Books

Laurel Falls by Henry Mitchell: book review

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, – a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.‎”

 

– John Muir

 

If you’ve begun this review I’m assuming that, like me, you’re already in the Laurel and and the Laurel is in you. The third installment in The Benjamin Drum Trilogy couldn’t find it’s way into my greedy little hands quick enough. If you’ve read my reviews of either The Summer Boy or Between Times then you’re aware of my fondness for this Appalachian epic and it’s writer. I have resolved to, rather than ramble on with felicitations, let my words be few. Let’s let Laurel Falls speak for itself:

 

Eventually the day began to work into him and he let go of thoughts and puzzles and simply drank in the golden light, the piney air, the songthrong of
innumerable birds. He walked, shedding haste and urgency as he went, feeling the weight of the mountain moving up through his soles and ankles with each step, through calf and knee and thigh, through belly and chest and shoulder, until finally he knew himself a mobile attenuation of the constant presentiality of
the mountain. He stopped and stared long and often into the lovely and loving
faces of flowers, had leisurely and unwordful conversations with a bear, and two
wolves and a large cat he met along the way. All of them recognized him as
kindred soul, like them manifest of the soulfulness of the mountain they
traversed, strangers before their meeting moment, and forever after aware of
their eternal familiatude. The same mountain breathed in them all, the same sun
warming and lighting them all. The same waters quenched their common thirst, and if need be, the body of any one might nourish the life of another. One Soul
imagined them all. One Life sustained the becoming of every one. Crossing a
creek on stones slippery with drenched mosses, Talks To Trees heard the guttural gratings of Raven perched in a chestnut high above. He looked up at his face reflected in the corvidaes dark orbs, through Raven’s eyes saw himself tiny and foreshortened among the grounded leaves below. “I know you,” said Raven in his unspeakable tongue. “We are brothers bone and blood. ” Talks To Trees nodded and waved before walking on. “Yes, we are,” he said aloud to Raven, to the tree, to the path and the flowers and the light and the air and the water, to Owl wherever he might not be listening, to the boy and man pursued across times and worlds, “We are the same.” Once across the little stream, Talks To Trees strode away. He fancied he heard Li singing in the distance, but knew it to be earthsong, the music of the day. Before he took many steps, Raven called after him, “Brother two-legged, you are the Namer. What will you call this place of our sacred meeting?” Talks To Trees halted, turned, spread his arms wide and smiled as the word came to him across water and worlds and time. “Abalahci.” He laughed. “The Other Side.”

 

Did you read that?!

 

Did you?

 

If any passage has ever radiated the spirit of John Muir, this is it…and this is one small excerpt from a brilliant novel replete with beauty. Laurel Falls is the third book in the series…presumably a trilogy. If it ends here, it ends in resplendent glory…

 

Please don’t let it end here.

Between Times by Henry Mitchell: book review

What Tolkien has done for Middle Earth, George Martin has done for the Game of Thrones world, and Stephen Lawhead has done for Ancient Briton, Mitchell has done for the Southern Appalachians. His highly anticipated second novel, Between Times, not only delivers on it’s promise to continue the enchanting story of Ben Drum’s pilgrimage through The Laurel but actually may surpass it’s predecessor in depth of narrative, lyrical beauty and artistic genius of storytelling.

Celtic Knot

 

The Celtic Knot. Known also as the Endless Knot or the Mystic Knot. You’ve seen them. Their sweeping, interlaced arcs and lines. From as early as 450 AD they’ve adorned clothing and structures, illuminated ancient texts, and decorated human flesh. Much has been argued as to their intended meaning but one glance reveals what the images themselves convey of interweaving, overlapping… interconnectedness. To me they speak of the connection between the visible realm and The Otherworld, of beginnings and endings that become beginnings, of thin places where the barrier between the two worlds provides a window…or a door.

