This past month has been a working sabbatical. Most of the the time has been built around discernment, both for myself and for the church. It has been about programming, training, and "next steps" in the constantly changing landscape of church and ministry. I will not lie. It has been stressful at times. Who knows, really, what will come next?
During this time I have been expanding my outreach options. I revived my podcast; removing it from its old location and resettling it on the same platform with a few more "bells and whistles" that are probably not noticeable to the casual listener. I also began making more complicated and longer-running Youtube videos. Both the podcast and the videos are on the "Sabbath Walks" theme.
There are a number of reasons to do this and it is probably worth taking a moment to let you know what those reasons are. So, for convenience and clarity, here they are...with headings.
Personal: The fact is, I like the process of filming and editing. I like interviewing people as well. As with other things I enjoy--like walking or preaching--the activity takes me outside myself. It forces me to concentrate and create. There is a problem to solve and a clear product at the end. Other than worship, much of my work life is set around things with no beginning or ending. That is the way of nurturing community. I know this, but sometimes it is nice to make something.
Also, these particular activities help me to mark a particular moment in the life I share with others. There is a great deal going on both at work and at home. We are all in the process of changing and growing. While I sat and edited the long "Seed Starting" video--I have learned something about the editing process since--my youngest told me that these will be nice to have and look back on. After all, life moves forward. Maybe the slow pace of videos on gardening and hiking will be important to us when we are at a different phase.
Professional: This process obviously impacts my professional life. These skills are not what they taught me in seminary! Back then we were preparing for the 20th Century church. We even paused every once in a while to look back to the 19th Century with its battles both intellectual and literal. I remember being vaguely discontented much of the time. We were prepared for a world that was already over, but people didn't really believe it.
These are different 21st Century skills. There are plenty of areas for growth as we realize some of the "old ways" left the stage a while ago. In this case, I am learning about sound, picture, lighting, and technology. Also, I am learning different ways to put together a story. Since the life of a clergyperson has a lot to do with living into and interpreting stories--personal and scriptural--this is no small thing. We can become stagnant, after all. The new techniques and new lenses have influenced how I use the many remaining familiar tools of my trade.
Congregational: This interest of mine is not new. I have had some kind of weblog for decades. I have made YouTube videos for years. Most of these were of sermons or the performance of various iterations of our music ministry. If you want to know who took this work seriously, just look at who is in the music vids. Otherwise it seemed that most people thought of this as a "hobby" that detracted from more sober activities.
Then March of 2020 occurred. On March 11 we decided to cancel in person church for March 15 of that year. Yep. That first online-only worship service was exactly three years ago today.
Things changed then, didn't they? Our little side-ministry gave us the ability as well as the confidence to pivot immediately. It took us minutes to form the plan that became the foundations--or the spine, or the trunk--of church life for the next 18 months. Within a couple days we had our first service "in the can" and ready to go live that Sunday morning.
We kept learning through that period, but we did not scramble. We didn't need to. Now we have moved back to "normal" and it is easy to forget what we did.
However, we should not forget. It was our finest hour.
These podcasts, videos, and blog posts are insurance against another time where we need them. Yet they are more than that. They are an imperfect window into what will come next. Increasingly, in fact, we will find that spiritual seekers will start their quest online rather than in person. These interactive technological tidbits are our front door.
Spiritual: Yes, I am doing this for spiritual reasons, too. Partly the needs are my own. However, I believe that the sharing of my own quest and questions helps to enrich a ministry. Each "platform" connects to the others in order to form a whole:
In person worship feeds our souls in real time and brings us together as a community in ways that are just not possible otherwise. Our services and events are designed to create both formal and informal settings to gather, to explore life's questions, and just to hang out without the demands of a busy world.
The Sabbath Walks Podcasts are designed to augment this experience. Most of them are under half an hour long. The goal is to put them on headphones or a speaker in order to connect once again to the spiritual element of life. We can take time for these topics while driving to work, or cleaning the house, or (even) hiking or walking around town.
While The Sabbath Walks YouTube videos are relatively new, this technology has always been a popular extra for us. We used to share the musical performances quite a bit in the before times. Most of them did double duty as hymns during the plague. We reached the peak with weekly worship. Now I am trying out some other topics and styles. Each is an attempt, though, to reach out and show how the spiritual interacts with our everyday existence.
Finally, we are steering our way toward workshops and walks. These will be--and have been--in person. There are many ways to worship and be worshipful. The "future church" whatever it may be, will need all the ways we can muster.
That is all for now. Feel free to explore the links to our online resources. In the next few days I will try to curate them a bit for another post here. I have no illusion as to how often they now are or ultimately will be visited. The various counters and measuring sticks tell me that even when they get "liked" in a Facebook post, they aren't always interacted with.
They are there, however, for when you need them. Perhaps that isn't today. Just remember that they might help you out some time. The Sabbath Walk isn't just for Sunday, after all.
Hiked on February 14, 2023
This was a spontaneous hike. Thursday's weather looked hideous as usual and I wanted to see the sun! I decided, therefore, to hit Route 2 and head over to the High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary on a Tuesday to catch the view. I had been saving it for a perfect day...and this was pretty close. The loop I chose was around 5 miles and featured an undulating landscape with a small mountain, a fire tower, a valley, and some hills. The snow was fairly compact to start and then it got loose as the air warmed it up. This made footing a bit of a challenge...and I brought out the micro spikes.
I could use the workout though. There has been quite a bit going on. The church is wrestling with some big questions. Finally, I have a few weeks of sabbatical starting soon. I will give thought to the church's questions then and add in a few of my own....
Lately I have been thinking about life-changing moments. Specifically those times when we make a decision to leap into the abyss and become a miniature or occasional "knight of faith" in the old formula of Kierkegaard. There are times when our lives change because of something that happened to us. However, when we are able to exercise of free will, our moments of decision change the trajectory of who we are, how we are perceived, and maybe who other people are around us.
These decisions aren't always drastic. This is a good thing. People can wait their whole lives and miss the turning points if they believe that our choices only come in large sizes. Sometimes we hardly notice them at the time. Either way we make them, don't we? They are the beats of our lives. Looking back they are the decisions we mark to say that life was different afterward...in some way large or small.
I remember deciding to become a minister at the foot of Doubletop Mountain in Maine when I was 19. It wasn't momentous at the time but there I was...and here I am. I just went for a walk in the evening and decided that--given my interests and my emerging skill set--the parish and I would be good for each other. My ministry outlived the campsite we stayed at. It seems to be a much bigger deal now.
A short time later I met my future wife at a meeting of college activists. In an uncharacteristic fit of optimism, I thought I would like to get to know her better. Turns out I didn't make much of an impression on her at the time...but here we are three decades later.
There are decisions that change our lives in smaller but still-lasting ways. I remember the first time I played the ukulele in the middle of a sermon. Everybody was surprised. These days--many music ministries later--it isn't a big deal anymore. The same can be said for Dungeons and Dragons Club and the "Snow Posse" (sidewalk shoveling) youth group events that grew into something for a few years then seemingly faded away. Those youth are grown up now and some keep in touch. I am always pathetically happy to see them when I can. Two of the gamers now help me teach their parents in "adult" D&D. Maybe it didn't fade after all.
Each of these decisions and many others started small and even commonplace. What grew out of them was a life. I feel like there will be a few more decisions like that soon. Maybe I will make them. Maybe someone else will. Right now with the church it feels like many, many big decisions are coming down the line. However, it will be the small ones that lead to another and another that will determine our future.
