One Man's Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail
Paul Stutzman was raised in an Amish and Mennonite community. He attended church regularly and lived a quietly Christian life. Paul married a "liberal" Mennonite gal named Mary, raised a family, and was successful in the restaurant business. Life rolled along as expected until Mary passed away from cancer. She lost that battle and his faith in an active God was shaken.
He chose the trail name Apostle Paul and began the 2,176 mile hike from Georgia to Maine. When asked about his trail name on that first day he replied, "Apostle Paul. I'm hiking to Damascus, hoping for an enlightening experience. Damascus, Virginia, that is. Then on to Maine."
Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail
I have read several AT thru-hike memoirs. They have been decent reads. But there is something about Paul's story-telling and documentation of the trail that I found interesting. I have a basic understanding of protecting your food supply by hanging it in the trees, trying to pack the lightest pack possible and yet have sufficient supplies, and pitching a tent in the rain. Even so, I had imagined the AT as an arduous but well-kept, longer version of other park trails.
I was wrong.
Paul's descriptions of the wide variety of shelters, weather, and trail conditions kept me engrossed in this book. He described fording rivers, slipping from narrow board walkways into mucky bogs, and scrabbling over house-sized boulders. I am certain I have a more clear understanding of the AT trail after reading his descriptions. I am more familiar with the terms blue blazing, slack-packing, and hike your own hike.
God and Faith
I do not typically read Christian literature and at the first sign of bible thumping or attempts to save my soul from the fire and brimstone I run the other way. I have beliefs and a certain level of faith, but I have no desire to be lectured by other humans who are as flawed as I am. Typically, as soon as I understand that a book is "religious", I shut it and put it aside.
Some reviewers make statements along the lines of 'I didn't realize God was going to be a main character in this story' (paraphrased). Apostle Paul makes frequent references to his conservative up-bringing, his understanding of the church the requirements to avoid sin, and his questioning of God. After all, why does God let our loved ones suffer and die? And do nothing to stop it? Paul looked for signs of an active God along the trail.
However, I didn't feel lectured or Bible-thumped. I felt fully as though I were watching a man find his way. And in his search I learned a thing or two. At the one point in the book that he summarizes his thoughts on God and the trail, he gives the reader permission to blue blaze, and skip that section. Oddly enough, I read every word.
Paul did find his signs that God exists and is active. He found those signs in the dancing of the leaves on the trees. And in the earth-shaking storm that threatened to take his very existence.
"I was terrified of the storm but I was not terrified of dying. I actually felt at peace with the possibility. I clung to the tree, on my knees in streaming water, wind tearing at my body, rain and hail pounding me. I hung on. I knew God was there."
A Good Read About One Man, One Long Hike, and Faith
If a memoir (not a technical how-to) about the Appalachian Trail interests you, if you have ever lost a loved one and questioned the existence of God, or if you have ever struggled with living a more peaceful life, you will likely enjoy this book as much as I did.
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