When I started my application to The Seattle School in the summer of 2014, I was holed up in a hotel room somewhere near the Maryland/Pennsylvania state line. I was tired, I could barely walk, and I had just come to terms with the idea of pressing pause on my childhood dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
For three months, I had been living that dream: hiking all day, climbing through postcard-worthy scenery, attempting to grow a real beard, and peeing in the woods. I was meeting fascinating people from all over the world, stretching my physical and mental limits, and eating to my heart’s content while still losing weight. I had surreal, serendipitous stories of provision—like the time I met a hiker who had been carrying my lost phone for three days, hoping to run into me (he and his wife even treated me to a burger later that day). Or the time we heard coyotes kill a deer nearby and then enjoyed a communal venison roast around a fire. Then there was the afternoon spent waiting out a snowstorm in a shelter, staring at the ceiling and playing Twenty Questions with new friends because it was too cold to leave our sleeping bags and too early to go to bed.
But after three months, six states, and about 1,100 miles—almost exactly halfway through the trail—I slipped on some mud, twisted my knee, and found myself in a hotel room looking up The Seattle School on my phone. If, on the way to the trailhead in Georgia, my three-months-younger self had learned that he was only going to make it halfway before hurting his knee, he would have been devastated. I had said all the right things, like “It doesn’t matter how far I get, it’ll be an adventure,” but part of me had felt that it wasn’t worth starting the hike if I didn’t make it to Maine (don’t worry, I’ve talked about this with my therapist). So if my younger self could look into that hotel room in the future, he would be confused to see me smiling from ear to ear, hobbling in circles while I talked on the phone.
Until that point, I thought I knew where the trail ended.
In addition to being a lifelong dream, starting this hike was an act of desperation, a Hail Mary effort to pull myself out of a spiritual and relational rut. I had an interesting job with people I loved, but deep down I knew that I was not where I wanted to be; let’s call it divine unrest. As cheesy as it sounds, I set off into the woods in search of faith and a sense of direction.
And, to my surprise, I found it. There was no grand epiphany or booming voice from the heavens, but there were a whole lot of little moments. I began to grieve things I had buried for far too long. I began pursuing God—and letting myself be pursued—for the first time in years. I began to learn how to love myself.
It was the beginning of a journey that I knew I would not be able to walk alone. So, somewhere in the middle of Virginia, I started thinking about this graduate school on the other side of the country that I had heard about years earlier. I told a friend what I was thinking, along with something like “Don’t worry, I’ll be on the trail until October, so I won’t move to Seattle until next summer.”
Mud. Knee. Hotel room. Now my October end date was bumped to June, and my ear-to-ear grin was because I had just learned that it was not too late to join The Seattle School’s 2014 cohort.
I might have been able to keep hiking. With a couple weeks of rest, a slower pace, and a lighter pack, I might have finished the trail. But I realized something in that hotel room: the spiritual, relational, emotional journey I had started was far more important—and far more exciting—than the physical, geographical journey. I wanted to continue that deeper journey in a place that challenged me to ask big questions, to know my story and to risk sharing it, and to learn how to enter the stories of others as they move toward healing.
So I flew home to Florida, loaded my car, and drove across the country to Seattle. In the six months since, I have continued the work that started in the woods last year: grieving what needs to be grieved, confronting shame and brokenness, learning to live boldly and openly in relationship with others. It can be an ugly, difficult process; I have cried more than I care to admit, and sometimes I think it would be easier to pack it in and go for another long walk in the woods. But still, I often find myself smiling inexplicably when I walk into this building at Elliott and Wall. It is a holy place—like the stories and ideas over the years have soaked into the red brick walls, inviting those of us who enter today to join a conversation that has been years in the making.
When I think about that twisted knee and all of the moments of grace and beauty that have followed it, I am reminded of a quote by one of our literary saints here at The Seattle School. To my younger self on the way to the trailhead, and to anyone else who might be reading this, may these words bring you permission to wander and to wonder, to make mistakes, and to keep moving forward—even when you have no idea what’s around the next bend.
“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.”
-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow