The boy had forgotten his toothbrush.
It was just one of many things that were going wrong for him that week. As I sat with him beside a mountain stream, it was obvious he wasn’t having a good time. We were on day two of a 5 day hike. In distance that would be about 18 miles down with 32 to go. We were part of a group hiking the Appalachian trail in southwest Virginia near Whitetop mountain. Part of the daily life of hikers is to get water, so he and I had gone to the stream with everyone’s water bottles and a pump to do our share of the work. When I asked Scott how his week was going, he just broke down in tears. It had not been a good week. First, he had no idea he would be hiking 50 miles for a week. His mom had told him he was going on a weekend retreat (you know, the kind with beds and showers and food that doesn’t come from your pack) and had dropped him at the church and hurried off.
Our first night out had been hard. It was a long day that ended in a storm with the rain coming in horizontally. The group had gotten split up in the storm and we ended up camping in a place that wasn’t the one we had agreed on before we left that morning. I had to go looking for Scott because he had taken a wrong turn and ended up hiking 3 miles more than he needed to hike.
By the time I got the whole group together, one tent (suited for 4 campers) had been set and had 8 people in it because they couldn’t find a place to set up another tent that didn’t have a new stream of runoff going through it. I propped him beside a tree and covered him with a tarp and set up another tent, got 2 or three other campers out of the overcrowded tent and got inside. We couldn’t build a fire or set up the cookstoves because of the wind and rain, so supper was whatever we could scrounge out of our packs. With the tent shaking from the wind it was hard to stay asleep and I woke up to see the tent door flapping in the wind. Scott, I found out, was also a sleepwalker. He had gotten out of the tent and was standing a few steps from the door, in a fairly fresh cowpie. It was not a good night.
So the next day, as we sat by that stream getting water for the group, he was telling me all the reasons why he hated what was happening. His feet hurt, his pack was too heavy, he didn’t have enough food (he was 13, and there is never enough food), he was uncomfortable sleeping on the ground, and he really just wanted a helicopter to come and get him out of this mess. And, oh yeah, he had forgotten to pack a toothbrush.
Throughout the week, our hiking group had been studying different passages of scripture together. The one that really stuck out for me that week was:
“Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
Sitting there next to Scott, trying to console and encourage him at the same time, I kept thinking about what this passage meant for him and for our group. Our 5 day, 50 mile hike was never intended to be a grueling ordeal where we slogged out miles of trail each day only to get up and do it again the next day. The purpose of the week long hike was to form a community that helped each other, looked out for each other and even shared a little ‘trail magic’ with other hikers we encountered (trail magic is getting the chance to sit down and talk with other hikers, especially through hikers from Georgia to Maine and share with them what you carried in your pack. It could be water, some hot sauce, and apple, or whatever). And the passage from Galatians was a way to remind us of what our purpose was. Because the tendency for people is that when we are going through hard times, we focus on our own struggles and pain. When we do that we miss out on our call to love others as Jesus loves them. And more than that, we might miss out on the trail magic that others want to share with us.
We are just about a month into our new normal of social distancing. And one doesn’t have to look far or hard to see what effects it is having on all of us. It’s a whole different set of burdens. Or maybe the ones we had are more pronounced than before. We can’t get out. We are learning how to be home schoolers. Our business can’t operate. We aren’t going to work. Our kids are missing out on some of the great milestones of life. We have logged in way too much screen time. You know the list. Your list is similar to mine and to everybody’s and has some unique items on it.
When I was hiking with groups, I noticed a sort of rhythm to the journey would begin to form after the second day. By then, you are used to the routine, you know what to expect and you know what is needed to take care of yourself and those around you. After about 20 miles, you develop what hikers call ‘trail legs’. It’s the closest I ever came to a runner’s high because I prefer a slower mode of travel. But trail legs is that feeling that I have found my stride. I have adjusted the load in my pack. I have gotten rid of the extra weight that was slowing me down or even hurting me as I climbed mountains. And the amazing thing about getting your trail legs is that when you can stop concentrating on your own struggles, it’s easier to interact with those around you and be a part of their journey too.
I’m not saying that hiking 50 miles in a week is easy. And this journey that we find our world in right now is not easy either. But when we make it together we’ll find that the journey is more tolerable and even in some places enjoyable.
So, back to Scott sitting beside that stream crying his eyes out that he wanted to go home and he just wanted this all to be over. That part I understood because I had lived through some grueling hikes before this one. But we were in the middle of a wilderness area where no vehicles were allowed, our radios couldn’t pick up a signal and we wouldn’t see a road for another day and a half (I also had to convince him that no helicopter rescues were coming for him either). No, the only way out of this was to put one foot in front of the other and just keep walking. The only way out was down the trail. There was an end in sight. Just 3 more days and 32 more miles.
Next morning Scott got up, put on his pack and got on the trail. I was the sweeper for the day, that’s the person at the very back who makes sure everybody gets to camp.
At the end of the day, we were nearing the summit of Whitetop mountain. That part of the trail is a little over 9 miles of constant climbing with an elevation gain of almost 1300 feet. When I was about a half mile from the summit, I had to stop and rest, unsure if I’d make it to the top. My knees hurt, but hips hurt, my pack was too heavy, I was out of water; I just needed to rest. As I sat there I could see someone coming back down the trail at a trot. It was Scott. He ran up to me and without saying a word, put on my pack and headed up the trail. Carry each other’s burdens. I saw it lived out in so many ways that week. And I’m seeing it lived out in our world each day of our quarantine. People are finding ways to connect with others, while maintaining a safe distance, to offer encouragement and help. People are sharing resources, while maintaining a safe distance, so that others won’t go without what they need.
There are so many ways to fulfill the law of Christ in our world. You have the ability to make someone’s day or week better, but you also may be in need and someone else is reaching out to you. Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. Scott helped me up that mountain when I didn’t see any way I would be able to do it by myself. And we tried our best to help carry his burdens that week as well, even going so far as to take almost all the weight out of his pack that next morning and carry it in our packs until he could get his trail legs. And we even found him a spare toothbrush.