By Kristina Hansen ’83
Since the days when my dad and I would pack two PB&J sandwiches in a paper sack and head off into the woods for an adventure, I’ve been walking and wandering, leaving behind the constructs of daily life to abandon myself to the delights of my five senses and an insatiable sense of wonder.
It was only natural that, when I entered Houghton as a freshman in 1979, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the first-ever Highlander Adventure, an experience that captured the imaginations of 10 other incoming students as well. Those 12 days of ropes course, cliff climbs, and hiking left us all smelling of campfires and peppermint soap. They would also establish my group of support that endured throughout my years at Houghton. Most importantly, Highlander gave me the courage to venture into uncharted territory in spite of my fear, rather than letting my fear stop me, and the confidence that I was capable of more than I might be able to grasp.
That lesson at age 17 has been with me all these years—so much so that, when it came time to take a six-month renewal leave from my pastorate two years ago, I decided to take a long walk. A six-month walk. A 2,184 mile walk on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
Maybe that sounds crazy, but after 13 years working in corporate America followed by another 13 in ministry, I needed a break. These 26 years account for half of my life lived at a kinetic pace. My life has been packed with an abundance of joyful experiences for sure, but it has also been marked by a rash of sorrowful ones, among them the death of my brother and my father and the failure of my marriage.
Additionally, being a pastor is one of those roles, like many helping professions, in which you pick up “stuff” along the way that you have to intentionally take time to shed. The things that happen to our congregations and to our congregants happen to us, too, and we carry them in our hearts, our minds and our souls.
I felt the need to step out of ordinary time to reflect, decompress, heal, and recharge. An island beach under an umbrella would not do. Nor would a nice Methodist trip to England to study John Wesley. For me, this meant going on a walkabout. I didn’t want a ticket for an airplane. I didn’t want to ferry across the Mersey. I wanted to walk.
Like a good pastor, I celebrated Easter with my congregation. Just two days later, on April 3, 2013, I was standing with my hiking partner, Leslie (a former Bartlesville Wesleyan College student, interestingly enough), on the top of Georgia’s Springer Mountain, taking pictures at the terminus point that would start our journey of 5,422,210 steps (so says my pedometer).
At the top of the mountain, I left behind two things that I would not take on my journey: my pastoral identity and the name given to me by my parents. Like most thru-hikers, I took on a new name that expressed something about me. Some picked their own names, and so I met Midway, Tune, Sunshine, and Peachtree. Some allowed other hikers to choose their names, and so I met Belch, Trailwreck, Roadkill, and Tinkerbell. Needless to say, I chose to come with my own name: Dragonfly, an Asian symbol of spiritual change. Leslie, who is from South Dakota and a true homebody, chose the name Prairie Dog. Thus, the adventures of Dragonfly and Prairie Dog began.
One day into our trek, we were in an ice storm. We called it our trail hazing. It was as if our odyssey were asking us, “Are you sure you want to do this?” We said, “YES!” and carried on.
Initially, we fought against the impediment of being out of shape and climbing mountains with 35-pound packs on our backs. Within a few weeks, the trail made athletes of us, and the challenge would eventually become to keep weight on rather than lose any more.
There are things you only experience at the speed of walk:
- the sight of the snake, the bear, the newt
- the sound of the veery, the whippoorwill, the indigo bunting
- the smell of pine, the campfire, the warming earth
- the feeling of each footstep on rock, root, and trail
- the delicious company of one’s own breath and unencumbered thought
- the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit.
My mind is filled with memories of great beauty and great peril, both of which honed my spirit and served to clear out the dross that had come to weigh me down.
My Appalachian Trail adventure turned out to be a process of deep healing. It was as if I had started out on my journey with two backpacks: one filled with all my gear and the other filled with all my “stuff.” By the time I summited Katahdin in Maine, the one pack was smelly and threadbare, and the other was gone, given back into God’s good hands and, thus, providing me with so much more wide-open space inside from which to give, to love, to serve. And now, on to the next journey…of everyday life!
Blessings on the journey,
Dragonfly, a.k.a. Tina, a.k.a. Rev. Kristina Hansen ’83
Rev. Kristina Hansen serves as a pastor for St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Northport, NY.