Social Distance in the Wilderness - by Brett Sherwood

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

This is what a trail is supposed to look like. Clearly trodden paths that disappear into and snake through dense forest only to emerge into another clear meadow on the other side filled with scenic vistas.

One of my dogs hung around long enough to give you some perspective. My dogs are of course chihuahuas and these are the most massive trees you have ever seen.

I recorded last week's sermon, the first with the doors of St. Luke's closed, and went home to ready my pack. I had only settled on a direction to head, not an exact destination, and the next day I would finish getting this site ready and load the dogs up for the road. I knew the expectations of church and possible travel restrictions lay just around the corner, but there was time for a day in the wilderness to clear my head.

With no reservations, the easiest places to backcountry camp are National Forests, but if you scan the map around them you will find designated wilderness areas: remote tracts of land where there can legally be no man-made structures or attempts to manage nature. And so I pass an easy National Forest and drive another hour for the privilege of more rugged atmosphere.

I'm supposed to be social distancing. What better place to be? I might set foot on that beautiful trail and see absolutely zero other humans the next 36 hours. Except I'm not the only one who thought this way. On the highways here I have seen people driving wearing masks. I have seen more National Guard convoys than state troopers. I meet eleven people on the trail on this trip and they all say the same thing: we came out here to get away from the news.

"Whatever happens is going to happen," one very mellow guy tells me as his bro stoops down to pet the dogs. "We're just going to go up, crush this north section up here, and see what's going on when we get home."

Two college students greet me the first day, on my hike from the car to the campsite, and share this is their first backpacking experience. They came seeking some peace from crisis, and had "just the most perfect weather." I'm happy to see two young faces excited to get into backpacking, but their rosy encounter with the wild is not in the cards for me this weekend.

Then they ask where I'm from and one of them grew up in St. Michaels. Her aunt and uncle got married at our church. She's going home and telling her mom she met the new pastor at St. Luke's. I stop to consider what I came here to get away from, only for St. Luke's to be here greeting me before I could step into the forest.

Another couple stops me near the end of a long day, trudging my way back to the car. His orange North Face backpack matches his orange North Face jacket. He told her a couple nights of camping would be the perfect getaway. We talk about the trails here, camping, and coronavirus. She looks scared. Neither his backpack or his jacket have a scuff on them.

This is paradoxical social distancing. We all came here to get away from everyone, a desperately unaware retort to Yogi Berra's, "No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded." We're not spring-breakers on a Florida beach, thumbing our noses at civic responsibility, but we're clinging to an individualism that informs us our self-sufficiency can shield us from reality for a night or two outdoors.

Even the forest service is onto us. The forest road to the trailhead is gated off and at least ten cars are parked below it. I, like the rest of them, will have to walk uphill four miles to get to the park.

"This is not a trail," I say. "This is a road. I didn't come up here to hike on gravel." But the trail doesn't care. This is a trail.

I camp at a ridiculous altitude for the season. The perfect weather has given way to mists throughout the day and all the wood is wet. Starting a fire takes so long, I only have time to cook dinner over it and warm my feet for a few minutes before the rain lets loose and I climb in my hammock under the rainfly. In the next hour, the temperature drops nearly twenty degrees and the rain gives way to snow. The wind gusts up the plateau and I spend the night shivering and cursing my sleeping bag.

As I stash our overnight packs the next morning, I promise the dogs it will be an easy hike. Maybe we'll put on a lot of miles, but it's easy when you're not carrying all that weight. And at first, the trail agrees.

"This is a trail," I say. The dogs agree and we chew up those miles early on. But the trail doesn't care. This is a trail.

But then the trail descends into muddy bogs. Sometimes the trail vanishes altogether into a marsh. Sometimes my boots sink into the mud so deep I need my trekking poles to hoist myself out.

"This is not a trail," I say. "This is a creek. This is slowing us down so much." But the trail doesn't care. This is a trail.

When the trails finally ascends again, my waterlogged pant legs drag me down. I climb up slippery and pointy rocks that leave gashes in my shins when I fall. It's cold and wet and I think about how far I still have to hike on the loop back, just to pick up our heavy packs and continue on to the car before dark. The trail senses my fatigue and sadistically teases me with a downhill stretch before....

"This is not a trail," I say. "I mean, I know it is, but do I really have to cross this creek? Did I really hike down to it just to have to start back uphill on the other side?" But the trail doesn't care. This is a trail.

Before we tackle the final climb back to the forest road, before we can march the miles of gravel back to the car, before we can drive to the nearest, greasiest burgers the dogs and I can find, the trail opens once more from the forest and deposits us on top of a waterfall. The trail resumes, after crossing these rocks and this creek, about a quarter-mile upstream, around the bend in the picture.

"Go home trail," I say. "You're drunk. Look at my dogs. Do you see how cold and wet we are? This is not a trail. I demand this be a trail." But the trail doesn't care. This is a trail.

Driving home, I spent nearly five hours just chewing up those miles. I never had to pull over and cross-check three different maps. I never had to wander back and forth along a river, looking for a bridge and a road on the other side. I didn't step on sharp rocks or strain muscles. I could trust the same managed, controlled grid of roads we all navigate with a little help from our phones. The structure did so much of the work for me.

But twenty miles in the wilderness beat me up. The trail didn't care if I was on it or not, and every tree branch back to it slapped me in the face and dropped more rain on my head. The trail didn't care how tired my legs were or what challenge my body was capable of next. The trail didn't care where I went or where I ended up that day. If I used it as a way forward, good for me, but it would still be on the trail's terms.

I sense that our trail doesn't look much like a trail right now. It's not what anyone expected to be around the next turn. It's going to make us long for something that's structured and organized; that would feel safe amongst all the chaos my trail friends went to the wildest of places to escape. But the trail simply doesn't care.

And the trail isn't God. It's easy to think it is because it really does control us. We see one way forward and we have to accept it because, what else are we going to do? We're at the mercy of whatever the trail throws at us. Instead, I felt God along the trail. I felt God in my lungs when I leaned against a tree and caught my breath. I felt God in the blisters in my feet telling me the pain was worth finding my way. I felt God in my two not really chihuahuas sitting patiently while I strapped their packs on them for the home stretch to the car.

"This is not a trail," you will say. "God, you made a typo. This is a TRIAL, not a trail. Where's our trail?"

But the trail doesn't care and God will still be there.

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