Thursday March 21 we headed into the Smoky Mountains from Fontana Dam, the most visited park in the USA. It was 7 miles uphill, as it usually is, after every town visit. We camped at the Birch Spring camp site. The weather got cooler as we got higher and that evening we were gifted with a one inch deep sleet storm. The wind continued to blow, there was thunder and rain during the night. Do you now how much fun it is to have to go to the bathroom when your snuggled in your sleeping bag and it’s pouring rain, sleeting, and the wind is howling. I have my wife convinced, I use my water bottle and then it does double duty, as a foot warmer at the bottom of my sleeping bag. I do try to remember to rinse it, in the morning, but I may occasionally mix it up with my juice bottle as the contents are close in color!
Friday March 22 we hiked 9 miles to Russell Field shelter. One of the rules in the Smoky Mountains is that you have to stay in the shelter, if there is room. The shelter sleeping situation consists of two levels of boards and this one held 14 people. I hoped I would not be sleeping with snorers. I ended up between two young ladies and I thought
I was in luck. But before I had even got in my bag the one started and I give her a 3 for her efforts. Soon after, the lady on the other side started and she had a bit more power and I would give her a 5. I didn’t sleep well, as I suck at sleeping at the best of times. I got up for my nightly routine, of going to the bathroom. On the way back in, I met another hiker, on his way out, right at the corner of the shelter. I scared him so bad he jumped and lost his breath and I’m pretty sure he relieved himself on the spot. In the morning, I noticed a sign, telling us how to be politically correct hikers. It instructed us to bury our business 6 feet under (6’ was how it was written). I decided to hold on to a place with more reasonable expectations. My plastic shovel is good for the sand box but it takes a lot of work to dig even a 6 inch hole in the rocks and roots.
Saturday March 23 was a beautiful sunny day. I was in a good mood and enjoyed meeting people throughout the day. We walked 9 miles of knee busting, quad burning, up and downs, but the views were great. When I reached the next shelter, I tried to wait it out to see if it would fill up, so I could set up my tent, but no such luck. If I had known what I was in for that night, I would have broke the rules and set up anyway. That night I was treated to a great orchestra led by the booming tuba of Grizzly. This guy had pipes like I have never heard and he kept it up most of the night. He was joined by a lady playing the flute. I have
never heard anything like it, as she whistled and whimpered like beaten dog. Then there was all the back up players, who on occasion took the lead. They all took a break for a hour or so around 3:00 a.m. Then they all started up again and kept it up till morning. Never again will I sleep in a shelter! What’s even more maddening, is those who simply sleep through it all. How is that even possible?
Sunday March 24th we worshiped in the great chapel of the outdoors. The sun was shinning and the views surpassed any so far. We hiked ten miles in a gradual uphill all day to the height of 6600 feet to what is called Clingman’s dome and we hit the 200 mile mark. After spending some time there, we hiked to the next shelter making it a
day of 13.5 miles. Thankfully the shelter was packed out, so I set my tent under the spruce trees and enjoyed a peaceful night of sleep, badly needed.
Monday March 25 we hiked about 5 miles down to New Found Gap, planning to take a shuttle into Gatlinburg TN. A lady in the parking lot offered us a free ride, just after another man had handed me a 7-up. We got into Gatlinburg and were excited to check into the Best Western, where they gave us a 50% discount, for being hikers on the trail! I was absolutely exhausted, as I had only a protein bar for lunch and nothing more till we hit Road House, where we dinned on steak and ribs. I think that was the most exhausted I have felt on this trip but it did follow a tough few days of hiking terrain and a few nights with no sleep
Tuesday March 26 we took a Zero in Gatlinburg. We spent the day
getting our resupply and checking out the town. Gatlinburg is a tourist town with all kinds of interesting attractions.
Wednesday March 27 we hitchhiked back to the trail head at Newfound Gap. We got a ride from a lady who hopes to hike the trail one day and she had a lot of questions. When we got to the shelter the Ridge Runner was there, so I thought I would be stuck in the shelter. Fortunately she got called away, so I set up my tent and had a decent sleep. Sleeping is such a huge issue to me, with my struggles with insomnia. Even when I traveled with AIM in India, I always requested my own room. During the night I heard a horrendous scream, twice, that sounded like some animal had just become dinner for another.
Thursday March 28 I had an awesome day of hiking. The views were the best yet and I made 12 miles on a crisp sunny day. The trail goes from hill to hill on narrow ridges often only 3 -6 feet wide with steep drop offs on each side. From these ridges you could often see for miles into the distance. I had an opportunity to climb a huge rock at Charlie’s Bunyan, but for once in my life thought better of it. (Are you proud of me Shania?) My last foray at rock climbing, in a cave in Belize, with my daughter ended in a 15 foot fall, with me cracking my head on a rock. As my daughter helped me out of there with blood streaming down my face, I struggled to remember what country I was in.
Friday March 29 was another beautiful day. I hiked 14 miles my best day yet. I feel I'm getting stronger. I think it’s time for me to push a little harder.
Saturday March 30 I hiked 4 miles into Standing Bear Farm. This place is run by former hikers and takes you back to the hippy era. Just setting up my tent, and to be honest the bunk houses and cabins, remind me of some of the forts I hammered together with my kids. Walked a total of 240 miles.