Within the pages of Between Times entwine an endless knot as intricate, interwoven and captivating as those illuminating the Ancient Book of Kells. The writer tips his artist’ hand. Mitchell has given much of his 73 years to creating visual art. In Between Times, as in The Summer Boy, one sees the brush strokes of a master. His medium has changed. He paints now with words as beautifully as he ever did with pencil, brush or gouge. This novel is a work of art. A literary Celtic Knot. Not unlike the character Rider, prepare to be swept up into a torus of prose, a Great story artfully and poetically interwoven with magic, mystery, legend and beauty.

as here…

“Still, now and again he would go, drawn by a movement in the air or transient quality of light or a wind-borne cry of some wild thing. The looming peaks and ridges spoke to him continually in languages that were just beyond the threshold of understanding.”

and here…

“Mura loved these mountains the way he might once have loved a woman, or a deity. Every photograph he made was an act of adoration, of worship and communion.”

Even the chronological element of the narrative itself carries with it this beautiful interweaving, gently and elegantly flowing back on itself. I read the last word of the last page and realized that what seemed to be the end might just also be the beginning. I immediately turned back to the first chapter, where the story left off…or began…or both!

Listen…

“Laurel is a space apart, Horace, out of any moment. Your world might think of it as something like a singularity enfolding all times, all places. The reality is more like the center of a flower, where all the petals join and become one with the others…”
While being swept up into the grand narrative and wooed by the anapestic prose an unsuspecting reader, if not careful, might just unwittingly begin to grasp the rudiments of quantum theory! The endless knot is complete and becoming. I’ve rambled on enough.

Mitchell has done it again. Yet another Appalachian epic. If you read one book this year. Make it Between Times.

The gist?
If you loved the Summer Boy, you must read Between Times. Like an ancient Lindisfarne Artist-Monk Mitchell deftly and beautifully weaves his Appalachian epic akin to a literary Celtic knot. If, like the author, you love mountains, wild places, if wilderness is your sanctuary…or you wish it was…read this book. If you long to be swept up in a great story, bigger and more ancient than your own…read this book. It is an absolute joy…a delight! Get lost, once again, in the Laurel. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll meet you there.

 

Find more of Henry’s writing at his site,

http://talesandwanders.com/

at his publishers site,

http://alfiedog.com/

at your local bookseller,

or purchase at Amazon.com

Remember, if you connect to Amazon through one of the links here at allwhowander.us a portion of the sale goes toward keeping the All Who Wander podcast going. Thanks in advance!

You can also follow Henry on Twitter and find him on Facebook.

A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness – An 8 Year Old Boy and His Father Take on the Appalachian Trail by Paul Molyneaux: Book Review

Several years back, as my son Josiah was approaching graduation, I became enamored with the idea of he and I doing an AT thru-hike together.  One spring near the beginning of my infatuation, Dana, Josiah, and I inadvertently stumbled into that old stone CCC building at Wa-lasi-yi known as Mountain Crossings.  While Josiah and I were inside imbibing the magical atmosphere of this incredible outfitter Dana saunters in and informs me that she had just been on the AT. “What?! No way!”  Sure enough, the AT actually travels right through Mountain Crossings. Josiah and I burst into a sprint, ran out the door and raced each other to the back of the building where we saw our very first white blaze. Wonderstruck, we continued down the old footpath, blaze to blaze for a mile or so where we paused to let the moment sink in. Josiah climbed down from a tree he’d been sitting in, turned toward me and said, “Dad?…let’s keep going.” I’ll carry those words and that mental image with me till the day I die. How I wish we had.

Last week, with my REI dividend check in hand, I walked into our local branch intent on buying Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire or maybe The Monkey Wrench Gang.  They had neither. As I combed the shelves looking for my next adventure-read I saw something new. I picked up A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness, scanned a few pages and made my way to the register with my prize. Within the first 20 pages I was hooked…for an obvious reason. When the author’s 7 year old son had said, “Let’s keep going”, this father had the courage to say yes.

Though by far the most compelling, this was certainly not the only reason I was sucked in. A Child’s Walk is a great piece of writing. This isn’t Molyneaux’s first rodeo.  He makes his living by his craft, having previously authored two books: The Doryman’s Reflection and Swimming in Circles as well as writing for the NY Times and other publications. All this I borrowed from the back cover, but even without that info, his obvious skill shines. Instead of the typical linear narrative I’ve come to expect from books in this genre, this tale, like the hike itself, often folds back on itself, revisits significant moments and takes side trails for reflection and contemplation.  The author, whose marriage was struggling at the time of the journey, holds little back.  At moments raw in his honesty, you feel as if a friend is spilling his heart. He doesn’t try to put a pretty face on the abrasiveness of hurting people, including his own. Balancing this transparency is the wonder, curiosity and infectious, adventurous spirit of his son, Venado. It’s a joy to watch as a father who brought his little boy to the wilderness in order to educate him is educated by his little boy.

 
“This is why we are leaving now, my son and I, to go off into the mountains and walk the forests for days on end, to watch spring come and feel its warmth, to howl in the wilderness and remember possibilities.”

 

These words resonate deeply within me. In fact the Manifesto from which they are excerpted (page 34) itself gives voice to the very same cry from my own spirit. Molyneaux seizes upon McKaye’s concept of the Barbarian Utopia. It becomes for he and his son, not a mere literary device but a philosophy of living…a way of life…a way to life. Returning to wilderness to re-discover the life that “civilization” has stunted into mere existence.  Did it work?  Well, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.

The gist:

A father and his 8 year old boy take on the challenge of the Appalachian Trail. The author’s evident writing skill is enhanced by quotes from Benton McKaye and complemented by his son’s pencil drawn illustrations. One of my favorite AT reads ever. I didn’t want it to end. Highly recommend.

For more info visit:

www.doryman.com

or

 

www.facebook.com/pages/The-Barbarian-Utopia/361206760179?fref=ts

 

The Wisdom of Wilderness – Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature by Gerald G. May : Book Review

5 years ago I wasn’t ready to read this book. I was at a different place on my journey.  A place where phrases like “enriched by insights from Eastern religions” would have sent up red flags, raised an alarm in my pharisaical soul and brought about a slamming of the city gates to keep out the new-age-enemy of what I saw as a faith that needed defending and protecting. In those 5 years my expanding view of the love of God has penetrated, softened and enlarged my heart, deepened my intimacy with him and disabused me of these silly notions along with any agenda I may have clung to. I’m coming to believe that this Abba who loves me more than I could possibly imagine has secreted away in people of all ethnicities (and yes, even faith systems or lack thereof) facets of himself and pieces of his story for you and I to discover. Sort of a cosmic game of hide and seek. Because “God likes it when we place nice together,” as my friend Tom Conlon once said. If you’re at the place in the path where your guard is already going up in reaction to this statement maybe you’re not quite ready for this book…but then again, maybe you are.

From the foreword by Parker J. Palmer:

“Jerry May knew he was dying as he wrote this book. He gathered up all the life he could hold with words… as wild creatures gather food against a hard winter…and left us a book so well stocked with love and wisdom, tears and laughter, healing and hope, it can help all of us winter through.”

These poetic and heart-felt words say more about this book than I could ever attempt to. Let’s hear some more.  This time May’s own words from the preface:

“I am sick now. The prospect of my death is continually before me. My body is frail, my energy always at the edge of exhaustion. At the same time I am wilder than I’ve ever been before. My soul basks in wilderness, and I am grateful.”

Based on these excerpts one might be led to believe The Wisdom of Wilderness to be a depressing dirge, a dying man’s morose reflecting on the end of his days.  Allow me to dispel this misunderstanding without hesitation.  This is anything but. May skillfully and poetically weaves together a lifetime of adventure, laughter and wisdom into a raw, honest and triumphant ode to life as it is meant to be lived. He beautifully relates the healing God provides through wilderness (a healing that I myself continue to experience) while catching you completely off guard with irreverent stories that had me buckled over in spasms of gut-wrenching belly-laughs. He and his little boy’s encounter with a Korean Zen Master alone make this book worth the delightful read.

I can’t recommend The Wisdom of Wilderness highly enough. Though the library provided me with the version I read, I plan to purchase my own copy to place on the shelf beside John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis and others. They’ll find themselves in good company.  I’d have to guess they already have.

