Sitting in the Rain

 

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It’s hard sometimes to remember the bad moments.

Looking back on my hike two years later, I find that rose colored glasses quickly set in. Remembering warm nights at a hostel, gathering with new friends, or a quiet night sitting up at a campsite watching the fire slowly settle in and listening to the distant symphony of crickets sing me to my dreams. There were certainly some magical nights to remember.

But I’m glad I took photos of the other nights. Like my first one. Really, this is of the first morning, but it serves as an excellent reminder of what that night was like. What I thought was a powerful rainstorm I soon came to find out was normal weather for northern Georgia in the mountains. My tent, an MSR Fast Stash was not set up properly, I wouldn’t get the hang of it for another month, and the tent collapsed on me in the middle of the night with the slight wind, pouring accumulated water all over myself and my sleeping bag. This meant the morning chill set in even harder than usual as I desperately tried to bail out my flooded tent bed. Finally, exhausted, I laid down and decided to just embrace the suck for the first of many many times. The tent canopy laid over me like a wet sticky sheet, and the cold settled in like a constant numb noise. I took this selfie in a deep “woe as me” moment.

Even with all of that, there’s times I wish I could go back there to that moment, and just enjoy sitting in the rain.

The Traveler Sets Forth

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I was absolutely not ready to hike the Appalachian Trail.

At over 320 lbs, standing at 5’6″ tall, I was out of shape. Having never successfully camped outside overnight in my entire adult life, ( I slept in my car on my shakedown after I discovered at the time I could not fit into my sleeping bag because I was too overweight) I was supremely unqualified. Having spent most of the last ten years working in some form of tech support, and my principle hobby being cooking, I was absolutely not ready to spend days or even weeks away from civilization.

But for some reason, at the time I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t second guess myself. I honestly didn’t feel that excited either. It just felt like the next thing to do. One day I was clocking in and sitting down at a desk with three computer monitors, a mere three days later I was disembarking a Greyhound bus and setting out for the great unknown.

Most of my gear wouldn’t survive the week. That fly fishing vest was a Walmart purchase and was left at the Top of Georgia hostel in Hiawassee. The wide brimmed blue hat was a $5 impulse buy from Amazon and turned out to be sweaty itchy cotton and was dumped in the first week at a hostel in Suches. The boots were a pro deal I was endlessly proud of and wound up getting dropped in Frankly, after only a hundred miles because it turned out they no longer fit my swelling feet. The pants were a cotton pair from Meijer, and had to be used because I simply couldn’t fit into anything else. (Quick dry hiker pants simply didn’t come in a 70 inch waist size)

I’m not sure even now why I truly wanted to do it.  It was something I’d dreamed of for years, but I don’t think I could really pinpoint for you what set that year apart from the others. But it was the beginning of one of most magnificent experiences of my life.

Why I left the Trail, and why I want to go to the Middle East

I’ve been home from the Appalachian Trail now for about four months, and I’m still working to settle back into a “regular” life. When you’ve spent months on end hiking up and down mountains, getting caught in the rain, and living a life of complete adventure, coming back to sitting at a desk eight and a half hours a day, commuting back and forth via car, and regaining weight at a rate that leaves one feeling like a beached whale much of the time is, for lack of a better term, a “downer.”

So why did I do it? Why not stay out on the Trail, or if I had to come home for the winter, why not take a short term job so I can plan on going back out to hike next summer? Why not take a temp job near a trail town so I could still get hiking in on the weekends instead of returning to my home in Kentucky, far enough away from the Appalachian Trail to make short excursions difficult if not impossible? For me, it all comes down to privilege.

“Privilege” is a loaded term, both in our current societal discussion and for me as a whole. I did not grow up in a wealthy or even firmly middle class background. While I love my family and my parents worked hard to provide a healthy environment growing up, and had a strong social net that helped them achieve that, we nonetheless certainly had our difficulties and struggles. So when I hear the term “white privilege” it can certainly bring a conflicted set of emotions to the forefront. Having periods of homelessness not to mention years with pediatric cancer in my life means I might balk at the idea of saying I am from a privileged upbringing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult though is that saying I was privileged does not mean I had it easy. It simply means I had opportunities and advantages that someone else in a similar situation would not necessarily have had.

