Friends: The following is Part 2 of my account of the hike Frances and I enjoyed back in October. I meant to write and send this several weeks ago, but am just getting around to it. This part concerns the people we stayed with and encountered along the way, that is, the best part of our journey.
"Glen and Frances's Excellent Adventure"
(also known as)
The Mountains and The People
Part 2 - The People
Unlike the mountains, which started and ended wonderfully, but bore a tough middle part, the people who graced us during our journey to the Smokies and North Georgia blessed us from beginning to finish.
We set out from Mobile on Sunday morning, October 19th, driving to the home of our friends Tom, JJ, William, and Erin Webb, in Maryville, Tennessee. We spent the night with the Webbs, arriving much later than anticipated due to our GPS losing signal on the way to their home (they live in the most beautiful region of Nowhere one can begin to imagine, a place where satellite signals have yet to reach because their programmers do not know it exists :) ). At the time, we thought that our Sunday evening hours with these loved ones would be our only real time together. So we enjoyed each other as much as possible before heading for bed and the rest that would prepare us for the beginning of our hike the next morning. We dreamt of trails, trees, mountain vistas, and friendly bears who would surely help direct us along our way. "Yogi, how are you, and how nice of you to greet us!"
The next morning, we skipped breakfast due to nervous anticipation regarding our adventure, our excellent adventure (this was our first hike, after all). Tom, JJ and the kids shared our excitement, and we made the 2 hour drive to Alum Cave Trailhead in the fog for which the Smokies are named. When we arrived, a number of people were already there, preparing to start on the trail to Mt. Leconte. This was good, because it seemed unclear where the trail actually started, and the last thing we wanted was to begin our journey heading in the wrong direction! We put on our packs, for the first time adorning ourselves for the real thing, gave JJ, William, and Erin hugs, and left for our journey with William's final words ringing in our ears: "I'm glad it's y'all going and not me!" Later in the day, we would find ourselves convinced of young William's keen intelligence and wisdom beyond his years.
We took the perfunctory pictures at the beginning of the trail (having made sure we embarked from the right place). Then we began on what seemed to be a smooth and effortless path, with little incline or challenge. Five minutes into the journey, I commented, "I like hiking so far!" Frances agreed. "I like it too!" Little did we realize that the hiking wouldn't begin until later, when Mt. Leconte and Dante's Boulevard Trail wiped the smile off our faces, and sucked the air out of our lungs. But enough about the mountain, and the mountains. This is about the people, the blessed people.
Not long into our ascent, we met the first of a number of nice folks we would encounter on the trail. Robert and his niece Heather slowed down for a moment, and allowed us to pass. We exchanged pleasantries, commented on the beautiful day and trail, then bid each other Godspeed. Later, Frances and I stopped for a break, took off our packs, and sat on some rocks to have a snack and catch our breath. Our new friends caught up with us, and were nice enough to pause for a more lengthy chat. We learned that Robert had recently undergone heart surgery because he wanted to hike the Alum Cave Trail. His cardiologist recommended that he have his fuel injectors (a.k.a. - arteries) cleaned out before making the journey. What a guy! Heather told us she is an exercise physiologist, giving her what surely seems like a completely unfair advantage in hiking mountains! Frances mentioned that we perform some of our ministry in retirement communities and nursing homes. It turns out that Robert has also performed such ministry, and Heather does some work with senior adults, developing exercise regimens. This led to much back and forth, including Robert informing us that he had once helped to care for the son of one E.M. Bounds, a noted 19th century author on prayer whose books I, along with many others, have read. We had a great time of fellowship with Robert and Heather, and then again set forth on our respective journeys. Finally, we encountered our new friends again at Alum Caves, the end of the ascent for them, and another rest stop for us. We enjoyed a final chat for a few moments, Heather took a picture of Frances and me that is Frances's favorite photograph of our trip, and I asked Robert for his email address so we could stay in touch. I'm happy to say that we made contact a week or so later after the hike, and even happier that Robert is now on our mailing list for the Orange Moon devotionals. We are honored, and when we think of our first hike, we will also think of these first friends we made along the way.
One of the interesting relational aspects of our hike involves the several tandems of brothers we met. This happened at least three times, with different families of male siblings. The first brothers - I'll presently call them Peter and Paul due to faulty memory - provided a wealth of good information about the trail on which we hiked. These young men said their father enjoyed the outdoors, and had long ago instilled a passion in them for the trails. He no longer hiked, but Peter and Paul continue to journey together whenever possible. Frances and I found this very interesting and very special. We met other brotherly trail teams, including three siblings our age who also told us their dad's inspiration for hiking that translated into a lifelong pastime for his trio of sons. I can only imagine the memories shared by all the brothers, whose hikes today descend from days and nights with dads that doubtless helped bond the sons not only to their fathers, but to each other. The spiritual principle in such truth seems obvious to the point of almost not requiring mention. Almost. Allow me to simply say that the nearer believers draw to our Father, the nearer we inevitably draw to each other. The two bondings go hand in hand, heart in heart. "This commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also" (I John 4:21).