I say all this now because hikes like this are a series of small decisions. This week on a Tuesday I decided to get up and get going. I decided where to go. There were all kinds of micro decisions that helped me to focus on the day. How would I get there? Would I do both the out-and-back to the tower or just the ledges themselves? Was this a good use of my time? How would I deal with the vagaries of weather?
Also, on this trip, I decided to do some more extensive filming. It has been a while. Many of you are aware of my interest in 21st century communication. This weblog is part of that. My podcasts are as well. For a long time I was into making youtube videos of sermons, church news, meditations, music and--during the plague--entire worship services. Sometimes this meant collaboration. At other times I worked on them by myself. I got into it through a series of small decisions that brought me joy. A series of small decisions may bring me back...or maybe they come to nothing. It is too early to tell.
If we use the model of "Sabbath Walks" that I write and talk about here and elsewhere, all of these endeavors--these choices made and sometime pursued--fall into the category or "frame" of dialogue or creativity. On this hike, for example, the choice to film meant stopping and starting; recording sections of trail, talking to the camera while imagining future viewers, editing after getting home while re-living the excursion, and improvising a soundtrack. I had to make decisions about equipment. If I keep doing this there will be more decisions to make as some things may need replacing.
There are many little steps. After all to even get to the point of recording there was research. There were skills that could use some improvement through repetition. That said, I am learning. While this decision may not lead to anything more, it just might...probably in surprising ways. After all, nobody thought the skills I learned from my "hobby" would help hold online worship together during the early months of Covid. Ultimately we found somebody more skilled. Of course, nobody thought that the skilled person we found would be a beloved former member of the D&D Club and the Snow Posse who had moved away. Decisions keep on rippling out, don't they?
Anyway, I have included the video. I think it is pretty good for a first attempt! I also started a Sabbath Walks YouTube page that you can subscribe to to get notifications. Just click on the video above and hit "subscribe." I may decide make more of these moving pictures. We shall see. Both I and the church are looking for ways to communicate. Perhaps this is the way.
Here is to your decisions and dialogues. I hope you have found something to bring the sabbath "walk" to life regardless of what it is or how you go about it. Many blessings on your travels until next time. I will see you out on the trail.
I always expected that hikes and posts would drop off once work started up again, but I guess I didn't realize how precipitously. I promised myself to do a "big hike" every week or so and post regularly on various topics. Instead life caught up. Ministry is an emotional business sometimes. The various arenas of parish life require commitment in multiple ways. Essentially, there are things that must be done to aid a changing church and changing lives of church members. I haven't been able to get away for extended periods of time.
Man...I would love to though...
That said, I have been able to take a few smaller walks and hikes. The most challenging one involved a treadmill and an elliptical at the YMCA. The most meaningful one for me was Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, just outside of downtown Freeport in Maine. This is one of those places I went often as a young person. It was relatively close to where I grew up. We would have picnics here regularly. Later, when I went to a private high school, the park was on my way home. Back then I would sometimes go running here to stay in shape for the worst cross-country team in the state.
Then, when I, my siblings, and our significant others worked in the "outlet heck" of Freeport, we would sometimes take our picnic breaks here. Family members who worked at a sandwich shop would bring the food. Then we would drive home...to the same house, because we lived with our parents. In that group a number of our "first dates" happened here. Oh yes, there was camping involved, too...
Through the trees you can see the innocent-looking island where the ospreys nest. One of the first lessons I ever got about the power of nature was a warning not to go over there because the ospreys would attack you. There have been plenty of stories about people--sometimes arrogant, sometimes drunk and arrogant--doing just that and ending up in the hospital.
The path, itself, is not all that difficult. It winds from the picnic area along the coastline. There isn't a beach (thank God) so it is a hiker's park, mostly. The range of the tides is pretty extreme, so the view constantly changes. Also, there are many spots where one can turn back to the parking lot if necessary. It can be a pretty convenient feature if schedules or abilities differ. During this most recent trip on an unseasonably warm day, my niece had to head home after a while to get ready for school, so she just turned off and we continued on.
There isn't much to say about the walk we took. It wasn't very technical. I nabbed a geocache. We spent time with family, like we always have here. Then we went back the way we came. However, it does bring up a subject that I have been reminded of frequently in this project. That, my friends, would be accessibility.
Many of the hikes I list on Sabbath Walks can be challenging for some people. I forget that. Probably that is because the hikes are also challenging for me and I do not think of myself as much of an athlete. As a slow hiker, there are plenty of people to remind me on every trip large or small that it is harder for me than it is for them. That is how people roll; one-upping each other with abandon.
It turns out that there is a degree of difficulty in what I do--even on Mount Cube or Hedgehog--that is worth recognizing. It might be that for some people the challenge makes those hikes less relaxing than they should be for a sabbath walk.
The big accidental secret is that I take a lot of shorter or easier walks. It's not just Wolfe's Neck! I just didn't know anyone would be interested. With that in mind--and to reveal where I go when I am not climbing a mountain--here are some of my other favorite easy (or easier) hikes, some of which I have done more times than I can count...
OK...one further note. No walk is really "easy." There is always a challenge. The trick is knowing what you are up for and what you think you can manage on any given day. When I injured my back all the hikes on this "easy" list were off the table for a while. For some people they may always be just manageable or not manageable. Know thyself, thy interests, and thy ability. If these seem a bit too easy, I recommend my Easyish Hikes list.
Also...again...know you are hiking your own hike. Sometimes someone else thinks you are a loser for accomplishing something they think is beneath them. I have been on the receiving end of hiker toxicity more than once, myself. That is on them. You don't need their insecurities to harsh your vibe.
Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
I credit this trail with much of the progress I made rehabbing my back. However, my relationship with it starts way before my injury. When I need to think and then get right back to work, this is where I go. The trails here can sustain a hike of anywhere between 1/4 mile to 3 miles. It is dog-friendly and--unlike some parks not on this list--the dog walkers keep their furry friends relatively under control.
There are no epic views here. However, there is a lovely boardwalk through a wetland. Most importantly: do not miss the area across Charles River Street from the parking areas! It is oft-forgotten so there are fewer people. Also, it takes you down to the Charles River, which is always pretty.
Oliverian Brook Trail, WMNF, NH
I hiked this one in the rain, but I have to say that the river was very pretty and--in an area of relatively tough climbs--it was a good cool-down. I sat by the brook for a while. On a pretty day I could see spending even more time there quite happily. If you are stuck in the White Mountain National Forest and don't want one of the many riskier hikes available, just tell your friends you are doing this and will meet up with them after.
Note that this is an out-and-back. The same trail leads to some relatively easy--but more challenging than this list--ledges. Also, if you make the wrong turn you could end up on the butt-kicking slopes of Mount Passaconaway. Turn around when you are ready. You really call the shots.
By the way, it gets a mention on my Mount Hedgehog post. Hedgehog, itself, is "easyish" and these trails could make a nice two-day combo.
Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick, MA
In the Covid era this extremely popular sanctuary required a reservation. It may still. Also, if you are not a member the Audubon Society, it will cost a you a tiny bit. That said, I love this place! I have hiked/snowshoed here in all kinds of weather. There are trails that make cute 1/4 mile loops and longer arrangements as well.
This also borders the Charles River. I have passed the farthest flung trails from time to time in my canoe. If you like turtles do check out the various observation areas in the wetlands near the parking area. Finally, be warned, since the plague this place has been packed on the weekends.
