It’s been a long hard winter, with all those mounds and piles of snow and ice around, and since it is finally melting, I am feeling a desire to go for a long walk. So shortly after Ash Wednesday, my wife, Sue, is going to drop me off at the trailhead in Georgia with my pack to spend much of Lent in what she likes to call the Chapel of Our Lady Of The Woods. It’s a trail that I have walked before, but last time, I was in a hurry, with a lot of uncertainty about how the journey would go, and with a deadline. This year, I am only doing a section of the trail, and I will be taking my time to enjoy, to relax, to immerse myself in the experience, to observe — to spend some time among the saints, the angels and the wildflowers.
It’s a curious group of people that hike the trail — adventurers, seekers, pilgrims — all here for many different reasons. Over time, you see a community develop. All have a common goal. Some are well prepared and know how to do it. Others come with very little outdoor knowledge and have to figure it out as they go. But they find a lot of help and guidance from the more experienced ones, if they are open and able to listen. And the inexperienced ones bring freshness, wonder and optimism. So I will be along for the ride for awhile and will try to be of assistance if I can, and will try to learn from them also. I am sure I will encounter some saints among them.
Being out in the woods for a long period of time is a glorious experience, punctuated by a lot of hardships. The weather can be absolutely wonderful and make your heart sing. And it can be dismal and frightening, too. Sunshine and rain. Warmth and cold. Wind. For me, the wonders of nature show the hand of God in the world.
One of the wonderful parts of the experience is the angels along the way. The Appalachian Trail community calls them “trail angels.” Angels are goodhearted people whom you meet and who give you encouragement or shelter for a night, or perhaps some food. Along the trail, there are many people who do this, usually where the trail crosses a road. You may come out of the woods and find a picnic table set up, with people greeting you and offering you a sandwich or a cup of coffee or a cold drink. It is always a treat and much appreciated by the hikers. Their generosity and kindness is always a surprise.
To prepare for the hike, I have been saving up some of the song sheets from church to tuck into my pack. When no one else is around, I can take one of them out and sing some of the songs, usually as a morning prayer, when the air is clear and crisp and fresh. Ralph and Rose and Tootie will be in the pew behind me, I’m sure. And on the long uphill climbs, when I’m wondering if I will ever get to the top, I will usually fall back on some Hail Marys to pull me along. It can take a lot of Hail Marys to get over some mountains.
Wildflowers are one of the attractions. Early in the spring, there are none to be seen. But as the weeks go by, the hepatica and bloodroot will appear, and trillium and spring beauties and trout lilies. If I’m lucky the painted trillium will be in bloom. Around home, we usually only see the wildflowers for a few days or weeks, but hiking north on the trail, it becomes like a wildflower parade that goes on and on, from one mountain to the next, for many weeks. It is truly a delight to behold.
Eventually, as the river of hikers heads north, I will leave the stream and head home for Easter, grateful for the opportunity to spend time in the woods, among the saints, the angels and the wildflowers.
Editor’s note:Join Jerry in spirit — Mother of God’s annual wildflower hike will take place in Highland Cemetery, on Sunday, April 6, at 1:30 pm.