Testimony of Overcoming Fear on an Appalachian Trail Hike
Over the past four summers, I have hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail from Virginia to Vermont. The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Range and my hikes have covered roughly a third of that. To complete the hikes, I had to meet and master a number of fears and injuries and in so doing, grew closer to God and stronger in my faith.
Before I began the trek, a number of fears and concerns arose. Specifically, I feared spiders, tick-borne Lyme disease, hernia, poison ivy, poison plants that I didn’t recognize, twisted ankles, knee injury, back pain, sunburn, impure water diseases, bear attacks, rattlesnakes, blisters, fear of being alone, fear of failure, uncertainty of the outcome. The fears descended like a cloud of locusts and were so daunting in my thought that I considered giving up on the idea.
In addition, I was uncertain if the business that I own would function in my absence, and whether it was even wise to take a sabbatical. That uncertainty was compounded by a fear of isolation, fear of the unknown and a general apprehension that I was simply unprepared to take on this task and would fail miserably and publicly. In short, I had a lot of baggage to let go of.
A month before I was to head out on the hike, I attended a Christian Science lecture in Dallas TX. The lecturer made the point that long-distance hikers strive to reduce their loads and do so by getting rid of non-essentials. As an aspiring long distance hiker, I liked that analogy as it related to both the backpack I would be carrying and the weight of fearful ideas that were crowding my mind.
I needed to off-load non-essentials, so I began the process of trimming down. I cut my pack weight by about 10 pounds, down to a manageable load. Then, as I set out on the hike, I began to off load each of the fears that were operating in my thoughts. On the trail, I had hours of uninterrupted solitude, so I had plenty of time to confront the fears that had beset me. Gradually I dealt with each one of them. Several references from the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, were helpful as I worked through my fears.
There is no vapid fury of mortal mind — expressed in earthquake, wind, wave, lightning, fire, bestial ferocity — and this so-called mind is self-destroyed. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Eddy 293:21.
So I could not be subject to wild animal attack.
The God-inspired walk calmly on though it be with bleeding footprints, and in the hereafter they will reap what they now sow. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures 40:31.
So I could be calm amid whatever may arise in the forest.
Wilderness. Loneliness; doubt, darkness. Spontaneity of thought and idea; the vestibule in which a material sense of things disappears, and spiritual sense unfolds the great facts of existence. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures 597:16.
So I need not fear the woods or anything they contained.
Over the course of the hikes, all my fears were overcome, and I experienced a number of healings. I am most grateful for the dedicated assistance of a Christian Science practitioner who worked throughout the hike to help me overcome fears and injuries along the way.
The very first claim on the very first day was of a hernia. The week before I had started on the trek, I had lifted some heavy logs to build a campfire ring at a local camp. I had felt a sensation of tearing in my abdomen. I hadn’t addressed my thought of it until the day I picked up my pack and felt a twinge. The morning I experienced this pain, another hiker had been talking about the same malady. With the practitioner, I focused on no tear or separation in God’s kingdom, and I reasoned that since we exist wholly as spiritual ideas, the notion of a hernia wasn’t true for my fellow hiker and couldn’t be true for me, so we were both protected from this claim. I did not feel any more fear and within a couple days the hernia symptoms disappeared, never to return.
The next major concern was of foot blisters. On a previous 50-mile hike as a scoutmaster, I had to tape each of my toes to avoid extensive blistering. Even this hadn’t prevented painful blisters from forming daily. So the practitioner focused thought on the idea that there can be no friction in God’s kingdom and among his various ideas (the toes). Specifically, one piece of matter cannot rub another piece of matter. Consequently, on four hikes covering 750 miles, I experienced no blistering the entire time, with the exception of a single blister on my baby toe the last week of the first hike.
The next concern was that my feet were feeling bruised and battered on hikes in rocky terrain in Pennsylvania. Hikers call it the area “Rocksylvania” because the trail conditions are severe: jagged, loose, uneven, irregular rocks, and, in some cases, boulders, litter the path. So, at the end of a day of hiking, it felt like my feet had been hit with ballpeen hammers. This symptom was addressed by the knowledge that two material objects cannot clash with each other since one material object cannot create an effect on another material object. The next day, foot bruising had subsided, and over two more days, I was enjoying skipping among the rocks.
Hiking amongst rocks, boulders, roots and gravel, I frequently felt fear that I would twist an ankle. By rough calculation, it takes 1 million steps to hike 500 miles (the Latin “mille” referred to 1,000 “paces” by the Roman Legion), which meant I had over a million opportunities to twist an ankle. This fear was overcome by the idea that the bones represent the spiritual structure, strength, and power which are not subject to twisting, breakage, or injury. In simplest terms, as an idea of God, I could not be subject to an ankle injury. Consequently, although my ankles were regularly tested, I never sprained an ankle.
