In 2008, Paul Stutzman quit his job, strapped on a backpack, and began a walk through the wilderness, following the Appalachian Trail 2,176 miles from Georgia to Maine. Eighteen months before, Paul had lost his wife of 32 years to cancer and could not find a way to put his life back together. Paul’s Appalachian Trail hike started as the pursuit of a dream; but along the trail, God also gave him a new life. Here, excerpted from his book Hiking Through are his thoughts on making dreams a reality.
Sometimes, the journey toward a goal is forced upon us; but left to ourselves, we often find all kinds of reasons why we do not pursue our dreams. We convince ourselves we’re unprepared, unequal to the task, or we wait for the “perfect” time to begin. We dream, but neglect doing. It’s very simple: we will never make a dream reality unless we finally step onto the trail that will lead us to our goal.
From Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is marked by white blazes painted on trees, rocks, buildings, railroad ties, and posts. Those two-by-six-inch painted markers will guide a hiker to Mt. Katahdin, but interesting and easier trails sometimes lure hikers away from the AT. Distractions, detours, and shortcuts cause some to lose sight of the white blazes.
Stay on the path that will take you where you want to go. Pay attention, or you’ll lose your way. If you yield to temptation and try too many other paths, you will never get to your goal.
The hike was more difficult than I had ever imagined. I set out the first day, expecting an idyllic walk in the woods; instead, I walked in rain. In a few days, snow and ice coated everything. Extreme loneliness ambushed me. But sweet surprises also waited, gifts that far surpassed my expectations: trail magic, kindness of strangers, exhilaration, beauty, camaraderie, and spirituality of the trail. Your journey toward your dream will constantly surprise you. You will be disappointed at times, but you’ll also find unexpected gifts and blessings. You will most assuredly be surprised by the surprises.
Survival demanded shelter, food, and water. Everything else was carefully considered before I added it to my pack. Every ounce made a difference in climbs and descents. Things I once thought necessities were disposed of or sent home; the less weight I carried, the faster and farther I could travel in a day. Strip off the weight that slows you down. Save your energy for your goal; carrying the unnecessary, the frivolous, and the excessive only drains your strength. Judge carefully what aids you in the pursuit of your dream and let go of those things that hinder your progress.
When I began my hike in Georgia, my dream seemed impossible. Trail lore says it’s five million steps from Georgia to Maine, but there were many days when Maine seemed five hundred million steps away. And yes, I was tempted to quit. You won’t get to your goal in one day. You’ll need to get up every morning and keep putting one foot in front of another. Keep walking, no matter how exhausting one day is or how intimidating the next day looks. Step by step. That’s the only way a dream comes true. We all anticipate the exhilaration of sitting on the mountaintop and enjoying the views. But 300 mountains taught me two things: the view from the peaks is so much sweeter when we’ve traveled through the valley and fought our way up the mountainside; and, eventually, even the grandest view grows old and we move on, through other valleys to other mountain peaks. The rhythm of life, both physical and spiritual, leads through valleys and scales mountain peaks. Learn to walk both with hope and anticipation. And enjoy the views when you have them.
A storm that I thought would kill me left the trail obliterated by fallen trees and branches. Often, I had to crawl through, over, or under debris to find the white blazes.
In your journey to your dream, you will meet obstacles. Sometimes the path will be unclear; sometimes storms will blow you off track; sometimes you may meet a solid cliff and not see any way to climb it. Obstacles can discourage and defeat you; or you can crawl over, under, around, or up … and keep going! Trust Him only as your place of safety, and do not be afraid. No matter whether the journey is a hike through the wilderness, a slog through deep valleys of grief, or the work of writing a book or building a career or repairing a relationship, if the Lord is your place of safety, no evil will conquer you. He will protect you, be with you in trouble, rescue you, and heal your diseases. Trust Him.
“The thru-hike was more demanding than I expected,” writes Paul Stutzman, “but even more difficult was my walk through grief, searching for healing of the deep wounds of loss. This is also the story of a long spiritual trek to peace with God and freedom to live a new life. “I wrote Hiking Through for those who have lost loved ones and for those who still have time to cherish those they hold dear; for those who question God and for those who believe in God’s constant presence and goodness; and, of course, for anyone who dreams of hiking the great Appalachian Trail.”
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