Tag Archives: hiking

featured image - the true beginning

The True Beginning

Storytelling is our way of bringing meaning to what might otherwise appear to be random events in everyday existence. Stories answer questions. John Eldredge, who I referenced in the Contours of Story, says the great philosophical question is really quite simple: “How did all of this get here?” or to put it in the words of Tolkien’s heroic hobbit: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

Signposts on Mt Cardigan, NH 2017

Signposts on Mt Cardigan, NH 2017

Have you ever wondered what kind of tale you’ve fallen into? Many of us do not think of ourselves as being on a quest to save the world from the dark and evil forces concentrated in the shadow of Mordor. But could we be wrong? It could be that we are more like the characters in Lord of the Rings than we might image. And it could be that our world resembles Middle Earth more than we might think.

And if we are living within the framework of the battle between forces of good and evil, does that change the way we look at the purpose and meaning of our own lives?

When my son Arthur and I departed the Lodge at Cardigan, we thought we were embarking on an easy journey that would take us to an open mountaintop with inspiring views and then, after that, on to a nearby hikers’ cabin to spend a safe and warm winter night.

The Cardigan summit, though, turned into a battleground. We had walked into a turbulent and unpredictable world putting our safety on the line. We had to draw on instinct and experience to find our way down to the cabin. Without saying a word, we both understood the dangers of the world we crossed through and were grateful to arrive at the place that would provide warmth and rest.

I have thought about this experience long and hard since it happened. I could have dismissed it as just another winter mountain walk, but the contrast of the dangers of the storm and the safety of the cabin were so stark they demanded further reflection.

hiking dangers

Many years ago, in another time of great personal challenge, I discovered the Bible. Even though I was in my middle years, my understanding of the world was not built on a strong biblical foundation. I had been brought up in a Christian culture, but that world was not a culture of the cross; instead, the church had been transmuted into a diluted remnant of an earlier, more vibrant expression of the faith. The institution of the church was accepted as long as it did not impose itself too severely on the wishes of the people and their communities. This was the world I knew as a boy and young man; you might call it the world of “Cabin Christians” where the safe and pleasant environment of the cabin is substituted for the difficulties of being a Christian in a more turbulent and unpredictable world.

This is what Jesus prayed for those who will follow him after his crucifixion and resurrection: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”(John 17:14-18)

And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(Matthew 5:11-12)

Shelter on Mt Cardigan, NH 2017

Shelter on Mt Cardigan, NH 2017

On the summit I longed for the safety of the cabin, but I also knew that we would need to depart the cabin soon enough to go back to the world Jesus describes. Jesus was warning his disciples that they would encounter resistance in this world, but he also promised that he would be with them “always to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)

The truth is this: If we accept the great commission of Jesus Christ to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations, we will experience dangers and discomfort. It may even seem like a hopeless battle at times, but do we have a choice? If we accept the call, then we must accept the conditions that might come with the call. Sam and Frodo did not choose the journey to Mordor for themselves; they knew their whole world was at risk. The seemingly safe Shire was not really safe at all. They did not know it, but these two improbable heroes were part of a much bigger story that transformed a mere journey into an epic mission. The odds at times may seem insurmountable, but the mission commissioned by Jesus Christ is all about overcoming the impossible.

The Contours of Story header-revised

The Contours of Story

 “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into.”

—Sam as he approaches Mordor with Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring


Since writing my last blog about the unanticipated dangers my son and I encountered on the summit of Cardigan Mountain, I have thought often since then about what happened and why I recall it so vividly.

When we passed the opened shelter at the base of Firescrew Mountain, we made our decision to forge on. We had no idea what that meant. We did know that daylight would soon fade to darkness and we knew we might be exposed to the full brunt of the winter wind as it gusted over the summits of the two mountains.

untitled1

Arthur Kampmann, Cardigan Mountain 2017

The snow, the dark and the wind together conspired to confuse us with false signals as to the way forward, making us turn back time and again until we could hunt down a better way. But with all the forces of nature seemingly against us, we pushed on determined to find the cabin somewhere below the summit. It helped having one another as we made our way.

