A Walk to Remember
On March 18th, 2008, Daren Wendell took the first step of the 8 million he would take over the next 364 days. He owned nothing except what was on his back and a plastic Christmas tree he hadn’t managed to sell. His feet would take him up mountains, down valleys, across deserts, through streams, and past bears. They would carry him through places not on any map: loneliness, mental breakdowns, and love won and lost.
It would destroy him physically. His 30 pound backpack nearly fused with him--when he took breaks from walking he had terrible back pain because his muscles had reformed to treat him and the pack as one. He lost all of his toenails multiple times. Weight melted off of him until he was almost skeletal. Still, one foot in front of the other, ever onward he trekked until he crossed the mainland of the United States. Ever onward he walked toward something. Ever onward.
What was he so determined to get to? That’s the funny thing. Even he didn’t know why he was walking, not until the end.
In 2007, Daren was exactly where many Americans only dream of being. He was in a purposeful job with a great wage in a beautiful town, surrounded by friends. He was excelling. As a youth pastor in a large church in Wisconsin, Daren’s professional future looked bright. He wanted for little. In fact, he would sometimes forget to cash his paychecks and find them stuffed in some niche a month or so after they had been issued.
Yet, something gnawed at him. Throughout the days Daren would stand at the bully pulpit and tell people how they should live, but he wondered, “Am I living? I mean, really living?” Something felt false. He then took a plunge. He rode in a cross country bike race. During that month of time it confirmed his inward doubts about whether he was living life to the fullest or not. His life had never felt as full as when he was on the road.
That’s when he made the decision to do what all of us secretly think of doing. He burned his old life to the ground. He sold everything he owned, gave up his job, and came out of the ashes of his former life with nothing but a quest: to walk the world.
Why? He wasn’t sure. He thought he might do it for charity. He would walk so that others might live, though at the time he wasn’t sure which charity. All he knew was that he must walk. The rest would take care of itself.
The first leg of his journey took Daren onto the Appalachian Trail, a Mecca of wandering souls searching for purpose.
There is something special about the Appalachian Trail. It calls to a certain type of hiker. It draws people from the in-between places in their life that are trying to transition into something they don’t quite understand. It has a history of drawing people with desperation to be awakened to a reality that isn’t in their “9 to 5” lives.
This has been true from the genesis of the Trail. Even its beginnings came from wandering, hurt souls. The idea of the Trail first came from Benton MacKaye in 1921 shortly after the death of his first wife. He planned to connect small towns and farms with trails that ran through the heart of Civil War battlefields. His love for lesser tamed, rough paths was a hallmark. However, he did not set its course.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile trail snaking northeast through 14 states from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Thousands of people attempt to hike the entire distance each year.The Trail was shaped by another person, Ned Anderson, a man who suffered devastating tragedies during the Great Depression-- a fire that destroyed his livelihood. His child died young. Ned was well known for driving a church bus with which he often took detours into nature to share the natural classroom with children. He blazed much of the Connecticut Trail.
The Trail’s first official thru-hiker was Earl Shaffer who walked the Trail from south to north after serving in the dangerous role of a forward radio man in the Pacific during World War II. He decided to walk the Trail to recover from the stress of combat and losing close friends during the war. With very little equipment, he finished the path from Mt. Oglethorpe to Mt. Katahdin in 124 days while writing a famous Trail book, “Walking With Spring”. The legend of the Appalachian Trail is nearly synonymous with his name. He thru-hiked many more times, his last at the age of 79. He died with a hiking companion book on his bed stand. People call him “The Original Crazy One”, which is possibly the first Trail Name ever given on the A.T.
Those roots have inspired other crazy ones. A year before Daren, two girls thru-hiked the entire Trail with bare feet. One guy carried a disassembled bike from one terminus to the other, assembled it, and rode back. Others, Daren found, came out after a divorce or a death. Something inside urged them to come, just like Daren. Daren found these stories, their pain, contributed to everyone else’s stories as they walked. And those stories all contributed to the communal story of the Appalachian Trail: a story of the need to surround oneself with beauty and sacrifice to remember who we are and what we are supposed to be deep down.
Daren found he was not the only one searching. He found that he was not the only one who couldn’t define himself by being the master of a life he created, but instead was defined best in light of the creation by a master.
As he walked on, the spell of the Appalachian Trail soaked into him. A message presented itself over and over again that is embedded in the bones of the Appalachian Trail: sacrifice inspires. Sacrifice inspires others, yes, but also, he remembered some words of wisdom spoke long ago. “You must lose your life to find it.” Losing his life brought inspiration to each moment. Daren developed a mantra during that time that he repeats to this day. “The best life is one lived to help others.”
High up in the Appalachians, a cause found Daren in heart of the wilderness. Having nothing, Daren’s eyes became open to those who were like him. As he said later, “If you walk like I did you will never be able to pass a homeless man again without doing something.”
Daren found out about a world water crisis and in particular how it affected the people of Zambia. Having had to regularly find and then clean his water on the Trail, Daren knew had experience in a small way what millions of people must do every day, except they had no way to clean the water. Giardia, a water-borne illness, was a common affliction on the Trail and several hikers Daren had walked with had already been forced to leave because of it. With the noise of his previous life gone, this cause’s voice affected Daren.
In a short time Daren was pared with a woman in Michigan, Amie Hadaway, who had been wrecked by the voice of this cause herself. Before long they were working together. Daren had found part of why he was walking. This made sense. But, as he soon painfully learned, there was another element to the why that he would only discover through brokenness.