“Not everything in life is essential. If everything is essential, then nothing is essential.”
I had just awoken to the sounds of a gurgling stream. The previous night, a thundershower had ushered its way through our lush, temporary home in the Great Smoky Mountains. As I slowly got out of my tent and walked down to nearby Noland Creek, all was quiet. Our bags of food hung undisturbed on the cables above. Despite the heavy rains from the night before, our tents had largely kept us dry, but the landscape around us lay drenched. Fortunately, the predicted rains would mostly hold off for the rest of the trip and our more than 32 mile loop from the parking lot of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the Smoky Mountains, the Appalachian Trail, and the state of Tennessee.
In what had originally been planned as a 3 night, 4 day couples trip, various circumstances had altered the original blueprint, and our A-team (our oldest 4 of 8 kids) had accompanied me and Amy on this adventure. Although they had previously done a number of one-night backpacking trips, and we had stayed in a cabin the prior year in these very mountains, this was their first (and longest) multi-day trip of their lives. As everyone began to rustle and emerge from their tents, we gradually went about the typical activities of the morning─ eating, filtering water for the day, and packing up our soggy gear.
As we followed Noland Creek for the entire day, we encountered an almost sub-tropical world of beautiful foliage, a curious large buck, and eventually some of the neatest (and welcomed) bridges downstream. Remarkably designed as a split log with a single, imperfect handrail, these tiny, rustic bridges gave way to larger, wooden bridges of various designs. At one point, we walked approximately a quarter mile through a tunnel originally designed for vehicular travel, but now only open to those under human power. By the early afternoon, we had reached camp 74, a glorious place where Forney Creek emptied into Fontana Lake, both wonderful swimming spots with quite different temps. The next day, we would awake to a majestic 13.1 mile climb of over 4,600 feet, reaching the parking lot just as the rains rolled back in.
Growing up, my family and I had routinely hiked and camped with family and friends. But it wasn’t until around the time that our own kids were born that my brother and I took our first backpacking foray in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. Since that time, in the midst of continuous learning and navigating challenges that come with this endeavor, I have gradually come to feel that backpacking is a quintessential Christian activity for many reasons.
Throughout the trip with Amy and the kids, I reflected on the quote at the beginning of this article, highlighting one of the ways backpacking epitomizes our Christian faith. The quote was delivered in a homily by Fr. Christopher Droste the week before our trip, at the parish where I grew up. He reflected on the timeless biblical story of Martha and Mary, and the clear message that what seems quite important might not really be that important at all. In life, we are constantly confronted with challenges in distinguishing between what is truly needed and what is not. In backpacking, this discernment frames the activity as a whole. Anything superfluous not only adds unnecessary weight to the journey, it simply may not even fit in the first place.
Beyond our Christian pursuit of living a simple life focused on the essentials, backpacking and Christianity share many other elements, not the least of which are being good stewards of God’s creation and learning to appreciate the tremendous beauty that exists in the natural world. As all backpackers know, “leave no trace” means that in honoring the natural resources afforded to us, we are to leave our natural spaces in the state that they existed prior, so that others may enjoy them just the same.
C.S. Lewis once said, as theologians have espoused over the ages, that the essence of living a Christian life was as follows — “do your present duty, bear your present pain, enjoy your present pleasures, and let the emotions and experiences take care of themselves.” While all of us on the trail look forward to quiet, relaxing moments at the end of the day, the reality is that backpacking engenders a unique, uninterrupted focus on the now. Disconnected from other responsibilities and expectations, with a clear focus on managing and appreciating what each step brings, being in the backcountry is about being who you are at that moment, in the adventure at hand. It is there in the present moment, as Lewis also once said, we are closest to eternity.
Meanwhile, as the Christian sages have long spoken of the need for silence in finding God in our busy lives, backpacking affords the traveler ample opportunity to pray, reflect, and contemplate in the sacred spaces of God’s creation, uninterrupted by the incessant noise of our busy lives. Over the years, in dealing with pain and challenges that can accompany backpacking, I have found myself pursuing His comfort and assistance first, without having access to privileged resources that our modern world provides. As Christianity teaches, backpacking reminds us that all life is an adventure, one in which humility, patience, and the search for the truth are essential elements to a faithful life. In the backcountry, that which isn’t true is of no use, and we come to realize that working together with our fellow travelers is critical to the success of the mission, and at times, even safety and survival. This often occurs through simple activities of filtering water, stowing food, setting up camp, and navigating together through confusing routes. Far away from roads and conveniences, never is it clearer that “we” are stronger than “I.”
Just as activities of backpacking echo of a Christian sentiment, so also do the values of the sport. It is a place where the vices are particularly undesirable, and even dangerous, and where being gluttonous, envious, slothful, wrathful, and prideful can carry a high price. Each of these vices not only reduces the energy needed for a backpacker to take on the path that lies ahead, it also threatens the communion that is so vital on the trail, and the humor, camaraderie, and celebratory moments that make this experience so real. On the contrary, the virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude in conjunction with the gifts of awe, wisdom, self-control and others form the fabric of a trek centered on faith and love. For all of the activities that I have engaged in over the years, never have I felt the abiding love and presence of God, often alone, as I have felt on the trail with Him. Stripped of all the statuses, pretenses, and demands that come with the various roles of life, I become first and foremost a child of God.
In life, it is easy to become assured that all of the privileges and insurances we have acquired will take care of our desires and our needs. In the backcountry, there is no such pretense, as it is only our co-partnership with God, in communion with others and His natural world, which will provide for our sustenance and yearnings. In a world filled with false gods, and indulgences and privileges posing as necessities, never has there been more of a call to put everything we need on our back, and enter the wilderness in search of our Maker.
To hear more about backpacking, check out the articles tagged with this term on my website, including an illustrated print and audio version of a previous trek through the most remote area in the contiguous US in the heart of Yellowstone, which can be found at the following link: https://james-schroeder.com/yellowstone-trekking-through-the-heart-of-beauty-isolation/