The gist:

The Wisdom of Wilderness is Gerald G. May’s swansong. This wonderfully written account of the healing nature provided for him through his beloved Appalachian Mountains deserves a place among the classics. You’ll laugh, cry (and laugh until you cry) and long to spend more time in the wilderness he so beautifully portrays. You may, like me, not agree with all of his theology but you’ll be moved by a life lived from the heart.  And who knows, maybe we’ll find ourselves a little further down the path. This book epitomizes what All Who Wander is about. Highly recommend.

Summoning the Mountains – Pilgrimage Into Forty by Amy Allen: Book Review

from the back cover:

“Hoping to rekindle the spirit of freedom she once knew, a divorced, single mother sets aside family and societies expectations to seek fulfillment by following a lifelong calling.  On the eve of turning forty, Amy Allen reaches for her personal goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Accepting the name of “Willow” bestowed by her teenage sons, she settles them into new lives at their father’s house and departs on a 2,000 mile walk.”

I’m a sucker for an AT narrative. I’ve read…dozens.  Recently in a gathering of AT thru-hikers I overheard the sarcastic midstream comment, “…and then they’ll write a book because what we need is one more book about the AT.” At this point, I injected myself into the discussion. “I think we do need another book about the AT, and another, and another. Personally, I can’t get enough.” When I started Summoning the Mountains, I thought I might have to eat my words.

I met Amy Allen at an AT festival in Dahlonega, GA. She stood smiling behind a small table covered with several small stacks of her book.  I was struck, at first, by the beautiful graphic design and if you can judge a book by it’s cover (I’m convinced that sometimes you can) this is one I wanted on my shelf. From the name and tag line to the font and color selection to the perfect cairn that adorns the cover I was hooked.  After thumbing through, I found the design continued throughout the entire book, very tastefully and enticingly done.  Amy and I talked for a moment and I assured her I’d be back to purchase a copy.

Later in the day, Dana, Josiah and I sat listening while Amy shared her story of her “pilgrimage into forty” and the role that her thru-hike played in that transition. Her meek, quiet voice was just what you might expect from her tiny, petite frame. We took in her photos of our beloved AT during her slide show presentation, empathized with the frustrations she encountered from not being able to completely leave behind her “normal”  life to focus completely on her hike and laughed along with her at the inevitable misadventures that are part and parcel of such a journey.  “To be expected on a trip of this magnitude” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. At some point we dropped by and picked up our book and pocketed it away for later.

That same night I snuggled down in my hammock, burrowed beneath my quilt as the North Georgia coyotes and owls began their nightly serenade, and began to read. A chapter or so in and I drifted off to sleep. Over the course of the next several weeks I picked the book back up but struggled to connect. It wasn’t the writing. It is a well-written, well-edited thru-hiker journal.  Had I finally had enough of such accounts? It certainly wasn’t the typesetting, as I’d mentioned already. It was the fact that Amy Allen was a 40 something mom, and I…was not. For this very reason, I have historically avoided most books by female writers.  There are certainly exceptions to this and the exceptions are most extraordinary (case in point?  Jennifer Pharr Davis)  but as a rule I’ve found that I don’t enjoy female writers and this had to be the source of my disconnect.  Having established this, I continued to read. Once I pushed past my gender bias, Amy immersed me in her story. Like most AT narratives (and most AT thru-hikes) Summoning the Mountains is not a thrill ride but instead a steadily plodding narrative, filled with hardships and happiness, punctuated by familiar landmarks along the Trail and made rich by the characters and friendships that grow along the way. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, pulled along for the journey, as if I were making my way north along with Amy and her cadre of companions. And this is why I read AT narratives. My own Appalachian pilgrimage is years away.  A mountain larger than Katahdin looms between Springer and I.  It’s name?  Mortgage. Until that mountain is conquered stories like Amy’s both sate my hunger and stoke the fires of my longing.

As Willow approached Katahdin (Oops, spoiler alert!) I shared her conflicted emotions. The summit she had longed for was finally within sight but the end of her journey was as well. I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Thank you, Amy for sharing your story and providing me a welcome reprieve from my mundane day to day…until my own pilgrimage begins.

The gist:

Summoning the Mountains is a 40-something mom’s well-written, well-edited and eminently readable account of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Recommended. It took me there.

