If you hike the Pacific Crest Trail long enough, you will meet people who have trail names. These folks are usually “Through Hikers” which means they started in Mexico and are headed for the Canadian border. Then there are “Section Hikers” and these are folks who have subdivided the PCT down into large chunks like Oregon or Washington or large sections of California. After this there are “destination hikers” and “day hikers.” I was a “Section Hiker.”
Almost all the “Through Hikers” had trail names. Like “Bear Cow,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Peanut Butter Platypus,” “The Bee Man,” “Skinny D,” “Roger Dodger,” and “Sweet Jesus.” A few “Section Hikers” had trail names, but mostly it was the “Through Hikers.”
Most of those names originated, as most nick-names do, from some memorable event. “Bear Cow” got scared of glowing eyes at the edge of the firelight one night, convinced he was being stalked by a bear only to find out it was a cow. “Peanut Butter Platypus” thought it would be a good idea to carry peanut butter in a camelback bladder. “Skinny D” is short for “skinny dipper.” “Sweet Jesus” is a kid who had long hair and a beard like….Jesus.
In case you are wondering if I had a trail name, the answer is yes. When the ex-cop from L.A. learned I was a pastor, he started calling me “The Rev.” When some of the folks had spent time and miles hiking with me and, in jest, I started deliberately living up to the stereotype of preachers and pronouncing things as “Right” or “Wrong” one hiker said, “Rev, are you judging me?” And I said, “You bet. I am a world-class judger. Don’t you know it’s what Christians in general and preachers in particular do best?” So, from that time on I was “The Judge” in that group.
So, I’m “The Rev” and/or “The Judge.” On the trail, as in other arenas, one of the first small-talk questions asked are “What do you do for a living?” It is one of the ways we identify ourselves. I’m a pastor. I’m a policeman. I’m a teacher. But is that really who you are? Is that really who I am? Down at my core, is that the ultimate truth about me? Am I what I do? What happens if I stop reverending/pastoring? What happens if I stop judging? Who will I be then?
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
Listen to those words. “You are my…Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You are the beloved of God. Don’t those words sound wonderful? Do I dare hope that voice might be spoken to me? Haven’t you heard that same voice? Haven’t you wanted and wished it to be true?
Be still for a moment and see if you can hear a Galilean accent in these words…
“I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.
I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.
I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.
Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you.
You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse…wherever you are I will be.
Nothing will ever separate us. We are one. For you are my beloved.” ~~Henri Nouwen
I spent the first week and some fifty miles hiking solo from Ashland, Oregon to Fish Lake Resort. I picked up the first re-supply package that I had mailed myself two weeks earlier. It was filled with Ramen, trail mix, and various and sundry backpacking stuffs.
The resort manager told me where the designated PCT hiker’s camp was. I was foot-sore, dirty, hungry and a little lonely. With my pack on my back, I carried my re-supply box the two hundred yards to the camp. There was a picnic table there and I sat my box down, took my pack off and stretched out under a canopy of fir boughs on the picnic table. I was almost asleep when I heard the heavy footfall of what I assumed was another hiker.
A tall, lanky, gray-bearded man came lumbering up. He bowed low and with open arms said, “Welcome, sir, to your new home. We are all family here and anything I have is yours. Let me know if you need anything. On the trail they call me ‘Smoke.’” He stuck out his left hand to shake mine. We shook, he kissed two fingers on his right hand, bumped his chest over his heart twice, pointed at me and walked a few yards away and crawled into his tent.
Over the next 24 hours while I was there I learned he was not a hiker. He just hung out at the PCT camp because he had no place else to go. He would pick up trash around the resort and sort out the hiker box, where backpackers left foodstuffs they didn’t want to carry was stored. I think he ate out of that box.
He never completed a sentence when I talked to him. He often would finish a story or conversation with lines from movies or lyrics from ‘70s rock songs. His favorite rock and roller was Bob Seger. I told him that my favorite Seger song was “Turn the Page.” He said, “Thank you.” Whether the gratitude was from entering into his passions or giving him credit for having good taste in music, I couldn’t tell.
Smoke found a discarded, toy fishing pole that was broken. He brought it back to camp and began to work on it. After an hour and a little of my duct tape, he felt it would pass inspection. He then went around to every older resort member he could find asking them if they had kids or grandkids so he could give the fishing pole to them.
One time he asked me what I did when I wasn’t hiking. I knew this was eventually going to happen. When I tell people that I am a pastor, they change. Smoke smiled—ear-to-ear. He and I had long discussions about the Bible as I took a rest day at this resort. Smoke would talk and talk and talk. But he didn’t speak in linear ways. He would start down a line of logic and split off and chase a different topic like a beagle that has jumped a rabbit, eventually coming back to the trail, but you didn’t really know where he’d been in the meantime.
He asked me to baptize him in the lake; then he changed the topic and mentioned it was his 83 year old mother’s birthday and he had no way of calling her. I offered him my cell phone and he called someone and wished them a happy birthday; I assume it was his mother.
The more you listened to him the more you knew he was a kind and gentle man. He wanted nothing from anyone, offered what he had to anyone who came along. He wrote me a three page letter confessing sins, a life a drug abuse, and rambling lyrics from old songs, sprinkled with clips of verses from the Bible.
When I packed up to go he was talking a mile a minute and I turned to him and said, “Smoke, would you mind if I prayed for you?” He said, “I would count it a privilege if you would just remember my name from time-to-time down the trail, pastor.” I said, “Smoke, can I pray for you right now?”
He nodded his head.
I asked him if I could put my hand on his shoulder.
He nodded his head.
I began to pray and Smoke tilted his head back just slightly as if basking in the last warm rays of the afternoon sun. When I said, “In Jesus name, Amen” I looked and big wet tracks of tears were flowing down his pock-marked cheeks. I placed my hand on his chest and said, “Smoke, you have a good heart beating in this chest. God loves you very much.”
He smiled and said, “Pastor, my name is Gary.”
I am looking forward to more.
Thanks Joe there is nothing like walking your talk and you certanily did that on the trail.
made me cry Joe.
Holy crap Joe (can I say holy crap?????) Just my way of expressing astonishment. What an encounter, resulting in a recovered name! That’s no small thing. My learned professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology just told the class that if we are going to love our neighbor we’re going to be with people who are not like us. An encompassing, profound thought which comes to life in your encounter.
A gentle touch is often all a soul needs. Thanks, Joe.