Five dollars an hour, cash under the table, my first real job. I was a pin monkey in a very old, small-town bowling alley. Sixteen years old, spending all of my evenings after high school crawling around the row of ancient, pieced-together machinery that would clear the pins for the people rolling the balls down the alley. Frequently, from my behind-the-scenes perch, I would watch on in disgust at the shallow social interactions that would faithfully occur every night.
Returning to school the next morning, after being up late mopping and cleaning at the bowling alley, I would see the same people from the night before. Their luxury SUVs and sports cars would fill the student parking lot. Knowing that their display of wealth and style came from their parents' pocketbook filled me with malice. I hated most of the other youth I went to school with.
Filled with contempt towards the majority of the 1500 students attending school around me, I channeled my frustration into the only things I knew: my schoolwork and the bowling alley. The malice and hatred that found a safe harbor in my heart caused me to become very quiet and socially isolated. As the months of this isolated existence drifted by, I began saving all I earned in hopes of striking out on my own to find something greater.
Where could I go? What could I do? I didn't care. I just wanted to get away from where I was. This desire driving me, I pulled out a road atlas and began pouring over and researching far-away destinations that were nowhere in sight of the small Texas town I lived in or the school full of selfish children. Toronto, Niagara Falls, Boston, Acadia National Park... all were thousands of miles away -- perfect!
Staring intently at the highways, towns, and coastlines of Maine that surrounded Acadia National Park, images of the distant land filling my mind, I noticed something: a very faint, windy, narrow, red-dotted line that coiled its way through the remote woods of western Maine. My face pulled close to the page, squinting to make out the words, "Appalachian Trail." What is that?
Curious, I did a search on the Internet. A remote, narrow footpath stretching 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine through the Appalachian Mountains. I read on and on, seeking out books, articles, and maps of my newly discovered distraction. This was it! This was where I would disappear to escape my reality.
The goal was to hike the last 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Maine. With the help of my father, I purchased some backpacking gear. Soon after school let out for summer break, after my junior year of high school, I loaded up my car and set out for Maine, not to return for three months.
I parked my car at a small local airport and took a taxi to the remote New England trail head outside of Gorham, NH. All of seventeen years old, I stood alone with my pack, 3000 miles from home, as the taxi drove away. It was July 1, 2002. I strained to don my 90-pound pack, then turned and climbed slowly into the remote wilderness of the Mahoosic range of northern New Hampshire.
The next 40 days set me on a course that would change my life forever. Over those 40 days I experienced dozens of mountaintop panoramas, encountered swarms of black flies and mosquitoes, wild moose, and met many of very nice, sincere hikers who were each on their own journey. On August 9, 2002, I reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine -- the end of my hike and the end of the Appalachian Trail. Renewed in my vision for life, creation, people, and the future, I hitchhiked south to my car and began the long drive home to Texas.
Upon returning, my vision was drowned in a sea of familiar feelings, faces, and problems. The selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, and pointlessness around me was all the more obvious now, having just returned from my three-month adventure. "I can't take it! I can't stand it here! I want out!" Now I knew where I could run to: the Appalachian Mountains.
Completely sickened with the selfish desires and motives of the people around me (this time my co-workers at a local grocery store), I became obsessed with one thing: hiking the trail. Saving every penny, working overtime, living on next to nothing, I was determined to escape back to the place that had brought me so much vision and hope. For a year and a half, I frequently rode my bicycle everywhere -- to work, to the bank, to the grocery store, to school -- refusing to drive my car. I would do anything to save money, even living in a small travel trailer for a time. Every cent possible went towards escaping and hiking the entire 2175-mile Appalachian Trail.
Finally, on February 23, 2005, after quitting my job, selling all I had, and leaving town, I once again found myself at a remote trail head, about to embark on yet another adventure. I donned my pack and climbed steadily into the hills along the nine-mile approach trail towards Springer Mountain, Georgia, and the start of the Appalachian Trail.
Over the next few months I made my way north through the mountains, until after 1425 miles I received an injury to my feet and was forced to quit short of my goal. Completely crushed, broken, and defeated, I returned and began to assimilate back into normal society.
Reality covered me like a ton of sand. I couldn't breathe. Rent, college, insurance, a cell phone, a career -- all these things forced themselves on me, as all were requirements of success in the world. Two jobs, 65 hours a week, and a full-time student load, I did all I could to fulfill the world's requirements and forget about my failed hike. But I couldn't push out or wash out the understanding of the selfishness around me that had driven me to strike out on that initial journey across Maine.
Over time, I met the requirements and became successful in the world's eyes. I obtained an education, financial security, and possessions, but was glaringly unsatisfied. More than ever, I realized for myself what was filling the sails of the kingdom of this world: selfishness. I wanted nothing to do with it. It didn't fill me or satisfy me. I hated money, cars, TV, sports --everything around me that was filled with self. Three-month or six-month jaunts into the woods to hike or do trail work were not enough. I didn't want to return. "Why can't I just live on the road, in the woods, or on the trail? Is it possible? It has to be! I can't live here. I can't work another day. I quit!!!"
