Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
“We should hike the North Carolina state parks,” Teresa said to me in the sweaty summer heat of 2018. We are retirees and grandmothers, so perhaps not a typical age or stage of life to take up serious hiking. But without a moment’s thought as to what hiking all the state parks might entail, I said, “Sure.” And so on a muggy August day in 2018, we stepped out onto our first hike at Falls Lake State Park in central North Carolina.
What started as a whim grew to be a magnificent obsession. From our homes in central North Carolina, we began to head outward, like spokes on a bicycle, driving to this state park and that one. Armed with small backpacks and plenty of water, we hiked a couple of miles in each park, getting a park stamp from the ranger, to prove we were there.
Across fifteen months, we slowly tallied our list of parks hiked. Jockey’s Ridge, that shifting sand dune on the coast. Dismal Swamp, the largest swamp in the eastern United States, home to bobcats and rare butterflies. The bay lake parks, that mysterious cluster of shallow, northwest-pointing lakes in the southeastern corner of the state. Gorges State Park, tucked near the far western border right on the North Carolina, South Caroline line, with its splendid, sparkling Rainbow Falls. Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi, where we stood among the clouds on a chilly July morning.
We would finish our quest to hike the forty-one parks in North Carolina, standing on the Mile High Swinging Bridge atop Grandfather Mountain. By the time we finished hiking the forty-one parks, we had driven 5,300 miles crisscrossing the state of North Carolina—enough miles to take us to California and back.
Teresa and I found each other—not too long after I moved to North Carolina—when we crossed paths while attending the same church. My husband had died about a year earlier, setting in motion my move to North Carolina. Teresa’s husband was fighting the last stages of a long battle with cancer when I arrived. Soon we were both widows, afloat in a circle of friends who were mostly all couples. We naturally gravitated toward each other, each of us struggling to navigate the sea of grief. So after some months of comfortable lunch dates and afternoon walks around the lake at a town park, Teresa floated out the idea of hiking the state parks.
My life moved on after my husband died because, after all, life waits for no one. I retired from a job in the city and moved to the town where my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren lived. I found a new community of friends and a much more relaxed pace, away from the grinding commute of city life.
But grief is like slivers of glass splayed across the kitchen floor because you clumsily dropped a bowl. You think you’ve swept it up till some days later you step on yet another sliver, barefooted. And a fresh cut with a drop of blood is a reminder of the shattered glass. Grief pops up at the most unexpected moments, like that glass sliver your foot finds on the kitchen floor, the unkindest cut and a current-day reminder of the shattering that happened one day in your world.
How does your heart discern the shift from decades of being “we” to “me” again? Where does your heart turn when the world as you knew it has shifted on its foundations? Through hiking into earth’s wild places, could I even begin to expose and tame the wild places of my heart?
Taming the Wild Places
On a planet of mostly southward flowing rivers, the New River in western North Carolina travels northward, carving an ancient path out of North Carolina across the tip of Virginia. The waters of the New River will eventually wind their way into the Mississippi before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, the river carved its route long before people drew lines in the sand to create borders for North Carolina, Virginia, or West Virginia.
Interesting to note, the river named “New” is actually one of the oldest rivers on the planet. Scientists believe that perhaps only the Nile River is older than North Carolina’s New River. The river winds, twists, and turns a serpentine path northward through Ashe and Allegheny counties, out of the northwestern corner of North Carolina, before reaching the state line and washing into Virginia.
I found myself there along the banks of the New River on a wind-chilled November day. My favorite hiking buddy, Teresa, was just a few steps in front of me. The sun was shining clear, but it was winter wild cold with puffs of snow tucked among the leaves that carpeted the ground, a soft reminder of the early season snow the week before.
We hiked a trail paralleling the river for a while. Then the trail took a turn upward, pulling away from the river and stepping in elevation toward the top of the ridge, through a forest of oaks, hickory, and pine trees that reached skyward, towering over us like silent sentries. With summer leaves, the view of the river from the top of the ridge would have been obscured. But with the winter leaves crunching under our feet, the river view through the trees was unobstructed. It was easy to see the course cut by the river, a course the river has been cutting through those mountains for more than a million years.
As Teresa and I walked that trail following the course of the New River, we covered ground where people had lived and died for millennia. Artifacts tell the stories of Indian tribes—the Creek, Shawnee, and Cherokee—who used the river valley as their hunting grounds. Like that seemingly endless ribbon of asphalt named I-95 that motorists travel along the eastern coast of the United States today, the ancient New River laid a course for the Native Americans’ trade and migration routes.
We followed the footsteps of untold generations of people, who had walked along that riverbank, just like us on that windy November day. A river that scientists say is older than the mountains through which it winds, following essentially the same course it has always traveled.
What is liturgy? “A liturgy is a pattern of words or actions repeated regularly as a way of worship,” Justin Whitmel Earley, wrote in his book The Common Rule. For a person of faith like myself, those hikes, month after month, mile after mile, became a liturgy walked out in the woods. And with those hikes came an extra measure of healing and peace.
Hiking reminds a person of rhythms—the liturgies of the natural world. Spring to summer. Fall to winter. Life to death to life again. Time spools out in an unending rhythm of these seasons, just like it has done for people across those ten thousand years of time in the New River valley.
American nature writer and biologist Rachel Carson wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
The grief. It does not go away, and that’s okay. It is a reminder of having loved and been greatly loved in return. And the hike, that started as just a wild idea on a summer day, took the shape of a liturgy, forming the person I am right now. And the healing came in walking out the steps of that liturgy called the hike.