The Rev George Yandell, Rector
Articles in Backpacker magazine are often about extreme feats of outdoor endurance to test new gear or to offer descriptions to out of the way trails. The current issue carries an article by Bill Donahue entitled “A Hero’s Journey”. The byline: “Rue McKenrick would hike the perimeter of the country to demonstrate our nation’s unity—if only he and the country could hold together long enough for him to finish.” It caught my attention.
The story’s author catches up with McKenrick a few miles west of the North Dakota border. “He’s about 9,000 miles into his hike by now. I’m planning to spend three days and 75 miles following him west, asking how a hurt pilgrim might search for hope in a broken country.”
“It’s soon clear that the depression and anxiety that hit McKenrick in rain-soaked Appalachia seven months ago never left him. He’s not well physically either.” As the two walk/ride along together (the author brought a trail bike so he could keep up with the hiker) McK. tells that he’s walked more than 8,000 consecutive miles all by himself. They’re hiking along the North Country Trail which stretches 4,700 miles from Vermont to central North Dakota. Their route is ram-rod straight over a gravel road on the flat, dusty, nearly treeless landscape. McK. says, “There’s a sadness in the ground. It feels like there are sad stories here that have never been told. It feels like people went missing and never got found.” They both recognize McK. is talking about his own deep sadness as well as their locale. Mck. sums it up, “I was really put into deep isolation with the pandemic; I can only take so much solitude.”
McK. started his odyssey 13 years after his life was shaken by a betrayal. He moved from Pennsylvania to Bend, Oregon to start over in the midst of a horrible depression. He joined a meditation community and met his guru. McK. attained a happy and simple stability in OR. He got a bike and commuted to his job at a golf course, even in snow and rain. He started mountain biking in the Cascades. His depression waned, but when it returned in 2018, he knew how to tackle it. “You get your family and friends involved. You bring in the professionals. There’s no shame in saying, ‘I have an issue, I need help.’ In talking with the caring folks in his community, he saw his situation clearly: “The experience I wanted was to go backpacking.”
He also wanted to contribute to society. He felt it was his calling to establish a new American Trail. At first he didn’t realize how vast a project it would become.
He started growing a support network and social media campaign in the summer of 2019. He’d been training for a year, so he set out from Bend the day after having major dental surgery. He had trouble in almost every state he hiked through. In Nevada the highway patrol stopped him and said, “Hitchhiking is not allowed in Nevada.” Hours later the same officer was on foot and yelled at McK. again, “Get your hands out of your pockets!” worried McK. might have a gun. The trooper searched through his belongings for weapons that weren’t there.
He started his hike with dreams of discovering America and its people as he established a trail that carried a spiritual dimension. He described it as “a circular and infinite loop without a beginning or an end.” His explanation for persisting is “Each step I take is a prayer to the universe for ever increasing unity.”
On October 23 last year McK. had to pause his mission when he cracked from stress, depression and exhaustion. He went back to Bend and got a doctor to work with him on physical and emotional issues. He began to heal with the help of his friends.
The author of the story learned recently that McK. intends to restart his hike. On May 1 this year, he will begin hiking west from Bismarck, ND where he stopped in October last year. He hopes to climb through the snows in Glacier National Park and then cut west toward the Olympic Peninsula. Along the way he’ll take in some of the route taken long ago by Lewis and Clark.
He said, “It concerns me that my depression may return.” The author states, “It concerns me as well, and I carry the same worry for our country… in the dark morass of Covid and riven by incivility. We are hurting and, and Rue McKenrick, our hero, is all of us.” I am on the fence about McKenrick’s sanity and capacity to accomplish his mission. But I sure identify with his drive to increase the country’s unity. Looking at the map of the USA with his route in red encircling the country, it looks like a red ribbon on an immense gift of hope. God bless him. G. Yandell