You might think I’m crazy, but . . .
. . . a trail runs along the side of Mt. Pleasant, in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. About a hundred years ago, a hotel stood on the ridge overlooking the Piedmont plains to the east. Harsh Appalachian winds and the relentless forest have obliterated the hotel, but the trail retains its memory: it’s called, “The Hotel Loop.”
One autumn day in 1999, I hiked the Hotel Loop from its beginning where the Appalachian Trail cuts across “Tar Jacket Ridge.” About a mile into the loop, I rounded a bend and an ordinary hike turned into a Vision Quest. Let me explain.
The early October late morning sun shone from a cloudless sky through a canopy of yellow foliage. A gentle breeze loosened a fluttering snow-fall of yellow, spear-shaped leaves, pirouetting and flickering as they fell onto a forest floor already carpeted in fallen yellow. The very air had a warm, golden hue.
I stood transfixed. I closed my eyes and listened to the quiet whispering of the falling leaves pattering to the ground. I felt the expanse of the mountain and the forest surrounding me, and it felt like an embrace. A sense of a presence grew in the core of my body and this solo hiker knew himself to have company. I had heard Native peoples speak of communing with their ancestors in sacred places, and I’d always listened respectfully, as a curious academician, but there, on the Hotel Loop on that October day, in that Golden Air, I knew my late sister was with me. Others had come with her. They smiled and sang. They celebrated. They reassured me. I felt great joy, and a great sense of peace, and happy tears filled my eyes. I hadn’t planned on walking into a sacred space, but that’s exactly what I’d done and I had the presence of mind not to dismiss what I felt as some sort of yet-to-be-explained psychological phenomenon.
From time to time, we get to walk into mysteries too marvelous for our reasoning. As I returned to my lodgings that evening, I knew I’d been given a gift. Somehow, I’d been taught by wisdom teachers no one saw using words no one heard composing a lesson I cannot describe. I returned to my lodgings, however, a slightly better man.
The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, once observed that we modern humans live under the heavy weight of an “industry of distraction that makes us forget that we live in a universe.” On the Hotel Loop, the sacred space reminded me that I live, move, and have my being in a breathing universe infused with invisible lines of connection that defy my tiny definitions of time and space. Way too often, the life I live distracts me from this Truth.
Oddly, that’s also what this journey through cancer has done for me. I’ve been forced to stop on this path I’ve been pursuing and remember the things that matter. In radiation oncology, in the infusion clinic, at home with my wife, and surrounded by the regular encouragement of a loving community, I’m in sacred space. The invisible lines of connection run from the Hotel Loop all the way to the Hospital. This cancer cuts through the distractions and grounds me again in the Presence.
Perhaps, as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy increase the odds of my surviving this physical threat, the odds will also increase of my becoming a deeper, more compassionate human being. That would be the greater healing.