Saturday, October 13, 2012

NH 4000 Footer Essay (Pt. 1): It's Not the Path That Changes Us

A path over Mount Pleasant.
What follows is part one of the five-part essay I'm writing for the NH 4000 Footer Club.  You can find part two here.

I first heard about having to write this application essay for NH's Four Thousand Footer Club sometime about a third of the way through hiking all of the Granite State's forty-eight peaks, and frankly, I've been trying to figure out what to put down on paper ever since.  I really enjoy pretending to be a good writer and thus I fancied whatever I'd come up with to be a sort of 'road tale,' a frequently employed plot device- sort of coming of age story where the protagonist sets off searching for maturity or meaning and generally ends up finding it... think Huckleberry Finn or in a more contemporary form Easy Rider... even Homer's Iliad, the oldest narrative in the Western canon, reflects much of what's in a road tale.  An inherent part of the road tale though is not just personal growth and discovery, but growth and discovery through experience.  A central message of such stories then is that the road literally does something to you... whether left wounded, reborn or somewhere in between, one cannot help but be changed by the beauties and terrors of the road.

From Mount Tripyramid.
With the grandiose notion of becoming the best White Mountain road tale writer since Brad Washburn lodged firmly in my noggin, I set off on every subsequent hike enthusiastically trying to answer the question "how is this exactly changing me?"  I sure experienced a whole lot of beauty (afternoon clouds billowing over Mount Isolation for instance) and even a couple minor terrors (realizing its almost 9pm with two miles to go coming off Middle Carter with a bum leg and a freshly dead headlamp) but unfortunately, trying to figure out how such experiences were changing me became a distracting and fruitless effort.  Especially after I began solo hiking in the summer of 2011, one could often find me standing on a mountaintop trying to convince an increasingly skeptical inner-self that I was experiencing something profound and life-changing.  After each of these sort of episodes, I'd usually leave the summit both proud of my accomplishment and frustrated that nothing was happening.  I'm currently a seminarian studying to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so I wasn't seeking just growth or meaning in those mountains, but God as well.  Unfortunately, while I'd often marveled at Her handiwork during my mountaintop experiences, God Herself didn't seem to really want to show up... or at least it felt that way.

On top of Mount Carrigain's fire-tower.
I'm now sitting in a Starbucks in Queens, far away from my cherished mountains.  I deeply miss those stoic old giants... especially over this past summer, they became some my closest friends.  Still though, I can't honestly say the path over them changed me.  I met some amazing folks and some annoying folks, I marveled at God's creation and stood helpless against Her fury, I even learned a lot in the mountains, but no, they didn't change me.  It wouldn't be accurate though to say I wasn't growing and changing during the eight years I took to hike the Whites.  I started my journey on top of Mount Pierce in 2004, freshly out of high school and working for my second summer as a camp counselor for Calumet Lutheran Ministries.  I finished my journey late this past August atop Mount Carrigain's fire-tower, at the end of a longer summer break and two years into a Masters of Divinity degree.  Many of the kids who were with me back in 2004 later grew up to be counselors themselves... some even became good friends of mine.  I definitely changed over that period, perhaps I even came of age, but it wasn't the mountains that changed me.  Rather, my path over NH's forty-eight big peaks ended up providing the space I needed to reflect on my relationship with God, the course of my growth and my relationship with the ever-evolving world all around me.  While not the rule, I do think this is typical... it's not the road, the journey or the path that usually changes us.  Instead, the paths we trod in life simply serve as vehicles through which we can realize the growth (or potential for growth) already stirring within and around us.  What follows then, perhaps isn't road tale at all, at least in the traditional sense... it's a collection of a few stories in which I realized that since the last time I was up above the clouds, things looked pretty different...
 
Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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