Now for most of my adult life, this was not a debate that carried much meaning for me. I struggled through most of my adulthood just to get by. I first left for college at the age of 17 believing I had been “called” by God to serve in the ministry, attending a traditional Bible college to major in preaching ministry, however even with financial aid, I simply could not get by paying tuition, and I had to drop out. I was determined that I was still supposed to push forward on this path though, so I took a job initially washing dishes and unloading delivery trucks for the campus cafeteria. This allowed me to stay on campus and audit courses as a non traditional student. I was never able to complete an accredited degree, but I was still able to spend years studying the Bible and learning through a dedicated community. (This is also when I began to hone my cooking skills with the help of Brian, Chef Eddie, and the rest of the kitchen crew to boot) Eventually, I left the campus to pursue ministry, taking first a job as an associate preacher and youth pastor at a small country church in southeastern Indiana. After a year there, I moved to take a job working on a large staff in children’s ministry at a megachurch in northern greater Cincinnati. But even this was a struggle, as I repeatedly was laid off while working for churches, and never had a ministry job that paid more than the cost of gas and a portion of groceries. I continued to work full time jobs, usually in the food service industry, and usually for low wages, as I had to find jobs with little responsibility to allow a flexible schedule to be as open and available for these ministry positions as possible. In addition, to this, I began taking classes through another unaccredited training program to try to further my training.

All of this led to burnout. I was constantly broke and tired, and growing increasingly frustrated with God. I certainly didn’t feel privileged by any stretch of the imagination. I felt used up and wasted. Finally, after another layoff, I gave up. On the Church, on God, on my faith, all of it. So I took an opportunity to jump into a full time tech support job and never looked back. I pursued a more stable family life and 9-5 existence. I’ve detailed elsewhere how this eventually lead to my returning to my faith and eventually casting that 9-5 aside to pursue the outdoors, but even in this phase of my life I think I would have struggled with the idea of being privileged. I still made little enough money to barely pay the bills, constantly had to work to find affordable housing, and felt at all times that financial ruin was merely a car breakdown away.

Hiking gave me distance though. Especially in my first summer on the trail, I had time to finally get some sections of my life into a broader perspective. What’s more, I took the time to consider the absolute blessings I’d had in life. True, there were several struggles, but if it weren’t for the family and church support we’d had as I was growing up, the fortunate chances I’d received, and the hard work and upbringing of my parents, my situation could have been much much worse, and what’s more there was no connection between those opportunities and the work I’d personally put in. I definitely worked hard, but those unconnected opportunities made the difference.

On my second hike, this question of privilege became far more prevalent in my own thoughts and meditations. I spent a significant amount of time reading and learning about backgrounds outside of my own, putting a concerted effort into reading more non-white and even non-Christian authors to gain greater perspective, to say nothing of broadening my own social interactions. But I still came back to the issue that while I could certainly admit to some privileges in my life, I couldn’t help but also count all the disadvantages I’d also had. Then came the story of Esther.

Esther has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible. Setting aside any moral or spiritual lessons, it is simply good story telling, in a succinct passage you get a story of a young woman forced into extraordinary circumstances, and an entire people group saved because of how she reacted to those circumstances. But listening to the story again while hiking, I heard it from a different perspective than I usually had considered it before. Esther was a victim, pure and simple. She was as a Hebrew woman disadvantaged in her society both because of her race and her gender, she had little or no voice on her life, and because of her beauty she was taken advantage of, and forced into a life of captivity in a palace, where she was required to serve for the sexual gratification of a king she may have had no reason to love or respect. Indeed, despite marriage playing a central role in the story, love does not – nor would it have for any royal marriage of the day. Esther is merely seen as a package to display the power and influence of the king, she is treated as a mere object for the court’s amusement.