When Arthur finally called out that he had found the fire tower, there was no elation because the summit offered only danger. We could hardly hear one another over the roar of the wind, but we did not pause. We began a search for the trail that would take us to safety.

The cabin itself was dark and cold inside, but it was a refuge in the night and as soon as Arthur built a fire, the room began to warm. Now that we were secure, it was sobering to recall the conditions on the exposed summit of Cardigan. While we were searching for a way down, we had no time for reflection, only action. But now in the warmth of the cabin, I realized Arthur and I had just lived through the drama of a survival story.

blog quote-contour

John Eldridge wrote a short book on the centrality of story to the process of understanding the meaning of the life we live. Madeleine L’Engle has written, “All of life is a story.” Eldridge elaborates: “It goes far deeper than entertainment. Stories nourish us. They provide a kind of food that the soul craves. ‘Stories are equipment for living,’ says Hollywood screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. He believes that we go to the movies because we hope to find in someone else’s story something that will help us understand our own. We go (to movies) ‘to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.’ Stories shed light on our lives.”

Eric Kampmann hiking 2017

Myself, Cardigan Mountain 2017

Philip Yancey tells us that behind the human condition is an epic story that has fragmented into countless mysteries. He describes what he means by giving us GK Chesterton’s picture of the human story as “a sort of cosmic shipwreck.” Chesterton believes “a person’s search for meaning resembles a sailor who awakens from a deep sleep and discovers treasure strewn about, relics from a civilization he can barely remember. One by one he picks up the relics-gold coins, a compass, fine clothing-and tries to discern their meaning. Fallen humanity is in such a state. Good things on earth-the natural world, beauty, love joy-still bear traces of their original purposes, but lost of memory mars the image of God in us.”

To Chesterton and to me the ultimate version of this story is contained in the pages of the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. The question for each one of us is to try to discern where we believe we fit into that larger biblical narrative as we discover patterns and context to the life we live here and now.

Shelter From The Storm (1)

Shelter From The Storm

As we traveled south toward home from a hike, my son Arthur decided to listen to Bob Dylan and eventually “Shelter from the Storm” played. The song’s title instantly took me back to the night before.

Arthur and I had decided to use the long route to the summit of Cardigan Mountain in New Hampshire by following a trail called the Back 80. We headed out about 12:30pm thinking that we would have more than enough time to reach the summit and the “High Cabin” one half mile below.

At first the going was great; snow covered the ground and it presented no early impediment. We pushed forward on level ground for a mile or so, but then the terrain began to change. We now were breaking trail with snowshoes that did not function perfectly, slowing our pace down significantly. Finally, we reached the Elwell Trail intersection that would take us up the steep eastern side to the ridge leading to Firescrew Mountain, and finally, Cardigan summit.

cardigan mountain-arthur 01.2017

Arthur Kampmann, Cardigan Mt. 2017

Even before we attained the ridge, we realized we had a serious problem with the clock. It was now 4pm and we had to cover two miles to Cardigan over rough terrain and drifting snow. I was losing energy and both of us were losing the light of day. The wind gusts told us that the summit would be inhospitable at best and dangerous at worst, but we kept pushing ahead. Arthur even took my backpack as its weight was definitely slowing me down. As the time approached 5pm, we came across a shelter that offered some cold comfort, but we decided that we could make it to the summit and High Cabin and so we kept going.

From Firesrew Mountain to Cardigan the trail is completely exposed. The path moves over granite slabs and is marked by cairns. Often we would lose the way as dark had descended and the windblasts had increased in frequency. Finally, after much effort, Arthur and I reached the fire tower at the summit of Cardigan We had arrived but we were not done. The wind, snow and dark made it very difficult to find the way off the forbidding summit to the cabin. We hunted around looking for cairns or a sign, but had no luck until I spotted an ice encrusted signpost fifty yards behind the fire tower.

