On Mar 30, 2015, at 4:08 PM
I returned from NC last night with Tina Murphy, my sister-in-law, after a 12-hour convoy from the mountains to bring her husband’s body and his wrecked motorcycle home. This will be my last “email blast” post.
Friday dawned cold and wet at Uncle Johnnie’s Hiker Hostel. It rained all night and the temperature plummeted that morning, shooing many of my new friends back into their sleeping bags. I was determined to hike, despite the wet and cold. I had packed for both. I set out into the backside of the storm and that departure catalyzed the decisions of five others hikers. They all passed me within the first mile…
I have not had so much fun hiking in all my days on the AT. It was an incredible day. The climb of 9.3 miles from the Nolichucky River up Unaka Mountain took me through stunning hemlock and fir forests of towering trees coated in green moss, rhododendron-flanked trails that reminded me of leafy green tunnels, and over a dozen or more gurgling streams. As the trail went from 1700′ to 5200′, last night’s chilly storm showed its icy fury. The bitter stiff north wind froze long hoary ribbons of white frosty ice on the north side of every twig and leaf. In 61 years of living, I have not ever seen such a beautiful display of ice. The cold climbing weather, the amazing scenery and the icy handiwork of the storm created the perfect day. At 3 PM I yelled out to the forest, hands raised in adoration, “This is one of the happiest days of my life.” If there is such a thing as Nirvana, I was in it.
Two hours later I summited a mountain bald known as “Beauty Spot.” I turned on my phone to send Cindy a text and a picture of me, bundled against a fierce mountaintop wind, near an ice-laden tree. My phone ‘dinged’ the notice of multiple text messages, but I was distracted by the arrival of “Felix” (as in The Odd Couple) who asked me if I knew of any local water sources. Together we traipsed a mile to a nearby spring. As we walked on to a camp another mile away, I asked him, “How have you found time to hike the AT three times?” He answered, “I never married and I have no kids.”
I stopped in my tracks, remembering the multiple ‘dings’ of my phone a couple of miles back. When I pulled out my phone the most recent text from Cindy made my heart skip: “Call me ASAP.” I still had phone coverage—the first remarkable “coincidence”—and tried to reach Cindy. No luck. I called my daughter and she shared the news. “(Cindy’s brother) Bob has died.”
I turned and walked as fast as I could back to the mountaintop and better cellular service. Determined but unable to reach Cindy, I began to run through all the names I could think of to reach out to for assistance. I called a dear friend and “prayer warrior” and simply said, “Shep. I need help. I need to reach Cindy. I need to get off this mountain. I need a ride. Please pray.” I knew what he would be doing next, on his knees petitioning God on my behalf. That gave me great confidence to press ahead.
At the mountain peak I reached Cindy and she told me the news. Bob died in a motorcycle accident the previous day, only a hundred miles south of me, and the family had just been informed 20 hours later. “Can you come home?” she asked. I could do better. I could meet Tina where Bob had died and help—if I could just get off the mountain.
Hiker shuttles are dependable, but they are not taxis. You don’t simply call and have someone slog 200 miles round trip because you are ready right now for a ride at some distant mountain gap. A few days earlier, when lost and then found and finally brought by a Good Samaritan back to the trail, I saw a small Baggie full of business cards laying on the trail at the road crossing. I took one card “just in case” and I called that number now. Marie answered.
“I have a family emergency and I need to get off the mountain NOW.” Marie committed to cancel all of her plans and meet me at the nearest road, 2.5 miles to the south. She promised to meet me at 6:30 PM, a few minutes before sunset on a night when the coldest weather on record was about to hit. It was my first call for a shuttle. She was ready immediately, on the cusp of a storm that could lock me in the mountains for a day or two. Another coincidence?
Marie met me as I walked out of the woods at precisely 6:30. Coincidence? She drove me all the way to Hot Springs, NC, and my truck, taking my mind off the horror of losing Bob with her engaging stories of trail life. From Hot Springs I drove through a thick snowstorm to Robbinsville, NC, arriving around 11 PM, where I lay awake all night waiting on Tina.