Because we shortened our hike (for reasons referenced in Part 1), we lengthened our time with Tom, JJ, William and Erin. JJ and William picked us up at Newfound Gap on Tuesday afternoon, allowing us to spend the evening and the next full day with the Webbs. This proved to be so wonderful that we remain thrilled to have changed our original plans from a 3 day hike to a day and a half. "A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). We have much history with this family. Tom and I met more than two decades ago when he lived in Mobile. He owned an ice cream shop at a local mall, and the instant we shook hands, it seemed as if we'd known each other for a lifetime (to this day, we wonder if we knew each other at some point in our youth, but can't come up with a specific memory to confirm). He met and married JJ over a decade ago, and moved to Maryville within a few years of their marriage (oh yes, before their departure, Tom found our youngest daughter Emmie, age 8 at the time, when she ventured away from the house to find our beagle who had strayed. I'll leave it at that for now, but I suspect you'll see the story in an Orange Moon devotional not too many days from now). Tom performs Biblical counseling for a group of Christian doctors, JJ is a full time homemaker, and home schools William, 11, and Erin, 8. We love visiting the Webbs, and had a great time on Tuesday night after our hike regaling (hopefully) the family with tales of our times on the trail. We then spent most of Wednesday in Knoxville with JJ and the children. We toured the town square and market, visited the Knoxville Museum, and shopped. A street vendor sold us the best tamales we've ever eaten, I did my best to spoil William and Erin, and Frances and JJ enjoyed being together because they are good friends and rarely have the opportunity. It was a beautiful day weather-wise, and even more, fellowship-wise. We then went out to dinner with Tom and JJ, caught up on the things of the Lord and life, and completely enjoyed every minute of our time with these dear friends. Indeed, at one point during our visit, Erin looked across the table at Frances and myself. "I'm so glad you came to visit us!" she said with her beautiful heart and smile. So are we, Erin. So are we.
We left early on Thursday morning, regretfully, but also gratefully that we had more time with the cherished Webb family than we originally expected. Our route would take us through North Georgia and its mountains, autumn-hued trees, and on this day, brilliant blue skies and sunshine. We won't forget the drive, and the mutual joy shared in beholding so much beauty and grace. We ventured to Suwanee, Georgia, and the home of Bryan and Peggy Wheeler, dear friends we had never before met face to face, but whom we knew through the Orange Moon devotionals. Peggy signed up to receive them in the early days of our writing and distributing them, leading to countless back and forths by email through the years. We knew that we'd have a great time in Bryan and Peggy's actual presence, but we didn't know how great. Arriving in Suwanee at lunchtime, Peggy served us a superb meal (the first of many) as we began to get to know each other face to face. We had a wonderful time of fellowship, went for a walk on a nature trail near Bryan and Peggy's house, and rejoiced as our email bond of the years progressed into the joy of each other's company. When Bryan came home from work later in the afternoon, the blessing multiplied. He is a gracious Christian gentleman, a joy to talk to, and as with Peggy, made us feel completely welcome in their beautiful home.
We were blessed also to meet other friends, including Ruth Bursi, who joined our mailing list last year, and Cheri, a dear friend of Peggy's who attends the Bible study for women Peggy teaches in her home. During our walks, we also had the pleasure of meeting other friends of Peggy (Diane and Barb) who blessed us greatly. Barb has a daughter, Emily, challenged with great physical difficulties, but who honors the Lord nevertheless by a heart of faith and life of subsequent labor on His behalf. Suffice it to say that our time in Suwanee served as one of those "exceeding, abundantly above" blessings of God far greater than we could have anticipated. Bryan and Peggy, already dear friends, became far more in our time with them, culminating in a visit to Mercier Apple Orchard in Blue Ridge, Georgia on the last day of our trip. I think I've already written about that in an Orange Moon devotional, but I'll reiterate that the joy of fulfilling a lifelong dream of picking apples was tempered by the realization that when we finished, we'd part ways with Bryan and Peggy. Not an easy thing to do after so wonderful a time together.
We returned to Mobile, driving through the aforementioned Georgia mountains that served to remind us of the Artist who painted them. During the drive, I thought often of how blessed I had been to meet and rejoice together with people so dear that I have no words to describe their blessedness to my heart. Of course, this goes especially for the one dearest to my heart. Frances and I shared both great joy and great agony in our trip to Tennessee and Georgia. As referenced in a previous message, Monday afternoon on Boulevard Trail challenged us in ways we'd never before experienced. Having bit off more miles than we could chew in one day, we both felt pretty close to choking on it as we exhaustedly staggered up one ascending trail after another. The Lord led us through, however, and we now have yet another memory of His shared grace, provision, and protection. Pantings, pangs, and even tears have now been redeemed into smiles and laughter as we remember our journey into Dante's Circle (a.k.a. Boulevard Trail), and then our ascent the next morning into the glories that cause us to look forward to our next hike. Frances and I did it all together, as we have done all during the last 38 years of our lives. Again, I have no words to describe such unspeakably monumental grace, other than to echo Solomon, "Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the Lord" (Proverbs 18:22). It was an excellent adventure, as given by our Father, the goodness of whom I echo another who long ago expressed the glory far better than I can…
"Now unto Him who is able to do exceeding, abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, to Him be glory in the church forever and ever, world without end. Amen."