An escape to the mountains and a new blog series

Part of my freelance work involves contributing to an online outdoor magazine. I get do to what I already love, snap a few photos, and get paid for it.

I welcomed this month’s assignment with open arms because I haven’t craved solitude this badly in months. The last time my soul was truly at rest was that weekend I spent at the monastery, and since I can’t skip off to Trappist, Kentucky, retreating to the Great Smoky Mountains is the next best thing.

The timing of the assignment was ideal because I’ve made a grave mistake of internalizing stress from the political discord among friends, family, and even my church. How quickly we devolve into groups and sides, easily forgetting or ignoring all that common ground between us. Most of the time I find social media to be this magnificent connector of time and space, a way for Army brats like me to see many people and places at one time.

But lately, Facebook, in particular, has been a cesspool of despair and outright cruelty. Desperate for relief, I unplugged on Saturday and ran off to the mountains alone.

From the desperation grew a desire to draw closer to God, to dig my feet into something stable. Strangely, I unearthed some vintage Steven Curtis Chapman and drove teary-eyed listening to the playlist from my most formative spiritual years.

Once I was parked and fully unplugged, I started to climb the steep hill in front me – Chestnut Top Trail. Leaving the music in the car, I meditated on the sound of rustling leaves and the crunching of twigs beneath my feet. I climbed and lamented. I hiked and cried.

Thankful for the perfect weather and the mostly empty trails, I hiked for five hours straight, until my legs were dead sore and two nasty blisters were fully formed. Around each bend was something beautiful, so even as my body said, “Time to turn back,” my heart was saying, “I wonder what’s on the other side of that knoll.”

I drove to a second trail – because why not? – and walked painstakingly two more miles into the Great Smoky Mountains.

I wanted to keep going, and I would’ve kept going, but I knew that no amount of time would’ve been long enough. I could go another hour and still crave ten more. Something else had to change.

It was only when I came upon these tiny mushrooms growing out of a fallen tree, it hit me: I can’t rely on these tiny escapes. Monks and mountains can do only so much. No, I need a revival in my day-to-day. Instead of one big AH-HA, I need lots of little awes.

In the words of Steven Curtis Chapman, I need to see more signs of life to prove that despair and division are not in charge.

But how to accomplish this, I asked myself. Is it realistic to expect little wonders on the mundane hamster wheel of everyday life?

Maybe. If I look hard enough, then maybe.

Thus became my goal for February: to post a daily Sign of Life, whatever that is in my world. Maybe I capture Jeremy and Jackson in laughing fits. Maybe I see something blooming where it shouldn’t. Maybe I meet someone whom I can help, or someone who can help me, or maybe there’s a sunset so large and vibrant that I absolutely must show you.

I’ve not mapped this out yet, but I know there’s something tangible here.

Maybe you’ll join me?

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