But the story isn’t about Esther fighting against her oppression, rather it’s about her using her privilege. Despite her clear victim hood, she still has privilege over Mordecai, her uncle, who even though as a male he has more autonomy in their society, and doesn’t have to fear his own abduction and sexual enslavement, does have to fear the execution pole of Haman. Esther is someone who utilizes her incomplete privilege to help someone else. The key theme verse of the story is Esther 4:14 “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” 

Privilege, be it white privilege, financial privilege,  does not make you the bad guy, nor does it mean you are living the easy life. Instead, Scripture makes it clear that privilege such as this is simply an opportunity for you to help someone else who does not have that advantage. A significant chunk of the Law of Moses lays out ways that privilege should be used to protect others, be it leaving gleanings in your field or ensuring that if you have a home it is built and cared for in a way that protects the community.  This is a core principle of the Kingdom of God as displayed in the texts but does not often get attention in most western white evangelical churches.

So as I considered this perspective on my own privilege, I was forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about how I was living my life. I certainly had set aside some privileges to go out into the wilderness, no longer earning a regular paycheck or living in comfort, but I nonetheless was transferring that to a different set of privileges of freedom and rest. What’s more, I did not set aside these privileges in the service of others, but did so for myself. I certainly met several wonderful individuals who told me that my journeys and my writings inspired them or gave them hope, but that had not been the core concern when I set off on my journey. My core concern was largely self serving.

So what to do then? As I continued to pray and examine the world around me, I became increasingly troubled. Following the news back in civilization did not give me good heart either, rather I became increasingly concerned that there were things to be done and I was hiding out of the way instead. So I made the difficult decision to come home. I wasn’t sure what my next step would be at that time, but I felt the need to lean into my opportunities a bit. I would return to a stable job with some decent (though certainly not great) pay, and work for an open schedule that would allow me the opportunity to put myself at some kind of service to others. Again, I am not in a place of complete comfort and certainly not wealth, but I was able to establish a base from which to work.

I’ve pursued a few smaller opportunities, giving financially to organizations I feel are doing necessary work, as well as giving time, going into a local homeless shelter to help out during extreme cold, going on outings with local churches to give out food, and generally try to look for opportunities in my daily life. But I couldn’t help but feel like more was called for.

After returning home, one thing I found as crucial to jump into as quickly as possible was to establish new social connections, and as a part of this jumped at an opportunity to join a monthly book club. The first reading choice was “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a fantastic book I’d highly recommend that further brought these issues to focus for me. The main character finds herself dragged through time as an African American woman in the American slave south who repeatedly saves the life of a white slave owning ancestor. There is so much to unpack in the story, but the dynamic of privilege kept coming to me. How the main character was certainly not “privileged” as we might normally view the term, but she certainly had a situational privilege which she put to use to save her white ancestor, a decidedly unworthy recipient of such care. What’s more, a secondary character, her white husband who was also dragged back in time at one point in the story, is disturbingly unaware of how the position of his own skin color affects the different experiences they have in the past, that is until he is forced to remain there for an extended period of time, at which point he throws himself into helping on the Underground Railroad and providing cover for slaves where he can.

I again was forced to ask myself if I was sufficiently using my position of privilege to pursue a better world for others. If I was considering for “just such a time as this” I was intended to do.

My journey as someone who gave up on my faith and returned to it has gifted me with a special perspective on a number of points because I was forced to re-examine many assumptions I had originally brought along with me. Ideas of what Christianity is meant to look like is often colored less by the Scripture and direct experience of God and more of the cultural conditions in which we live. The early Church struggled with the idea of separating life of a Christian from Jewish dietary and holy day practices, and modern American Christians, at least in the social context I was familiar with, carried it’s own baggage. Perhaps chief among these is a devotion to nationalism and respect for military power. The more I have examined the teachings of Jesus, the more foreign these concepts should seem to be as often taught in the Church. Again, I want to stress, this is based on my own church life, I know of many traditions, even in the United States that do not carry this particular set of assumptions.

