by Randy Kambic
Paul Stutzman was a successful executive with a family restaurant chain and a happy father and husband married for more than 30 years when his wife, Mary, passed away from breast cancer in 2006. Questioning his faith as to why this happened, Stutzman quit his job to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail, advising everyone he encountered, “Don’t take spouses and families for granted.” His book, Hiking Through, recounts this extreme adventure and relates his subsequent thoughts about grief, healing and life.
Stutzman chronicled his second journey, a 5,000-mile-plus cross-country trek, in Biking Across America. This time, he perceived a “noble, yet humble America that still exists and inspires.” More recently, the author has turned to fiction with The Wanderers and Wandering Home, both enriched with reflections upon the values of his Amish Mennonite upbringing and marriage.
What kept you going?
Early on, I realized how soothing nature was to my grieving soul. Still, there were times it would have been easy to abandon my journeys and head for the safety of home. The desire to discover if my life held any meaning after such a great loss kept me moving forward. I kept telling myself on both journeys, “If my wife can fight cancer for four years, I can overcome any obstacle I encounter.”
I was determined to write about what I was being taught by nature. I also believed books written by and about someone seeking solace via an incomplete pilgrimage would be cheating the reader.
What do such journeys teach about nature and our response to experiencing it?
I find comfort in nature. I believe the beautiful streams and waterfalls, the grand views from mountaintops and the wildlife were all created for our enjoyment. When we absorb this beauty and wonderment, the stresses in life slowly melt away. Granted, not everyone will be able to do what I did; however, a stroll through a local park, along a beach or in a flower garden can have similar effects.
Did these extended physical endeavors make mental demands that catalyzed unexpected self-growth?
Treks like these into the unknown are physically demanding. With time and effort, one’s body gets into shape for extended hiking and biking. The mental hurdle must be crossed next. You’ll miss home and loved ones. Loneliness will set in. This is where you discover who the real you is. Are you tenacious enough to push through the desire to abandon the pilgrimage or will you succumb to the allure of comfort and safety?
On my journeys, I had to make difficult choices. There is a saying that applies to folks planning to hike the A.T. end-to-end through 14 states: “If hiking the entire Appalachian Trail isn’t the most important thing in your life, you won’t accomplish it.”
My daughter gave birth to my grandson while I was hiking. Although she asked that I come home for the event, I declined. I kept on hiking because I knew I wouldn’t return to the trail if I went home. I’d spent my lifetime trying to do the right things for my three children, but now had to do what was right for me.
What did you learn about Americans along the way?
I discovered that most Americans are kind, law-abiding citizens. Most are still willing to help a stranger in need. Unfortunately, I feel we focus too much time and energy on the minority of malcontents.
How have these experiences informed your creative process?
America is a great country. The beauty I’ve witnessed from a bicycle seat and on two feet hiking the mountains is a continual source of inspiration. Many folks are unable to do what I do. My ongoing desire is to describe the images imprinted in my mind in such a way that others can feel as if they are there walking with me.
For more information, visit PaulStutzman.com.
Randy Kambic is an Estero, FL, freelance writer and editor that regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings.