Meriwether Anderson Sale. I think that’s his full  name. But we just called him Andy. He was one person whom I very literally followed along a path.

Back in the 1970s, long before he had become a Presbytery Executive in Virginia, Andy was the Associate Pastor at the church our family attended in Richmond. A few years after Andy and Bill Painter occupied that post at the Bon Air Church, I was called to follow them there in that role. As I have added to this Lenten journey journal each of these forty days, I’ve thought about the many folk whose lives have influenced mine in holy ways. Today, I think about Andy, not so much for his official role at church, but because he  introduced me to what became a sacred place: the Appalachian Trail.

While Andy was on staff at Bon Air, part of his responsibility was youth ministry. I was working in media ministry, but not at a particular church back then, so I was free to worship where I pleased and Bon Air was my choice, and that of my family. I was either teaching the senior high Sunday School class at the time, or serving as a youth group advisor, when Andy announced a five-day trek on part of the Appalachian Trail that runs through western Virginia. It was for senior highs, but he needed some adults to go along too.

I wasn’t much on camping. In fact, I don’t know if I’d been in a sleeping bag or tent since my limited Boy Scout Tenderfoot days. But I went to the orientation session that Andy put together, and I liked what I heard about the physical challenge of the trip, as well as experiencing the scenic wonder of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Plus, I got a radio interview of it, with Andy describing the preparatory details (physical training, what to pack, and how this youth event would build community), and the theological rationale behind it all. (Yes, I still have the cassette tape of the final show.)

I bought hiking boots, and followed Andy’s advice about breaking them in. In fact, I decided to walk from my house to the church in those boots, just to get a feel for the long miles ahead. It was about a four mile walk, and I did feel it. And I thought to myself, if these boots hurt along this flat road…wait ’til I climb a mountain in them. Yikes!

Then I had to buy a backpack, a sleeping bag, and maybe a small tent. (Not sure if that were required, since we planned on hiking shelter-to-shelter, something discouraged these days due to trail wear and tear.) Canteen? Check. Dehydrated food? Yum. Check. Clean socks? Yep.

We met at the church on a summer Monday morning, drove west 90 minutes or so, and started the hike. We camped that night in a shelter. Arose the next morning, and after breakfast, we started out again. As we hiked, I documented the trip on film. Lunch. Hike. Rest. Snack. Hike. Hurt. Camp. The second day.

And so it went. Tolerable meals, multiple complaints from the sneaker wearers, and spiders in the shelters. A few wild animal sounds at night. Skinny dipping in the cold creek, girls upstream and out of sight. Leaping into that pool took my breath away. I remember starting out one morning, midway through the week, thinking how hot it was already in the hour after breakfast, but how refreshing the dew was that rolled off the foliage onto our bare arms as we brushed by. By week’s end, one girl had called her parents from a country store pay phone, asking them to come get her; her feet were blistered and bloody.

The rest of us made it. Physically, it was the most demanding week I had ever endured. Spiritually, it was the most rewarding journey. Part of it was that we had persevered and survived, though Andy, the veteran hiker, had never doubted the survival part. But mostly, it was the idea of having climbed to the top of a mountain like “The Priest,” and paused for all too short a respite to enjoy a magnificent panorama that no one could fully appreciate without having suffered on the way up.

Andy was a good guide, pushing us and pastoring us, chiding and encouraging, leading us in prayers and imparting the wisdom of the trail mile by mile. At the end of the trip, when I met Joan in the church parking lot with my five-day beard, I went for a kiss, but got a welcome home handshake instead. I’ve been clean-shaven ever since.

I am so grateful for Andy’s introducing me to hiking the AT, for that journey was the first of many along that mountainous pathway. My son Jim and I hiked sections of the trail twice. On one trip, he did trip, and suffered a slight wrist fracture. He had just told me he was tired, but it was so close to lunch, and I saw dark clouds rolling in, so I suggested we go just a little further. That’s when he fell on the rocks. And then the clouds did come forth, and lightning, and loud clashing thunder, and drenching rain. On a mountain peak. Amid the trees. We didn’t have time to pitch a tent, so we just huddled under our ponchos, and I prayed aloud that we would be safe.

When the rains subsided for a time, we set up camp, cooked supper while we could (at about four o’clock in the afternoon), and then we entered the tent for the longest night I’ve ever spent anywhere. It was my first experience of claustrophobia. At 4 a.m., I finally had to spring from the tent into the drizzling rain just to catch my breath!

At sunrise, after a hurried breakfast, we broke camp, and with his wrist throbbing, we found our way down the mountain to a ranger station telephone, and called Joan to pick us up early. A local hospital X-ray confirmed a cracked bone, and we drove home. But even after all that, Jim and I still recall the hike as a fun and fulfilling father-son time.

The other AT hike we took was less dramatic, though a dried-up spring meant our water supply ended long before the hike did. It’s amazing how thirsty one can be when there’s no promise of relief any time soon. From that day forward, I’ve been an advocate of clean water and well-drilling and cisterns in developing countries.

Another hiking companion along the Appalachian Trail was Matt Matthews, a friend much younger than I, and able to leap big rocks in a single bound, while I hobbled forth with bad knees. And he wore sneakers while I was outfitted properly with those old boots. Still, there’s a lot to be said for youth. And the less said about my knees the better. That’s why my backpacking days are over —  though, thank the Lord, not my hiking days.

Out of that hike with Matt, a hike filled with friendship and even theological meanderings, came one of my favorite Advent sermons, “Christmas Along the Appalachian Trail,” in which I re-imagined a conversation with Matt about the Christmas story, a kind of dialogue that put new flesh on the old bones of the Incarnation story (sorry). To bring this reflection full circle, I preached that sermon as the Associate Pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church, giving praise to God, and thanks to Andy Sale for his shepherding along the Trail.

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