One foot in front of the other.
The words had been the mantra of the past hundred miles as Max languished in the summer heat. He was now between the Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter, averaging about 15 miles a day now as the hot, mid-June sun filtered through the Virginia pines and poplars. The forty-eighth day of the journey was better than the first for certain, Max was stronger, breathing easier on the trail but he was feeling haggard, worn down. He had misjudged the amount of food he needed when he last restocked and was now having to wait until the next day when he passed through Daleville to resupply and maybe even drop into the Cracker Barrel while he was there. Before that however, he had to get to Lambert’s Meadow some five miles away and get through the night.
Max was running out of water for the day, the hot, humid air taking a toll on him and forcing him to empty his CamelBak faster than he planned. He stopped for a moment and took out his trail map, finding what looked to be a river that ran out of the Carvin’s Cove Resevoir below him in the valley to his right. Up ahead, a part in the underbrush showed a narrow trail off in the direction of the river and Max decided that five miles was too far to go without water in the heat. The trail map seemed to show the river going in the same direction as the trail. Since the trail that led to the river looked to be only a mile or so away, he decided it was worth the detour.
The trail went from narrow to pig trail to occasional spots of dirt in the same direction. Max was beginning to get nervous as he tried to keep one eye on the afternoon sun and the other on the sparse signs leading him along. The underbrush was getting thicker, bushes and vines raking his legs as tried to maintain a direct course toward the water below. A slight embankment began to turn into a cliff as Max found the end of his trail, dropping eight feet down. Max thought about turning back. There was no way to know if there was a way back up the sheer face and onto the trace leading back to the main trail. His watch said it was three o’clock, plenty of time to get water and get to the shelter but only if he found a way back that was close to the trail. Otherwise, he would have to take the chance that he could follow the map and find a trail upriver. His other option was to turn back and hike the now six miles without water.
Max decided he had come too far. He grabbed a vine that hung out over the edge of the embankment and lowered himself over, dropping the other two or maybe three feet. The landing with the heavy pack jarred and left him with a momentary aching in his arms and legs. He looked back toward the goal, got his legs back under him, and dug out the map. According to what he was seeing, he should already be on top of the water, in fact he should have already heard it. He walked on, picking his way along around trees and rocks, the brush becoming increasingly dense in places and thinning out in others. He stopped, listening for the sound of water, and heard the faint sound of something in the distance. Hope was a word he rarely used outside of theological discussions but with a dry water pack and dwindling food the word seemed appropriate. It was growing louder, more distinct, and Max was now undeniably sure he heard…a truck?
A truck? he thought. Going forward another hundred yards led him to the edge of a country blacktop road. To his left was a sign that proclaimed the stretch of road he was standing on was part of Virginia Highway 740. You have got to be kidding me? He didn’t know whether he was going to laugh or cry or scream or all three and by the time he figured it out, he had slung off his pack and thrown it down the road. He did nothing to stop the primal scream from escaping his throat, yelling at everything and nothing. Max shoved his hand into his cargo pocket and jerked the map out crumpling it into a ball as he did. Another look and his mistake was obvious. In his exhaustion and fear of running out of supplies, Max had missed the subtle difference in color between the light grey used for roads and highways and the light blue used for bodies of water. Strings of the most colorful language began to compose themselves in his mind as he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. It was then that Max heard another vehicle approaching and an older man in a pickup pulled up alongside him. The man looked up the road and saw the pack lying on the ground, the crumpled map in hand, and made a Sherlockian deduction.
“Lost, huh”, the driver said.
Max let out a long breath, nodded his head and replied, “Yeah, lost.”
The man nodded toward the pack, “You a thru-hiker or just doing a stretch?”
“Thru-hiker,” Max answered. “I was running low on food and just about out of water. I thought the reservoir ran into a creek or river or at least that’s the way I read the map.”
The man smiled, “Easy mistake to make when you’re tired.” He jerked a thumb toward the bed of the truck. “Toss your gear in the back and I’ll give you a ride. I was on my way into town over at Daleville.”
