In 2012 I was inspired to hike a 500-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. I had read a book called A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and thought the hike would be a meaningful experience. I had also just concluded a three-year term as First Reader at my Christian Science church, so it seemed like a good time for me to launch into something new.
I listed 20 reasons why I wanted to hike the trail and how I thought it would move me forward spiritually. Then I thought about how I was already prepared to make such a trek. I was, and still am, an experienced hiker. As an Eagle Scout, I’d had a good deal of outdoor experience, and in the past several years I had taken three 50-mile hikes. I had never undertaken such strenuous exercise over such a prolonged period of time (500 miles would take two months), but I decided to get in condition by hiking again on the weekends.
Even though I was physically preparing myself, a number of fears and concerns arose within me. The idea of encountering snakes, spiders, and ticks that are said to spread disease worried me. I was concerned about being exposed to poisonous plants I wouldn’t recognize, dealing with injuries, and being confronted by wild animals. I also worried that something bad could happen while I was alone and without help. On top of that, I own a business and was worried about its operation in my absence.
Before the hike, I attended a Christian Science lecture in which the speaker made a comparison of long-distance hiking with spiritual journeys. He made the point that in striving to reduce the weight they carried, hikers get rid of all nonessentials. When I heard that, I realized that it was an analogy for the weight of fearful thoughts and that I needed to let go of a lot of mental baggage.
With that in mind, I called a Christian Science practitioner for spiritual support. We talked about why I wanted to hike the trail, and how the motive needed to be right. The practitioner also offered me a quote to think about from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. It was the definition of wilderness: “… Spontaneity of thought and idea; the vestibule in which a material sense of things disappears, and spiritual sense unfolds the great facts of existence” (p. 597). This made sense to me, because what I wanted most was to grow, bless, and truly see this “spiritual sense.” I felt I was on solid ground, and knew this would be a perfect experience for me to practice being spiritually prepared.
My wife helped launch me on the trail in Virginia, and I planned for a friend to pick me up at the end of the hike in northern New Jersey. But on the first day of hiking, I already had a challenge of physical pain. Before I started out on the trek, I had lifted some heavy logs and had a sensation of tearing, or straining, something in my lower body. I didn’t consider canceling the trip at that time because I hadn’t felt too much discomfort. But once I got on the trail, the pain came on, intensified, and I started thinking it was dire. While I was at an overnight camp, I heard another hiker describe his experience with similar pain and give it a name.
After hearing that, I became worried about my situation and considered ending the trip. But regardless of any hiking decisions I was facing, I knew I wanted to pray for healing. Thankfully, I had the assistance of a Christian Science practitioner, whom I could call whenever I had cellphone coverage, and my family was available for prayerful support as well.
After some prayer on my own, I was able to contact the practitioner. We focused on the idea that there was no tear or separation in God’s kingdom. By the following day, as I hiked on, the fear and the ache both subsided. Within a couple of days, all symptoms had disappeared, never to return.
As I hiked on, there were several times when I worked through, and even avoided, “typical” injuries of long-distance hikers. I started out hiking about five miles a day. By the third week my goal was to hit 15—the average rate per day of most hikers on the trail. One major concern I had was of foot blisters. On a previous hike I had had to tape each of my toes to avoid extensive blistering, with failing results. This time, I focused on the idea that there could be no friction in God’s kingdom. Specifically, that one piece of matter could not injure another piece of matter. In truth, I was spiritual since I reflected God, Spirit. With those thoughts in mind, I experienced very little blistering over the entire course of the hike. In fact, there was really only a single blister on my baby toe that developed in the last week, and it soon disappeared after the trip ended.
Hiking through rocks, boulders, roots, and gravel—especially in a part of Pennsylvania hikers call “Rocksylvania”—I frequently felt fearful that I could easily lose my footing and get hurt. Although my feet were regularly put to the test, there was only one occasion where I stumbled. I hyperextended my knee. The injury was severe enough that I was convinced I would have to come off the trail without finishing the trek. This was a depressing thought since I had hiked so far.
That night I turned to God, seeking wisdom to do the right thing under the circumstances. I didn’t want to be unwise, but I wanted to complete the hike. I prayed to understand more clearly that as the reflection of God I was flexible, strong, agile, and balanced. The next morning I was able to continue on. I set out slowly while systemically claiming my freedom, and was completely healed of the knee issue within a day.
I prayed to understand more clearly that as the reflection of God I was flexible, strong, agile, and balanced. The next morning I was able to continue on.
On the last day of the hike, it was dusk and a light rain was falling. I was getting weary, but I still needed to complete a section of trail called the “Stairway to Heaven,” a two-hour uphill hike through a boulder field that did indeed consist of numerous stair steps. With the light fading and the trail getting harder to see, I lost my balance as I was trying to move around a tree. My 50-pound pack tipped me backward, and I fell off the trail into the boulder field.
Here now was my ultimate fear—that I would be injured in a fall at night, with slight chance of rescue in the dark. However, as I fell, I experienced an unusual sensation: It was as if an unseen hand took hold of my collar and gently lowered me down onto the rocks, turning me slowly toward my landing spot. As this happened, my knees settled unto a cushion of leaves that had gathered on either side of a rounded boulder. I had landed safely. I looked around, exhilarated, breathless. I realized I had been turned to the exact spot in which no harm could come to me. I had no injuries at all.
You can imagine the joy with which I thanked God for His deliverance and for this final grand lesson on the trail.
Besides these physical healings, I overcame many other fears. The animals that I came upon were harmless and kept to themselves. The ticks I encountered were easily seen and removed. Even my business was OK in my absence—in fact, it actually prospered and grew!
The whole experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail has shifted my base of thought Spiritward, to be more willing to let go of fear, get rid of outgrown ideas, and open up to new experiences. I later returned to the trail in 2013 to hike an additional 200 miles, bringing only the “essentials” with me, and relying wholeheartedly on prayer in Christian Science. For the many blessings and lessons learned, I am most grateful.
Dave Shutler lives in Dallas, Texas.
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