We did not hesitate. We followed the direction given on the sign and soon found a series of cairns that led to a trail and eventually to the High Cabin, the happiest site in the entire world. We were safe and incredibly grateful that our winter adventure had not turned into something very different.

cardigan mountain-high cabin-eric 01.2017

Exhausted and thrilled to be in that cabin. Cardigan Mountain, 2017

Our dilemma had begun back at the base of the mountain in the warmth of Cardigan Lodge. We had studied the trails and decided the direct route to the cabin would be too short. We had too much time for a short ascent and so chose the Back 80 Trail that looked doable from the warmth and comfort of the lodge.

But maps do not show snow depth, winds or fatigue. We were using summer thinking to analyze winter conditions and so we miscalculated. leading to a potentially bad situation for us as we entered a very dangerous and forbidding world at the icy summit of Cardigan Mountain. In the end, though, we found shelter from the storm and the “mighty tempest.”

The Return Hike

The Return Hike

I have often said that no two hikes on the Appalachian Trail are the same. But what if you return to a section of the trail you hiked years earlier? Certainly that must be less exciting than the first time, right?

The truth is every hike is different no matter how many times you covered a particular part of the trail before. It could be raining this time. It could be winter rather than spring. You may be hiking with different people. The miles underfoot are perhaps familiar, but almost everything else is brand new. I promise.

The last piece I wrote was called A Shadow in the Corner. It was an ominous story about climbing to the summit of Bromley Mountain in Vermont only to encounter a situation that forced me to quickly alter my plans. I sensed danger and I decamped as quickly as possible from the place.

But last week I returned to the same summit to find the place warm and inviting. The ski cabin was much smaller than I remembered and the summit of Bromley was bathed in the warmth of a July afternoon with a cooling breeze cutting across the open land. What had been threatening, now was soft and friendly. Hikers walked around with cameras or sat here and there in small clusters eating a sandwich or some cookies.

Time had not changed the place at all. Time had changed me for sure as sixteen years is a long time in anyone’s life. No, my return to the summit of Bromley recalibrated my memory, altering the reality of the first visit with new images that modified what I had experienced before. The original experience magnified the size of the cabin making the man more dangerous in my mind than he actually might have been. But the rain, time of day and the fear than comes from being alone made the cabin and the summit itself a dangerous place for me and I carried that feeling over the years until it was refreshed a few months ago.

A Shadow in the Corner

A Shadow in the Corner

I recently hiked a piece of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. I’d hiked it before—I’ve done the entire trail—but hadn’t been up that way for years. And I can’t say the Vermont section of the trail is a personal favorite, but I’ve had my moments.

Many years ago, when I hiked that same section of the trail—to the summit of Mt Bromley, a popular ski destination in the winter—I remember having begun late so I did not get to the top until twilight. My guide book had mentioned a ski shelter located near the trail so because several thunderstorms had rolled through during my trip up the mountain, I headed in that direction.

It turned out that the shelter was a large enclosed building. I entered into a spacious common room that was drenched in shadows as the light of day was waning outside. Suddenly, I realized I was not alone. Across the room lurked the shadow of human figure saying not a word. I said hello, not knowing if I was dealing with friend or foe. The figure began moving in my direction, but I did not have enough common sense to fear him. I was apprehensive, but most people on the trail are very friendly and open. My unavoidable “roommate” began telling tales of woe: He had lost his backpack; he had his car stolen; he needed to get off the mountain to attend church the next day.

I absorbed all of this, all the while trying to figure out if I would sleep a wink with my shadowy friend in the room. Ultimately, I decided that the better part of valor was to retreat out the door I had come through earlier and get further up the trail as fast as I could. I felt a little guilty about leaving the young man behind, but when you are alone on the trail it is often better to err on the side of prudence. I will never know what might have happened that night. But perhaps it is enough to know that “the wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way….” (Proverbs 14:8) The “way” in this case was not to stay.

gtkj-blog-graphic-what-are-the-odds

What Are The Odds?

