Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
–Geoffery Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
–A joke I first read in Reader’s Digest decades ago but which I’m sure is older than that
Tim and I have had a few conversations about the nature of thru-hiking and its similarities to religious pilgrimages. This is especially true when talking about trail magic and trail angels, and the way people traditionally open their homes to pilgrims traveling on foot to sites of religious significance.
In the first week alone we’ve experienced a few examples of this trail magic. On day three we were winding our way around mountainsides, with several dramatic ascents and descents. Our destination was a campground still a few miles away, and the heat of the day was wearing us down. As often happens on trail, the conversation turned to food. “I’d kill for a slice of frozen watermelon,” said Tim, and I enthusiastically agreed. Within a half hour or so, the trail took us towards a road crossing. We could see an SUV pulled over, a couple of guys standing nearby, and a few lawn chairs. We let our hopes get dangerously high, and as we got nearer, one of the guys shouted, “Hey, you want some watermelon?” I momentarily blacked out (this is hyperbole) and when I came to, I was polishing off one slice while being handed a second.
Tim and I split a Gatorade and headed off, not wanting to overstay our welcome, and facing some daunting miles in the heat en route to the campground where we planned to stay that night. We got there, set up camp, and we’re finishing dinner when a familiar SUV pulled up alongside our campsite and someone yelled out, “Hey, can we crash your party?!” It was the same trail angels from before, bearing pizza and beer. A miracle after a tough day on trail.
The next most memorable incident came after a particularly grueling 18 miles, our longest day to date, on a hot, windless day. We wearily made our way to a highway overpass where we expected to find some jugs of water in a cache maintained by a local church. As we came over the hill, we saw a few hikers, and suddenly they burst into a round of applause. As we got closer, a hiker pressed a cold beer into Tim’s hand, one he’d just opened for himself, and someone else offered me a beer too, while foisting fresh apples and oranges on us both. After being so hot and exhausted, Tim and I were both overwhelmed and nearly moved to tears by the avalanche of kindness.
We’d barely sat down when we were offered a ride into town by a friendly, grizzled local named Ed, to stay at Carmen’s, a cafe where Carmen herself offers all hikers free hugs, beer, laundry, and sleep (she clears out all the tables and lets hikers sleep on her floor). The generosity of hikers and the people who make up the hiking community seems boundless.
I can’t claim that a long distance hike of a scenic trail is exactly the same as a pilgrimage to sites with religious and historical significance, but there are commonalities. There are a few articles of faith among thru-hikers, mantras treated as law. One is “Never quit on a bad day”, a belief that pessimism and exhaustion are temporary states that will pass after water, a big meal, and a good night’s sleep. The most important, most often repeated advice, is “the trail provides.” It could be something as small as finding a tent stake in a hiker box when you lost one that very morning, or as important as an unexpected water cache when bad planning or bad information leaves you dry. It’s faith that “the trail”- whether nature, or other hikers, or the communities around the trails- will be there when you really, really need it.
The joke up there about the flood can mean that God works his power through other people, but the story of the joke is the same whether or not you believe in God. What the guy needed was to believe in the kindness and resilience of his fellow humans. When people go on religious pilgrimages, they’re testing their own faith and exploring its history, but they are also testing their faith in humanity. Thru-hikers are doing the same: stripping down possessions, shelter, and food to the bare minimum, and relying on favorable weather and tough gear, but also dependent on the compassion, good humor, and support of other hikers, trail angels, and all our family and friends back home.
The introduction to the Canterbury Tales up above (which I memorized in tenth grade; hi Mrs. Salmon!) has also been on my mind, and not only because our own journey started in April. Chaucer cites reasons for a pilgrimage that have nothing to do with God or Christianity, but with sweet wind (provided by Greek god Zephyrus at that), blooming flowers, and signs of the Zodiac. The beauty and joy of nature is enough to justify a pilgrimage, and the ever changing scenery and flora of the Pacific Crest Trail are a dramatic display of natural forces. We’re testing our own resilience and our understanding of nature by trying to remove as many barriers as possible. A terrifyingly windy night in the tent may make us feel the barrier is a little too thin, but those moments are tests, too, that we survive and learn from and that strengthen our faith in our own resourcefulness and one another.