I was also concerned about knee injuries. Only this time the fear that presented in my mind was that I would suffer some catastrophic fall with my pack on, hyperextend or, otherwise, damage my knee, and end up unable to walk for the rest of my life. When I actually did hyperextend a knee, it presented a real challenge. The twisting fall was painful and I was fearful that I would have to come off the trail. Sitting on the ground, I recalled the idea of “on bended knee” indicating complete submission to God. I knew and believed that as God’s reflection I had never experienced an accident. How could an idea have an accident? That night, in some pain, I turned to God, seeking wisdom to do the right thing under the circumstances, whether to stay on the trail or come off. It seemed nearest right under the circumstances to continue the hike. I set out slowly and systemically; claiming my freedom each step of the way. This was not an immediate healing, and it took me a while to gain my freedom, but I was able to hold fast to the thought that the knee represented flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and power. Soon I forgot about the knee, and I was completely healed of the hyperextended knee within the day.
Fear of various animals was the next major concern. The deer tick presented a challenge since a family member had contracted Lyme disease the previous year. The fact that the tick is so hard to see and its bite seems so dire made it appear dangerous in my thought and compounded the fear of Lyme disease. I held to the notion that, as an idea of God I am impervious to a bite of any kind, like Paul shaking off the snake into the fire. I cannot be seen, touched or harmed by ticks, or any “bestial ferocity”. I lost the fear of danger from them and I never encountered the deer tick.
As a “practical, operative” (Miscellaneous Writings 206:32) Christian Scientist, I also exercised wisdom and good judgment by regularly inspecting myself for ticks over the course of the hikes. Doing so, at one point after hiking through an open field, I found a half-dozen larger ticks and used a simple device to pull them painlessly away and return them to their natural habitat. The smaller ticks never presented themselves and that was fine by me. I had thought of killing the ticks, but that would not fit with the notion of God’s peaceable Kingdom, in which each of his creatures has an appropriate place and an appropriate function.
The ticks gave me new respect for the role each of God’s creation plays in His kingdom. During the course of the hike, I observed that the animals kept to themselves and meant no harm to humans, unless they were threatened. This was proven decisively one day as I was hiking the western New Jersey trail and heard the clatter of a rattlesnake’s rattle about 3 feet to my left. The rattle was simply to warn me that I was in the snake’s territory and allowed me to step back and give room while the snake majestically moved off the trail from sunning itself. About two hours later on the same day, I crossed paths with a second rattle snake. Same alarm rattle, same giving way by both parties. It reminded me of Daniel in the lion’s den. Both the snake and I were innocent.
“Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.” Daniel 6:21-22.
By the end of the trail, I had no fear of any animal, including rattlesnakes, bears, rodents, wildcats, mice, raccoons. They had their space, I had mine. No danger from them to me or from me to them.
On the last day of my hike, I experienced one final proof of God’s constant care during a fall. It was dusk with a light rain falling at the end of about 18 miles of hiking that day. I was getting weary, but not exhausted. This section of trail is called the “Stairway to Heaven” which includes a two-hour uphill hike through a boulder field that did indeed consist of numerous sets of stone stair steps. With the light fading and the trail hard to see, and with my 45-pound pack tipping me off balance, I lost my footing and fell off the trail about eight feet down into boulders.
Here now was my ultimate fear – that I would injure my legs in a fall, at night, with slight chance of rescue in the dark. But something more powerful was at work. Mrs. Eddy writes that: “The stars make night beautiful, and the leaflet turns naturally towards the light” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures 240:6 emphasis added). As I fell, I experienced an unusual sensation: it was as if an unseen hand took hold of my collar and gently lowered me; turning me naturally, slowly, towards a landing spot. As this happened, my legs straddled a boulder and my knees settled into a cushion of leaves gathered on either side of it. I came to rest with my hands and my knees safely cushioned. I looked around, exhilarated, breathless. I felt my knees, my hands, my feet. No broken anything, no cuts, no injury. I had been turned naturally to the exact spot in the rocks where no harm could come to me.
You can imagine the joy with which I thanked God for this grand lesson from the trail, for His ever-present care and protection. I laughed my way up the rest of the steps on the Stairway to Heaven, thinking of the Led Zeppelin song lyrics and how I might change them to a song of praise for this magnificent God — Who healeth all our diseases and guards and guides us all, everywhere, always. For the many blessings and lessons learned, I am most grateful.