Faith in the Forestby Katie Gelfand
Hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, one of the last legs of the Appalachian Trail, wound up being the greatest challenge of a long journey. Beginning on the second day of a nine day stretch, it rained for 48 hours, which drew in a cold front and dropped night temperatures to near freezing. The entirety of the forest was flooded or transformed into boot-sucking mud pits. Hypothermia was a regular concern, as our shoes and socks were constantly soaked through and we could not make fire for many days. Other hikers left the trail because of the unfavorable conditions and two had to be evacuated by helicopter. We realized we had not brought enough food and had to carefully ration each meal and snack… even the gummy bears.
Such was my life as a hiker. For seven months this year, my husband and I walked the Appalachian Trail, 2,189 miles across the country from Georgia to Maine. We lived in the forest, hiked an average of 17 miles per day, and resupplied in small mountain towns. Each day was a glorious adventure lush with capacity for contemplation, peppered with challenges, and grounded in routines.
As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist (UU), who identified community as the foundation of my faith, it was a stirring experience to learn how to uphold my truth while isolated from that community. UUs proudly shape our faith around service to the community: from promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person to Standing on the Side of Love on critical justice issues to volunteering on a committee to simply sharing a song together. But where does faith shine in the solitude of the forest?
The tools of faith needed to support myself were more deeply rooted in me than I realized. The essence of covenantal faith germinated silently inside me. Unintentionally, I created a vital agreement between myself and the forest that would see me through many trying and exhilarating times along this adventure:
Take one step at a time.
Look and listen.
Never give up.
Many days I was overwhelmed by the distance we had to hike or cursed the freezing rain or failed to raise my gaze above my feet. I frequently had to call myself back into covenant. Each time I was more grateful for the sacred agreement, as it often ignited the will and discipline I needed to continue. Over time, the forest began to call me back into covenant. If I was grumbling along distracted by a memory from another time, suddenly I would find myself faced with a captivating view. This was a reminder to look, listen, and be present to behold such beauty. Once this alliance was initiated, I became acutely aware of an expansion in the scope of my senses. By awakening faith in the forest, I could entrust intuition to guide many decisions. My intuition steered us to exceptional campsites, rides into town, and the safety of shelter. And once, it even guided us off the trail to a hidden, jubilant Beltane celebration, a highlight of the whole trip. The connection forged by my deep understanding with the forest gave meaning and purpose to my quest.
Back to the 100 Mile Wilderness: Maine is the only state on the trail where there are no bridges across rivers, so it is necessary to ford all waterways, of which there are many. One river had grown 100 yards wide and waist deep with rushing water. I could barely stand up in it, let alone walk through it and keep my 30 pounds of gear dry in my backpack. Despite all of the treacherous factors, this section of the Appalachian Trail proved to be the most majestic, the most mystical, the most invigorating of the entire journey. Every day we passed a glacial lake that was more breathtakingly gorgeous than the one the day before. Autumn was coming up and the trees transformed into brilliant rainbows across the sky. In many ways I felt that the whole adventure had been preparing me for this one small but meaningful section. All of my hiking and camping skills were put to the ultimate test. I had to trust the forest, the covenant, and my intuition. Living through each obstacle I found grace and gratitude.
It was easy to connect to my UU faith whenever I felt tested, for we are a people of great perseverance who push the limits to expand our minds and our hearts. As Tom Own-Towle writes in Freethinking Mystics with Hands, “Unitarian Universalist religion is relentless in beckoning us to climb down from elevated perches, to vacate the comfortable surrounds of life’s surface, and to enter life’s depths where authentic suffering, joy, and meaning await us.” In the forests of Appalachia, I met suffering, joy, and meaning, who all helped me to learn a richer expression of my faith.
Katie Gelfand is a native of New Orleans and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. She was a participant at the Southern Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (2013) and then volunteer staff at the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (2013) and SUULE (2014). She is devoted to First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans where she served as board secretary, worship associate, and youth group adviser. Starting in January 2016, she will be the Religious Education Lead at FUUNO. She loves to travel, practice yoga, make costumes, and is pursuing a career in the healing arts.