Beginning at the End



I am home.  That is, home on Mill Road.  I now sleep on a bed with a pillow, although in my dreams I am still hiking.  I wake  up confused and wonder why my bones are still aching when I did not climb three mountains yesterday.  I no longer can smell my sweaty body—my own unique, somewhat offensive scent that  contributed to the smells of the trail and the outdoors around me.  Instead, I now smell like lavender soap because a  shower is available whenever I want and my clothes are freshly laundered.  Nor must I consider where my next drink of water will come from, walking downhill a half mile to a feebly running spring and then carefully draining the collected water through  my handy-dandy Sawyer filter.  No, I now only walk a few paces to a faucet where treated water freely spouts out.   If I am hungry, I am not limited to choosing from trail mix, nuts or five of my dried, lightweight trail meals.  Instead, I now have a refrigerator full of choices, and, if that isn’t enough, I can drive five minutes to the grocery store for further options—or to a restaurant, for that matter.

Yes, I am home and the pilgrimage has come to an end.  No longer do I carry all my belongings on my back, no longer am I at the mercy of whatever weather event is bearing down, no longer am I a curiosity crossing a road, no longer a  stranger passing through on the way to somewhere else.  A significant episode in my life has come to an end.

I may be home,  but I feel I have come home changed—or a more theological word for it is “transformed.”  At the beginning of this journey, I was presumptuous enough to have an agenda for what I thought God would teach me while I was hiking the trail.  I remember being uneasy midway through the pilgrimage.  I was walking  nine or more hours a day.  I filtered water.  I sweated and stank. I pitched a tent and relieved myself in privies and bushes.  I heated hot water for oatmeal and dreamed of pancakes and bacon. I read psalms and psalms and more psalms and argued with at least half of them.   But how was any of this changing me?  I remember thinking that, if God doesn’t do something in my life through all this, it would be a waste of my and the congregation’s time.  God, what are you trying to teach me, I prayed.  I hammered that prayer with my trekking poles up mountain after mountain on more than one day.  Please, I bargained with God, you should make this worth my time and sweat.

In the end, I haven’t returned with gems of insights about the psalms.  In the end I couldn’t change myself on the trail.  I couldn’t tell God what needed to be done to make me a better person or a better pastor and then prove to God I was serious by climbing up the next mountain.  What folly!  Yet something happened somewhere along the way that had nothing to do with my plans or efforts.  At some point there was a slow shift and I started seeing things differently.  I started seeing who I was differently.  I began to see how God was messing with my life and inviting me to relax into a different, more truthful way of being.

I doubt that family or friends can identify any transformation in me yet; I have yet to be able to verbalize it to myself.  Oh, yes, those who know me will quickly see that I have lost weight and am physically stronger.  They might see that I am more confident and more relaxed.  Certainly I will have many stories to tell if they are patient about listening.  And, when one thinks about it,  simply hiking over 500 miles is certainly an amazing accomplishment for the absolutely non-athletic person that I am.  But how does one measure whether a pilgrimage has been “worth” the effort, the time, the cost of it all?  How does one measure what God has been up to?  And does God even care about our human ways of measuring spiritual growth and progress?  I doubt it.

Looking back, I see that the shifting in me could only have happened on the kind of sweat-soaked challenge that the trail offered.  Now that I am home, I have to trust that the transformation I suspect happened while I was away will now slowly work itself outward.  Writing is a way to reflect on that journey.  There are many great books about walking the Appalachian Trail, but I am not planning to add to that list.  Instead, I will write about the hiking in order to understand God.  Okay, maybe that is a bit too ambitious.  Who can understand God?  So I will write in order to make sense of an amazing pilgrimage where God was the companion.   I will write in order to see more clearly.  I will write in order to discern where God’s footprints have been along the way.  I will write in order to see where God is guiding me next.

Yes, I am home, hopefully transformed a bit, and, if so, that is God’s business, not mine.  There is, I am reminded, a new beginning at every ending.  So as this adventurous pilgrimage ends, I will write my way into whatever is beginning.

(The cell phone photo is from a meadow at the top of Chestnut Ridge mountain, a ridge that divides southwest Virginia from West Virginia.  Yes, for all  practical purposes the trail meanders a number of miles through two states at one time. )






  1. Thanks Elaine for the update. I am glad your are home safely.
    You will probably spend the rest of your life trying to find the answer to all those questions. I for one believe “what will be will be” as long as I try and treat everyone else the same way I would want to be treated.

  2. Elaine Dent says:

    And your guideline, Jim, is a great one to live by, which my overly perfectionist, controlling personality is learning to appreciate.

  3. Tom Hyatt says:

    So happy you are home safe. Time alone like you had can help but lead to a few revelations, even if they weren’t what you expected as ling as you are listening. Glad you kept listening as you know better than anybody how important listening is. Please share share it with us.

    • Tom, it is going to be both fun and good work for me to write about those “revelations” along the way. The nature of AT hiking, observing creation, the people I met, the practice of reading psalms, and my journal along the way leaves plenty of material both to change me in positive ways and for me to reflect and write about. I am reminded of a 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich (England), who received amazing visions or “showings” of God’s love in a period of history where God was viewed more as a judge. She wrote an early version of these revelations, and, after many years of praying and reflecting on the teachings God had given her., she wrote a more extended text. (She was the first woman to write a book in English, I understand, and in the area of theology at that.) I absolutely had no “visions”, but she does inspire me to take seriously and share what I have experienced. More writing to come….