Not all walks are literal. Not all adventures take place in our world. When I got bored on a hike when I was a kid my mom would suggest I pretend to be a hobbit on a quest. A love for Lord of the Rings was--and still is--something we share. We also share a profession and, I think, these two things are not unrelated. It takes an active imagination to go through life living into the idea that there is something else beyond our existence. It is an act of both faith and imagination to try to make that dreamed-of world more of a reality.
Of course, having an active imagination is not always looked upon with affirmation. I am a child of the rigid adult-centered culture of the 1980's. The "satanic panic" that tried to lay the problems of the world at the feet of teen gamers (among others, including rap and metal musicians) was acting out of the id of a conformist culture. Fantasy, science fiction, comic books, and other outsider art presented something that wasn't really new but seemed strange and subversive in a corporatized society. Even today--when so much of that literature has been co-opted and sanitized--to be interested in a speculative universe puts a person on the outside. Being a little "nerdy" is in vogue. Being an actual nerd...well...that is still tricky isn't it?
In a sense--and from a certain view--this criticism has weight. To think outside the box in a way that does not have remunerative value has to seem strange if the cultural "good" is tied up in acquisition. However, the serious, rational, commercial world is neither fun nor humane. I believe that imagining others worlds may make our own better in the end. I believe it is necessary to do so, in fact, if we are to escape what we have created for ourselves. After all, we thought-up this way of doing things. I bet we can do better.
This leads me to a pursuit that has taken a certain chunk of my time for over three decades; tabletop roleplaying games. Right now I am in three regular games that meet somewhere between once and twice a month. The newest of these is one that I run with adult members of the church. It is a beginners' game, for the most part--there is one old-school LARPer--and we struggle to find time to meet. That said it is fun to get together and work through the rules. I am the "Dungeon Master." I keep the story flowing and play every character that my players do not play. Theoretically that is an entire world. I have gamed with many of their children over the years. Now it is the parents' turn.
In a sense that is my only actual D&D game. By this I mean it is the only one that uses a version of the official D&D ruleset. It is also the only one where we meet in person. Another group meets over zoom and isn't Dungeons and Dragons at all, but a rules-light horror game that emphasizes improvisation. I play a variety of characters doomed to madness or death. The dice rolling is saved for crucial high-risk moments and the rest of the time we act out our characters as we encounter difficulty. I do not run this game. I am a player, which is very liberating. The people I play with are either close friends or close friends of my close friends so the trust level is high. It is good sometimes to work though dark stuff with grace and humor, which is what we do.
A good tabletop roleplaying game needs geography, politics, and religion. It needs characters with motivations and depth well past what is provided in a 90-minute action movie or even in the most well-developed fantasy video game. It needs a world at least as complex as a quality novel. In some ways (because the players can literally travel anywhere) it needs to have eternal potential for even greater complexity. It also needs the commitment of the group--whenever they are able to be together--to build and live in to that world. In that way it is like church. It depends on its participants. Also like church, people are committed at various levels.
My own ability to participate is based on many things, the most basic of which is time. In each group I have been able to be more or less involved as the months permit. I wonder if I will have more or less of it during sabbatical. The last sabbatical I had involved developing a gaming world and then leading those children of my current church group through various scenarios. My plans in this area are less involved this time. I just want to stay part of the groups I am in right now. After all, I value the practice
So that is what I am doing. I am building--with others--three different worlds through acting out three different stories that are at least partly beyond our control. It is as vulnerable thing to do. Maybe that is what we are all practicing. We aren't just imagining. We are trusting. We aren't just building a story. We are holding out hope for each other and for the people we could have been...or in some sense are. This is part of the sabbath walk both when we are out on the trail and when we journey with our minds and hearts. I am delighted to get to collaborate with people in this way.
For the record. My mom's suggestion about pretending to be a hobbit wasn't taken well at the time. Hobbits spend a lot of time complaining, demanding snacks, and slowing the "big people" down. Still, living into a dream isn't a bad idea when the road gets tough, is it? There are ways to imagine out on the pathways of life. So I want to lift up five hikes that did, in fact, make me feel like I was in a fantasy novel. I could imagine some sort of magical, primordial "better place".
A quick note. None of these look like New Zealand. Also, Scotland--the only hikes I have done with castles on them--did not make the list. Don't make blockbuster movies your measure of what a fantasy hike should be like...
1) Mount Tecumseh: This mountain doesn't have much of a view from the top, but as a journey, it has all the feels. There are endless stone stairs and moody groves of old trees. When I hiked it there was an abundance of moss and fungi strewn about. Every once in a while you can catch a glimpse of a view down one of the ski trails which themselves--if it isn't winter--have the feel of an abandoned ancient civilization.
2) Mount Norwottuck: This mountain has to be on the list as the final hideout of Daniel Shays and his rebel farmers. It isn't fantasy, exactly, but there is something to being in a place where a variation on Robin Hood's band truly walked. Also, while the rest of these hikes can really knock you around. This one is easy and fun.
3) Mount Jefferson: This mountain is full-on "Houses of the Holy". The massive rocks and the wind whipping around the top as you navigate the relatively bald ridge make this place exciting. Be sure to pick a trail that loops around the peak so you can peer down into the Great Gulf. Just try to ignore the road heading up nearby Mount Washington.