Cochituate Rail Trail, Natick/Framingham, MA
One warning about this one...it is paved. This is a multi-use trail that is probably best on a bike but walkers can enjoy it too. It serves as a pedestrian/bike path for commuters. You can hit the mall. It leads to the back gate of Cochituate State Park. I made a loop of it from my house--which came to around 9 miles--in order to train up for the Great Glen Way road walk portions. Worked great.
Be warned that the hard surface can do a number on your feet if you go the whole way.
Mount Agamenticus, York, ME
This is the "hardest" of these easy hikes and it is the only one that has its own entry on this blog. I will refer you there for details. Still, it was very accessible and there were plenty of trails that skirt the mountain, itself if that feels like too much.
Long Pond Loop (Tully Lake Reservation) Athol, MA
This loop is also on the challenging end of easy. There is an optional tiny mountain to consider. That said, it is one of my absolute favorites of all time. It follows Long Pond just north of the much-busier Tully Lake. There are views both over the pond and up on the tiny mountain. It is also the longest on this list at about 7 miles. Unlike the rail trail, you cannot really bail out, which is a consideration. That said. it is very doable if you give yourself enough time.
Bradbury Mountain State Park, Pownal, ME
I have mentioned this one before as well. I spent a huge amount of time here growing up. One of my brothers worked as a summer ranger here as well. This tiny "mountain" has a great view of the towns and villages where I grew up. Trust me, though, you will like it even if you are from away. Also, yes, my high school cross-country team ran here from time-to-time as well.
As with Wolfe's Neck and Broadmoor, there is a fee to get in. The shortest trail to the top is about .4 miles. However, I usually take the perimeter trail that makes the whole experience closer to 3 miles.
That is all for now! It was nice getting to think about these special places. I have already been to Ridge Hill once this week. Maybe I will head over again soon...
Well...it happened. I am back at work after 5 weeks of a sabbatical filled with hiking, writing, and reading. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I also learned a great deal about interacting with the natural world which, of course, was the point. I find it is good to have goals even in an ostensibly less-structured time. I like being able to look back and see what I did. Among other things, I hiked 35 of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers and 18 of New Hampshire's "52 With a View" mountains. I have written about many of them here. Not bad.
This is my third sabbatical. After every sabbatical at least one person will use the term "rested and refreshed" to describe my state upon returning. I don't get the "rested" part. I never really rested. I worked--and played--pretty hard actually and now I am tired around the edges. However, in one sense--perhaps that of restarting a computer, for example--I could be refreshed. Sabbatical is a reboot. It involves getting rid of old programming and updating systems. I am not done yet. There is more sabbatical to come. Still, I am in the reboot process and that is...interesting.
I had a number of goals for myself at this point in that process. One of them was simply an act of definition. I wanted to answer the question of what a "Sabbath Walk" actually is. I named this weblog after the concept, which did not originate with me. What sort of "walk" helps us to connect to the Great Whatever? How do we find ways to act in the world that will expand our horizons? In an earlier post I talked about what the implications might be for the institutional church. Here, I want to lift up some aspects of what I learned.
Now for this project my sabbath walks have been actual walks. That is what works for me. Of course they could really comprise any number of activities. Some people's sabbath walk is more of a sit or a read. There are people who explore through music or math or science. I kept it simple by making this metaphor for life somewhat literal. There are, of course, other ways to connection. Here I am talking about hiking, but there may be something in it for you even if that is not your bag.
I learned pretty quickly that not every hike fit into the category of sabbath. Some of them were too challenging. Some were too easy. There were distractions along the way. Like Goldilocks I found that there was an element of "just rightness" that I needed to get into a prayerful or meditative mood. I have hinted at this realization in a number of other posts. Just as in formal worship--where through the elements of the ritual we attempt to elevate our minds and hearts--there are conditions that help or hinder the spiritual exercise of walking in the woods.
Of course there are infinite variations to these conditions. However, for the sake of simplicity I have begun to use four broad categories that need to be present in relatively equal measure for a true sabbath walk. If they are not there the adventure can still be worthwhile, of course. It is just that the conditions make the spiritual connection--the meditative aspect--harder to find. There was much to say about ,my climb up Mount Washington and Mount Monroe, for example, but either my own state or the state of the hike itself (or both) made meaningful reflection difficult
Anyway, here they are. All four of these aspects are recognizable to most hikers as being par for the course. Which is to say that they are part of any climb or walk. When we are mindful of them, we have a better time. In fact, these are often the specific reasons we went for a walk in the first place!
1) Physical Challenge and Discipline:
It is hard to miss this one. I mark my own discipline of sabbath walking from right after my back surgery. There was rehab involved. I had to get out and get moving! Hiking was more interesting than going to the gym, where I injured myself in the first place. It was also something I was familiar with from a lifetime of getting outdoors. Most people--hikers and non-hikers alike--recognize that there is a physical challenge involved when we intentionally take a long walk. Even strolling around the neighborhood indicates that we are somehow pushing ourselves. The challenge is part of why we do it. We are "getting in shape" but we are also getting to know our bodies, their likes and dislikes. Knowing ourselves and the vessel that carries us is essential to a well-grounded life.
Now, this can often be the primary motivation for some hikers. It is a legitimate door into a sabbath discipline. Getting stronger and feeling better physically is important in and of itself. So too is the pride and joy of achieving a difficult goal. When I climbed Mount Adams and Mount Madison a couple weeks ago, I was chuffed to have done so. The trip was very much about dealing with the 5,000-plus feet of total elevation gain and staying hydrated. We were coping with the discomfort and the risk around wet trails and the slippery rocks. My brother waited at the end for us and became worried something bad had happened! We were just slow. We all high-fived each other in the parking lot at the end. That said, the physical challenges out-weighed some of the other aspects so it was hard for me to make it a "sabbath."
What I can say, though, is that one's physical presence brought about by addressing a physical challenge with intention and discipline is essential to the walk. It's just that too much physical challenge makes it hard to concentrate on other things. We must push ourselves and engage our bodies. Yet it can be--and should be--at the level of the walker. That is part of our practice of self-awareness, after all. It also needs to balance with a few other things.
2) Mental Challenge and Discipline:
Now, it may be easy to conflate this with the physical challenge. Many athletes, for example, talk about getting the right mindset for their respective competitions. I am a big basketball fan and--if this were a different kind of blog--I would tell you about the many times in the NBA and WNBA where a less-talented team beat a more talented one because their heads were in the right place.
We see this in a good walk, as well. Lets say we are climbing a physically challenging mountain and we need to find the courage and fortitude to keep going. In that moment we must push through the pain or despair to the other side. It matters that we do this. However, it also matters how we do this. For some it is a case of baring down, finding hidden reserves of power, and soldiering through. Others--and I would put myself in this category--do better through a discipline of openness. When I hike I try to cast my eyes and my heart outward into the landscape and toward other hikers, using the power of the world around me to drive me forward.
It wasn't always this way. I remember hiking Mount Moosilauke early on in this project. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have. I was still in pretty bad shape both physically and mentally. I used the "dig deep, push through" method and it got me to the top of the mountain. About halfway down, however, those reserves ran out. I "crashed" emotionally and had trouble getting myself back to the car while in full hot mess mode. This was the state of things on many hikes for a while. However, I started turning the corner while climbing the Tripyramids and by the time I hit the Osceolas--where I actually took a major fall--I at least had the sense of what I needed to do going forward. All that stuff in my posts about noticing the colors, the views, the little plants, and the people began as part of that exercise of openness. It was a very practical adaptation to help me survive.
The world/creation/the universe etc has more energy than we have on our own. It is good to find ways to use it.