Giving away all of my possessions and selling my car, I hitchhiked east from Colorado towards New England. After some months of hitchhiking and doing trail work, an idea came to me. It was now July 2008. This was the time to finally finish the goal I had set six years earlier. Having hiked 300 miles of the trail in 2002, and 1400 in 2005, this left only 450 miles. "It's possible," I say to myself.
So, for the third and last time, I found myself at a remote trail head, this time in New York, embarking on a long hike through the woods. Full of vision and strength, I set out, determined to finally finish. Months of arduous back-country trail work had left me in top hiking shape. 166 miles in the first six days. It won't be long now.
Mockingly passing out-of-shape day and weekend hikers, I flew up and down the mountain trails. Starting at sunrise and going till sunset, I followed the small white blazes on the rocks and trees that mark the narrow, 2000-mile footpath. Then, one morning in Vermont, I woke up and crawled out of my tent only to awaken to agonizing, sharp, needle-like pain in my feet -- the same pain I had felt three years prior that had caused me to quit. Mortified, I sat and stared off into space.
"What now? What do I do? I'm so close -- only 200 miles to go. Maybe it's not so bad. Maybe I can rest and my feet will recover. I can't quit. I can't go back. Go back to what?" In a panic, I pull out my maps and guidebook and search for the nearest hostel, and how to get there. "Rutland, Vermont, a Twelve Tribes hostel. That's where I'll go."
Hearing that it was run by some kind of religious people, I planned to lay low so as not to provoke any conversation. After three days with rested feet, I returned to the trail, remembering nothing but the kindness, care, and compassion shown me by the peculiar people that worked there.
A few weeks later I reached the end, finishing my hike on top of Mt. Washington. I was victorious. A flood of emotions and excitement came over me as I neared the summit, not knowing whether to cry, scream, or jump up and down. I did all three. Bounding over the desolate rocky boulders that made up the moon-like terrain, I neared the summit.
I was there. The simple, weathered wooden sign in front of me spelled out the words, "Mt. Washington, elevation 6288 feet," but said nothing of the struggle I had been through to get there. 60-mph winds, freezing rain, and dense clouds railroaded past me as I gripped the wooden signpost.
Cold, hungry, broke, soaked to the bone, and nearly hypothermic, I stood alone on the summit and wept with no one around to notice or ask why. Begging some tourists to take my photo, I posed alone in front of the sign, with a weary smile. It was the biggest accomplishment of my life, and no one was there to share in it with me. I was completely alone. This was the beginning of the end.
Hitchhiking down the auto road that tourists take up the mountain, I spent the night in a local hostel, alone, eating a sub from a local gas station as a victory dinner. I was only a few miles from where my journey had begun six years earlier. It was October 1, 2008. Without purpose or motivation, and having only six dollars to my name, I hitchhiked west to Colorado to recover and recuperate from my successful failure.
Three months of normal living in Colorado was all I could stomach. "I'm done. No reason to live. No purpose. No home. Not the trail, not the world, not the road. I have no place to belong." The faults in the society around me that drove me to the woods were now showing themselves clearly in me, as I had taken advantage of many of my friends and family so as to have a way to continue running.
Standing on top of that stormy mountain in New Hampshire, I had finally realized that the places I had run to or turned to did not fill the void or make me happy. Instead, they only left me alone and bitter, trapped, broken, and weary. If I wanted to be able to put down roots, it would have to be in a place where self did not rule, neither in me nor in the people around me.
Crushed, I embarked on my final journey. I was nearly suicidal, fleeing from northern Colorado in the middle of winter, hitching to anywhere, nowhere, with $24 to my name. My strength ran out, along with the sense of adventure one gets from hitching and traveling the country. Now this was simply my life, wandering the highways of the country.
On my wrist I got a tattoo, "Not all who wander are lost," but I was as lost as a coin in the deepest ocean. Destitute, living out of dumpsters, and on the side of the Colorado River in Arizona, I actually feared for my life at night as I heard other people in the same situation as me wandering about in the bushes around me. This fear gripped me more now than coming face to face with black bears on the trail ever did.
Then, unexpectedly, a glimmer of hope: An old friend contacted me and suggested that I volunteer on an organic farm. "WWOOFing," he called it. Wandering into a library, I scrolled down the massive list of organic farms on the west coast. Suddenly one caught my eye: the Morning Star Ranch, Twelve Tribes. "Wow, these are the people who ran that hostel I stayed at in Vermont! They were so kind to me. That's where I'll go."
Hitchhiking my way there, I saw a young woman begging for money at a gas station. I walked over and gave her the $20 someone had just given me. Why is it that situations to love like this are so few and far between? Or was it just that I was too selfish to notice them?
Upon arriving at the Ranch on February 13, 2009, I was treated as a welcome guest, not as the homeless stranger that I was. I became the recipient of numerous unmerited acts of kindness and love. It caused me to believe in the One who is love, who had been drawing me all those lonely miles on the trail to this place.
Finally, a place where selfishness didn't rule. Love ruled. People here had a way to overcome -- a Savior. They told me about Him. His name is Yahshua. "I want to love. I need a Savior to be able to overcome."
This was the destination I had traveled and searched so long for. How could I ever leave this place where people love me, and where I can be set free to love them back, all the days of my life? I'm thankful to have a place to belong and finally call home.
~ Skillet (ME '02, GA-NY '05, NY-NH '08)
My friends now call me...