The peak still loomed far above, but with trekking poles tucked under my arm and eyes glued to the top right corner of my phone, I hardly noticed the steady motion of my feet on the rock-strewn incline.
No service. One bar. Two bars. One bar. No service.
The slope shifted from a steep path to a nearly vertical rock wall. Knowing that my only hope for phone service lay on the other side of the hill, I put my phone away, grasped my trekking poles and focused on the climb.
Eventually, the path smoothed as the dense evergreens broke to a view of lakes, mountains and a gray horizon carrying the threat of rain. Hardly breathing heavy now after five months of similar inclines, I glanced at the view and then pulled out my phone.
Three bars. Jackpot.
I dialed the number, and when I heard the “hello” from the other end, I began my rehearsed speech.
“Hi, my name is Jacqueline, and I am an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker looking for a ride to Mass this weekend,” I said.
Hiking from blessing to blessing
Every year, around 3,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,194.3-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. The journey takes the average hiker six months of carrying a 30-pound backpack through rain, wind, snow, mountains, river-crossings and boulder-fields to complete. Every few days, thru-hikers go into town to resupply and shower before returning to the dirt footpath and trekking forward. One in four who attempt a thru-hike finish the trail.
On March 7, 2022, I stepped foot on the trail in Georgia after a year and a half of planning, researching tents, trying out sleeping bags, dreaming of the mountain ridge and praying. My goal, as a practicing Catholic, was not only the northern terminus of the trail but also to attend Mass every week.
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I soon learned that hiking the trail and attending Mass each week formed a puzzle of logistics. I hiked only 70 miles and other times over 100 miles a week to be near a town with a church on Sunday. I walked before sunrise to be at a pickup point on time, took a several-mile detour off trail into a town, and paid for a shuttle and hotel just to be there the next morning for Mass.
Each week, a new precipice. A new decision point to push forward on my hike or hold back for Mass. To slow down and rest my body or speed up and nurture my soul.
It became apparent, however, that this goal was less of a puzzle and more of a path of blessings. Pat and Stan Kunka in Georgia brought me to church and took me into their home for two nights during a snowstorm. Three Sundays in a row, friends picked me up for Mass at my home church, St. Thomas More, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Frank and Elaine Andrews in New Hampshire filled my nearly insatiable hunger with endless brownie sundaes. Father Philip in Maine had only been at the parish for a few weeks but still coordinated a ride and gave me the warmest welcome. Several weekends, parishioners saw my backpack and offered me a ride back to the trail.
From Georgia to Maine, each step led me from blessing to blessing, forming a network of Catholics ready to put their faith into action for me.
Every week, I learned to give up control. Every week, God provided a way.
Alone … but not really
As this network grew each weekend, my irregular mileage and additional time off-trail and in a pew made it hard to maintain community on trail. I met fascinating characters and life-long friends, but I was rarely able to hike with the same people in what thru-hikers call a “trail family” or “tramily.” When my fellow hikers went to town together on a weekday, I pushed on, knowing I had to plan my time in town around the Sunday Mass schedule.
This hike, then, became more than just a long, arduous walk in the woods or a challenge to make it to Mass every weekend. This hike became a pilgrimage.
Through the most difficult moments — rainstorms that left me soaked, inclines that stole my breath, descents that left me one wrong step from tumbling, throwing up, bear encounters, several face plants, running out of food, exhaustion and boredom — I was alone.
Through the most thrilling moments — witnessing spectacular sunsets and sunrises, feeling my body grow stronger each day, the exhilaration of eating a real meal or taking a hot shower after 11 days on trail, the reward of a mesmerizing view after a tough climb, the most incredible joy — I was alone.
Yet every one of these moments was filled not with loneliness but the peace and comfort that comes with the presence of the Creator. I learned to walk with him. I learned he is always walking with me.
The pilgrimage of life
Two thousand, 10 and a half miles, 14 states, and five months and 10 days after I set foot on the trail, I climbed that steep incline with my head glued to my phone and made arrangements for my final Sunday on trail. After the woman on the other end assured me that she could find a ride, I put my phone away and continued the climb.
As always, God had provided, but after all, I still had three days to cover 70 miles of mountainous terrain.
At the Saturday Vigil Mass at Holy Family Parish in Greenville, Maine, I carried the gifts down the aisle. As I handed over the cup of wine, the congregation sang the third verse of “Amazing Grace.”
“Through many dangers, doubts and fears, I have already come. God’s grace has brought me safely here, and grace will lead me home.”
The next morning, I returned to the trail to begin the 100 Mile Wilderness, the most remote and final stretch of my journey. Five days later, on Aug. 25, 2022, I summited Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail.
As I stood on the wooden sign at the peak, I lifted my eyes to the unending sea of mountains and stretched my arms to the sky in celebration and adoration. There I stood with the knowledge that I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and made it to Mass every week — not by my strength but by the grace of the God that walked with me every step of the way.
The accomplishment, after all, was never Katahdin. Nor sitting in a church pew. But becoming more aware of the deep grace of walking with God on the pilgrimage of life.