The scenery on the trail was spectacular, but just like life, the backpack was a mix of emotions and experiences. As I left the world of worries behind, I could feel myself becoming physically lighter. I was hiking on Oregon’s North Umpqua Trail with a group from Klamath Falls Friends Church. I am fairly new to Friends, having only attended for about three years. I was raised Catholic, but hadn’t gone to church in many years and honestly never thought I’d ever again participate in organized religion. But the support I found in Klamath Falls Friends during a time of great uncertainty in my life opened me to Quakerism. I’m drawn to the Quaker testimonies. I also love getting out in nature, and it seems to me that backpacking, in many ways, reflects these Quaker distinctives. On a trek we carry only what is essential for the journey and seek peace and quiet. Out in the wilderness we trust in each other to have our backs, and no matter our position in life, all are equals out on the trail, and we take care to leave no trace on the fragile environment.
Hiking on the first day, we entered a dark and deeply silent place, a place it seemed the light could never penetrate. Yet this dark place was teeming with life. The misshapen trees, the lush green ferns and tangled growth, the overhanging moss and vines gave it an eerie, foreboding feeling. But then, like life, the darkness would suddenly and sporadically lift and the black sky would give way to a brief, brilliant warming sunlight.
On the second day of the hike, we passed waterfall after amazing waterfall, and the trail became rocky and wet and treacherous, the boulders blanketed in bright green moss with water cascading down the sides like light spring rain. One of the hikers, the youngest of the group at 56, caught her foot in the brush while climbing over a fallen tree and badly twisted her ankle (we later learned that she had also fractured the fibula). After assessing the situation and since she was able to bear weight, we divided up her gear between the rest of us and decided to walk out to the next trailhead; there was not much other choice. It forced us all to slow down and take one step at a time. We made frequent stops to rest and re-nourish; while sitting at a stream surrounded by large, white dogwood blossoms, we noticed a sleek brown mink scuttling by just as an osprey soared overhead. It took us many grueling hours to walk seven more miles—each step an intention, a surrender, an offering of gratitude for these very steps, but we finally reached the trailhead where the injured hiker was able to get a ride back to her car and return home. We were all amazed by her unfaltering positive attitude and grit.
The rest of us camped for the night, exhausted and each deeply aware of the uncertainties and vagaries of life, how one misstep can change its course yet grateful for the majesty we’d witnessed and that we’d made it through. In the morning, as we hiked high up on a ridge, the terrain changed, becoming dryer and harsher, with towering pines and a smattering of rusty red madrone trees as twisted as licorice. We passed flat granite ledges like stone altars, with bent trees growing from rocky wombs. On an open hilltop a thick rattlesnake sunning itself on a rock menacingly hissed and rattled a warning that we’d entered his domain. After 12 hard miles we finally found a place to set up camp down a ravine next to a rushing creek that quickly lulled us all to sleep.
As we walked out the next day, I pondered my many “God sightings,” as our pastor at Klamath Falls Friends Church calls those moments and insights that connect us to God. Life is dark and life is full of light, but there is always growth and illumination in the darkness. Life is uncertain and wet and wild and dry as bone, both lush and harsh, yet there is birth in the barest of places. We can lighten each other’s loads and share each other’s burdens to make it through. Life can be majestic and courageous, and life is painful and tough, but to move on we keep putting one foot in front of the other. And in order to experience it all, we must slow down and look and listen and be grateful for each step. For all that we encounter and know, if we only keep searching, we will find that peace and light and living water that was there all along.