I recently read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a travelogue of the author’s journey on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a good read; Bryson has a knack for making the wilderness, the characters that he encounters, and even his soapboxes come to life.
Yet the book begins to lose steam a little over midway through. The latter part of the book, while ostensibly still centered around the AT, is about something different altogether. A break in the trail kills all momentum and the narrative becomes something more existential. It becomes an examination about how we flounder once we stop.
Part One of the book ends with Bryson and his pseudonymous friend Stephen Katz pausing their hike on the Appalachian Trail. After being comically and dangerously inept at the beginning of their journey, they have gained a measure of fortitude and competency along the way. Yet each must return home for various reasons and they decide to pick things back up later in the summer.
Yet the author quickly realizes that this plan is not going to work. They won’t finish the trail. So he decides to compensate by driving to various places along the Trail and taking day hikes. This method is nowhere close to what he experienced as he and Katz strove through the wilderness of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.
It’s obvious that Bryson is adrift and the narrative of the book reflects that as well. It meanders. It loses its purpose and goal. Bryson and Katz eventually reconvene to hike the portion of the trail in Maine known as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. But they don’t last long. Whatever they gained on the Trail has been lost by the hiatus. The damage was done.
At the end, Katz and Bryson pat each other on the back and console each other that, though they didn’t finish, they still hiked the Appalachian Trail. And I guess that is true. They certainly did more out there than I ever have. Yet the the triumphal feelings ring a bit hollow. Bryson acknowledges at the end that they only hiked a third of the AT.
So it ends up being two different tales. The first part is about a pair of men braving the wilderness to hike the Appalachian Trail. The second is about what happens after they stop and the fruitless struggle to restart. It ends up being about searching for something lost and not quite finding it.
This isn’t to criticize Bryson—for the AT is punishingly hard—or the book—for it still is a great read. The main reason I bring this up is that it was such a plain reminder of how much can be lost when we stop moving forward. To be clear, I am not referring to resting or taking sabbaths. Those are vital practices. But what happens when we leave the proverbial trail altogether and leave the rhythms of forward momentum behind?
It is not impossible to find our way again, but it is hard work. Often more hard than it was to find it in the first place. Probably because you remember what it was like and how natural it seemed in contrast to how labored it feels now.
For example, I’m thinking about times where I took months off from running because I was too lazy, busy, or whatever other reasons. When I get back to it, there is that slither of joy that reminds why I run. But it is tough work to get back to where I was. Finding the trail again takes effort, focus, and consistency.
And I cannot help but think about this applies to our faith. So many times we have times of great fellowship with God, periods of great growth, and then we sort of leave that trail behind. I am not referring to those natural valleys that are a part of anyone’s faith journey, but those times when we become too lazy, busy, or whatever else to do the daily work of following Christ.
I think of students that have attended the camp at which I work and hundreds of others through the summer. Students that make decisions to become Christians or to strive to be more of the woman or man that God wants them to be. Yet many of those decisions fall to the wayside; not intentionally. It just happens. Things get in the way. We lose the rhythms of following God; we pause and it crushes us.
Thus my encouragement is this: do not leave the trail. Following God daily is tough work, a labor of love in fact. But follow God. Keep pressing forward. Because the emotions, the cool music, the scores of other people making decisions, that feeling: all of those things are going to vanish like a haze. That mountaintop is just a stop on the trail; it is not the destination. We are called to move beyond that; to keep pressing forward.
For if we do not press forward when the trail becomes normal, when everyone is not wearing the same t-shirts, and we’re not in a big worship service everyday, then we’ll lose the trail and we’ll lose ourselves. Can we find our way back? Absolutely, with God all things are possible. But it is difficult. I know.
Thus let us not forsake spending time with God: reading scripture, praying, asking questions. Let us not forsake fellowship with other Christians. Let us not forsake in striving to do what is just, merciful, and righteous. Keep pressing forward. Even if our pace is slow, let us keep moving forward. May we all keep moving forward after our Creator and Redeemer.