Later this week I depart for my annual wilderness backpacking vacation.
My first backpacking experience was to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with my high school youth group. After the trip an adult chaperone bemoaned that the wilderness guides didn't provide enough spiritual counsel to our group. Although I have no memory of camp songs or devotions around the campfire, I consider the trip a touchstone of my faith. It was the first time that I — alone in God's creation with minimal comfort or protection against the wild — discovered a deeper awareness of the Creator. The Psalmist writes: "If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (Psalm 139:9-10).
After a 10-year hiatus, I was reintroduced to backpacking by my boyfriend, James. Over the summer we spend many extended weekends in the wilderness. Through a club we introduce beginners to the sport. We take longer, more difficult trips with friends who are experienced backpackers. And each year we take one long trip in the backcountry, just the two of us.
This year we're returning to Isle Royale National Park, an 894-square-mile wilderness comprising an archipelago in Lake Superior. We reduce our lives to the essentials: food, shelter, clothing. Once in the backcountry, we don't buy anything. We don't talk to anyone except those we meet on the trail or in camp. We don't have phone or e-mail service. We go eight days without bathing. Our entertainment involves hiking from camp-to-camp; watching moose, loons and squirrels; listening for wolves; and playing backgammon until the (very late) sunset.
Going into the woods is a bit like fasting. The point of fasting isn't to deprive ourselves but to deliberately remove those things that distract us from God's presence. Perhaps that's why early Christians practiced desert retreats. Our daily lives are so full of clutter — working, paying bills, making meals, caring for children or elders, keeping track of our possessions — that it's hard to contemplate big things, spiritual things. Is it any wonder we experience God more fully in the great outdoors? When everything else is removed and just God remains?
Hiking 10-mile days with a 40-pound pack pushes my body to its limits and provides me hours of contemplation on the topic of being "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).
As I hike for fun, I think of women in Mauritania who, before the Lutheran World Federation and ELCA dug wells in their communities, walked eight miles round trip to gather water for their families (see "A gift of life, laughter," March 2010). I think of ELCA military chaplain Michael T. Lembke and other service personnel in Iraq, carrying loads as heavy as my own in triple-digit temperatures while wearing body armor.
While hiking, I give thanks for my health. I return from these trips bruised, with muscle aches and insect bites. Despite my best efforts, I get an occasional blister. But these minor injuries are nothing compared to the fact that my body will deliver me, my food and shelter 61.3 miles over the course of eight days.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts" (Psalm 139:23).
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