Alaska Days with John Muir by Samual Hall Young: Book Review

John Muir fan?  I certainly am.  Thanks to Kindle (www.amazon.com), thrift stores and Librivox (www.librivox.org) I own nearly everything he’s ever written. His passion for wilderness…for the Creator revealed in His breath-taking creation throws fuel on an already raging fire in my heart for all things wild. I ache to have at my leisure weeks, months even, alone in the woods. I long to be able, like Muir,  to call things: flora, fauna geographic formations…all things, by their true name. When I read Muir I want to cast off restraints, “throw off the bowlines” as Twain put it and as Winton Porter adapted it,

“throw on my pack, dust off my boots and walk away from my everyday. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Each time I pick up one of Muirs writings I wish I’d met him. (Or course, there’s that little issue of us being separated by several generations) I wonder what it would’ve been like to have known him as friend; to have filled our pockets with hardtack and gotten ourselves lost rambling through forests, climbing mountains and sleeping beneath the stars… to share the wonder of reveling in this amazing world our God has created.  Samual Hall Young was that friend. It is grippingly clear the impact Muir’s friendship and shared adventure had on this young missionary…even on his writing style. His written voice is so similar to that of Muirs that I can effortlessly imagine a conversation between the two. Mr. Young entered the Alaskan wilderness in the hopes of bringing the “white-man’s religion” to the “savages” but I think both the savages and the wilderness, along with Muir himself had a profound impact on him. 

This wonderful little book belongs in the library of every Muir fan, every lover of wilderness if only for the insights into Muir’s beautiful, eccentric personality such as this one:

“Muir at once went wild when we reached this fairyland.  From cluster to cluster of flowers he ran, falling on his knees, babbling in unknown tongues, prattling a curious mixture of scientific lingo and baby talk, worshiping his little blue-and-pink goddesses.  “Ah! My blue-eyed darlin’, little did I think to see you here.  How did you stray away from Shasta?”  “Well, well!  Who’d ‘a’ thought you’d have left that niche in the Merced mountains to come here!”  ‘And who might you be now, with your wonder look?  Is it possible that you can be (two Latin polysyllables)?  You’re lost, my dear; you belong in Tennesee.”

Did you know that Mr. Young has the honor, also, of being the owner of the infamous “Stickeen” the cantankerous little mutt that accompanied the two on their excursions into the Alaskan wilderness and the subject of Muir’s own classic by the same name?  If you enjoyed that little book, you’ll truly appreciate seeing this pup and his relationship with Muir from Mr. Young’s perspective.

I’ve rambled on enough about this book . I own it on Kindle but plan to search for a hardback copy for my shelf.

The Gist?  Buy it.  Read it.  You’ll love it.

Here’s a link to the free kindle version through Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Alaska-Days-John-Muir-ebook/dp/B004TS9LOU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1341418426&sr=1-1&keywords=Alaska+Days+with+John+Muir

If you plan to purchase one of the other copies via Amazon, would you consider doing so via the Amazon link at All Who Wander?  We’d certainly appreciate it.  A portion of the cost will go towards keeping All Who Wander going.  Thanks!

 

 

 

The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago by Bill “Skywalker” Walker – A book review…of sorts

“Really, babe, I think you’re gonna like him.  He’s a great communicator.”

2 years ago Scat and I had opted to hike from Woody Gap to Neels Gap, spending a cold night on Blood Mountain, rather than join the girls for the Amicalola Falls AT Celebration/ Backpacking Clinic.  I wanted to go to the event…just not at the exclusion of a walk in the woods.  While Scat and I trudged uphill through snowdrifts 2 and 3 feet deep, Dana and Ma Fred attended some great presentations. One of their favorites was Bill “Skywalker”  Walker.  Not just aware of, but sharing my addiction to AT narratives, Dana bought me a copy of Skywalker’s book, Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail.  She even had Bill autograph it. He wrote “Wayseeker, Katahdin is a mere 5 millions steps away.” Gotta love that! Like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to tear in. I quickly discovered that my high school diploma and limited college experience had not prepared me for the vocabulary I was to encounter…closely. Progress slowed to a crawl as I repeatedly reached for my Webster’s. Now, I realize that hackles are rising on the necks of Skywalker fans as you poise to fire off scathing e-mails. Well, let me have it…but at least finish this little review before doing so. I just didn’t enjoy it. I’ve been forthright about my sketchy education. I will most certainly confess that I have no right to pass judgment on another writers work.  Even that last statement implies that I see myself as a writer and makes me uncomfortable. Nonetheless…I just didn’t like it. C.S. Lewis has taught me that much…to be honest about my likes and dislikes. There were some good, even great moments but as a whole it was…and is my least favorite AT narrative. There, I’ve said it…and I pray Bill never reads this.