Because of this clash of viewpoints that I see as core contradiction between my own faith background and a more “true orthodox” teaching of Scripture as I’ve come to understand it, the greater need I’ve seen for the celebration of a devotion to peacemaking in the Christian life. This then lead me to considering the emission of Christian Peacekeeper Teams. CPT works in areas around the world to pursue a goal of building peace through nonviolent means. They have long term and short term missions available. I certainly could have simply donated funds, but I felt the need to involve myself in a more hands on way. After some prayer, I applied to join their delegation to the Palestinian region. This is a region that has often been on my heart as echoing too closely the tragedies of the Old Testament as the people of God fail to fulfill the promises given to Abraham that through his line “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) The recent news of the so-called “Muslim ban” and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought to highlight how my own community of white evangelical Christians in the United States had served to exacerbate the pain of this difficult, fraught, and complicated issue rather than serving as a voice for peace and mutual service.

So that’s why this year, instead of heading back out into my beloved Appalachian Mountains, I’m saving my vacation time and working through the year to prepare for a new journey, that will take me even further from home than I ever have been before, both literally and figuratively. While I’ll still occasionally use this blog to talk about local hiking, cooking recipes, and occasional Bible studies, I’m also going to be working to keep you all up to date on my preparations for this new journey, and what I’ll be learning along the way.

I am also going to be asking you to help out. I am devoting my own finances to this journey, but would like to invite you to participate as well. Donations can be made at https://cpt.org/donate just be sure where it says “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know. I want my donation to be dedicated:” please include a note “James Scott October Hebron delegation.”

I look forward to your questions and our discussions as this journey progresses, I am going to do everything I can to share as much of it with all of you as possible!

 

Picking up where we left off

So I came home from the Appalachian Trail in October of 2017, and since then I’ve been settling back into the regular rhythm of life.

This is often easier said than done, but it’s gone more smoothly than I might have hoped. I was fortunate enough to find a job quickly, and got plugged into a place to live right away. I was also able to get back into regular volunteering with my local church community which was a huge help. All of these things mean that I didn’t get stuck in the kind of emotional morass that I did when I left the trail the year before. Post trail depression is a common occurrence for a lot of hikers, and different things work for different people. For me, getting back to “normal” as quickly as possible was a huge help.

But that said, there are still some things I’m struggling with. The biggest is staying productive as a writer. My favorite luxury I had on the trail was the ability to write every day, and more importantly have something fun to write about regularly. It’s easy to want to document what you did with your day when you’re living under the stars and spending every day hiking on one of world’s greatest long distance trails with a fantastic community. It’s a far different thing to write while spending every day going to an office to take incredibly repetitive phone calls fixing banal computer issues.

I am fortunate to have my job, it pays relatively well and has a schedule that leaves me open for having a life outside of the office. I don’t deal with an overwhelming amount of stress, and there’s enough stability that I don’t have to regularly worry about getting laid off or fired. But it is also fairly predictable and safe, and that does not contribute well to the writing juices. I was able to get an opportunity to write some small group discussion guides for a local church in the Advent season, which kept me in some small amount of practice, but those had a fairly focused purpose so the audience was not very wide.

I have been working in the last few weeks to find ways to expand my opportunities in the world of volunteering, with a local homeless emergency shelter and the local Democratic party. These are things that let me feel that I am serving a purpose, but don’t yet have any kind of writing outlet for me. I’m struggling to catch my spinning wheels on something as I try to find the right road.

But all is not lost, I do have a few projects I’ll be working on this year, and I want to take this chance to share those with you, as well as set some expectations on what the next year is going to look like on this site.

First, I am working on a short story collection/novella (the exact format isn’t set quite yet) that consists of a retelling of the life of Jesus as set in the modern day. I’ve written about a dozen individual stories for this so far, and am working on fleshing those existing stories out a bit more as well as completing others in the collection. Those will be posted here on a regular basis as I complete the series, hopefully for some kind of publication around the end of the summer.

Second, I am going to be working on some kind of larger project covering my time on the trail. This will likely be taking the form of a book, though I’m still undecided what that book will exactly look like. Possibly a memoir, possibly taking on a different topic but using my hiking experience as a metaphor for personal or spiritual development. I’m honestly not sure. As I try to work through this, what I’m going to do is regularly post here copies of blog updates from when I was hiking. I have rough draft notes that I kept each day of hiking, plus almost three thousand photos taken over the course of two summers. I’m going to try blending these into something a little more meaningful post these “enhanced” blog entries on a semi-weekly basis. Hopefully, this will help me get a firmer grip on what a hiking book written by a chubby IT worker slash armchair theologian would look like, as well as put me further on the path to a rough draft edition.