4) Mount Galehead to Mount Garfield: This was a hard hike for me. We took a connector trail between the two peaks but it was beautiful. It has much of the same vibe as Tecumseh with the added benefit of massive views off of Garfield. Start early, though. It was over 16 miles and we finished the last couple hours in the dark...which was also like a fantasy novel.
5) The Osceolas: This was early in my rehab but this mountain had some epic hobbit hiking moments. Also it rained. Wet, rainy days are hard for hiking but they are atmospheric. I hiked this mountain with my brother, Dan, who loves and collects wild mushrooms like a real life (and very tall) hobbit.
6) The Kinsmans: I would say that North Kinsman the first time we climbed it definitely fits into the "Cruel Caradhras" category. Winter hikes naturally lend themselves to fantasy settings. After all, ice and snow make a wild place even more wild. Just...be safe OK? In fact, there are also some winter hikes that I haven't written up yet. Of these the Hancocks--a very difficult run in my opinion--definitely would have a place on this list. Also, much easier and very elfy Mount Willard would make an appearance. Liberty would have had the fantasy vibe but there were too many people out when we did it.
So much of this is situational, isn't it? I will stick with these, though. On the day I hiked them they were fantasy-novel perfect.
Sometimes you are never good at something but it still makes you happy. As we go through life there are many things that feel--or become--too difficult, even when we put in our time and effort to get good at them. As the years and days go by the results trickle in and we slowly turn toward the things that complement our skills and abilities. There is a toxic way to go about this--just look at the comments on the Celtic's fan page--and there is a non-toxic way. The non-toxic way requires maintaining interest and appreciating the skills and gifts of those who have succeeded. When we fail we also learn. We gain insight we wouldn't otherwise have and even though we drift away from the doing, we still find joy in experiencing the success of others.
Sometimes, too, we keep on doing the thing...even though we do not expect much growth or success. I mean this is a good way. Continued trying also brings joy. For me, one of those areas is music. I play (or try to play) a number of instruments pretty poorly. I do not seem to get better. There was a period, in fact, when I was a kid where my piano teacher kept giving me easier and easier method books. I was literally and measurably getting worse as I played! However, I enjoy it. It is part of my "walk" as much as walking, itself. Therefore, I am sharing with you a bit of that journey too...when it makes sense.
It kinda makes sense these days because I am getting ready for a gig. You see, I am in a loose band of sorts that mostly plays in church. There is a core of three or four people and then a broader cloud of participants when they are available. We play folk and gospel songs in church mostly as hymns and "special music". The group is an outgrowth of a youth ministry called the "Eliot Church Ukestra." Kids grow up of course. This leads us to the gig. Some of the former ukesters went on to form a much better band and now we amateur few get to play during their lunch break once a year at a party known as the Endwar Biathalon.
This year I am playing the banjo. The banjo deserves its own post, of course. It was born out of the African-American experience when enslaved people adapted the gourd instruments of Africa using the material around them on the plantations of the south. This is why a banjo looks so different when held up against a guitar, for example. There is a drum head and metal bits creating a sound that can be sublime or can be unpleasantly--and occasionally pleasantly--like witnessing a car engine throw a gear or two. However, that is part of its appeal. It is not "nice." It has resistance built right into it.
It is worth noting that if you didn't know that the banjo is an African American instrument there is a reason. Of course that reason is racism. The banjo was nearly taken over by white people in black-face during the "Minstrel" craze of the early 20th Century and then continued to be popularized in "country" music as defined by the traditionally racist recording industry in Nashville. As a white person who plays, I find this important to be aware of. Of course black banjo players didn't go away. Now the banjo is being taken up again by innovative performers like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Hubbie Jenkins, Layla McCalla, Trey Wellington and many others. It is good to see and to hear.
Banjo is actually a family of instruments. The most famous--and the one Americans refer to as "the" banjo--has five strings, is open-tuned (if you strum it without pressing any strings it makes a recognizable chord), and is featured in bluegrass, country, some rock-n-roll, and anywhere hipsters gather. It has a pretty sound with each note ringing (according to Pete Seeger) like pinpricks or tiny stars. I love it. There is something special about lying out in a field some summer night at a music festival listening to the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin (I also play mando) bouncing off the hills.
However, that is not the one I play. I play a four-string tenor banjo. To be precise (because it matters) I play a 19-fret, open-backed (no resonator), "Irish Tuned" tenor banjo. The tenor (in all its iterations) was adapted for jazz and was a go-to for filling out the rhythm section. They are ideal for choppy, staccato chords that can be heard over the horn section. If you ever go to Honk, you have seen them near the drums in the marching line. The tunings vary, so does the body. In any case it is loud and sometimes harsh sounding. Today it continues to have a place in New Orleans jazz, Irish music and folk-punk. To hear it played well you can look up Don Vappie, the Dubliners, The Pogues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dropkick Murphys, and Devil Makes Three. Those last two bands have mosh pits. The tenor banjo has edges which I like, but, of course, that makes it hard to play and--as I mentioned before--I am not a very good musician. I have to practice a whole lot over the next few days.
Anyway, this is a long post to ask you to pray for me as I once again try to find joy in the midst of my inadequacy. If you have a similar hobby I urge you not to give up. Not because you are going to get better--though you might--but because it brings you joy and you bring joy to the world.
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.