This is a continuation of the talk given to the Women of the ELCA Convention for Southwestern Washington Convention on October 12, 2019. Some may make its way into my next book. This is a multipart blog, as I talked for a long time interspersed with sharing time for the ladies at the convention. Perhaps you would like to consider the questions I ask after section of my talk.
In 2015, I began hiking on the American Discovery Trail. I really just was looking for a flat place to walk a long way and not work too hard. So, I chose one day before Cincinnati, Ohio to Moline, Illinois on the Mississippi River. Now, the American Discovery Trail is a very different kind of trail. It is a waymarked trail for foot and/or bicycle. And it goes all the way across the United States. Now, if you’re going across the United States, you might notice there’s not much wilderness from Cape Henlopen, Delaware to the Rocky Mountains. Except for a few smallish sections (like the AT running north and south while I hike east and west) it is private property, or common public space, like roads or parks, but not wilderness.
That means on this trail, I can’t just pitch my tent at any good flat spot I find or even get water from passing streams due to heavy pollution from towns, cars, businesses and the run-off of farm chemicals. Nor can I take care of nature’s needs by popping a squat all by myself, whenever the need arises, like I can in the wilderness. Hiking on the American Discovery Trail means I must ask complete strangers for stuff – like a place to put my tent, or water to drink or a place to go to the bathroom. Because I must ask people for things, I meet locals all along the way. And that has turned out to be the charm of that trail for me. I have had marvelous, wonderful, incredible experiences meeting the people along the way.
On this trail, at the end of a day, I go up to a door, knock and say, “Hi, my name is Mary Davison. I’m hiking on the American Discovery Trail. It goes coast to coast across the United States. You probably have never heard of it; but it goes right by your house. I have been hiking all day and I’m tired and I need a place to put my tent. May I put up my tent in your yard, please.”
Often the conversation goes like this: “You’re WHAT?” And I repeat my little spiel. And as I talk, they are looking around me to see who is with me – nobody – and they ask in amazement, “Are you alone?” I explain, yes, I do long distance hiking and I have hiked other long trails. I and many long-distance hikers hike alone. And their response often is then, “Aren’t you afraid?”
The American Discovery Trail has given me the opportunity to reflect on and talk about fear with many people. Generally, I use images or stories as I talk about fear.
First is the illustration of packing a pack for backpacking. A truism in hiking circles is that we pack for our fears. Now, if you have some piece of gear to meet every possible contingency you can imagine you would ever run into, you will not be able to lift your pack; it will be too heavy to carry. On the other hand, there are some things one carries for a bit of insurance against possible disasters. We fear being hungry, so we carry food. We fear being wet or cold, so we carry a jacket, raingear and bring a tent. Our level of fear is often the determining factor in what or how much we carry. I’m an old lady for backpacking. I try to carry as little as possible – which means I think about what fears and gear I can leave behind.
Non-hikers have told me that’s a good image for life. Sometimes, they have said that it was a new concept to think that they might leave some of their fears behind because they have become too heavy to carry.
Why might you want to leave a fear behind? Here’s a hiking story.
In 2014, the anticipation of crossing a particular river in Wyoming that was a 3-4 days hike from a road in any direction, completely psyched me out with fear. Now, I had forded rivers before. I forded the Gila River in New Mexico solo more than 200 times. Fording a river was not new to me. I had learned the best ways to ford a river and, though it was a bit scary the first few times, I was experienced in fording rivers.
But that particular day, I was hiking with my friend, RockStar. We set up our tents and I went to the river to get our water. I saw the damage the Soda River had done in the spring run-off, ripping the river bank away, leaving large trees uprooted and tossed and I remembered all the horror stories I had ever heard of people falling in rivers and being washed under log jams and dying and I totally spooked myself.
I came back to our campsite with water and told my friend we were going to die the next day. And no one would ever find our bodies. She looked at me like I was nuts and said she would worry about it tomorrow. The next morning, with my friend’s calm presence it did not turn out to be any worse than numerous other rivers I have forded. There wasn’t anything different, except my fear.
Although fear can be a good thing to help keep us safe, fear does not always seem to be a particularly reliable guide in hiking or in life. I have known people whose fears have crippled their lives in some way or another. Sometimes it is good to leave fears behind, to free our lives for new experiences or even for something God calls us to do with our lives.
So, what fears would you like to leave behind? Have you ever thought that it might be possible to leave a fear behind you? What would that look like? You have three minutes now to turn to your neighbor and share a couple fears you might like to leave behind.