According to Paul Stutzman, author of Hiking Through: One Man’s Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail; one doesn’t so much choose to hike the trail, one responds to its call. For Stutzman, the call to hike the 2,176 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) came after losing his wife to breast cancer. Raised in a conservative Mennonite community, Stutzman said he approached the AT in search of a new conversation with God.
“I needed to know if God was who He said He was,” wrote Stutzman.
Those who complete the trail, originating in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and culminating on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, are known as thru-hikers. In his book, Stutzman described the unique kinship forged by such hikers as they experience the trail’s physical challenges and share its traditions of courtesy and kindness.
One of the traditions Stutzman described is the practice of finding trail magic, unexpected gifts of food and refreshment left along the way to encourage hikers. Often those who have left such gifts are former hikers, those who learned from experience the power of a simple gift to lift the spirits of another.
Stutzman described both the staggering beauty he found as well as the terrifying power of nature he witnessed throughout the course of his hike. At one point Stutzman found himself stranded without shelter and clinging to a tree during a particularly violent thunderstorm. After the storm had passed, he saw tall trees uprooted and heard reports of funnel clouds in the area. In considering both the beauty and power of creation, Stutzman said that, “Every day, it seemed that God revealed more of Himself to me. Perhaps it was because I wanted to hear.”
Throughout the course of his journey, Stutzman encountered a diversity of people among his fellow hikers. Some he described as religious while others were not. In keeping with his desire to hear more clearly from God, Stutzman began reading through his Bible and continued this practice throughout his hike. It seemed that the practice of reading God’s word, together with the physical activity of moving through His creation with fellow travelers, combined for Stutzman in a life-transforming way.
“Little by little,” Stutzman wrote, “the heart of God came into focus.”
Prior to hiking the AT, Stutzman worked in the restaurant industry; he was not a writer by trade. Yet I don’t know how one could undertake this kind of life-changing experience without committing its lessons to paper. Of his journey along the Appalachian Trail, Stutzman wrote that his experience was about more than walking two thousand miles. He believes God gave him a message to tell.
It is evident that Stutzman paid careful attention to people and places throughout the course of his hike. He clearly kept detailed notes of his journey. As he described certain sections of the trail and particular encounters along the way, I felt myself at times keeping pace with him.
Occasionally Stutzman took detours from description of his hike, interrupting the flow of his narrative with commentary about environmental practices or spiritual insights he had gained along the way. Although I found some of these asides distracting, overall I consider Stutzman’s account a tale well told.
“Every generation has its own reasons for pilgrimage,” wrote Stutzman. I’m fairly certain I’m not one of the chosen few called to this particular journey. But I am happy to have been taken along the trail through the eyes of one who was.
Available May, 2012, at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a complimentary copy of this book for my review. I received no other compensation and the opinions expressed above are my own.