Flash forward to this years event. Digital recorder in one hand and event schedule in the other, I dragged Dana all over Amicalola Falls. (Not that she minded.)  Presenter after presenter entertained, educated and provided fresh new content for future All Who Wander podcasts.  We had a blast!  As I scanned the schedule I noticed something:  Skywalker’s presentation would be in support of his latest book and thru-hike…on the Camino de Santiago! What?!  I’d just discovered the existence of this ancient pilgrimage a year or so ago. I had waited impatiently for Emilio Estevez’ film on the Camino, The Way to come to Redbox since we had just missed one of the limited showings in Asheville. With my distaste for Bill’s writing warring against my confidence in my wife…we went…and were not disappointed.

Bill was absolutely charismatic.  His animated gesticulations, his passion for the Camino, his wry humor and engaging personality not only held my attention but struck fire to my imagination…enticing my heart to that ancient path and awakening a longing to walk this pilgrimage as well. My experience with the real Skywalker was as dissimilar to my experience with his book as it could possibly be. I thought, “Now, here’s a guy I’d like to share a trail with.”  I even began to re-examine my original assessment.

Just a few weeks ago all three of Bill’s books in Kindle format were free on Amazon.  I downloaded all three. I immediately dove right into his narrative on the Camino, The Best Way.  The very first couple of pages gripped me, It seemed so different from what little I remembered from his first offering.  I yelled to Dana, who was in  another room, “I like it!  This is really good!”  She laughed. Then I wondered…what changed?  Had Bill’s writing improved? Had he gotten an editor? Maybe.  Maybe it was the fact that I had met the real Skywalker and been captivated by his authenticity and his love for the Way. Maybe it was me that had changed.  Maybe both.

Well, since this is a book review…of sorts, I should give you my take.  The Best Way is part trail narrative, part travel guide, part history book and all Skywalker. I’d recommend that you pick it up on Kindle or some other e-reader format because The Best Way is also part vocabulary lesson.  Along with liberal splashes of espanol, Bill has continued his use of words unfamiliar…unfamiliar to me at least.  Whether Bill is trying to impress us with his expansive knowledge or he’s struggling to find words to express what can sometimes be almost inexpressible, I can’t say.  I can say that having a “close-encounter” with the real Skywalker has given me a whole new take on his books.  So would I recommend The Best Way?  Only if you’re willing to have a sehnsucht for hiking the Camino awakened in you.  (That one was for you, Bill.)

Trail-guide for the Soul: The Walk – Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail by Randy Motz & Georgia Harris

The melody lifted and soared as if born of, and upon, the wind itself.  Song formed from breath, shaped and made smooth and comely by the texture and soul of the cedar love-flute it flowed  through. I’ve been enamored with the first-nations love-flute from the moment I first heard it. This particular day we sat in the midst of a strange community of hikers pausing briefly on their pilgrimage to Katahdin to celebrate and rest. To our left along the grassy bank was a young  couple, he with long hair tied back, she with dreadlocks, in matching red raincoats. My eyes were drawn to them.  Something about their gentleness with each other, their smiles, their quiet laughter stilled and quieted my soul. To my right, just below the embankment was an average 50-ish man in jeans, t-shirt and round glasses sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, posture perfect.  Directly ahead of me was another gray-haired, bespectacled 60-ish man sporting a ball-cap embroidered on the back with the name “Strider.”  One of my favorite characters in all of literature.  Was that his trail name? 