No one was playing a banjo in the vicinity so Max grabbed his gear, tossed it in the back of the pickup and got in the cab. The man was mostly quiet and kept to himself, asking Max a few questions about where he from and other expressions of polite conversation. After a short drive, Max found himself at the Daleville Quality Inn across the parking lot from Cracker Barrel. He thanked the man who offered him a bit of simple advice, Next time, just stay on the trail.
Max lay back on the bed in his hotel room and stared mindlessly at Sports Center playing on the television. He was full, having eaten the largest dinner he could find on the menu at Cracker Barrel and planning on dropping in for breakfast before he headed back to the trail tomorrow. He had planned a short day of hiking tomorrow since Outdoor Trails didn’t open until 10:00 and frankly, he could use the rest.
He grabbed his bible from the nightstand, grabbed the ribbon marking his place and started reading. The story was familiar and in this case apropos to the last twenty-four hours. It was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian from Acts where God miraculously places Philip on the highway going out of Jerusalem to meet an Ethiopian official. The Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah, perhaps a scroll he purchased in Jerusalem, something that would been costly at the time. If that is the case, it was a lot of money to spend on something he couldn’t understand. It would be like Max buying a book on advanced calculus when he had problems keeping his checkbook straight. Max read and reread the same few verses repeatedly, trying to truly digest them,
Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.
Philip seemed to have one purpose, one reason for chasing down a carriage on the highway: to be a guide for the Ethiopian. The story points to Philip being the person called to the situation to offer insight on what might have continued to be a confusing book to read. The Ethiopian hears the explanation, which seems to make sense to him and responds to it, asking to be baptized in a body of water along the road, at which point Philip disappears and the Ethiopian goes on his way. According to tradition, this is the Ethiopian that brought what would become a thriving Christianity to central Africa before the Muslims came some six or seven centuries later.
Without someone to guide me. The words rang in his mind, especially after the day he had. If it weren’t for the older man in the pickup, he might still be wandering around trying to find the trail. But it was more than today that Max thought of. All along the journey of faith, he could point to times, places, and people that helped him to shift his direction just enough to find the right way to go. Teachers, friends, family, the list jumbled into his mind, faces of people who had been instrumental in shaping his life up to the very moment he was experiencing now. If truly takes a village to raise and nurture someone, his village was fairly large.
Max noticed a note written in the margins, a quote from a seminary book he assumed, “There are two things which all treatment of Scripture is aiming at: a way to discover what needs to be understood, and a way to put across to others what has been understood.” (Augustine 1996, p.106) In other words, there is something that must be said and there is a way to express the something. For the Ethiopian, Philip was the person to explain the something that he had found while reading Isaiah. Philip came alongside the Ethiopian to point him on the right path, down the right trail. Max thought about the man in the pickup and realized that he was so tired, so mentally and physically wiped out that he never got the man’s name, never asked. Yet, the man had taken him back to the trail, to a place where Max could find his way again.
Really, that was what the story was about, one man helping another find his way. Philip was chosen to be a deacon, literally “one who serves another”, and Philip was living into that by going across the land, preaching the gospel. As he went, he was helping people find their way to a better life in understanding who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, how Jesus died, and what that meant. It was something all Christians were called to do but for Philip, it was a holy calling that his entire life should about showing people the Way. This was the same calling Max answered but it was a calling to not only offer directions but take them as well. Sometimes he would need people to point the way, or at the very least, show him the difference between light grey and light blue on the map.
It was late afternoon, two days later, when Max ran into Chris and the twins at the Fullhardt Knob Shelter. He had spent an extra day and night at the hotel, opting to read the map more carefully and finding that the next shelter after Daleville was a solid fourteen miles and then some. The usual routine came back to him, along with the aches and pains but he was better stocked and had the experience of having been off kilter to put things into perspective. As he settled in for that night after an evening of catching up, Max fell asleep to the sounds of tree frogs and crickets, and the knowledge that sometimes you give directions, sometimes you take them, but you should always stay on, or at least close, to the trail.
Augustine, Saint. De Doctrina Christiana. Translated by Edmund Hill O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press of the Focolare, 1996.
Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40–66 | Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Lindsey, F. Duane. “The Career of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.” Bibliotheca Sacra 139, no. 552 (Oct. 1982): 312-329.
Lindsey, F. Duane. “The Commission of the Servant.” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1982: 129-145.
Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
 Acts 8:30-31