It was the 1980s. The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, wasn’t yet completely developed. Benedictine Father Andrew Baumgartner, who was 51 at the time, invited his friend Deacon Chuck Amsberry to spend five months hiking the trail with him.

“I didn’t really want to, but I also didn’t want him to die alone,” the deacon joked.

So in May 1985, Father Baumgartner and Deacon Amsberry got to the Mexico-California border and began their 2,650-mile journey along the PCT to the Canadian border.

They waded across dangerous rivers and crept along the tops of glaciers with nothing but their boots for traction. There were black bears, mosquito swarms and rattlesnakes. Trust in God got them through.

The men fell into a routine. Father Baumgartner would celebrate Mass every day and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. They would hike 15 miles per day and pick up their resupply of food every two weeks.

“It’s like Olympic training,” recalled the deacon. “Eventually you’d sweat down to trail weight.”

The men often would talk about spirituality along the way, but the time that Deacon Amsberry remembers relying on God the most was crossing the treacherous Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. The trail, a snow chute, is a small path worn into the snowy mountainside. One wrong step would have them sliding down the mountain. As the men approached the pass, they stopped, and Deacon Amsberry remembers telling God he had bigger dreams than this and didn’t want to die on that pass. He had his backpack and boots but no technical gear. The men just walked one step at a time, leaning into the hill. They had to put their trust completely in God.

“The Lord helped us,” said Deacon Amsberry.

Gratitude

Abigail Heebner is a member at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland. Growing up in Illinois, she often went camping and hiking around the area, which she describes as mostly corn fields.

“I didn’t have the privilege of growing up close to mountains and rivers,” said Heebner. But since graduating from the University of Portland in 2018, she’s embraced hiking in the Pacific Northwest. She and her boyfriend, James Magas, also a parishioner at St. Michael, began backpacking last year.

“It’s a good form of exercise,” said Heebner. “I really enjoy getting out of the city. I enjoy spending time in nature, in the beauty of God’s creation. I find a lot of solace in hiking and just being able to go out and enjoy all that there is.”

As a child, connecting with Christ and spirituality had little to do with hiking. But now, hiking does regularly present Heebner with opportunities to bond with God.

Earlier in the year, Heebner and Magas were hiking Mount Diablo near San Francisco.

“As its name may allude to, it’s a very difficult hike,” laughed Heebner, recalling the 99-degree heat beating down on them as they climbed.

“We were hiking up this hill and it seemed so arduous and horrible but my mind went to things like ‘Jesus carrying his cross was probably harder than this,’” she said.

Each time Heebner stopped to take a water break, she’d look down the mountain to the trailhead and the beautiful surrounding landscape.

“I was just so thankful,” she said.

“Sometimes we’re walking up a hill and it seems like it never ends but if you take a moment to stop and look from where we’ve come and point to the spot where the trail started, you can see the beauty in the path, the things we travel through and just be so grateful,” Heebner said.

Solitude

Magas grew up near a mountain and went hiking there often.

“I enjoy how it’s so removed from everything,” he said. “It clears my thoughts and allows me to look at how much else there is outside of my own personal life.”

Magas said that being outside is the second-best place to contemplate  life, a church being first.

Generally, he doesn’t go backpacking for the spirituality of it, though he is planning a trip this year where prayer and meditation will be his focus.

However, “I certainly have my views expanded when I’m out in nature and see how fortunate we are to be children of God and have everything that we have.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org