On September 7, 2007, my wife of 32 years passed away from cancer. My life as I knew it also ended that day. I had a choice to make. Either lament my misfortune and wallow in pity for years, or make an effort to find peace and meaning in what remained of my life.
I did what I often did when life’s burdens became overwhelming, I scheduled a hike. The Grand Canyon and Zion Canyon had been my venues for stress reduction from a busy management job. The latter part of October of that same year I arrived at Zion Canyon for my therapy sessions. The early morning hike up Angels Landing found me crouched under a sandstone overhang while a lightning storm blazed its glory. In the early morning light several waterfalls emerged from the distant cliffs. I knew I was on sacred ground. Later, as I meandered along the East Rim Trail, I realized how healing and calming these hikes were. A seed was planted in my mind. Could a hike of much longer duration assist my search for peace and freedom?
The seed sprouted and grew, and on March 31, 2008, an apprehensive thru-hiker was dropped off at Stamp Gap on Springer Mountain, Georgia. At the edge of the woods, a narrow trail led off into the unknown. Well, not entirely unknown, since many folks have hiked this famous trail wandering through 14 states and ending on a mountain top in Maine. The Appalachian Trail had been only a vague and distant dream for many years. Now it was reality, made possible by my misfortune. I hoisted my backpack and with tears streaming down my face trudged northward. I was “Apostle,” hiker #391 heading for Maine. Two steps later I dropped my pack and donned more gear as raindrops welcomed me into my new life. The rain mixed rather well with my tears, I thought.
After hiking 10 miles that first day, I set up camp at Horse Gap with several other hikers I had encountered on the trail. We set up our encampment near a small stream and retired into our individual cocoons for the night.
Sleep was impossible that first night. I spent the night contemplating the events that had brought me to this moment. Looking back, I knew I had it made. I had a great family and a good job. I had aspirations of getting out of debt, retiring early, and doing volunteer work for my church and community.
In May of 2007 I entered the hospital room where my wife Mary had been admitted. I waved an envelope holding our last house payment. “Honey, we are out of debt!” It had been a long difficult journey to become debt free. “That’s great,” she replied feebly. Four months later she was dead. We had struggled so much and worked so hard to get to this point and now I was debt free but alone. Perhaps I should have enjoyed the journey more and not worried so much about reaching the goal, I mused.
All night long the rain drummed on the roof of my tent as I reminisced. Born Amish and raised as a very strict Conservative Mennonite, I was held by a long list of dos and don’ts. Living a Christian life seemed nearly impossible. Every failure left doubts and fears about my eternal destination. Although I had married a more liberal Mennonite girl and felt I had progressed spiritually, I still had many questions about life. Was an almighty God actually in control of events or did they just randomly happen? Where was God when my wife was sick and died? Did He see my family’s pain…and not care? I determined to invite God along as my hiking partner on this trudge to Maine, because I wanted answers. I will admit that conditions on some sections of the Appalachian Trail were so bad that I felt the Creator had opted out of our hike. You keep going, if you insist on being a purist, He seemed to say as He blue blazed and yellow blazed, slack packed, and generally abandoned me at times.
No, readers, I did not get struck down by lightning for my irreligious thoughts. It was close though. In Pearisburg, Virginia, during a miserable thunderstorm with lightning flashing about, I offered my body as a sacrifice to the storm. “Go ahead and hit me,” I screamed to the lightning bolt flashing across my path. “I am so miserable and cold—just finish me off.” Perhaps not a wise challenge to make to my seemingly uncaring hiking partner.
During all those years of dreaming, I had read a great deal about the Appalachian Trail, and now I was looking forward to staying at popular hostels and meeting trail angels. I was aware that some trail traditions would collide with that long list of prohibitions defining my religion. I wasn’t certain, for example, what my hiking partner would think of naked hiker day on the summer solstice. But as dawn ended the night of relentless thinking, I determined to immerse myself in this hike and the life of the AT and avail myself of all the trail’s traditions.
For the next five days I hiked in rain. Day and night it rained. Occasionally we got a respite when the rain turned to sleet and then snow. The leaf-covered trail turned slippery, and rocks and roots conspired to trip any careless hiker. I started to doubt the wisdom of giving up a good career for this walk through misery.
My first hiking partners were a marathon runner and a marathon speed walker. I was a slightly out of shape restaurant manager but had one characteristic necessary for a thru hiker—stubbornness. My two hiking partners were former Boy Scouts (an organization I was prohibited from joining because of my church’s belief in…well, belief in anything fun being wrong), and they had scouting skills I now wanted to learn. Only my tenacity and their graciousness kept me with them. Working hard to keep up with them took its toll. Twenty days later, I stepped on the scales at the outfitter’s in Hot Springs, North Carolina. I’d lost 30 pounds in 20 days. I did the calculation. “Wow. At this rate, by the time I reach New York I will weigh as much as my backpack, and somewhere in the White Mountains I’ll disappear completely.” I was burning 6,000 calories a day and taking in only 2,000 calories; something had to change.
My fifth night on the trail was also my first shelter experience. To this point I had set my tent up every evening. I was quite adept at erecting my abode in falling rain. However, on this evening the driving rain forced me—and everyone else—indoors. Deep Gap Shelter was aptly named since it matched my deep dismay at having quit my job for this misery.
A church group doing a section hike had taken up residence at this shelter, and, along with an assortment of other hikers, we numbered about 15. Fatigue overtook me to the point where I was too tired even to finish my food. A young, unprepared hiker gladly scarfed up the remains of my meal. At 7PM I was ensconced in my down-filled bag, naked as the day I was born, sweating and chafing in areas where the sun didn’t shine. For hours, I used that bag as a blacksmith uses a bellows. The resulting air movement did dry out my sweaty, chaffed nether regions but also released a mixture of smells unknown to mankind. The hours passed and I lay awake listening to a snoring choir. The sounds emanating from Deep Gap Shelter that night assured me that no marauding bear would dare come near. The awful smells distressed me even more. The church group in its wisdom had cooked up a kettle of Western Chili Bean soup and shared it with everyone. At midnight, the natural gas producers joined the snoring choir. Misery upon misery. Dear God, I want my job back. This is the worst decision I’ve made in my life. I gave up my job for this, I whined.
With the first hint of day light, I packed up and hiked off into the falling rain. Ahead lay Dicks Creek Gap and potential redemption. I had read numerous hiker journals speaking about the Blueberry Patch Hostel run Gary and Lennie, a Christian couple. Their love and concern had helped many hikers extend their hiking experience. I needed a whole lot of help and encouragement.
At the Blueberry Patch, redemption did indeed arrive. Lennie greeted me with a laundry basket and offered to launder my wet, stinking clothing. I was offered the use of their bathroom and shower, and slowly the clouds lifted. I discovered a shoe dryer, and within a short time I had dry clothes, dry shoes, and a new disposition. Gary handed me the keys to his vehicle and I was soon driving a carload of new hiker acquaintances into Hiawassee, Georgia, for a buffet feast at a local restaurant. That evening while mingling with fellow hikers, I realized all my needs were met. I had dry clothes, my belly was full, I was among friends, I had a bunk to sleep in. Five days of misery had prepared me for what it would take to endure a thru-hike—determination, tenacity, endurance, and the encouragement and assistance of other hikers and trail angels such as I found at the Blueberry Patch Hostel.
The last weekend of March, 2013, I returned to the Blueberry Patch for a trail magic weekend. I hung around the hostel, visiting and shuttling hikers from the trail to town and back. Reflecting on my own hike, I recalled the misery that had preceded my stay there. Then other memories crowded the miserable aside. Memories of the journey northward are still so vivid. Incredible views, beautiful wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, and colorful characters, awaited me on the trail to Maine. And every step I took that summer of 2008 brought me one step closer to the peace and freedom I sought after my devastating loss.
On August 13, 2008, a weary “Apostle” approached the sign atop Mount Katahdin. I concluded my hike the same way I had started it, in tears. These tears, though, were not tears of uncertainty and questioning. They were tears of joy in knowing I had accomplished something amazing and along the way had found that peace and freedom.
Paul Stutzman tells the story of his AT hike in “Hiking Through: One man’s journey to peace and freedom on the Appalachian Trail”.
About Paul Stutzman
Paul Stutzman was born in Holmes County, Ohio in an Amish family. His family left the Amish lifestyle soon after Paul was born. They joined a strict Conservative Mennonite Church where Paul was raised to fear God and obey all the rules the church demanded. Paul continued to live among and mingle with his Amish friends and relatives his entire life. Paul married a Mennonite girl and remained in the Amish community working and raising a family. After Paul lost his wife to cancer, he sensed a tug on his heart- the call to a challenge, the call to pursue a dream. With a mixture of dread and determination, Paul left his job, traveled to Georgia, and took his first steps on the 2,176 mile Appalachian Trail. What he learned during the next four and a half months changed his life-and can change yours too. After completing his trek Stutzman wrote Hiking Through a book about this life changing journey. In the summer of 2010 Stutzman again heeded the call for adventure and pedaled his bicycle 5,000 miles across America. He began his ride at the Northwest corner of Washington State and pedaled to Key West, Florida. On his journey across America he encounters people in all circumstances, from homelessness to rich abundance. The people he meets touch his life profoundly. Stutzman writes about these encounters in his book Biking Through. Recently Stutzman released his first novel entitled The Wanderers. The Wanderers is a story about Johnny a young Amish boy growing up in a culture he is not sure he wants to embrace. A young Amish girl named Annie wins his heart and life is great for a time. Entwined with Johnny and Annie’s story is the allegory of two Monarch butterflies, worms who have been transformed into amazing creatures specially chosen to carry out the miracle of the fourth generation. They, too, must undertake a long journey before they finally find home. In addition to writing, he speaks to groups about his hiking and biking experiences and the lessons learned during these adventures. Stutzman resides in Berlin, Ohio and can be contacted through his website at www.hikingthrough.com or www.paulstutzman.com