Thursday, May 26, 2011


This weekend, I will join 20+ friends and acquaintances all connected to one couple, Steve and Rachael, for the 10th annual Maryland Challenge. They enthusiastically convince their friends to ruin their bodies and elevate their spirits by walking the 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail that cuts through Maryland in one day. That's right: in one day. We'll be ready to go at 5 am and will stumble back to the glorious meal awaiting us at Rachael's parents house sometime after midnight. That's a eucharistic feast, especially after endless Cliff bars and water that tastes like iodine, despite the attempt to mask it with crystal light.

Some will have to duck out after 10 miles. Some will join late. Couples with small children will split the hike up so they can each do part. One year I did the first 10 and the last 10 (drove home to do the Saturday church service in between). Only once have I done the whole thing and I couldn't walk correctly for days afterward.

Friends are coming in from Kentucky to do it. A caravan is driving down from New Haven. One man and his daughter - now old enough for the hike - are flying in from California. I made commemorative mugs. Another hiker has been brewing 10th anniversary beer. There's a special play list. Rumors of some mile 20 bourbon.

The obvious question is: Why? Why do this? Year after year, why has this become an event that some people look forward to for the other 364 days?

This is no mere hike. It's become a pilgrimage.

Wikipedia's definition: A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral or spiritual significance.

There's something important about the combination of people. Steve and Rachael have a natural knack at making their friends into family. Easy familiarity with people you've never met happens with the aid of their gracious hospitality.

The hike itself is the real centerpiece. It's challenging enough that when you finish, you feel like you've really accomplished something. It's not a given that even the most experienced hikers will make it. There's the stupid bliss that sets in when you realize, at mile 35, that you will make the end. There's the combination of solitude and small community that forms as you hike. There's a sense of youthful freedom in the rediscovery that all of life isn't work/home/desk/obligation. Internal horizons broaden.

I recall conversations I've had on that trail with specificity, even 7 years later. Surprises happen in these conversations because you become truly present, undistracted. The rhythm of walking, the cadence of breath. The story of the person on the trail with you. The noise of the woods. All else melts away.

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