3) Receptivity to the Moment:
This one logically follows from the previous ones, doesn't it? It is in some way about aesthetics. Most folks who go for walks have a view in mind. That is why we climb mountains or circle lakes. It is why we try for the most "natural" places in our lives. We are trying to be called up and out from the concerns that tie us down and reduce our humanity. An experience that points to the vastness around us helps with that.
Human constructs often demand more from us than we are able to healthily give. There are societal and economic demands on us. In order to maintain our selfhood in this environment, we naturally pull ourselves inward. We stay in our lane as much as possible. We also travel as fast as that lane allows.
Maybe we manage to live in the moment while we are drinking our first cup of coffee in the morning. After that, though, for most of us life is a series of next moments. There are things we are expected to--or want to--achieve so we going about doing those things.
This is what draws us to our sanctuaries. We are not products of our constructed world. We are products of the world before we built those things. You might want to go back and read the two previous sentences again. The solid foundation of a house of worship, or the quiet of an art museum, or the chaos of a concert, or the primal energy of the trail, are all sanctuaries for our souls where we can be present in the space we are occupying at that very moment. Our challenge is to find those places where we are receptive. There are many, many directions in which to go to seek them.
If you have read my posts here then you know that I have developed a practice of receptiveness while hiking. Particularly when I am alone, I make a point of sitting, feeling the rock beneath me, listening to the wind and the animals in the bushes. If there is a view I try to enjoy that, too. It isn't entirely necessary though. This practice has helped to save many a hike that I would otherwise deem a bust. Most recently it helped me through a soggy hike up Mount Israel.
The sabbath walk needs time to make connections to the right now, and sometimes it isn't that easy.
4) Contributing Creativity
Worship is a dialogue. Yes, in many formal settings it may not feel that way. Folks who get their information about worship life third-hand may not be aware that in pretty much every tradition there are ways that everyone participates and adds to the moment. In my church there are hymns and responsive readings. There are announcements that are sometimes longer than the sermon. There is coffee and conversation afterward that frequently lasts longer than worship, itself. A sabbath walk requires these elements as well. Our conversation--broadly conceived--creates a new thing and adds to the whole of creation.
Creativity can be intimidating. People think of painting, writing, and preaching, for example. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Do you sing along to the radio in the car? That is part of a dialogue. You are changing the original document--the song--and making it your own at least for that place and time. I sing hymns on the trail these days, particularly when things are getting rough. I picked this practice back up from my distant past on a solo hike up Tecumseh and have continued to do so when the spirit moves.
I also take pictures and, yes, I write. That is extra, though. As this project has gone on I have found it harder to post something new for each walk but I still form sentences in my heart as I go along, even though you may never read them. I also usually manage an Instagram post. Pictures don't feel as repetitive to me.
A sabbath walk doesn't just involve being in the moment and witnessing what is before us. It involves making that moment more meaningful and beautiful. This doesn't always happen. There is so much going on as we walk that we may be too distracted. There may be too much going on before and after our walk. We may not be in the right space to make something new.
However sabbath is about practice and we do get better at being creative over time. We get better at talking back to--and building--creation. We need to forgive ourselves when things don't go right. There will always be another sabbath-day.
So--once again--not all walks are reflective. That is fine and good. Sometimes we need to get something else out of an experience. That said, I do believe that there is a place for worshipful walking when we can. These four aspects in some sort of balance are--for me at least--what makes the difference between a good hike and a sabbath walk. If you are curious which ones made it for me, I have an "Actual Sabbath Walks" section which will give you a sense of what I am talking about. They can be a challenging as Mount Katahdin or as easy as Mount Norwottuck. On my list, for whatever reason, things aligned in such a way as to create an attitude of worship and of connection to something greater than myself.
I hope your walks--or your "walks"--are also satisfying. If you feel like sharing, please do! Communities--congregations in whatever form--make everything more meaningful.
Hiked On October 4, 2022 (via Cross Rivendell Trail)
It is the first hike of October and the foliage situation is improving. Right now--at least on Mount Cube--it is all about orange and yellow with a few touches of red. When it isn't raining, the temperature is just about perfect. I am going to have to switch out from my summer pack to my regular pack this week. The number of layers I use in a day out is increasing. There is a gentle smell in the air of wetness and rot. It is a beautiful time for a sabbath walk.
Also, there are fewer people out on the trails. Vacation is over and the peak season of outdoor activity is behind us now. In fact, it turns out that if you hike this mountain early in the morning on a Tuesday in October, you can have the place to yourself. I have never been so alone on a mountain. There were no cars at the trailhead. I saw nobody at the intersections with other trails. That was fine by me.
Still, it felt a bit strange. When I hike by myself I am rarely alone. There are people around even if I don't see them or talk to them. On the days with rain and fog at the top--most recently Katahdin and Black (Benton)--there are still some hardy types. On Black it was just a couple people. On Katahdin there were plenty. I chose the mountain and the day with isolation in mind. In fact, I considered the Webster-Jackson loop--which would have been populated even on a weekday--and rejected the idea. Cube guaranteed silent-time with nature. I just didn't realize how much silent-time...
For people who hike a great deal, seeking isolation is frequently part (or all) of the goal. It isn't all fun outings. We want to be anonymous for our own reasons. The trauma of the plague, at least, has given many folks the drive to get away. Each individual, though, has a motivation unique to them. They can be dark reasons or not, but they are still present in our hearts somewhere, possibly not yet fully realized.
The mountains don't care who you are, after all. They can be good spots to work things out. There is positive power in sitting with only the vastness for company. Many times, no one will even bother you.
I seem to be drawn to isolation myself, lately. There are times in one's life when a person wants to change things even if they are pretty social during everyday life. During this sabbatical season the fall in the air has prompted a desire to fade from view a bit. Anonymity is appealing. When someone is unknown, they can change how they dress, look, and act if that is what is desired. Time away helps with that.
Time in a relatively undisturbed ecosystem--which is constantly emerging and reinventing itself--helps, too. For a moment we can slip into creation's rhythms and see ourselves as non-static beings. We are able to escape Society's wish to cast us permanently in our current outward role. In the wild we do not have to play the part of good or bad, strong or weak, foolish or wise that has been our assignment through the passing of years. We are observed, judged, and graded in life. These pressures strive to mold us. Sometimes they do so in inauthentic ways.
Many of the people I meet out in the forest are seeking out the liminal space in offers. On the trail we are reminded that all is in flux; that there is death, life, and possibility in every new step. We do not have to be who we have become. We do not need to carry those burdens.
That said, I didn't meet any of those adventurous changing people on Mount Cube. I was that alone.
Now practically speaking, on this particular walk, there were disadvantages to this isolation. First, I hadn't counted on being so tired at the beginning. My knees remembered the Katahdin hike differently from how my mind remembered it. It wasn't all about the beauty of the day or the companionship of the AT hikers. It was mostly pain, apparently. This creakiness came in part from having so few distractions. It takes a while to ease out of drive-mode into walk-mode. I could have used a person or two to facilitate the transition. Also, it isn't always great to be alone with your thoughts. One can have trouble settling down and putting aside whatever negative emotions have built up just from being alive and around people.
The advantages, though, outweighed the burdens. The day was postcard-worthy. There was a mild breeze by mountain standards and the views were back. I encountered a couple view points on the way up; places where the rock ledges had overwhelmed any attempt the trees made to expand there. Then--as often happens--there was a scramble over exposed rock to the first of two peaks.
The Cube's south peak is on the 52 With-A-View list. A wide valley can be seen with Smarts Mountain--only 4 miles away--dominating the landscape. The site of at least two plane crashes, it, too is on my list.
