Hiked On January 12, 2023
One of my mentors in ministry told us that on his sabbath days he would put his canoe on top of his truck and drive it through the middle of town. Sometimes he would take his canoe fishing, which is what everyone assumed he was doing. Sometimes he would just paddle around and go home. Sometimes, though, he would drive his canoe to Bangor for a bagel and a coffee with friends...and maybe a trip to the seminary library.
He told this story to convey four things. First, that the people of Maine are all pantheists at heart. As a Mainer born and raised I can confirm that this is true. Second, that people may not always respect your "off" time but will do their darndest to respect your sabbath time. Third--and this is where the canoe comes in--in a town of pantheists, a canoe on your truck means you are fishing...and fishing is sacred. Finally, the lesson was that you are best off leaving the parish come sabbath-time. That way folks will not be able to get in touch with you as easily. Also--more importantly--you will be away from the things that draw you back to your labors.
I thought about that yesterday as I tried my best to tie up loose ends in the morning and hustle out the door for my weekly sabbath hike. "Weekly" is a New Year's goal. Unfortunately, though, I was already on "Plan D" as plans A through C were left in tatters. Mostly the problem was weather up north, but the skies in the Bay State weren't looking so bright either. Little flakes of snow on my windshield indicated that perhaps the northern storm was going to make an appearance after all. Also, my hiking buddy, Andy, couldn't get out of a meeting. So I was left figuring out how far I wanted to travel to hike in the snow by myself.
The solution was to leave New Hampshire and Maine well alone and to stay in my adopted commonwealth. A slick and wooly drive down Route 2 brought me to the somewhat obscure Mount Grace State Park and a snow-laden hike up its eponymous mountain, then over to Little Grace, and finally back to the lot.
Mount Grace isn't a bad name, but it is a bit unusual. The legend says its name comes from King Philip's War when the daughter of Mary Rowlandson died after being captured by members of the Narragansett tribe. Theoretically the mountain is named after this daughter. It is a romantic notion and ties into one of the major historical moments in and around the Pioneer Valley where the mountain resides. However, there is one glaring problem. Mary's daughter was named Sarah...not Grace. So the name of the mountain remains a mystery. That said, it is a powerful idea to ascribe to this mid-sized monadnock. Somebody in some way found grace here. Maybe we still can.
If you want to be alone in Massachusetts, drive west and go hiking in a snowstorm. There will be no people to bother you. The trail started out relatively flat but that changed quickly. It was quite a bit more elevation than what I experienced the week before. That, of course, was what I was looking for. It was the only part of Plan A that remained. Then the trail went on up along some power lines to the rather impressive fire tower. It was snowing heavily at this point so no view was to be had. Alas! Pictures indicate it is quite nice. I will need to come back some time.
I did get startled a bit. When I turned around to descend the tower my long-suffering water bottle came loose and fell about 40 feet. It hit every available truss on the way down making a dramatic noise as it did so.
After finding the water bottle that had submerged itself in the snow, I turned south along a row of power lines that marked the shoulder of Grace and continued on to the smaller peak. Little Grace also theoretically offers views. Every once in a while the snow would blow and eddy away. Then I could peer down into the valley where a number of farms were perched looking for all the world like landscape illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post.
One thing worth noting is that--while this is indeed part of my "easyish" hiking list--there were a couple elements that made it challenging. First, there was that snow, which made both visibility and footing rather sketchy. This can be remedied by choosing a better day! However the next thing cannot be fixed so easily. The trails are arranged so that if you decide to climb both peaks and loop back to the parking lot, you will be climbing up pretty close to the end.
On a traditional morning climb you go up and then down. This trail rolls up and down quite a bit, which might not be everybody's cup of tea. In the end--according to my imperfect calculations and because of some diversions I took--my total elevation for the day was around 1,500 feet. The feet came in installments across the miles instead of all in one massive climb, but that is more than a number of mountains on the 52 With a View list, including the "starter" peaks of Willard and Pemigewassett which I, at least, found easier than this. You can make it...but I confess to swearing a bit when I hit the last climb of consequence.
The loop took me down the side of Little Grace and back around to the parking lot. It was a journey of small views, evocative precipitation, and unsure footing. However, I am glad I got out. Once again, for the second week in a row, I had the place to myself. I do not doubt that the pantheist in me appreciates this. I feel like I am keeping the spirits company on a cold, wet, lonely day. They certainly appear to be keeping mine.
The word "grace" has a number of meanings. In common usage we usually think of dancers or athletes, or people who are particularly well-spoken or well dressed. Perhaps those cues are why we tend to think of wealthy people as graceful even when we do not have much evidence to go on. Also, being gracious is what you try to do when someone else is being a boorish. These are all social, societal qualities. However, in the church where I spend my time, grace indicates the unmerited favor of the Divine. For Universalists--and I serve a congregation that is, among other things, Universalist--this grace is extended to everyone.
The old-man funny, curmudgeonly, front-door thing to say now would be that grace was hard to feel on a day with heavy snow and no views. I certainly didn't feel graceful...but I won't go there theologically. There was plenty of grace to be found on these two mountains. In the dynamic display of nature going about its business all I saw was grace. Sure, I saw and felt a whole lot of nature, too. Yet the fact that both were present is not coincidental.
I do not love winter hiking, but I love this grace that is sometimes hard to immediately locate in people and in the institutions people make. Yeah we all have it, or have access to it anyway. It is "freely given" and I don't mean in some reductive Christian sense. Grace is just present all the time for all of us. Mostly we don't experience this presence. It takes time and the cultivation of relationships to see and feel it around us. It takes the growing of love between each other and within ourselves. This wild morning reminds me of the blessing of grace. Maybe it will help provide the charge forward for another week.
I suspect that on those trips to Bangor my old mentor also snuck some work in on his sabbath day. I get that too. After my hike I spent the afternoon wearing out my welcome in a number of warm dry places where I could write. The draft of this post was one thing. Another was the draft of my sermon for Martin Luther King weekend. The morning reminded me that finding grace in ourselves and each other is more than an attempt at personal wellness. It is instead an important attitude on the path toward justice. Grace leads to love and love to trust then on to community...or at least that is the direction the sermon went.
May we all find ways to be this kind of graceful; not pretty and charming but bold and challenging as we expand and strengthen the web of connection--the world community--that surrounds us.
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.