mountains up to the ridges along which the trail ran. I was huffing and puffing and hurting. It was taking all of my fairly non-existent willpower not to start whining right away, but inside I was thinking, “there is no way I’m going to be able to make it through a week of this.” Then it began to rain.
Dad and I ducked into a small wooden lean-to shed, that appeared on the side of the trail at just the right time and as we waited for the rain to let up a little, we figured out what I was doing wrong with my pack and got it adjusted. I felt a little better. The rain stopped and as we left the shelter, we saw our first blaze.
Blazes are trail markers left by other hikers on trees to show you the right path, as in “to blaze a trail.” On the section of the Appalachian Trail that we were hiking, the blazes were actually orange vertical stripes painted on the sides of trees left where hikers were most likely to see them, especially at junctures on the trail where it wasn’t clear which way to go.
The first blazers on the Appalachian Trail did their work back in the 1920s and 30s. People have been hiking this route from Georgia to Maine ever since, and each year hundreds of people (called thru-hikers) attempt to hike the entire path in one season.
Following the blazes is an act of faith. I don’t know who blazed the trail, or who is responsible for maintaining the blazes so that hikers don’t get lost. I never saw the trail blazer with my own two eyes, but there I was hundreds of miles from home on a trail I’d never hiked, wearing gear that felt uncomfortable on my body, eating food made for squirrels, following a path someone else had laid out for me.
And I have to say, the path wasn’t always that comfortable. Even after I’d figured out how to wear my pack so that it wasn’t trying to pull me over backwards, we still hiked sections of the trail that made me wonder what we were trying to prove. The second or third day of hiking we were following the blazes, and they brought us to a field of rocks. Each step we took we had to carefully watch where we put our feet so that we wouldn’t turn our ankles. I felt like Luke Skywalker in the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where he’s being put through a workout in the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda on his back. But we just kept looking for the blazes, taking it one step at a time, sure that there was some value to this endeavor.
At the end of the rock field, which took us almost a full day to cross, the trail was intersected by a highway. It was the oddest sensation to have been hiking in the woods for days, and then to come out all of sudden onto blacktop pavement. At first I was actually excited, my feet and ankles were sure that walking on a flat, smooth road was going to feel like heaven after hours and hours of balancing on top of rocks. But it was the opposite. The pavement, which was perfect for people zooming by in their cars, was so hard under our feet. The mile or so we hiked on the road we were sharing with everyone else was some of the worst hiking of the week, and I couldn’t wait to get the dirt and gravel of the trail under our boots again.
A day or two later the blazes led us to one of the most beautiful vistas I’ve even seen with my own two eyes. We had been hiking a pretty level path along the top of a mountain ridge, and we came to a wide section of trail that was lined with giant oak and maple trees. It was still late summer, but because of the altitude the nights were already chilly and the leaves had already begun to turn. The path was covered with a carpet of scarlet and orange and gold leaves that seemed alive under the soft glow of sunlight that filtered through the treetops. Our packs were lighter, and our feet were happier, and as we hiked through that section of forest our conversations felt holy. It was almost as if the trail blazer had been preparing us for a day like this all along.
Obviously, one of the best parts of hiking the Appalachian Trail was getting to spend that much time alone with my dad. Growing up, one of our favorite father-son activities was walking the dog around the block and just talking to each other. Hiking the AT was like a weeklong dog walk. But there were others on the trail with us as well, and from time to time we would get to a spot where a group of hikers were sharing a lunch or a dinner, and we’d get to share stories from the trail. It helped to know what was coming up ahead of us, or to laugh about the aches and pains that lay behind us. About halfway through our hike we came across a pair of hikers who had taken the absolute opposite approach to the trail as we had. They were hiking in open toed sandals, with tiny little packs on their backs, just big enough to carry food for a day or two and a little sleeping roll. Instead of packing for an entire trip, they would come down from the mountains every day or two and stock up in town, then keep hiking. It was challenging and inspiring to see how different people managed to hike the same trail – challenging in the sense that we immediately wanted to compare ourselves to them, to ask if their way of doing it was smarter or more wasteful; inspiring in the sense that we could see how those who had been following the blazes for a long time had learned to do it in ways that fit who th
ey were and how they operated. There was no right way to hike the Appalachian Trail, and the point wasn’t to be first, just to be there, following the trail of blazes.
This morning we’re pleased to have the scouts of Troop 115 with us, along with their scoutmaster and other parents and mentors. The boys of Troup 115 come from all over Logan Square and other neighborhoods, they go to different schools and worship in different churches, but they come together here at St. Luke’s as they have for decades to build community and character. Scouting is about a way of life that emphasizes personal health, civic responsibility and faith in a loving God. It’s about choosing a path to follow, and learning to find the blazes that will keep you on that path in the company of others.
And in that sense, scouting is like so many other forms of discipline – spiritual or otherwise. Being a part of a faith community is about developing habits that enable us to spot the blazes that mark the trail that leads to the journey our lives are trying to take us on. We carry heavy loads, and we learn how to adjust them so that we can manage. We encounter rocky paths that wear us out, and deceptively smooth roads made for other kind of travelers on other kinds of journeys. We meet fellow hikers who teach us new ways of being and allow us to notice and appreciate our own ways of moving on this path. We stumble upon hidden beauty and are moved to give thanks to the trail blazer who led us to these places we never could have found on our own.
Jesus comes to each of us, in every age, calling us onto paths like these. Paul writes to the Corinthians,
he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time…then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
But Paul was wrong, because after that he appeared to me. I met him at church, in a pool of water, long before I learned to talk, and he asked me to follow him. I’ve spent my life learning to look for the bright orange blazes where he’s been. And then to you, some of you quite a while ago, and some of you more recently.
That is Jesus, always calling us to take the next step into the unknown, teaching us to trust that God is with us on all our paths, leading us to one another on trails just wide enough to allow us to move at our own pace, and just narrow enough to make sure we can find each other when it’s time to stop for a meal. Like now.