I asked for my first backpack when I was in fifth grade. Equipment was pretty clunky in the 80’s. The frame was made out of plastic and polyester and looked like it was built out of an erector set. It was a generation before main-stream freeze-dried meals so we carried the lightest food that we could find- basically anything that wasn’t in a can. Except for sardines and vienna sausages- worthy of the can, not so much the stomach.
If I’m being honest, typically my goal, I hated backpacking. Not the friends, and camping, and sitting by the fire, and burly-man honesty- I hated the backpacking. Traversing mountains is hard enough on my own, but with a 30-pound pack strapped uncomfortably to my shoulders and waist it was miserable. Plastic frame imprinted into my flesh, a waist strap that dug into my hips, and boots that would have drowned me were I to swim in them made for a miserable hike. We never hiked at a comfortable pace, no, hiking is just like driving for men- there is only one lane.
But I kept going. There’s a tradeoff that far outweighs the physical pain of trailblazing. It’s what happens around a campfire. It’s sleeping under the stars. It’s unplugging from the deafening noise of the mundane. It’s the conversation that can only happen between a man and a boy when the jetsetter group is far ahead and the slow group with the contraband cangood loaded packs are falling behind. Life conversations. The minimal words that happen between companioned miles. That life-giving interchange takes place as much, if not more, in Silence as it does in the verbal exchange. In a world that excesses in every communication medium, the trail requires the opposite. Listening.
After my freshman year of seminary, I stopped for two nights at a campground on the way home to listen again. I hadn’t camped in years. With nothing but my Bible and a tent, I spent two days alone. There is nothing more arduous to a noise-satiated mind than Silence. Saturated in speed and busyness, tedium and distraction- Silence hurts. I think that’s why many of us get so frustrated when we set aside time for devotional quiet and quit out of the difficulty. “I expected something to happen and all I got was nothing.” It’s why everyone in America has a guitar in the closet and only a fraction play. It actually takes work. Anyone can sit down, only a few can listen.
Ten years ago I took my first group of teenagers backpacking. Silence called. I knew that if I could just get them away from their noise-eroding real-life worlds, then they could hear. It had been years since the trail had spoken and I had my doubts. When you haven’t sensed the beauty of Silence in a long time, it’s easy to question if it ever spoke at all. The trail didn’t disappoint. As we sat around the campfire that first night, sparks danced toward the sky, wood crackled, acorns fell and teenagers bore their souls. A symphony of soul-work orchestrated by Silence. God has written two sacred books- the Bible and Creation. They work in tandem to reveal his character and nature, his goodness and purposes and we work way too hard avoiding both.
Last weekend I took my kids backpacking. Silence called. They are convincing in their attempts to prove to me how much they love it, but I have my doubts. It might be the only space in their lives that they get my full attention. Silence does that. We only had 24 hours, but I am a veteran of the trail. “Don’t rush, we’re in no hurry today.” We began our trek. I pointed out unique trees, solitary flowers, scurrying squirrels, chirping birds, the creek’s splash, all a precursor to the song of Silence.
With Carsyn and Brayden pioneering the trail ahead, Addyson lagging behind with something on her mind, she asked between quarter-mile markers, “Dad, do you miss mom.” In that moment, it didn’t occur to me that she could be asking several different things. “She’s at home with a sitter, do you wish she was here?” “We’ve been away for a few hours, do you miss mom?” But the trail had already begun to speak and all I heard was, “I don’t remember a time when mom was well. I know that you do- do you miss that time?”
“I do. I miss her a lot.” And with that, the trail began. We make up games when we’re hiking. They love lateral-thinking puzzles. The ones where I give a scenario and they can only ask questions in order to solve the riddle that require a yes or no answer. “A man pushed his car. He stopped when he reached a hotel at which point he knew he was bankrupt. Why?” That’s tricky for my kids because I’ve become a board game snob- they’ve never even played Monopoly. On this particular trail, there were markers every quarter-mile. Instead of them fighting over who would lead, I took the head and let each one spend a quarter-mile with me. At each juncture, we would shift front to back, middle to front, and I would start or continue a conversation of either dialogue or Silence. Both beautiful, both purposeful.
After six miles that first day, we made camp beside a charming running creek, built a fire, and ate dinner. The kids pointed out the sounds to one another- rustling and crackling, fluttering and snaps. We watched the fire blaze and slowly die. Hot coals and moonlight piercing through the trees lit our chapel, revealing satisfied faces, contented souls- and I loved every minute of it.
There’s something magical about the trail. It demands attention. On the second day, we passed a man by himself, talking on his cell phone. My kids gawked at him as if he was an alien while he passed. “Did you see that guy Dad? He was on his cellphone. Why even be out here?” They get it. There are sacred spaces that are easily desecrated by what we spend the majority of our lives doing. Spaces that live and breathe, speak and dance to the beauty of the Creator. Once connected, distractions dismissed, our souls are free to say what they need to say, hear what is hard to hear, and heal what is broken and overlooked. Through blistered feet, over-burdened shoulder straps, chafed hips, and sore calves, the trail is hard, Silence is hard, soul work is hard. But it’s good.