After spending some time there I progressed along a few hundred yards of the AT, which passed just below the peak, itself. This led to a side trail that brought me, eventually, to the north peak. The course here was relatively flat and narrow. The trees pressed close in in a way that made this part of the journey feel like exploring a room or a hallway. I don't know how else to describe the phenomenon. It happens occasionally close to the top of a mountain or along a ridge where the contours of the terrain and the tight network of plants break the wind. In those places it feels like all you would need is a roof to live there forever.
The north peak had its own views. Moosilauke, Black (Benton), and Blueberry mountain were easy to identify. The first was noticeable for its size and the others for their ledges. Again, a valley stretched out between them and me. In this case the trees had given it an orange tint that was mesmerizing. I sat at the viewpoint for a while and then started back.
One of the problems with hiking alone is that there is only one brain to rely on when you get turned around. For this reason I took a bearing from the trailhead to make sure I could stumble down to the logging road where I left my car if need be. In this case it was more about retracing my steps along broad ledges that resist signs of foot traffic.
Eventually I made back to the entrance of the tight corridor of trees and returned to South Peak. There I sat for a while. If you read my Watatic post you know I am trying to do more of that. My companion in this instance was a smallish tree situated near the same sort of 19th and early 20th century graffiti that graces many popular mountains in Massachusetts; old names of visitors carved deeply into ledge rock. At this point it was easy to remember that aloneness is not the same as loneliness, that we aren't really alone anyway, and that our thoughts--or non-thoughts--can be good companions.
I pointed my feet toward the car. Trails always look a little different heading in the other direction. I noticed small paths to secret campsites along with some glimpses through the trees that I had previously missed. The challenge of the end of the hike is that--in the returning--all the pressures of life return as well. It starts with figuring out a route home and then cascades from there. Mindfulness can keep these worries at bay for a while, but not forever.
About a fifth of a mile from the trailhead I encountered two women heading up. I said hello and kept on moving. It was like a shift change. It was their turn to have Mount Cube to themselves.
From this elevation just on the skirts of the clouds, we could overlook the country west and south for a hundred miles. There it was, the state of Maine, which we had seen on the map, but not much like that,--immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on, that eastern stuff we hear of in Massachusetts. No clearing, no house. It does not look as if a solitary traveler had cut so much of a walking stick there. --HD Thoreau
Hiked (via Hunt Trail/AT) on September 29, 2022
Henry David Thoreau gets a bad rap in some quarters. Specifically it is fashionable to accuse him of hypocrisy. I have done it, but now I relent.
This accusation isn't because of something he did. Instead it is the result of what people in the 1970's and 1980's wanted him to be. Thoreau died in 1862 having spoken out for a changed relationship between human beings and nature. In fact, his position was a bit of a counter-movement. It remains so. Capitalist society wants what it deems "progress" which means--primarily--financial, technological, industrial progress. The natural world, for many people, has developed into a setting for humans to exploit. This could be mining, or it could be forms of eco-tourism like hiking. Either way the question is what it can do to serve us. Actually it isn't even a question of serving all of us...just the ones who can grab those resources.
Thoreau, on the other hand, was interested in nature on its own terms.
We want Thoreau to be some sort of Medieval holy-man living in a cave somewhere. Maybe instead we wish him to be an explorer, denying himself the trappings of a comfortable life. The problem is, he didn't think of himself as an adventurer or a hermit. He was a businessman. He manufactured pencils and worked as a well-respected surveyor. He was an essayist and public lecturer at a time when these were prominent expressions of art. He worked his whole life, actually. He lived that life in Concord Massachusetts.
"I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways." is how he put his observations in Walden. The man was into deeply knowing a place. He liked people and saw their burdens. When he lived in Walden--just a mile or two from downtown Concord--he maintained a regular social schedule with his friends and, yes, had his mother do his laundry. Why wouldn't he? After all, she did everyone's laundry. In a time before washing-machines, it was her job.
I bring this up now because Thoreau was also an adventurer, like many of us. It just wasn't his primary identity. He would plan expeditions around New England to the places that were still wild and relatively untamed. He wanted to see them. He wanted to record them so we would remember what they were like. Maybe, if we experienced nature on its own terms, we might value what it has to tell us.
One of his greatest adventures was a multi-week trek to Mount Katahdin, mostly on foot and by canoe. There were no roads, after all, which is worth remembering. In the end he made it to the mountain, explored the region around it, and hiked to the tableland. That he doesn't seem to have hit one of the six major peaks is occasionally brought up like the laundry story. It is worth noting that peak-bagging wasn't a thing yet. He was there for the journey and he had a long one back to civilization ahead of him.
Another reason to bring it up is that many years after his death he had an ally in Percival Proctor Baxter. Known to generations of Maine schoolchildren as "PP" Baxter, this former Governor of Maine purchased a massive section of land that included Katahdin. Then he donated it to the state on the condition that it remain "forever wild." Human needs were to be secondary to the cycles of the land. People could come to see it; to hike, fish, and sometimes hunt in it. However, it would also be rough by the standards of human parks. It privileges wildness.
In fact, this was a very controversial move. The state had refused to purchase it outright because of the hopes for future development. Baxter forced their hand.
That is plenty of context, I know. It is important, though. This mountain is not climbed like, say, Mount Washington where you park at the bottom after getting off the highway and hike between gift shops. There is no bumper sicker for your car. Just like the rest of the mountains in the park, Katahdin is special. Even on the somewhat over-populated southern section of Baxter there are no amenities. Nature is in your face and that is on purpose. That is the way here. Knowing this and planning accordingly is the difference between a good trip and a bad--possibly deadly--one.
"Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine." --PP Baxter
My own relationship with Baxter Park is a long one. When I was young my father served as a member and then chair of the Baxter Park Authority which functions as a sort of governing board for the park and overseer of its unique mission. Along with the activist Park Director Buzz Caverly, they pushed back human encroachment in an attempt to restore PP Baxter's vision. I got to spend a lot of time there, mostly in the northern section of the park away from Katahdin. My mom--a dedicated hiker herself who is trekking through the Dingle in Ireland as I write this--liked it better on that end. There were fewer people on the trails.
I have climbed Katahdin, though, a number of times. The last time was many years ago. I was in my twenties and my little brothers, Matt and Dan, set off on what they hoped would be a southbound walk to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail.
Which brings us--finally--to this climb. Once again it had to do with the AT. Astute readers of Sabbath Walks will remember that back in March I accompanied my eldest son to Georgia for his attempt at thru-hiking. Well...he made it.
This trip was the last few miles of that epic journey of over 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin. His uncles are still picking away at the trail themselves. Dan and I had the chance to walk the last few miles with him and his "tramily" so we took it.
That is how I ended up sleeping outdoors in late September. The walk began in a lean-to so we could get an early start. This is not unusual for Baxter hikes. The peaks are hard to reach. Then, after a cold but not horrible night, we began the climb.
There were other thru-hikers around and a couple groups of day hikers as well. Not surprisingly, I was the slowest in our group which was fine. I can hike my own hike, after all, and it was nice to have time in the silence of the park. However, I made sure to start off early with Dan so that I wouldn't slow folks down on the other end. I don't want to inconvenience people and we had a drive south ahead of us. Over the course of the day I would lose track of the others for a while after they passed me. Trust me, though. It was more than good.
The trail starts relatively flat, just like most hikes I have done. The fall foliage was just beginning to make its presence felt. The practice of observation was useful at this point as the trees and undergrowth were putting on a show. So, too, was Katahdin Stream running next to the trail, creating a fabulous soundtrack as we worked our way up.
