[Editor’s note: What follows is a transcription of John Cal’s delightful introduction to Friday night’s dinner from Hutchmoot 2019, originally given eight weeks ago today.]
Please sing with me.
Come thou fount of every blessing Tune my heart to sing thy grace Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise Teach me some melodious sonnet Sung by flaming tongues above Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, Mount of thy redeeming love
Here I raise mine Ebenezer Hither by thy help, I’m come And I hope, by thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home Jesus sought me when a stranger Wandering from the fold of God He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed his precious blood
O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be Let thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to thee Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love Here’s my heart, O take and seal it Seal it for thy courts above
“Rocks,” I said, “too many rocks.” The fields and hills ahead were covered in scree. We were walking above the tree line, where instead of forest, the slopes were mantled in rocks. They dug into my feet, through my shoes, laboring each step, reminding me of what an idiot I was for thinking I could do this, what a fool for believing I could walk these miles.
I did not grow up in a family that camps. It’s perhaps different now, thirty years later, but in the 1980s when I was a kid it wasn’t common for a typical Asian American family to go camping. I have seen the house my mother was born in, the shack really—tin siding patched with plywood and cardboard—so I hope you can understand that people who have not been upwardly mobile for at least a few generations and have only recently (either by design or providence) been allowed into the American middle class are not wholly excited to give up the comforts of a bed and roof. I am part of a people for whom comfort is a recent luxury, not the norm, and so camping is not in my blood.
So it was odd to my family when I chose to work at summer camp when I was seventeen. It was odder still that I had voluntarily come to the wilderness, that I had asked if I could hike for a few days with my friend Sarah, who was spending six months walking the PCT.
The PCT or Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,653 mile-long hiking and equestrian trail that winds along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains between the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. It was conceived by Clinton Churchill Clarke in 1932 and designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968. It was the backdrop for the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which was adapted into a movie of the same name by Reese Witherspoon. It also winds by Big Lake Youth Camp, where I first learned about its existence.
I was the baker my first year at camp and worked odd hours—I was up early so biscuits could be done by breakfast and stayed in the kitchen through the afternoon at the mercy of dough rising. Thus it was often my providence to encounter PCT hikers wandering into camp in search of some respite: a shower, a meal.
A $4.25 meal ticket allowed visitors to access the staff meal line and salad bar which was self-serve and all you could eat. Thru hikers can burn anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 calories a day, so the same mechanized determination that goes into wanting to hike the 2,000+ miles up North America’s west coast can also be channeled into eating.
I have plied many a story from the lips of weary PCT hikers with just a bowl of ice cream—a favorite indulgence when coming into town for supplies—the frozen sweet treat nearly impossible to keep while hiking.
It's hard to let hope do its wily work of whittling down your defenses, creeping into your despair, promising you can go a little further. John Cal
But now I was a hiker, and it all just seemed foolishly impossible to keep going. These far reaches of the trail can feel so desolate, like a landscape covered in rubble from long forgotten cities—lonely, deserted, and broken.
On the first day of my hundred-or-so mile stint on the trail I gained vertical feet, hiking up the side of Mount Hood past Government Camp. At that time on that day, it was the longest hike I’d ever been on. Then, nine days later, all those personal records had been rewritten several times over. Before this walk through the wilderness, I had hiked maybe five miles at most, five miles being the brutally extreme abnormality done with loathing and disdain, and had slept outside perhaps three or four times in my life.
The excitement of accomplishment was intoxicating, and now in the middle of my journey, as the adrenaline and newness was wearing off, the hardship and reality of another hill to climb—another crevasse to cross, another mountain covered in scree—began to set in.
But then you turn a corner and you see them, cairns rising from the ground below, towers in an otherwise barren terrain—landmarks, mile markers, altars—piles of stones that people have built along the way to mark how far they’ve come.
Everyday on the trail was like was this: a jolt of sunrise or nip of cold to begin and a weary finish, glad for sleep and rest. And still so much of the trail is not the beginning or the end. There’s so much middle, so much in between.
It’s hard to let hope do its wily work of whittling down your defenses, creeping into your despair, promising you can go a little further. Somehow along the way, we forget to be thankful that we’ve made it this far, that despair has always been overcome, that light always manages to sneak into the cracks. Then just about before we forget altogether, we see a cairn, an ebenezer, that reminds us there are so many reasons to be grateful to be alive.
My second to last day on the PCT was one of sheer celebration. It had been over a week since I had showered, and oh how I love a shower. I had ice cream in town for lunch and a glass of wine with dinner. I didn’t know then that the next day, my last day, would be the hardest. Over 3,000 vertical feet would wind up from the Columbia River Basin, further up and further into the Cascade Mountains. I didn’t know that I would spend two hours of the day’s hike weeping in the realization that I couldn’t give up, because the nearest roads were ten miles ahead of me and ten miles behind, or that in my physical pain and mental hysteria it would take a NyQuil and a handful of aspirin to get me to fall asleep.
I also didn’t know that in the loneliness and desolation, it would be cathartic to sing old country songs alone in the forest—”Wichita Line Man,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I didn’t know that in my despair, my friend Sarah would help me take off my shoes and place a bowl of mac and cheese in my hands.
Such a humble thing, filled with so much joy: a box of the blue stuff, made with care and love. I guess it would be easy to overlook the middle parts, the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments between the beginning and the end.
But if I allow the ever indiscriminating presence of joy to wash over me, then I begin to see more and more ebenezers, signs of triumph and hope. And isn’t every song we sing, every story we tell, every canvas, every moment, every meal we bathe in beauty, an altar? A cairn we’ve raised in gratitude of how far we’ve come and in hope and courage to tread the miles ahead—further up and further in?
It’s not over yet, and I fear—or rather, I feel—there’s a long way to go, and so in the meantime, here we raise our ebenezers. Here by thy great help we’ve come, and we hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.