“Josh?”  I was resting, attending to my own aching body. We had reached the final leg of the 4.5 mile ascent of the right edge of Exit Glacier. My son Arthur and I had climbed part of the way last year, but this time around, he decided that we should climb to the viewpoint that looks out over the vast Harding Icefield, now part of the Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.

Exit Glacier is one of 40 Glaciers connected to the Icefield and is easily accessible to the town of Seward on Resurrection Bay.

The climb to the top had taken about 3.5 hours. We were lucky because this year August has been particularly wet, but not on this day. We could see for endless miles and yet we were looking at only a small fraction of an icefield that nearly equaled the area of the state of Rhode Island.

“Josh?” Arthur had gotten up and had begun walking over to some people resting nearby. I assumed Arthur had run into one of his kayak guide friends and so continued to settle in.  Then, Arthur called out to me “Eric, It’s Josh.” I still didn’t register what he was saying or who this Josh might be. Then I saw who it was he was talking to.

Josh Schneider had worked for my company from 2009 through the first half of 2012. He had overseen the launch of the company’s new website, a very complex and crucial job. Then he departed to get a law degree and after graduating, he moved to Anchorage to serve as clerk for a Federal judge.

Before I set off for Alaska, I had contacted Josh but we had never followed up. Then this. Often when hiking, you can be 5 or 10 minutes ahead of or behind someone and never know they are there. It turned out that Josh and his wife Haley had left the visitor’s center about an hour before Arthur and myself. They had taken a few long breaks on the way up and so they reached the top shortly before we did.

So what are the odds? I had been in Alaska for one full day before we decided to climb up the side of Exit Glacier. Josh knew I was coming back to Alaska, but did not know when. He lived in Anchorage, a 2.5 hour drive from this place. I had wanted to meet up with him, but had not followed up after the first phone call.

Maybe it was the sheer size of Alaska that made this meeting seem so improbable. Maybe it was the distance I had travelled to get from New York to Seward. Maybe it was the vastness of the icefield. But I kept wondering what are the odds? I am still wondering about that. What are the odds? Maybe Alaska is the perfect place for questions like that. What indeed are the odds?

Eric Kampmann in Alaska, 2016

Eric Kampmann in Alaska, 2016

The Hill of Joy- Title Image

The Hill of Joy

Walking the Camino toward Santiago resembles ordinary life in many ways. We follow a path, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or strangers. We experience good days and bad, stormy weather and brilliant sunshine, energy sapping heat and unexpected cold. The real difference is how we treat strangers along the way because it is almost a universal custom to acknowledge other pilgrims with a friendly “Buen Camino.” We connect through the common purpose of reaching Santiago.

My own journey had begun on a Sunday and now, five days later, I was approaching Santiago, the city where James, the Apostle of Jesus, rests. Around 10:30 in the morning, I arrived at an open high point called Monte Do Gozo (Hill of Joy). Unfortunately, an oversized metal monument had been placed on the spot where pilgrims could see for the first time the city they had traveled so long and hard to reach.

IMG_2327A small chapel has been built at a short distance from the monument. In contrast to the rusted block of metal, it is a simple structure. I looked inside, but it was empty and so after putting my pack down and grabbing my camera, I headed up toward the monument where I might steal a glance of Santiago just as centuries of fellow pilgrims before me had done.

I confess I felt little joy at that moment; the monument itself looked to me like a relic from World War ll. It was out of place and marred what should have been a spirit of lightness and joyful expectation.