All this changed in a couple miles. After a while I encountered a big rock with "3 miles" painted on it and an arrow pointing up. Things started to get hairy shortly after that. After about another mile it became super-steep. The group condensed again as we helped each other over numerous rock hazards. The view also vanished (as it did for Thoreau) and we continued to stumble up toward the tableland that would welcome us to the last mile or so before Baxter Peak.
During the climb there was plenty of time to look around at the life that makes its home on the cold, rocky ledge. We were also looking for handholds and sometimes the actual hands of the people in front of us. Still, even in the hardest moments we couldn't help but be transported by what was around us in the clouds. The weather is often bad on Katahdin just as it is on most big mountains in New England. Yet people climb it anyway because it is always beautiful.
Finally, we managed to hit the tableland. At this point the thru-hikers gained some separation on me. They had waited six months for this moment and weren't going to wait another minute more than they had to. I couldn't blame them. Their excitement was infectious. Dan plodded along with me for a while but he slowly got ahead of me, too. Dan hikes in Baxter often. In fact, it was only two weeks since his previous ascent to Baxter Peak.
What that meant was that I had the tableland to what felt like myself. There were people both ahead of and behind me but I could neither see nor hear them. I wondered if this was what it was like when Thoreau was separated from his party. It looked for all the world like the moors in Scotland that I had walked through in August...except on a very hostile day. The ground cover was different, of course. Here the red came from some relative of the blueberry rising just over any number of plant species clinging close to the rocks. I paused a moment to take it in. Then I remembered my mission and started up again.
I was alone for the last twenty minutes of climbing, which was probably for the best. I had started singing in order to maintain a rhythm and keep my spirits up; Ain't No Grave, Voice Still and Small, If I May Speak with Bravest Fire, This Little Light of Mine. I trailed off on my third time through Amazing Grace as I saw (and then heard) the group at the top. The tramily was there and my brother. So, too, were a number of other thru-hikers and a couple muggles like me. It was a low-turnout day because of the weather but everyone was excitedly taking pictures of each other.
I felt like an observer at somebody else's graduation party which--by the way--is a good feeling. I was proud of these humans, most of whom I had never met. I was proud of being human. What an amazing achievement for all of them!
I arrived late and left early of course. I was the slowest and needed to get going again. Back down the peak and across the tableland I went. I encountered some day hikers I had passed and told them they were almost there. The others passed me again and then Dan and I started down the rough part behind them.
The best thing is...we had a view. Just as Thoreau had experienced on his journey, the clouds started to blow away as we descended. They continued to hover at the top of the mountain, of course. It wasn't that the clouds were moving so much as we were. On the way down, though, we caught glimpses of the land around us. It was an excellent backdrop to our labors. Going down a mountain is difficult. It is hard on the knees and the back. Gravity and the mountain conspire to do all sorts of things to your pack and to you so as to twist you into a crevice and a puzzle of their own making. Still, we had made good time and had nowhere to be, so we took as many breaks as we could.
The tramily finally disappeared down into the trees and rocks. Dan and I took a long break to snack at the final viewpoint. From our spot we could see a number of mountains, some of which I have hiked in the past and some that remain for me to explore. Dan has hiked all of them. It is his happy place.
This may have been the toughest hike I have done since surgery. It is hard to tell because I am in much better shape than I was and didn't suffer the way I did on the earliest hikes. Those early ones--like Tripyramids and the Osceolas--felt more arduous than this day. They also felt more arduous than Washington.
After our break Dan sped up and I hiked the last couple miles relatively alone. There were other people out and we leapfrogged a bit, but no one was feeling conversational. For me it had been quite a day. For most of my companions it had been a life-changing one. It was great to be back on the park and on the mountain. I don't think I will wait quite as long for next time.
HIKED ON; September 21, 2022
Anyone who has ever made their hobby or passion into a job will know that it changes the relationship. I first did this with preaching. I have always been a performer. When I was in high school I was a theater kid. Somewhere in the back of my mind has always been the thought that I was most myself holding forth on stage and at the lunch table back in my senior and junior years. Now I am a pastor and there are lots of different parts of that job that have nothing to do with performance. Still, when I am in the pulpit I am happy. It is where I should be.
However, this type of performance is a job now. I have to take all kinds of things into account when preparing my worship services. I think about the people I see in church every week. How are they doing? What are they thinking about? I think about the seasons of the town and of the church. Are the kids in school? Is there a holiday or liturgical element I need to think about like water gathering, baptism, or communion?
Now it is sabbatical and I find that I am being rather businesslike in my approach to hiking as well. What is my schedule of mountains? What does each require? How is my body feeling, not for this one hike but for the next and the next? What do I hope to get out if it? Gone for now are the days of spontaneously hitting the trail, understanding that I can take all the time in the world until I do it again. This temporary change in relationship isn't bad...but it is different.
This was something of a pragmatic hike. I chose "Black of Benton" for a number of reasons. Partly it was because it is beyond the area I plan on exploring closely in October. The geographical diversity seemed desirable for right now. Partly it was because I wanted a moderate hike. I haven't climbed anything other than a flight of stairs since Mount Washington and need to stay in shape for larger hikes coming up. I also must make sure I don't injure myself. Black Mountain--a 52WAV mountain--fits the bill with an out-and-back trail of just under four miles and an elevation gain of just over 1,600 feet. I can be challenged and still recover in time for the next one.
Finally, there is an apple picking place just a few miles away. Not all outdoor time needs to be strenuous! My plan was to get a good workout with a full day pack, catch some views, and eat some apples without straining or pulling anything that would inhibit the next battery of hikes.
Another result of the temporary relationship change is that each hike feels a little bit like an appointment and obligation. There are days--I assume we have all had them--that contain an abundance of entropy. This was one of those days. Careening out of the parsonage at 5am I managed to lock myself out. Later, with that sorted, my car let me know that I was losing tire pressure. When I was figuring out what to do about that, I discovered that one of my water bottles had leaked all over my bag, my dry layers, and the maps and guidebooks I brought in the car with me. Somehow, though, I managed to hit the trailhead at 8:30, only an hour after my target time. I am not sure I would have persevered to that point if I didn't feel some responsibility. Apparently I have a schedule to keep.
This "hiking like its work" element had invaded my psyche. I have to admit that on this day in Benton I started way too fast. Maybe some of the stress of the morning influenced my mood. In any case it took me a while to figure out the office mentality I had brought to the trail. I specifically chose this mountain because it would be challenging but not exhausting. Yet there I was 30 minutes in...trucking right along and wearing myself out.
A socked-in scenic overlook--the views never really materialized--helped to slow me down. I waited for a minute to see if the clouds would blow away and then I turned around to see the remarkable stand of trees I was about to walk through. In the pause I was able to refocus.
If you are a mountain, you get to be called "Black" for one of two reasons. Either somebody with that surname lived on or near you for a while in the 18th or 19th century, or the trees that grow upon you are among the many varieties of dark-shaded conifers that grace our landscape. This Black Mountain--like most--falls into the latter category. Black mountain is full of tall old trees that from afar give it a gloomy appearance. On a rainy day in September, though, to be in among those dark trees is downright mystical. This slowed me down. How could I be missing the scene around me? Still, there was that feeling of work. The hike was still partly a task. I told people I was going to climb a bunch of mountains, after all.
One thing that I do in overly-businesslike situations is to actually add a fun and perhaps frivolous task that I can rationalize into being part of the project at hand. Enter photography. I had always wanted to do more with pictures. I was also a photographer in high school. I dressed all in black and did extensive studies of local gravestones. In my senior year I could be found either in the darkroom or near the stage. Just like hiking regularly, taking pictures slipped onto the back burner with the rise of work and children. To slow myself down on Black mountain I decided to try to figure out what capabilities my cellphone camera has. I always meant to, but there was the perpetual issue of something else going on.
To take a good picture--or even a "just okay" picture--one needs to slow down and observe the context. This is what I did. The 19th century nature writer John Burroughs tells us that "There is nothing in which people differ more than in their powers of observation. Some are only half alive to what is going on around them. Others, again, are keenly alive; their intelligence, their powers of recognition, are in full force in eye and ear at all times."*
Observation is one of the key steps to creation and creativity. That can be a sermon or a story we are making. It can be a picture, or a sabbath walk, or any number of other creations. Burroughs--writing in a shack in the middle of his vineyard--made a practice of observation. We should too. Sometimes I need to trick myself into thinking it is part of work...albeit a happy part. Maybe we all need to find ways to think of it as part of our being.
In the end I had a great time noticing the striations on the rocks and the emerging fall colors. At the top of the mountain I set a timer for 40 minutes to sit and experience the space I was in. After about 20 minutes a very chatty woman and her dog came up off the trail. We sat their talking and--unsuccessfully--waiting for the clouds to part for about 40 minutes. Then we hiked down.
I left my new friend to go check out the old lime kilns at the foot of the mountain. Limestone is relatively rare in New Hampshire but this operation was quite large. They would heat the stone in these massive structures and the resulting lime would be used in agriculture and construction. The kilns were built in 1838 and 1842, operated for 50 years, and then were restored as a WPA project.
I would have stayed longer there if it weren't for the presence of friendly-but-barely-controlled dog. It was full-fantasy mode. After a few more pictures I went back to the car and life...or whatever.
I did go apple-picking. That, however is a different post...
* Burroughs may be worth checking out. This quote is from his essay "The Art of Seeing Things"
A stone on Mount Watatic in honor of when it became a local park. "Other stones in other places may commemorate the histories of people and things now dead and gone. This stone marks the site of a mountain that lived, a mountain that lives on because of people who cared, people who started with nothing but a dream and the will to work for it, until the dream became as real, as solid as this stone, as sure as this ground beneath your feet, as true as this mountain on which you stand, this mountain holding you up to meet the sky."
Hiked Most Recently on September 9, 2022
Most people I know--be they casual walkers or intense backpackers and peak baggers--have a favorite hike or walk. For some people it is the longest (or most difficult) trip they had. Maybe it is the hardest (or tallest) mountain. For others convenience and accessibility are key. Maybe there is a pretty spot involved. Sometimes it is a place where an important personal event occurred. As with most heart-centered choices, the reasons vary. For me, the decision really comes down to how it makes me feel.
What I want to talk to you about today has to do with the internal dimensions of hiking. We live in an anxious world. Some of us internalize that anxiety as we move through an era that tries its best to push us away from our center. Make no mistake, this is intentional. Anxiety (along with a number of negative emotions) makes us feel empty and unworthy. It also makes us buy stuff to fill the emptiness. The Man gets rich off our unhappiness.
I know this feeling very well. I start worrying before I get out of bed in the morning. I worry all day. Sometimes I worry in my sleep. Every moment of every day, even when I am doing or thinking about something else, I am anxious about something. What that thing is doesn't really matter. It can be big or small...but it is always there. So when I think about what I need in a hike, the "challenge rating" is not foremost in my mind. Availability is. Remoteness is. Primarily, though, I am looking for a chance to transcend that worry.
I want to be away from everything. I want to be insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe. I want to sink into my surroundings until I know that whatever personal failing or foible that is concerning me is insignificant, too. This technique is different from things like positive self-talk designed to build ourselves up. I am a believer in that too. However, when I hike (or walk or whatever) I am trying to find my way to a positive connection with the Divine. I am trying to be part of a whole that will lift me up as I swim in its current.
I want to snicker at the trippy prose of transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes in his book Nature, "Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." I can't though. Not really. After all--when I am out in the world trying to feel the wind in the air and the rock beneath my feet--what the heck am I doing if not stumbling toward the same thing?
This brings me to my current favorite mountain. A couple of posts ago I included a picture of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up. It is where I learned to connect with the natural world and where I learned a certain sort of nature-spirituality that stays with me even here in the suburbs where I live now. These days Bradbury is too far away to really be my current favorite. That said, it is a good indicator of what I am looking for. It needs to be near enough so I can visit when I need to. It needs to be far enough that I have the process of physical as well as spiritual journeying.
It also needs to be challenging enough that not everyone uses it for this purpose. It doesn't need to be--in fact it shouldn't be--risky. It just needs to be inconvenient. When I manage to strategically select my time, I want the place to myself or, at least, to be in the company of other people seeking the same isolation. I climb plenty of mountains and hike around a large number of lakes. If there are too many people--and I love people--then it is a different sort of walk.
So when I need to clear my head, Mount Watatic gets the nod these days. It is right of Route 119 (in Ashby and Ashburnham) and a little over an hour from my house. The climb can easily be made into a 4 mile loop by including Nutting Hill and heading over to the New Hampshire border at the end. It gets busy on the weekends and on many weekdays too. However, if you get up early, you can have the place to yourself.
This is what I did on Friday. I left the house at 4:45 and arrived a bit after official sunrise. I walked to the top--getting turned around a couple of times--and made it to the ledge just below the peak where I sat alone for an hour.
Watatic is a Monadnock which--as I have mentioned numerous times--means that it juts out alone over an otherwise flat landscape. Wachusett is easily visible. That is another great hike. To the north one can see a number of larger peaks across the NH border. It also serves as a trail end for the Wapack trail that heads up the Pack Monadnocks to the north. It is also the northern end of the Mid-State trail that heads south across Massachusetts. Or, at least, the NH border just beyond it is.
Anyway, on Friday I spent the hour at the ledge not thinking very hard. There is plenty going on in my life right now, which is typical for most everyone. We need to slow down and shake off some of that burden when we can. As often happens, this became a theme in my sermon Sunday. It was already a theme for sabbatical just around the corner.
It took a while to get in the mood. I put my bag down, had a snack, and wandered around the ledge trying to decipher the 19th century graffiti scratched into the rock. Finally, though, I settled in. After that there isn't much to say. I didn't make it to "transparent eyeball" status by a long shot. However, there was a moment when my brain stopped sprinting toward numerous finish lines. That was the longest period of not worrying I have had for a long time. Both my body and my mind were grateful for the break.
When I think about what attracts me to walking and what makes a "good hike" I can make a list.
I take sabbath walks because...
1) I can connect to nature, "creation," and God
2) I can to witness the beauty and the silence
3) I can escape the suburbs and the often-mindless busyness they represent
4) I can experience the mental challenge of doing something difficult
5) I can experience the physical challenge, too
All of these are spiritual reasons. They are good Watatic-climbing reasons, too. Does this activity constitute a "church"? No of course it doesn't. Churches are communities first and foremost. They have a call and a hold on a person. On the face of it, these are potentially solitary reasons even when they are shared among others. Still, they do form a framework for a discipline, or a prayer. They make a walk a "walk"--both literal and metaphorical--which gives me strength to head out into the world.
This may not be your bag. If so, what is? What do you love doing? Can you make a list like this one as to why? What is your "walk"? I would love to know.
Update: I hiked Mount Watatic after a big snow storm in 2023 so I have added the video ove recording the trip!