The place was Damascus, Va.  The event was Trail Days 2011 and we were all, amid the distractions that are part and parcel of a street festival like this, basking in the music of Wind-talker, Randy Motz.  For an hour or so, his flute-song created a small sacred space for us. Few words were spoken but it was clear, to me at least, that Wind-Talker and I had a mutual Friend…Maker, Graybeard likes to call him. Earlier, as Wind-talker was setting up his gear we shared a little conversation.  To be fair, I did most of the talking. Randy and his wife Georgia (“Mom” as she’s known on the trail) had done a thru-hike several years prior and in the process of asking him about his hike, I found myself confessing my own desperate longing to do the same.  Familiar phrases fell naturally from my lips as I described this haunting, “The woods have become my sanctuary, the AT my obsession.”  He spoke little, nodded much and told me I might enjoy the book he and his wife had written:  The Walk: Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail.  Afterwards I took him up on his suggestion and he generously signed the copy I hold now in my hands. 

I spend most of my days in sweltering heat, covered in sawdust, surrounded by screaming woodworking equipment.  Each morning before starting my day I show up a little early, find a spot to sit down behind the building and as John Muir puts it let  “…nature’s peace… flow into [me] as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into [me], and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  Occasionally I’ll read scripture or some other book.  The Walk became that book for a while.

I began The Walk with high expectations.  I longed to hear echoed in these pages that same melody that had poured forth from Wind-talkers flute.  That’s not what I heard…at least at first. What I was struck by was the Motz’s command of the written word. Their writing style clear and concise, their vocabulary expansive but unpretentious, there was no confusion as to what they were trying to say.  They said it well. I wondered though, as I read, if I had made assumptions about Randy based on our short conversation, that were incorrect.

You see, I’m in a different place than many people who might read this post. For the past several years I’ve been discovering what it means to abide, to sink deeper into my Abba’s Love for me, outside the walls of the institutional church. Because of my distance from the Institution, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to and agitated by what I perceive to be religion. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I often get it wrong. If I’m not mistaken, Randy and Georgia are, at present, part of an institutional community of believers.  Having said that, they strike me as a couple able to walk in complete freedom untainted by their affiliation with the System.  Love, hope, encouragement and freedom are found in the pages of The Walk.  I found myself reading with a pen in one hand and my journal in the other, scribbling down the inspirational and thought-provoking quotes that headed each chapter and are peppered throughout.  The Walk is liberally seasoned as well with native wisdom from the likes of Lakota/ Sioux Richard Twiss and other native sages. Scripture quotations are taken from Eugene Petersen’s The Message which lends to it’s conversational feel.  These along with the excerpts from their AT journal serve to transport the reader, vicariously, right to the Trail with it’s sounds, smells, tastes, beauty and pain.

Without doubt my two favorite chapters are 5 and 6.  The title of chapter 5, “Praise and Worship” , has mental associations for me of instruments, sound systems and compulsory singing and hand-raising.  There’s nothing of the sort here.  Randy and Georgia manage to capture the beauty and wonder of encountering God in what many would think an unlikely place, the wilderness.  They express with eloquence and emotion, the soul-gasp that seizes ones heart when you unwittingly stumble upon a thin-place in the midst of an old forest, or the undeniable sense of Presence when the rhododendron choked woods open to a breathtaking vista. There’s no religion here…only spontaneous gratitude…eucharisteo , no matter your spiritual leanings. Chapter 6 relates their journey into simplicity. Winnowing down your world to what you can carry on your back is wonderful practice for doing the same in your non-thru-hike life as well as your spiritual life. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process. Realizing how our possessions can possess us and taking steps to change that may be one of the most important things we can do to reduce the clutter, noise and distraction that impede our walk with God. Randy and Georgia not only give practical wisdom on how to take those first steps but are open and transparent with the naked truth of how they struggle with this themselves.
Honestly, with chapter headings such as “Family and Community”, “Praise and Worship”, “Pride and Humility” and “Service” something in my anti-establishment gut churns and braces to be guilted with a reminder of  duty and obligation and how I should just try harder. Probably just the last tendrils of religion still clinging to my soul.  Or maybe these headings are sheep in wolves clothing. Familiar phrases that evoke old pharisaical emotions but hidden inside them is the life-giving message of grace, hope and love.  Hope I didn’t just give away your secret, Wind-talker and Mom. Oops.