I took a few pictures of far off Santiago and then walked back toward the chapel and my unattended pack. When I got there, I unexpectedly decided to detour back to the little chapel one last time before leaving. As I approached the open door, I heard a beautiful voice singing the words of John Newton’s Amazing Grace:

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

At first, I thought I was listening to a recording, but then I saw the back of a woman kneeling. From the slight movement of her head and shoulders, I could see she was the source of the words and music. She never looked up, but her voice filled the room with a sound of music that brought joy back to my own spirit. She sang with a soft passion that made me believe she was living the words she was singing:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fear relieved.

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come,

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far

And grace will lead me home.

Somehow the words of the song, the singer herself and the simplicity of the chapel combined to create a moment of genuine grace. The small chapel was filled with the fragrance of beauty, goodness and truth and the Hill of Joy became for me what it has been for thousands upon thousands of Christian pilgrims who now at last could feel that the purpose of their journey had finally come into full view:

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,

And mortal life shall cease,

I shall possess within the veil,

A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we’ve first begun.

Thirst

Thirst

Let’s talk about two kinds of thirst.

The first is physical. If we are deprived of liquid for a period of time, our body will send out faint signals that it needs replenishment. If nothing happens, the signals will become more urgent until our entire being becomes frantic for something to sustain it. And it will not let up until the thirst is satisfied.

About twenty years ago, while hiking with a group of teenagers in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana and Idaho, we turned off the main path onto a trail that seemed to provide a shortcut to our destination for that night.

The new trail was easy at first, nothing special. We began to climb and as we moved higher the land grew dryer. Trees and vegetation gave way to dust and unrelenting heat; even the trail seemed to merge into the surrounding land before vanishing altogether into the shimmering furnace-like air.

What had seemed like a plentiful supply of water at the trail intersection now became inadequate. We tried to preserve what we had left, but the climbing in the heat and dust demanded we drink, causing our water supply to deplete rapidly.

Finally we gained a wide ridge and proceeded to follow its contour toward what looked like a body of water on our map. But the ridge kept unfolding and obtaining water remained only a hope that began taking on the characteristics of urgent need and finally near panic. At one point, it felt like we were crawling. We looked out over the unrelenting landscape of forests and mountains but saw nothing resembling bodies of water or even life except for the hawks and buzzards floating patiently above.

Since I am telling this story, it is clear that we survived. We found a small pond of still water and drank. We recovered quickly and then descended a rockslide to find a place to tent for the night. We had experienced physical deprivation; we thirsted and we yearned to quench that thirst obsessively until water was found and consumed.

The second thirst can be found in our need for something that transcends the appetites of this life to a higher need that may counterfeit earthly desires, but can only be truly satisfied through inviting the Holy Spirit of God into our hearts. Here are a few confirming biblical verses:

“O God, you are my God. Urgently I seek you. My soul thirsts for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”(Matthew 5:6)

After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus with sustenance to feed his physical hunger and thirst. But listen to what Jesus says to the Tempter: “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”(Deuteronomy 8:3)

The Devil wanted to reveal that man is no more than a bundle of physical appetites. Jesus shows that men and women have the potential to become so much more than just creatures of the earth. We are made in the image of God, which means that while we may often live in an alienated state from God, Jesus promises, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

 

Who is Steve Cohen?

Who is Steve Cohen?

A while back I did a preparation walk in the Stanwich neighborhood of Greenwich for a spring trip to Spain. We were to walk a hundred-mile section of the Camino de Santiago, which required a certain amount of training before we departed. It was on that five-mile preparation walk that Steve Cohen’s name came up.

Our group of eight wandered up and down backcountry roads. At one high point, we could see Long Island Sound off in the distance, a surprise to me, as I did not fully realize the elevation of the countryside surrounding Stanwich Church.

On we walked, passing new mansions built near old farms. The land had responded speedily to unusually warm weather over a two-week stretch. On this day, winter winds had returned to remind us that spring had merely made a beachhead with much of the battle for milder days still ahead.

