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  • Jen Bloss

Hiking by faith on the John Muir Trail

Because I learned that I'm not strong enough on my own.

backpacker walking down snow slope in the mountains
Descending Muir Pass in August 2023- so much snow!

The mountains are calling and they're going to be wild

This past summer I spent 10 days backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California on the John Muir Trail. It was a wild adventure! And that is no understatement- when we were picking up our permits at the wilderness office in Yosemite, a ranger told my friend that it was “wild” out there. See, this past winter brought record snowfall to the Sierra. And despite the fact that we were starting to hike at the end of July, there was still enough snow on some of the passes to require specialized gear, the high alpine lakes were still frozen, a significant amount of snowmelt had caused the water levels in the creeks to rise, and parts of the trails were covered in avalanche debris. Sounds like the perfect trail for my first big backpacking trip, right?

Preparations= reality check

I spent months learning (okay, agonizing) about all things backpacking. I discovered that backpacking was very much its own sport, and with that it requires different gear and skill sets from that I already possessed. My quest to prepare was relentless, and to be honest, anxiety provoking. Am I making the right choice for this piece of gear? What is the best choice for food? How do I make it all fit in the bear can? A whole bunch of “what ifs” peppered my thoughts for months on end. Part of the preparation involved a couple of local overnight backpacking trips to test out gear, and to actually try the sport itself. While I enjoyed those trips, I was also smacked with the reality of how hard backpacking was. As a runner, I greatly underestimated the challenge involved in this slower (and what I thought would be easier) sport.

a campsite with trees and rocks overlooking mountains near Shadow Creek
Mountain views from camp near Shadow Creek

Trials on the trail lead to a revelation of faith

After one trip, I came home defeated. How in the world would I do the John Muir Trail? Hiking for just 3 hours to camp was brutal- how will I do this for 8 hours a day for over 2 weeks? And then I sat down to do my Bible devotions for the day. The verse of the day was a line from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” I recite this line almost every night, and have read it a hundred times over in print. But that day, it jumped out at me with new meaning. To me, this is a request for God to give us what we need each day. Daily dependence on God to get us through. It isn’t a “bless me with all the things up front and I’m good to go”, but rather “each day I seek and trust in you Lord to give me what I need for this day. I will seek you tomorrow for what I need tomorrow.” It is a request that recognizes our reverence for who God is, and our trust in His power and His provision, and our helplessness as mere humans.

I cannot do this. I give up.

I realized that my own abilities were insufficient to get me through the JMT.

I no longer wanted to rely on my own strength.

I no longer wanted to be the one who figured everything out and tried to control everything.

It was time to give up and stop trying to perfect every part of this process.

And so I surrendered it all to the Lord.

Not my will, but Thy be done. I invited God into every bit of this adventure, and gave it to Him to do as He wished. And to be honest, this act changed everything. I was able to adopt a mindset of “it is what it is” and “it’s time to stop stressing and roll with things.” It really is better to put God in charge of things than to try and play God ourselves. It is impossible to control for every contingency or get everything right. As I removed myself from the role and mentality of “it’s all up to me and I must get it all right or else disaster will come” I was able to gain an important perspective:

This is my first big backpacking trip- I won’t get it all right. I probably won’t have the best gear. Not everything will be totally dialed in. And that’s okay, because I have put the one in charge who needs to be in charge, is much better than I am in that role, and actually has a say in how this trip goes. It was a great relief!

girl backpacking on trail in the high Sierra mountains
Views for days on the John Muir Trail

Finally out there: faith and frustration on the John Muir Trail

And so on trail, I did my best to remember God’s place in the experience. I was awed by the incredible creation I saw. Praised the Lord for the incredible places He made, and for allowing me to be there. I mean, seriously! There is nothing quite like nature to remind you of God’s power and glory. But… I also struggled. It was a very challenging hike. Sometimes, it was a collection of “WOWs”, but sometimes it was “how many hours have we been hiking uphill? Where is the top of this mountain?” or “My pack is sooo heavy and my shoulders are killing me.” or “It’s still 2 more miles to camp?” “Do other people call this fun?”

Each day was a collection of emotional highs and lows. I told myself “this is normal, and emotional rollercoasters happen in every long distance race you run.” Eventually, I remembered the verse “Give us this day our daily bread.” I feel like God gave me that verse for the hike. Each day, I needed God to give me what I needed for that day. Strength, safety, perseverance, the ability to find beauty and to appreciate where I was. Just enough for that day. A reminder that I was dependent on God, that I could not get through the challenges apart from Him.

Each day’s challenges came, and I was often surprised that we got through them. Maybe it was five straight miles uphill. Numerous sketchy snow and water crossings, many of which I’d look back and realize how bad it could have been if something had gone wrong. Often it was just the long days of strenuous physical activity with a heavy pack that drained me; but each day at dinner felt like a victory for overcoming the day’s challenges. God gave me the sustenance I needed each day.

female backpacker standing on trail with mountains and pine trees in the distance
All smiles heading up Bishop Pass (happy because we took a break for photos!)

Choosing to trust

Each night, I would journal and do my devotionals. I began to write out my prayers for the night and following day in my journal. One of my biggest fears for this trip was having a bear encounter, particularly at night. I was often quite afraid in my tent at night. Did I do everything right to prevent a bear from getting near us? Were the bear cans far enough away? How about the clothes we washed in soap and were now hanging on up a line? Will a bear come to my tent because I have a speck of food on my clothes? Some nights, I had a hard time falling asleep because of these worries. But then I came to remember: I gave this all over to God. I have prayed and He knows my fears. I know He hears my prayers, even the small ones. Do I trust Him? And I realized that I had to make the choice to trust God.

The problem wasn’t God’s ability to keep the bears away or keep me safe, the problem was that I still wanted to try and be in control and do what I could to get assurance that everything would be okay. I needed to have faith. The Bible tells us:

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” ( Matthew 21:22)

“Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

girl journaling on a rock with snow covered mountains behind her
Nightly journaling by Helen Lake

A deliberate act of choice

I made the intentional decision to believe that God heard my prayers and worries, and to remember that God is in control and not me. I had to consciously make this choice every day, it was not automatic in my soul. And you know what? No bears ever came to our campsite. In fact, I had zero bear encounters of any kind on the entire hike. I also prayed about snakes, and we had no snake encounters. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of when it comes to my prayers during the hike. Perhaps it was all coincidence, but again, I am choosing to believe that God heard my prayers and answered them.

Life can be really hard and scary when we cling so tightly to maintain control of it all. When we put the Lord of the universe in charge, the burden to be in control is no longer ours.

Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

And so each day God provided. Not only strength, safety, and the ability to go on, but also awe and gratitude and splendor. He did not take away the challenge or the moments of suffering, but instead walked alongside me and gave me what I needed to persevere, even when I couldn’t see it in the moment. This hike along the John Muir Trail was a journey of faith and release and trust, and full of lessons to remember even in my non-hiking life from here on out.

Backpacker walking across bridge and looking at mountains
Crossing a big bridge near Fish Creek

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