I went into the wilderness to find God. At least, that’s what I felt I was supposed to do as a recent seminary graduate and with the looming commitment of becoming a pastor at a thriving and creative church in St. Louis. So I flew out to California, took two buses from Fresno to Yosemite, and began a 200+ mile trek in the mountains over a two and a half week period.
It was nothing at all what I expected.
First of all, I wasn’t alone nearly as much as I thought I’d be. There are over a thousand people going north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. So not only did that make my trek seem less impressive, it meant I was running into people all the time. Secondly, this kind of exertion does not lend itself to spiritual reflection as if I was some sort of Disney princess pastor traipsing through the forest with God. Frankly, it was monotonous and painful and exhausting. It’s been four days since I got off the mountain and my joints and muscles and tendons are still giving me pains. And lastly, I realized that this kind of experience is not about playing hide and seek with the divine, as if God was hiding somewhere away from civilization. Rather, I found myself being deconstructed and broken down and changed.
Within my first few days I ran into a group of guys who worked in Silicon Valley. There were no other camping sites in the area and I had just finished a 17 mile hike and they begrudgingly let me set up my tent and hang with them. Turns out one guy was a former evangelical who had been burned by the church and the rest were more or less agnostic. So rather than focus on religion, our conversation eventually turned to the tension between nature and the day-to-day lives we live. I pointed out that we spend most of our time in completely artificial worlds: artificial lights in artificial buildings where we get to in our artificial transportation after eating our chemical-filled, artificial foods. And when we’re done, we go home and turn on a box and stare into more artificial light.
Naturally, these guys who invested their lives in the technological world did not enjoy this line of thought. A few of them actually recoiled a bit. One guy, an older software developer for a famous car company, eventually said, “I LIKE my artificial world!” He went on to explain how he was free to create things in that world, and that this was part of what it means to be alive and human. And he had a point. But I pushed back. At what point do we create our own little worlds around us to the point where we no longer have the need to be in touch with what is real? If we surround ourselves with enough pleasures, we simply deny the things we find uncomfortable.
Later on, I read a quote by John Muir, the namesake of my 216 mile trail: “Living artificially in towns, we are sickly, and never come to know ourselves.”
Little did I know that this would set a theme for the next two weeks as I found myself separated from all the little pleasures that have surrounded my life: hot water, shelter, a bed, tasty food, entertainment, transportation, and all the countless little comforts I have as a citizen of the developing world. The spiel I had given to these group of guys became my lived reality. My artificial world had been removed and I was left in the wild.
Initially I was just unhappy. But unhappiness quickly became regret and daydreaming. I constantly thought about turning around or going back. But for whatever reason, each foot continued to drop in front of the other and I continued moving forward. By the eighth day, I was a mess. I set up camp alone after a day of hiking and found my emotional state wavering. My breaths became short, my eyes suddenly watery, and as I dipped my Nalgene bottles into the nearby stream, I began to cry.
It was just so lonely.
As the sun set I fell asleep in my tiny tent wondering if I had always been this fragile.
Days passed and I occupied myself with fellow travelers. I found myself appreciating the company of others more than I had in a long time. But it also kept me from my thoughts. Eventually I had to hike alone again, but things were changing. I was getting stronger and my pack weighed less. I figured out a system to wash my clothes and make my meals with less trouble. I was getting better as spotting campsites and I could cover more miles. But even though the day became more bearable, the nights got worse. My dreams had me tossing and turning, unable to distract myself from my deepest feelings.
And then it was day 16. I had covered 180 miles and was on my way to summit the last mountain pass before my destination. I was counting down the days, but my excitement was tempered since I had spent the night dreaming about my deceased father. As I hiked, one foot in front of the other, the tears came again. This time I wasn’t pitying myself, but ashamed: Ashamed that I didn’t try harder, ashamed that I didn’t call back when I said I would, ashamed that he died in the arms of a nurse and not friends or family. And then I prayed. I prayed and cried and walked and it all came out. All the little artificial walls I had built finally came tumbling down and I was feeling the full weight of losing a father I barely knew.
And then the 13,000 ft. pass loomed ahead and my steps moved more slowly and my tears and sobs shifted from sorrow and healing to disbelief and hope. I was going to make it. Step. I was actually going to make it. Step. Doubt didn’t stop me. Step. Fear didn’t stop me. Step. Regret didn’t stop me. Step. Oh God oh God oh God.
And that was the closest I came to a spiritual experience. When all my little walls came tumbling down and my raw and exposed self summited that pass, I finally realized what I was really looking for. It wasn’t God. I never lost God.
I was looking for me.