Adventure Book: The Legend of the Firefish by George Bryan Polivka

What will you do with your life?  I have taught you swordsmanship.  You may be the most gifted pupil I have ever had.  But your heart, Packer.  Where is it leading you?”

       -Senslar Zendoda
It’s a commonly known fact that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers quickly develop a metabolism like that of a blacksmiths furnace, requiring a constant influx of calories. I hope, one day, to experience that phenomenon myself. As for now, my beer-gut physique remains relatively unaffected by the two weekends a month I’m able to spend on the trail.  Having said that, for much of my life I’ve experienced the literary equivalent. Allow me to explain: 

From the moment I discovered the myriad worlds hidden in books I’ve fueled my own adventures by exploring those of others. I love to read.  Probably a bit too much.  On any given week you’ll find me dividing every free moment between 4 or 5 books simultaneously.  It’s a never ending battle to feed the dragon. (Thank God for the library!) So, several weeks ago Dana surprised me with a stack of $2.99 paperbacks.  The first to grab my attention with it’s fantastical artwork (Sometimes you can judge a book by it’s cover!) was a “swashbuckling fantasy story”  by George Bryan Polivka called Blaggard’s Moon. I devoured it. Immediately I turned to Google-the-Gweat-and-Tewwible to see what else Mr. Polivka had to offer. I quickly discovered that he’d penned a trilogy. Paydirt! Wait. A pirate trilogy. Now, I like Jack Sparrow as much as the next guy but, really?  How many ways can one tell a pirate story? At least three more!

The Legend of the Firefish

“You deaf, boy?”

Packer Throme didn’t answer.  The last thing he wanted now was a fight. Dog Blestoe was a big man, bigger than Packer by three inches and thirty pounds, and Packer’s elder by thirty years.  Leathery, gray-headed, lean and muscular from a lifetime of hard labor, Dog stood across the table with hands knotted into fists. Packer stayed seated and silent.

Whereas Blaggard’s Moon wooed you slowly and kindly into the story, Firefish drops you harshly and abruptly into the action with it’s opening lines; into a palpable tension where through the eyes of young Packer you find out just what a mess he’s made of his life.

Orphaned by a father considered a nut-job by the rest of the fishing village he calls home, Packer blows his one chance at “success” by being kicked out of seminary for punching a priest. He, thereafter, finds himself in the tutelage of a master-swordsman.  He thrives in his newfound interest but finds himself longing for home and his one true love, whom he has left behind. This longing is part…maybe the deepest part of his reason for returning.  The other? To stow away on a pirate ship on a voyage to find the mythical firefish, vindicate his father’s name and maybe find some redemption of his own. Is this a suitable way for a failed priest to spend his life? How far young Packer has wandered from the path…right? Maybe his mentor, Senslar, can shed some light:

“Only one thing can put such a drive in a man’s heart as the drive I see in you.  God has made you for a single end, and even though you do not know what that end is, you know what direction you must go to find it.”

“To the sea?”

Senslar laughed and shook his head.  “You are not a turtle, Packer.  You are a man created in the image of God.  The sea will be too small for you.”

“What do you mean?”

The swordmaster grew serious. “The deep longings of your heart may take you out to sea, but the sea itself will not fulfill them.  Only the calling that God has put within you can do that.”

“And what is that calling?” Packer asked, desperately hoping this man was wise enough to answer, to stop the bleeding caused by his severed call to the priesthood.

“I cannot tell you.  That is why I asked.”

 

Okay, maybe not.
Where is your heart leading you? If you, like myself, identify with Packer’s uncertainty in life; if you resonate with this divine discontent, this undeniable longing that often leads down a “road less traveled” then, like me, you’ll find encouragement, hope, adventure and maybe a few more questions in the pages of this beautifully written tale. I’d venture to say that by the time you’ve reached it’s final chapter you’ll be eager to dive into the second book of this trilogy, The Hand that Bears the Sword. I know I am.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”   – JRR Tolkien