I have met a lot of interesting people on the trail, including people
from Germany, Australia, Ireland , UK and from all over the USA. On my second week, I ran into Waffle and his son Hawkeye and we soon became good friends and have been hiking and sharing motel rooms ever since. They say that the Appalachian trail is special this way, in that people make life long friends. I met One Punch, in my first week and shortly after he had to leave the trail. He was in tears and he said there is just something about this trail, people are so compassionate and everyone’s on the same level. I would concur with him, that people on the trail, genuinely look after and care for each other. It is an amazing community.
When I first crashed and burned, I thought a few months of rest, exercise and good food would get me right back on the trail again. I
went to two different Natural Paths and bought thousands of dollars of vitamins over time. I can’t say that they helped any. I went to counselling and enjoyed those sessions, but again they didn’t seem to help. I was most frustrated that I could not seem to get help from the medical field. I would spend 10 minutes with my doctor and he would prescribe some pills, but he never really understood where I was at. Neither could he seem to get me into a Psychiatrist or someone who really understood, the disease of mental illness. I really felt helpless. There seemed to be no where to get any professional help. I could not find anyone who could give you some concrete answers. Then there was the church, by which I mean the people of my church community. I think most Christian people feel inept at helping people with mental illness. There are those who want to pray the demon of depression out of you. Others who say you need to claim your identity in Christ, have faith and just be healed. At times, I have been given the impression that I am failing, as a spiritual person, I should be feeling the joy of the Lord, in the midst of depression. There are those that think you should just get off your lazy butt and do something. Fortunately I experienced little of any of those. Mostly I felt abandoned. I came to the place where I gave up
all hope of finding help.
For the longest time, I thought of my situation as some sort of spiritual failure on my part. I felt so abandoned by God and friends and it felt like I had done something to anger God or I had somehow failed Him. How else do you explain after having given my life to serving Him, spent years training in Bible School, served as a pastor for 15 years and poured out my heart for the church, and worked in missions for half a wage the last few years, to only to crash and burn. It felt like God had fired me and left me without hope and purpose. I have finally come to the realization, I have an illness just like the person with cancer or heart disease. I no longer look for the fault in my life that brought this on. I’m not saying that some of my actions are not part of the cause. I know my driveness, desire to please, do well, and my passion for life had a part in it. But this is not some form of punishment or even abandonment from a disappointed God.
So how can you be a friend to someone like me, who struggles with mental illness? First of all realize you can help, even if you don’t have any answers. I appreciated most, the few men who dropped in any time with out calling me, just to see how I was. A person dealing with depression will most likely end up losing all their friends over time. They do not have the energy to call. They will probably not come to your care group or any other invitation you give. They conserve their limited energy, to deal with the daily things of life, in their home. I
began loosing my friends towards the end of my ministry, as I no longer had the energy to maintain them and do my work. People who suffer from depression, need friends who will see beyond these things. Simply sending a text that you care or showing up at their door unannounced, just letting them know you are, thinking of them, appreciate them and they are not alone, helps. When you visit spend your time talking about things of mutual interest. It’s ok to talk about their struggles for a short time and pray, but help them escape their world by talking about things of interest. I found it so refreshing to talk to someone about theology, sports, politics or camping. It made me feel human. It made something inside me come alive and feel a thread of hope that I was still human. Another thing, is to allow one to voice their doubts about God and their feelings of abandonment. During the worst of my depression I could not listen to Christian music. I simply could not identify with the joy and hope it expressed. It grated on me and I wanted to scream out BS! A person in depression needs the opportunity to voice their doubts, without being condemned. I had to find secular singers, who are more free it seems, to voice the true and real pain that even Christians go through. I also found solace in the imprecatory Psalms. As I write these words, I find my tears start running and my heart aching, as I remember how desperately alone and lost I have often felt.
If you have a friend who falls to this illness, please stick with them. Do not give up, no matter how many times they do not answer your calls or decline your invitations. Better yet show up on their door step consistently and visit for just a short time. You may never understand their pain, but you can brighten their day by
showing you do care.
I think I would have appreciated, if on occasion the church, would have had a time of prayer for me, after the service, as they have done for others. It would have helped me feel like I was still part of the church community. I truly felt like I lost my church community and I think it was even harder for me, as the community was my work and my family for so long. I have a better understanding now, of how the elderly must feel, when they can no longer make it to church.
Also, remember that the family members may be hurting especially in the case of a spouse or parent. This time has been just as hard on my wife, as its been on me. She has lost the man that she knew. She had to become the strong one and take on responsibilities she never
had before. She carried the emotional load, as my own family went through it's own crisis. My wife has carried a heavy burden for the past 5 years, mostly on her own. In spite of it, she has continued to care for others, including nursing a young woman back to life emotionally who stayed in our home for a few weeks over the Christmas holidays. The fact that she agreed to my leaving on this hike, is a measure of how desperate she is for me to find healing. I am amazed at her inner strength and yet I know she to hurts and struggles.
A few weeks before I left, one of the dads on my son's hockey team found out about my situation and went out of his way to research every resource there was in Steinbach for the mentally ill. He sent me an email of all the different resources and offered to go with me, if I would want. I was very moved and encouraged by this display of care. People with mental illness at times are just not in a position to help themselves and they need someone to come alongside and fight for them.
Thank you to those of you who have cared and prayed for us. It is truly appreciated. I know many of you, have prayed even though I never heard from you. Thank you for the meals and especially for those who came to my door to see how I was doing. You are my heroes and your love will never be forgotten. I have learned a lot about caring through my own suffering.
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