“How?” I wondered over and over. “How could this have been the happiest day of my 47 years of hiking in one moment and a family disaster the next?” That night my brother, Laxson, reminded me in an email that “this is an important reminder of how tenuous is our connection to this temporal life.” Like the remarkable ice on the trees I had passed that day, we are here one day and gone the next. We need to be beautiful and we need to enjoy the beauty while we have the time. Life is so short.
Tina and I spent the next day arranging to personally bring Bob’s body home. We needed three different signatures and special forms from the state. On a Saturday. Yet an army of funeral directors, State Highway Patrol officers, tow truck drivers and hotel managers joined forces to help us accomplish the impossible on a weekend. A coincidence?
On Palm Sunday morning, at 5:45 AM, Tina and I shared the hotel breakfast nook with a young woman hiker who had come off the Appalachian Trail last night. Remarkably, Robbinsville, NC, was only a few miles from Stecoah Gap, near the beginning of the trail. The young lady, whose trail name was “Honeybee”, had a long conversation with her parents on her cell phone. Tina overheard her tell her folks that she might need a loan to stay on the trail. A self-professed “cheapskate” she was doing her best to get along on meager means. Blessed by the girl’s obvious love of her parents and their concern for her, Tina spoke to “Honeybee” after the girl finished her conversation.
“My husband felt very strongly about helping people in need. And my husband was up here in the mountains, doing just what he loved. So, I want you to have this,” she said, proffering a large cash gift. “Bob would want to know that you were pursuing your dream. Just like he was.”
“Honeybee” was stunned and very grateful. “Please. Take the gift,” I encouraged her. “You will bless Tina and Bob by this.” “Honeybee” nodded and accepted the cash. “I need to tell you a story,” she responded, tears welling in her eyes.
“I was on the mountain yesterday afternoon. I had been hiking alone for hours and I was horribly cold and lonely. I was scared that I might not make it, that I would get hypothermic. One shelter was 5 miles behind me and another was 10 miles ahead. It was too far for me to go either direction, as cold as I was. I started praying. ‘God, please help me out of this situation. And please bring me someone I can be with.’ “She added, “I didn’t know this town was here. Yet… a mile further down the trail I crossed a road and met three people. ‘Navigator’ was a hiker who knew all about GIS navigation. ‘Javier’ was a hiker who was a veteran with experience getting POWs out of enemy territory. ‘Doppelgänger’ was a girl just like me.” She started to cry and continued. “I came on this hike seeking God. I prayed to Him and He sent me just what I needed. He sent a man who knew how to find his way. He sent a man who knew how to get out of tough life-threatening situations. And He sent a girl who understood me. Just when I needed it. And now, He sent you.”
Creator or coincidence?
I wanted to leave for the trail days earlier than I did and go hiking in New Jersey, but I felt no peace about it. Despite months of planning to hike up north, I was only a hundred miles away at just the right time when Tina needed family and help. Cindy arrived at her parents’ house for a previously scheduled trip on the exact day that Bob died. Felix’s comment about being married jarred me into remembrance of Cindy’s text messages. Shep was at the ready to pray. Marie dropped all of her other shuttle business to pull me out of the woods. Tina and I got approval to move Bob across state lines with complex legal forms signed by state officials who agreed to help from their homes on a Saturday. A State Trooper drove nearly two hours to bring us personal articles that belonged to Bob. And “Honeybee” was in the hotel breakfast area at 5:45 AM, sharing her story of her own search for God, and His amazing grace in her desperate time of need.
Creator or coincidence?
Did this all work out this way by chance, or did God have a hand in placing people where they could be of help, when and where they were needed most?
The evidence demands a Creator. Too many remotely improbable events “fell into place” so that we could minister to Tina’s needs and show her examples of God in action. Jesus was at work in the lives and actions of people all around us.
Creator or coincidence?
This was not “coincidence.” That’s what we say when we want to deny the hand of God in our lives. I suspect that if we were not here as testimony to God’s amazing role in the events of the past days, even the rocks and trees of the Appalachian Trail would shout out the glory of God’s name.
We serve an awesome Creator. He made these woods. He made us. He ministers to us in the times of our deepest needs. It’s no coincidence.
We need to tell the world about this amazing Good News.
Yours in Christ, from the Appalachian Trail.
Sent from my iPhone