“Imagine them both 20 years from now,” she prompts, “sprawled out on your couch, balding with beer bellies.” We chuckle as we weave about the rocks and roots on our path, but her next sentence grinds us to an abrupt halt:
“Who would you choose?”
Elizabeth and I lock eyes. This sixteen-year-old had wrangled me—a decade her senior—into a corner like it was a ruthless game of tag. Only the real-life stakes here were much higher than playground preeminence. She pauses patiently, expectantly and waits for my reply.
Tall grasses cradle the trail and tickle my shins as I contemplate a question that would number among the most important of my life. I divert my eyes to evergreens dotting June’s lush landscape. They partner with leafy, deciduous trees to paint the Bohemian forest deep shades of emerald—with an occasional lavender-white wildflower sprinkled in. A breeze ferries the mingled chatter of Czech and English closer as campers and counselors meander about the trail ahead. But, no one lingers close enough for me to play the privacy card.
I must answer.
So, I picture them both, in all of their balding and beer-belly glory. In an instant, my choice becomes astoundingly clear, as all that is temporary yields to longevity. Two years later, I marry him: The one with a heart of gold, who is still the best person I know. (And, bonus, no beer belly or baldness . . . yet.) With a simple pair of sentences, my teenage friend sliced through the tangled brush of what so often obstructs life’s most crucial decisions.
Elizabeth led me to look long—and I would never, ever be the same.
But that was it.
A Brief Encounter
I’d like to tell you that this was just the beginning of a lasting relationship: That she read Scripture at my wedding or maybe even babysat my kids; that a scroll through our texting threads would reveal an exquisite friendship, blossoming and refined.
But I can’t.
We finished the hike that fateful summer day and our English-teaching tenure soon after. The content of our conversations rapidly decomposed into quirky jokes about Czech toilets and how many chocolate bars from Prague we stuffed into our carry-ons for the flight home. Like the annuals blooming in flower boxes across Old Town Square, our beautiful connection was as extraordinary as it was fleeting. I marvel at how one of the most significant relationships of my life lasted for just a fraction of it.
The Long Haul
Here, in the shadow of the Rockies, the summit windows for some peaks cracks open briefly—for as little as a few short weeks out of the entire year. In contrast, with the right equipment, logistics and a bit of luck, a person can hike the Appalachian (pronounced with a short “A”—thank you, southern friends) Trail—from Georgia to Maine—in six months’ time. There are no weekend warriors here, or if there are, they won’t last past Sunday. In this epic 2,000-mile adventure, you play the long game. Potential challenges rise up as sure as the Blue Ridge mountains before you: There are crowded camping corridors, wildlife encounters, injuries, and the predictability of unpredictable weather. Always, there is an ominous October deadline looming, with the pressing necessity of completion before Maine turns another cold shoulder.
I’m intrigued by the Appalachian trek, as much for its metaphorical potential as for its literal thrills: It represents a microcosm of life’s journey and the companions we meet along the way. We gather at the trailhead together, with grand plans to finish side-by-side. These are the gold standard-relationships we value most: the BFFs that promise a Georgia to Maine commitment through the twists and turns of school, jobs, perhaps marriage and kids, retirement, and beyond.
But there are black bears on the trail,
downpours and dehydration,
blisters and disputes. (“It’s this way!” “No! It’s THAT way, I swear!”)
One-by-one (with rare exceptions) these supposed long-haulers make their exits—and we suddenly find ourselves on an expedition where we walk alone. So we solo on, but not forever. Eventually, other companions appear on the switchbacks or around a bend. These new ones may walk with us for a minute, pouring water into our dry canteens; a mile, to make sure we don’t miss the next campsite; or even twenty, because they just happen to be going our way. Here, conversations run from small-talk shallow to life-altering deep. There is wisdom and warning from those who have hiked the trail before and know what’s up ahead. There are hands extended to pull you up and over rocky crags and offers to haul heavy-laden packs down steep ravines. They cycle through the forest floor’s revolving door, for a day, a week, a season.
We Don’t Walk Alone
We find, once more, that the trail may take these companions, too, in a completely different direction. Some head back the way they came. Many will bid you farewell with a tearful embrace, and a few will vanish without even saying goodbye. While companions come and go in this trek, one thing’s for certain: Once you’ve scrambled up the side of Maine’s Mount Katahdin to break the Appalachian tape, even self-proclaimed solo hikers will tell you that they didn’t do it alone.
No one does.
Not even Jesus.
In her book, The Secular Creed, Rebecca McLaughlin recounts the friendships recorded in Jesus’ brief three years of ministry: There was “John [who] refers to himself as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ (John 20:2),” Lazarus, whose death brought Jesus to tears, and Peter, who denied him three times and was yet restored. There were others: Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and his other disciples, to name a few. Each of Jesus’ friends slip in and out of the gospel narrative, joining him on his journey toward the cross. Each have varying yet poignant roles to play. Even the betraying Judas, referred to by Jesus as “friend,” finds himself in the Savior’s redemption arc—one that fulfills Jesus’ earlier words about friendship and the love that lays down one’s life. (Matthew 26:50/John 15:13)
Remembering Those Who Came
I spot my teenage daughter pruning last summer’s geranium—the one that shouldn’t have made it past fall. When October extended its icy figures over the high planes, I warned her it was time to toss it away. She protested and persuaded me to move its yellowing tendrils indoors. While it will likely never flower again, she cherishes it as much—if not more—than our newly potted petunias and dianthus. I think of 16-year-old Elizabeth and a 20-something version of me, pausing at the fork in my metaphorical road. I can still smell the evergreens presiding with permanence over the Czech forest, and feel the tall grasses—alive one day and gone the next—bristle across my shins. I think of all the ones who came before and after her, stepping in and out of my story: some for seconds, others for seasons, all with a value immeasurable by time. I whisper a thanks to the One who leads us in how to love. If he hadn’t . . . if they hadn’t, I surely wouldn’t be here now, watching my daughter water the geranium that lived.