As our group began to double back toward Stanwich Church, we ended up walking down one road that had several exceedingly large mansions on both sides of the street. My friend Stephen pointed to one large house and said, “I think that is where Steve Cohen lives.” I knew the name: Cohen is a self-made Hedge Fund billionaire, perhaps the wealthiest citizen of Greenwich Connecticut.

Stephen was wrong about the house, the mansion he pointed to had no wall. It was vulnerable to potential trouble. But next-door things were different: a high stone wall shielded much of the very large mansion that lay behind it. As we came to the driveway, we saw a guardhouse and gate; no one was going to gain access unless Steve Cohen invited them to visit. I am sure Steve Cohen would not trade his life for anything. He has money and power; he has everything that has been promised to a striving generation of Americans. I couldn’t help but wonder if he yearned for a different kind of freedom.

As I reflected on the house that Mr. Cohen built, I was struck by the juxtaposition between money and freedom. Money is advertised as the great liberator. Once you have enough money, you are freed of the normal constraints that bind many of us. And yet, here was a walled fortress that resembled a beautifully appointed prison. It seemed so incongruous, and yet, so necessary. Steve Cohen’s billions bought him all kinds of benefits that have come to be emblems of the American Dream. But with unimaginable wealth comes unimaginable constraints that require walls of obligations, fears and worries.

Just an Average

Just An Average Photographer

People have praised my photography. I love taking pictures while hiking, but I am pretty sure I deserve very little credit. Almost fifteen years ago, world famous landscape photographer Ken Duncan told me, without any sense of false humility, that he was a very average photographer with a very great God. Let me tell you a brief story of my own experience that confirmed for me the truth of what Ken was saying.

In the late 1990s, I had set my sights on some of the high peaks in the west. In June 1998, I spent five days on Mt Rainer summiting the mountain on an early overcast morning. After that, I turned south to the High Sierras and Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower forty-eight.

IMG_2096In the summer months, Whitney is a two-day walkup, but in April, the mountain has accumulated an entire winter of snow pack, causing the summer trail to be much more difficult and time consuming. The route we chose was a more direct assault on the summit cone from a plateau called Boy Scout Lake. It took two days of climbing with heavy winter gear to reach our “base camp” beneath the one-thousand-foot head wall of the summit. Here we were surrounded on three sides by sharp, jutting peaks, but out toward the east, we had unobstructed views of the town of Lone Pine and the desert region that leads toward Death Valley.

On day three, we ascended Whitney by heading up a long, steep, snow-filled shoot to the right of the headwall. About five hundred feet below the summit, we clamped onto fixed ropes for the final push. It was a beautifully clear day, and so, before descending, we enjoyed the views of the surrounding world from the highest point in America south of Alaska.

IMG_2094I awoke the next morning just before sunrise to begin the job of packing for the descent. At this elevation the world before sunrise can be a cold, grey, and forbidding place. But when the emerging light of the rising sun hit the dormant rocks of the surrounding peaks, the rocks seemed to jump to life, catching fire in something like a joyful dance.

Just south of our tent site stood the Needles, four sculptured spires that rise up as if they had been built as part of a partially completed cathedral standing guard against the brutal natural forces attacking it.

At first, I was preoccupied with packing up, but then, I noticed how the rock walls of the spires were being transformed into luminous, serrated bulwarks set against the deep blow of the morning sky.

I immediately dropped everything, realizing that this vision would last only a fleeting moment. I found my point-and-shoot camera and took five or six frames before the light was lost forever. Ironically, the only film I had was black & white.

Untitled design (10)

After returning home, I had the film developed and was astonished to find that the pictures of the golden rock towers had captured the living quality of the rocks in just the right way at just the right moment. If I had hesitated, the light would have changed, and instead of an exceptional picture of rare mountain beauty, my camera would have rendered images of mere rock formations, impressive, but without the light and life that had caught my eye by chance. And so, to paraphrase Ken Duncan once again: I had the good fortune to be a very average photographer who recorded the work of a very great God.