Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mystery, story, and a trail story

A few weeks ago I wrote in my weekly newsletter article about a church member who is through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, all 2100 or so miles of it. He started in February in Georgia, is currently wandering between NC and TN (the trail is no respecter of state lines) and plans to reach Katahdin in Maine by mid-October. His trail name is Slagline, which is a reference to where the strongest steel is found in a smelter (I think). I wrote about him here, too.
Many of our members don't know Slagline. His wife, who had terminal brain cancer, moved them to Beaufort for the last three or four years of her life. She became involved in the Garden Club and the church, while he remained a little more aloof. They split their time between Beaufort and Charlottesville, VA, where she had her treatments, further limiting his interactions with the congregation. Slagline has been a steady attender of church since his wife's death, but he's the quiet one that sits in the back and slips away before you can speak to him...we all know that guy, right?
Slagline has always wanted to hike the trail, but now seems to be a good time for him. His wife died about a year ago, and he's having a little difficulty finding his way. He says he's fine, but in conversation, the loneliness and lostness tend to leak out a little. This trip is his bid to find himself again, to rewrite himself into a revised story of his life, one where he doesn't grow old with his bride. And, God bless him, he's keeping a blog.
So I wrote about him in the Chimes, because I think his trip is fascinating and his writing is entertaining, and I think he's someone we all ought to know. I expected it to go over like most of our newsletter articles...a couple of people comment, and the rest say nothing.
Not this time.
I'm getting a real lesson in something I thought I knew well: how much story shapes belonging. Lots of people want to know, each Sunday, how Slagline is doing, and what progress he's made. 430 miles as of last night. Now they feel connected, although few can picture his face. Slagline doesn't know it, but there are a lot of folks with him in spirit on the trail. And I'm curious to see how everyone responds when he gets back, whether that's at the end of a successful through-hike in October, or before.
Part of what I think they are connecting to (pulling this all together) in Slagline's seeking out the mystery in his life. On the trail, he has more questions than answers. Who will I meet today? Who will I be today? Do I have enough food to get me to my next stop? Will my shoes last? What does my life look like without my wife? Who do I want to be? Where's the next place I can get a beer? Who will I spend the night with tonight? Will I see anyone I know? and on and on...he's embraced the mystery, and the sense of discovery, and in his own words, finding the trail "a never-ending dance". (We told him that was too soft and pretty to be a good trail name, btw.)
And so here's another data point for my doctoral project, and one that may actually prove useful: we can tell some of these stories vicariously, and help people get a sense of belonging to someone else. It's not a complete experience, but it's a place to start. And we'll see what happens when the interchange starts to go another way, when some of us church folk pack up and hit the trail ourselves, to walk a little ways in Slagline's shoes, and to be trail angels, packing in treats and maybe a cold beer or two for a weary hiker. Who's packing a blackberry, btw--great for blogging on the trail.

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