I am in the process of catching people up with some early hikes and other encounters with nature that I thought people might find interesting as part of a "How It Began" (HIB) series. Mostly this will describe specific hikes and perhaps some lessons learned along the way...if there are any. They are meant to be short and, perhaps helpful in some way to other hikers or fellow-travelers. I will post the dates of when I hiked a specific mountain since the ones in this series are NOT posted at or near the date I actually hiked them.
OCTOBER 8, 2021
History nerds will remember Shays' Rebellion, when a band of veterans from the Continental Army rose up to resist the entrenched interests of eastern Massachusetts and set off a series of events that ultimately culminated in the writing and ratification of the Constitution. If you don't remember, check it out. It was one of those iconic turning points in American history but in many schools you only get a day to digest the whole Articles of Confederation-to-US Constitution move and Daniel Shays gets merely a mention.
These days folks with just enough information will try to shoehorn this second revolution into the mythology of today's "red v. blue" divide. It is a futile endeavor. They were protesting a number of issues, like not getting paid and being taxed without adequate representation. Underlying their oppression was the economic desires of the landed interests in Boston. The story is a Rorschach test for activists. You can make of it what you will. My suggestion is to just take it for what it is, on its own merits and in its own context. It is a moment in time, and a romantic one in its own way. The actors in their story are the closest we get to the legends of Robin Hood or Rob Roy MacGregor.
I bring up this historical tidbit because you can check out Shays' old stomping grounds without too much difficulty. The Pioneer Valley--where the rebels were primarily from--creates a defensive bowl of ridges and rocks where Shays and Co. could hide out when the heat was on. I already mentioned the Seven Sisters hike. There are more to come, but this post is about Norwottuck, the site of their final stand.
The hike, itself, isn't that long. Also, the elevation isn't very high. You don't have to go too far up to get a commanding view when the land around you is flat as a pancake. From the parking lot I head into the woods and then passed an active quarry to my right. After a bit of confusion, I managed to locate the trail I was looking for and found the footing easy for a while. Then it became ledgey and more difficult. The total walk was four miles round trip. It included the sort of rolling hills that I now know as a key part of hikes in the region. There are some steep parts up toward the peak and then down the other side.
After a short scramble up the ledge to the top. I found numerous perches from which one could look out over the valley. That tacked on some time as I sampled many of them. I was working on a sermon, after all, and could use the inspiration.
Even though they were farmers by trade, Shays' army had already fought one revolution. They knew how to choose the terrain. In addition to those many lookouts, the land is rough and rocky, with many places to hide and take cover. I had no trouble imagining a musket or two peaking around the corner. It would be an unsettling place to try to attack if you knew it was defended by locals.
Dropping down from the top I eventually hit a flat area known as the "Horse Caves." Legend has it that Shays hid horses in holes in the cliff. If this is the case they must have very tiny horses! I would say there was room for maybe three goats. Still, it was a very cool spot to be. The flat area seemed like a likely location for their final encampment and it wasn't hard to imagine them there, waiting to face the militia from Boston.
In the end, though, they surrendered. The commanding officer of the Boston militia claimed in his reports to have surprised them and captured everyone involved. Strangely, Shays was nowhere to be found. Nor were the other officers whose capture would have resulted in their trial and death. My guess is that neither side had much interest in killing and--perhaps after some negotiation--the leaders were allowed to slip away.
A little research will reveal what happened to everybody from that point on. It did, in fact, prompt some reading for me. The hike was relatively easy, but it is one of my favorites. The story, the views, and the general vibe of the place got me going. I have tried to go back but it is also very popular with other folks and on the weekends it is hard to find a parking space.
JUNE 4, 2022
Maybe it is leftover Covid. Perhaps it has to do with the massive clouds of pollen creating an apocalyptic year for allergies...or both. Whatever it was, I couldn't manage an epic hike over 4,000 footers this weekend. Instead, we hit two 3,000 footers; Mount Cardigan and its neighbor, Mount Firescrew. Cardigan is a little higher and the views are wider, but Firescrew has views, too, along with fewer people and a cooler name. Our route (Manning Trail to Firescrew then Mowglis to Cardigan and finally Clark, Clark-Holt Cutoff, and Holt back to our car at the AMC Cardigan Lodge) Was about 6.2 miles round trip and the views were spectacular...at least once the coulds burned off.
The directions for our route were provided by an older gentleman who was working at the AMC lodge at the trailhead. I will always listen to people like this. Every trail in the country has a team of often-retirees who do the heavy lifting to keep a place safe and looking good. Their relationship with their territory is frequently intimate and long-standing. I always learn something in these conversations, even if I don't always take the advice. This time, though, the advice was sound and we took it.
I don't interrupt, either, when they tell me a thing I already know. In the aggregate, I am learning. They don't need to be aware of my limited areas of knowledge when they are trying to help me fill the gaps. I try to remind myself of the lesson from Epictetus, "Get rid of self-conceit...for it is impossible to anyone to begin to learn that which they think they already know."
Strangely, there is something in a human that makes us simultaneously ask a question and try to prove we didn't need the answer in the first place. I am not sure why we do this but it happens all the time. On this trip someone asked me about the conditions on Manning and then--after I answered--assured me that he was already aware. If that was indeed the case, what strange behavior to take the time for asking!
We started out in the fog and light rain. We saw little when we reached the first ridge area on the side of Firescrew. The trail was lovely, though, and lightly traveled with a group of three women somewhere ahead of us and--as far as we could tell--no one behind. We finally met up with the women as they were taking a lunch break on Firescrew with within sight of Cardigan and its fire tower ahead. We took a break as well and soaked in the emerging views as the overcast wore off.
From then on we were accompanied by fabulous puffy clouds seemingly fighting with each other, the Sun, and the mountains themselves. What had started as a depressing limitation lifted enough to add to a general drama in the climb that unfolded along the exposed rock that began before Firescrew, over Cardigan and on down the other side. There was a bit of rock climbing to do. Also, pools of rainwater, with their own ecosystems, dotted the ridge in various places. We could see an abundance of "crevice communities" like the ones I found hiking Welch-Dickey, as well. We were careful, of course, not to step on any of them and the trail made them relatively easy to avoid...as long as we were comfortable leaping over the pools.
The exposed rock, by the way, is part of the Cardigan Pluton; the remains of an ancient volcano or volcanic system. It is--according to Wikipedia--"approximately 20 km wide by 90 km long and on average about 2.5 km thick." That is a lot of now-cold magma! There were interesting white veins--the result of the dynamic cooling process long ago--hatching the rock in places. I am not a geologist (obviously) but the diversity of the stone beneath us made the journey that much more interesting.
Near the top of Cardigan we ended up talking to a young man and his two dogs. He had been climbing this mountain since he was a kid and had some good suggestions for other hikes. It looked like he planned to be up there for the day, having brought some beer and snacks. He was also packing heat, which was a bit of a surprise. I didn't ask about it. Maybe he always does or maybe he was worried about bears. A family of bears that we sighted on Shaw a few weeks ago have now become quite the challenge for hikers there. Either way, after a chat we declined his offer of a drink and headed down.
On the way down we met a lot of people heading up. Once again, it is best to go early and avoid the rush! We passed a few more spectacular views and a lovely little stream before meeting up with the old guy who gave us directions at the beginning. This time he was pushing his wheelbarrow toward a trail-maintenance site. I am not sure he recognized us from earlier, but it was great to see him and others working on an accessible nature trail for folks who can't handle the climb but want to be in nature.
In the end it was a great day out on a challenging and beautiful loop trail. I would totally do it again.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.