[Editor’s note: In the coming months, Sacred Journeys will explore the meaning of the sacred and the spiritual as they relate to the local, national and international issues that affect our daily lives. By talking with area residents across a broad spectrum, Mickey Mahaffey will try to elucidate the common ground we all share, however diverse our understanding of a fundamental subject that, too often, becomes a source of friction and strife rather than unity.]
“It’s impossible to hide from yourself on the trail,” proclaims Sarah Rafferty, who completed her seven-month Appalachian Trail adventure last fall.
As a metaphor for the path of life, the trail through the wilderness is a common image in religious literature. And in many spiritual traditions, the outer voyage is seen as a reflection of the spirit’s inner path.
Sometimes, the journey becomes a life-and-death struggle that the pilgrim somehow knows he or she must undertake. When Alsace Young-Walentine left Asheville for a monthlong backpacking trip through the Copper Canyons in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, she was feeling a little crazy. She’d lost her center and found herself walking around in proverbial circles of confusion.
She’d never traveled outside the United States before; she’d never been backpacking and didn’t speak Spanish. Yet her longing to step into the unknown and to challenge her own deepest fears prevailed.
At times, the trails through the Copper Canyons run smooth and level, leaving the traveler free to observe the magnificent landscape. Hundreds of hawks, blue herons and vultures swoop along the towering canyon walls. In many places, though, the trails are treacherously steep and rocky. For long stretches, the path narrows, skirting the edge of cliffs so sheer that one misstep means certain death.
“The only thing I could afford to do was pay attention to where my next step was going,” says Alsace. “To spend a whole month like that, or even a week or a day, really gets you back in focus. The only thing that matters is, you’ve got a future here. You’re moving towards it constantly. How are you going to step into it — carelessly or with intent?”
That clear sense of focus reminded me of Nick Faherty, one of my own frequent traveling companions. I hiked into the mountains near Mount Mitchell to talk with Nick about the spiritual nature of the wilderness pilgrimage.
Nick’s the kind of guy who’s more at home in the wild than in the city; he doesn’t mind getting lost in the wilderness. And after he’s done studying maps, etching the contours of the terrain in his memory, he likes to strike out for points unknown — preferring, like the great naturalist John Muir, “the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way.”
“When I’m on a path, I always have faith that I’m on it for a reason, and that I’m going to learn something from the experience,” Nick explained as he stirred a pot of apples and oatmeal simmering on the fire at our camp. “Faith isn’t about some system based on good or bad works, with a reward at the end. It’s about growing and changing, about stepping into the unknown, into the mystery of life.”
In describing their individual wilderness journeys, these three Ashevilleans offer testimony as pertinent to the experience of life as any holy writ. By challenging themselves to extended forays into the temple of creation, they say, they’ve discovered that the richness of life lies in savoring each moment. Abandoning familiar landscapes and the trappings of modern society, they’ve tasted the ineffable harmony of a life alligned with nature — and the power of living moment by moment, step by step.
In the early days of her seven-month journey, Sarah Rafferty figured she’d never make it out of Georgia. “I never really had faith in myself to have the initiative or the gumption to do it,” she candidly admits. “I’d always kind of done things half-assed. I always gave up on things halfway through — sabotaged them one way or another.”
Her first month, Sarah says she was ready to give up about every other day. Sometimes, traversing mountain after mountain for seven or eight hours at a stretch, the pain in her legs and the ache in her lungs made her cry out. During the endless hours of walking, she recalls, you “feel everything all the way to the core of yourself. You can’t run and hide behind the usual coping mechanisms. You have to sit with yourself and go through everything in your head, instead of just forgetting about it.”
Alsace, too, wrestled with her demons on the trail. In the early going, no matter what she did to still her mind, the incessant chatter in her head made for difficult days. She found herself reacting to everyone else’s life, living vicariously through their experiences, rather than claiming her own identity.
But when she reached the bottom of the Copper Canyons (deeper in places than the Grand Canyon, more than four times vaster and even more remote), Alsace recalls that everything began to shift.
Her steps on the trail were placed with clear intent; she grew to love the sensation of the rocks beneath her feet. Jettisoning a book and some unnecessary clothes to lighten her load, she gradually felt her backpack become a part of her. She grew to love the canyon’s pure water that slaked her fierce thirst. She loved cooking food on a campfire and savoring the extended stretches of silence. The daily walking, she says, became a matter of “this step and the next step, forward, forward. It was the first time in my life I was free from my head, the first time in my life that I moved to my center. It was like I got on a magic carpet ride and I just flew for a little ways.”
Sarah Rafferty, too, found her way by staying true to her course, learning from the trail to adapt to her circumstances. The rugged mountains taught her to push through her resistance, finding the rewards of rest and lucidity when she reached the high places. And as the days turned to months and the endless succession of steps stretched toward the 1,000-mile mark, Sarah says she gained “a strong sense of empowerment,” tempered by “a humble acquiescence to the demands and challenges of the natural world.”
That experience, say all three intrepid travelers, is as profound as any scripture.
“About all the spirituality you need is just to see the moon every night. You don’t need to create a god — God is right there,” whispers Nick as he points toward the half-moon hanging above our WNC mountain campsite. “Or in the fire — the fire energizes me like nothing else.”
And after tasting that experience, it seems that nothing less will do.
For most of the last six weeks on the AT, Sarah walked alone. Her life had changed.
Rather than racing to the next town, eager for the creature comforts, or hurrying to the next shelter, she was at home in the woods — and in herself. When she needed supplies, Sarah hurried into town and back out to the wild as quickly as possible. No longer dependent on finding a designated shelter, she explains, “I just slept in the leaves wherever my day of walking ended.”
Sarah now works as a ridge runner in the Great Smoky Mountains, cleaning and repairing the AT and offering assistance to the through-hikers she meets. She’s eager to share her own experiences with them and to hear their unique-yet-familiar stories.
And sometimes, on the trail or with her friends in the city, Sarah recalls the great lessons of the path that are now essential to her everyday life. “I learned who I am, and that greatly aids me in helping others,” she says. “That’s my insurance policy in life now … what I’m willing to give of myself to other people.”
For Alsace, too, the lessons of the trail remain in memory, reminding her to keep life simple and focused on the moment.
It isn’t easy. She misses the daily movement of long-distance walking; she misses resting her weary body at day’s end, and the utter stillness of the undisturbed wilderness. But despite the urban clamor and the hectic pace of techno life, Alsace retains a central clarity: “The path is now my metaphor. I have a choice in the steps I take in life. Spiritually, mentally and physically, I have everything I need to survive. It’s a great feeling.”