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Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice
Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice
Belden C. Lane
Oxford University Press, 2014
288 pp., $24.95

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John Copeland Nagle


On the Hammock, Reading About Wilderness Wanderings

Hiking as a spiritual practice.

A decade ago, I was writing about the spiritual values served by the Wilderness Act, which Congress passed in 1964 to preserve lands "where man is a visitor who does not remain." The legal prohibition on cars and roads in wilderness areas had its intended effect, for I had never actually visited one. I needed to remedy that omission, both to boost my credibility in writing about wilderness areas and to share in the profound spiritual experiences that so many writers have recorded in the pages of the Bible and across the centuries. So I arranged to fly to Oregon a half day early, and I immediately set out for the Gifford Pinchot National Wilderness Area across the Columbia River in Washington. I parked at the trailhead in the national forest; a three-mile hike would allow me to cross the official wilderness border and, so I thought, immediately experience all that I had read about.

It didn't turn out that way. It was a beautiful day in late May, which meant that there was hardly any snow on the trail as I set off on my hike. Soon I encountered a bit more snow as the trail slowly gained elevation, and after about an hour I arrived at a beautiful mountain lake. I rested and enjoyed the solitude and the spectacular views before setting out once again for the nearby wilderness border. Ten minutes later I was still struggling to find the trail in snow that was now at least a foot deep. The lake was still just behind me, so I glanced at my vintage digital camera to review the photos that I had taken minutes before, hoping that I could identify the trail from the perspective shown in the pictures. No luck. And then it hit me. I was alone in the forest, my cell phone didn't get a signal, it was late afternoon, and I was absolutely unequipped for anything more than a short, leisurely hike. As I imagined what my family would think back in Indiana as they heard the national news of a lost hiker in Washington, I realized three things that could facilitate my escape. ...

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