Finally, this October I am going to be taking part in a trip to Palestine with the Christian Peacemakers Team. We will be visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Al Khalil (Hebron) where we will document violence by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians and help organize peace work within the community. I plan to spend some time this year documenting why I decided to take this step, what I’m learning as I prepare for it, and hopefully document some of my experiences while there.

All of this will be in addition to the continued work on new recipes, Bible study materials, and my occasional comments on the new of the day. I’m playing around with other ideas that are in even more of a rough draft stage, like a possible podcast, and I’m hoping you will all enjoy the journey along the way!

Death and Criss-Crossed Paths 

I’ve been struggling lately with activity. I’m still working third shift, but I’m going on three months on this schedule now, but my body still doesn’t want to adjust to a proper sleep schedule. I toss and turn almost all day, and when I finally fall asleep it’s just about time to go to work where I feel groggy and tired all shift. I get off work in the morning too exhausted to feel like doing anything, so I go straight home where I toss and turn and the cycle continues. I get an average of three to five hours of sleep a day, then sleep through most of my days off when my body decides to catch up. Consequently, my exercise routine has been paltry at best, and with most parks closed during my peak activity hours of the middle of the night, I get almost no real hiking in. 

I have recently though started forcing myself to at least go for a walk for an hour or so each morning right after I get off work. I haven’t been doing great, but I manage to hit three or four days a week, which is a decent start I think. Usually I go to the Arboretum close to where I’m staying for the winter, and if the weather isn’t great I’ll go to the mall, which opens early specifically for walkers, and each lap gets me a half mile. 

This past Sunday though I went to a cemetery close to where I work. It was a chilly morning, at least in comparison to the overall oddly warm February we’ve had here in Kentucky, but it was bright and sunny, so I enjoyed some pleasant views. I really enjoy cemeteries as a place to walk. They’re obviously quiet, they  have well maintained walking paths, there’s usually good views, and there’s enough variety of sloping turns to make it a decent workout you can vary each time you visit. 

You have to admit, it is restful 

Growing up, my dad took us walking in cemeteries pretty often. Usually we’d go somewhere a family member was buried so we could check on the gravesite and plant some flowers. (there’s a memorable occasion when he mixed up some of his starters and accidentally planted tomatoes at my great-grandmother’s grave. Despite the idea being creepy to others, he still ate the produced tomatoes because why let them go to waste?) We often lived in neighborhoods that didn’t allow for much walking around, with roads that had no sidewalks and drivers that paid little attention to their speed or tendency to stay in the lines, and there were few if any local parks, none of which were large enough to have good walking paths. So cemeteries were a good place to take my sister and I to walk off our energy and get some decent outdoors time. 

Plus the mausoleums make great jungle gyms

So I feel oddly comfortable with walking through this cemetery early on a Sunday morning. I pass one or two other people who are there visiting loved ones and do my best to let them pass their time in peace. There are a few buildings on the grounds that I’ll stop to admire. A chapel and a small house that I’m guessing was originally for the grounds keeper but now looks like it’s set aside for gatherings. It’s still too early in the year for much blooming, but there are some recently cut flowers out, and some rather high quality fabric ones that add to a serene sense of rest to the place. It’s set up on a hill that overlooks several valley areas leading down to the Ohio River, so I can see for miles from some spots. With the sun just past its morning rise, there’s a fresh feeling to the day. 


Cemeteries tend to be designed with a variety of criss-crossed pathways separating the various lots, and I take several different turns to stretch out my distance, with occasional references to my phone to figure out exactly where I am in relation to my car parked off to the side close to the entrance. There’s no determined route that I’m taking and each turn is pretty much at random. 

