I am very decidedly a “city person.” So much so that, during seminary orientation last year, when some new friends invited me to “go exploring” with them I assumed they meant exploring downtown. They meant exploring a state park. So off I went hiking.
For the past 4 days, I hit the road and spent time in Nashville, Tennessee, “Music City USA” with population nearly 700 thousand, and in Bryson City, North Carolina, a little Smoky Mountain town with population 1-2 thousand. City person as I am, you can imagine which location I expected to enjoy the most. But you’d be wrong.
In Bryson City, I was struck with the gift of the small town, the gift of getting away from home, work, school, and errands, trading them all in for a slower pace and quieter place even just for a couple days.
No computer. Sometimes no cell signal or WiFi to enable staring at my smart phone as so many of us are apt to to do these days. Just me and the friend I was visiting, deciding at any given moment whether to go shopping for fresh produce on a farm or tubing on a river or contra dancing at the Sneak E Squirrel (no joke).
At dusk, my friend and I went to a park with varying lengths of hiking trails, each leading the hiker to a waterfall. Unprepared for a long hike, we selected a very short but (in my opinion) very steep trail.
After a series of steep steps, I stopped and put my hand on my chest and told my friend between breaths, “My heart’s beating really fast.”
“That means you’re alive!” she said joyfully, putting her hand over her chest to feel its rhythmic beating.
“I guess that’s true. I’m alive!” I echoed, reaching a hand to my racing heart as well.
By this time we had reached the base of the waterfall, where we could stand on a little bridge looking directly at the water streaming down the rock face in front of us. For a quiet minute we just stood there, hands over our hearts as if pledging allegiance to God’s good Creation.
On the walk back, we marveled at the fireflies making the air around us glisten. Stars on earth, we called them. Angels of the forest.
Before leaving the park, we rolled up our jeans and took off our shoes and stepped into the cool river water. Looking out into the evening, I found nothing to feel — no past griefs or future fears — but the natural elements presently surrounding my senses. The air and water on my skin, sand and rock under my toes, birds and bugs singing in my ears, setting sun before my eyes.
Maybe it was like the line from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being Wallflower: “And in that moment I swear we were infinite.”
Because we are infinite. It just takes stepping out of our finite schedules to see it. Setting aside for a second the nine-to-fives, meeting agendas, school syllabi, and whatever other conceptions of time may constrict us. (Liturgical calendars still allowed, in my opinion.)
A lot of people travel in the summer, and if you’re one of those people I’d challenge you to make that travel a pilgrimage — an intentional journey open to spiritual discovery.
Pilgrimage surprises us — like the surprise of my “city person” soul riveted by the river.
Pilgrimage helps the heart beat.
Pilgrimage reminds us we’re alive.