Left at the Smith family plot, right at the Dunnes

This fits my mood pretty well for the morning. For a while now I’ve been racking my brain trying to make some decisions regarding my long term plans. Part of me still wants to return to the Trail in the summer, probably around early June. I’d be heading straight to Katahdin, where I’ll then hike south to complete my journey where I last left off in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I’m thinking 4 months would be sufficient to finish the roughly thousand miles I have left. It’s a welcome opportunity to get back to a basic set of life that I’ve found myself missing ever since I came home. And a clear cut sense of direction that’s difficult to find in any other way. Rarely in life do you get such a straightforward sense of your day as “wake up, eat, walk forward till you’re too tired. Camp for bed.” 

Occasionally a tree falls across a path, and that’s always an exciting change for the day

But at the same time, I continue to have a nagging sense that maybe the more responsible choice is to stay. Put down roots and move forward with life. I’ve got decent job, if low paying, that carries good benefits and some sense of purpose and good will. I’m still very much living in temporary conditions though since I came home with plans for leaving again soon. I could instead be signing a lease for an apartment, or saving up to buy some foreclosed home in a developing part of town. I could be paying off my ever present student loans and building a better personal financial future. I could go back to school and find something other than my years of Bible school and ministry training to put down on job applications, since those haven’t exactly opened a variety of doors for me yet. 

Something something, door pun

I struggle, I think, because when I last left for the Trail, I was given very clear direction. I’ve said before that I’ve never felt so clearly that God was telling me to do something. It was a dream that had been on my heart for years before that, but in the immediate time leading up to my departure I had a number of signals that it was time. Unprovoked conversations with friends that reaffirmed it, repeatedly coming across articles and advice when I least expected to. Several bits of “wool being left out.”(see the story of Gideon in the biblical book of Judges for context on that) Not to mention the way my gear came together, almost at the last minute and seemingly with easy speed and chance deals through a variety of online vendors and even donations. 

This time though, I don’t feel like I’ve got such a clear direction. Some days I wake up and my heart feels so firmly fixed on leaving, but other times I’ll get a sense of conviction that my time for running away to professionally play outside is done and I need to get back to work on being an adult. 

Though it’s worth remembering that I’ll get the same ultimate result either way

But how often in life does one find themselves with an opportunity like this? I’m not tied down with a lease. There’s no commitment to romantic relationship or a family. While I enjoy my job (some days) I also know that I won’t particularly miss it when I’m gone, and the turnover rate is so high I can pretty much guarantee an opening when I come back so long as I don’t burn my bridges on the way out. Why not enjoy this chance to travel the rest of the way, and avoid having this incomplete task hanging over my head for the rest of my days? 

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the idea that there is no “wrong choice” in this case. While there are certainly times in life where you might be given a clear direction as I was last summer, at most other points I think God treats our lives like the way I treat this walk through the cemetery. Take the whole thing as your boundaries, but you can choose whatever path you like. Just have the decency to not go stepping on anyone along way. 

And again, no matter what you do, you’re still gonna get the same ultimate ending

August 11th

Today I hiked from The Priest Shelter to Harper’s Creek Shelter, a distance of 7.3 miles.

I’ve been thinking more and more about my decision to go home after crossing the halfway point. I know I’ll miss the Trail for years to come, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed to take the fullest advantage of my time out here. I keep coming back though to the idea of how much I’m looking forward to life post Trail. Returning to a balanced diet, a healthier individual than when I left, and finding some new purpose in life. I’m still nervous about what kind of job I’ll pursue when I return home but I know that I want it to be something that I’ll genuinely be serving, rather than the business centered career I’ve had for years. Be it working at a homeless shelter, a church, or some other non profit, I know that’s what I crave.

I lost my tent stakes today, I probably left them at the last shelter. Unfortunately, this means I’ll be forced to shelter hop until I get to town and I can buy replacements. This won’t be bad tomorrow, where the next shelter is about 7 miles away, but after that the next shelter is approximately 16 miles. I’m not sure I can go that far, but I’ve gone close to that before and the terrain doesn’t look too bad for that stretch. We’ll have to see how it goes. If all else fails, I can try to fashion some stakes out if sticks or cowboy camp if I know the weather will be clear