Walking the Way: 5 things a long-distance trail tells me about following Jesus

I am walking the Pennine Way. Not right now (clearly, I don't have the skills to walk and type at the same time) but gradually and slowly, myself and friend are making our way along its route.

For the uninitiated, the Pennine Way is the UK's original long-distance path. It is 53 years old and runs 268 miles. It starts either in the middle of England, or if you go from north to south just around the Scottish Border. It's no Appalachian Trail – there are no bears waiting to snaffle you off the path (I do have insect bites that drew blood, but I am just a particularly tasty morsel) – but in typically understated National Trail language it is categorised as 'moderate to difficult'.

Humphrey Bolton/GeographThe Pennine Way was Britain's first official long-distance trail.

The Pennine Way is famous. Its described as running up the backbone of England. But here is the thing.

Most of it is utterly nondescript. In fact, it is virtually invisible.

I do quite a bit of walking – a few weeks ago I was in the Lake District, where the paths and trails scar the landscape as they wend their way up the steep-sided valleys, summitting onto false tops only to open out new vistas. Rangers and volunteers regularly shore up paths, adding steps and rails to popular routes. I get all of that – it facilitates the scamper up a fell that we all enjoy (although I can offer a serenity prayer for any like me who are sweating in our outdoor gear as some elfin figure in flip flops gambols past on their way up a grade one scramble).

The Pennine Way is not like that. And because of this, it's taught me some real lessons about the Way.

The Way is not always clear

We had gone through the gate and set off following the clearest path. As we approached a sheepfold I checked the GPS map. 'We're on the wrong place,' I said. And so, we headed of following a compass bearing to join the way a little further over.

I was struck that walking the Pennine Way is not walking the most obvious path. It requires the discipline of keeping an eye on the map and not being tempted by surer paths that head off in vaguely the right direction.

Being followers of the Way is similar. We are not always asked to walk a path that is easy and clear to see. We require regular checks of the map, that big picture that orients us to where we are and where we are heading.

The Way is marked out by those who have gone before

There are moments where the only reason one can follow the Pennine Way is because there is a small trampled line across a green field. There were several moments this week where it took a map check to assure ourselves that the discolouration of grass was in fact the Pennine Way. Often the line is no more than a sketchy muddy smear, but it is still the way. These small pathways have been kept alive by the faithful plodding of the few.

Our Way is not always popular. Increasingly, it's been kept alive by the faithful plodding of the few. But it is no less the Way.

The Way is about improvising

Imagine the scene: a two-metre-wide span of oily peat bog, infused with stale sheep urine. I am tall, but I can't stride two metres. Imagine then our delight when we saw, dropped into the middle, a five-litre plastic feed tub. It was upside down, waiting to accept the feet of tired walkers. And we accept it, and its raspy vocal response as the air squeezed from it, disturbing the gloop around.

It was only after that I began to feel a slight tinge of embarrassment. 'This is the Pennine Way – shouldn't it be more glamorous?' Well, no. There are God given areas where lime flags have been dropped across deep bog in order to save weary walkers from hip-high mud, but mainly the Pennine Way invites us to walk its way without aid, though with permission to improvise. And so it's littered with upturned sheep feed cans, old planks, slight deviations and abandoned socks.

What a picture for following the Way. Theologian Tom Wright always talked eloquently about the Christian invitation to improvise based around what we know of God as outlined in Scripture. Our following of the Way is and should be lived out in the real circumstances we find ourselves, and that may mean heaving ourselves over bogs with the help of an old bucket.

The Way has its own reasons

On more than one occasion my sense of reason and logic was offended by the Pennine Way. There are moments where looking at the map, or even looking across a piece of land, it seems deliberately obtuse. It sometimes seemed to want to take us the least direct way, wobbling its way across the contours rather than taking a logical efficient line.

And then we got close, and it seemed to me that almost every quirk of the path had some reason. Now, some of those reasons no longer exist (railway lines that are no longer used, dried up river beds) but the way retains a logic of its own. For every obsolete twist and turn there are countless others than make sense up close. The shortcut across that field that leads to unseen water, the navigation around the edge of that area that has old mine workings.

Following the Way has its own reasons. When looking at it from a distance they don't make sense. People look at our faith and rightly point out its idiosyncrasies and illogicality. But it has its reasons. Some are obsolete, but many have a logic that you have to walk in to understand.

The Way is The Way

At the end of the Pennine Way, in either direction, is a pub (this is quintessentially English after all) with a book that you can have your name written in – and there is a free pint! Seeing people close to finishing was quite a thing. There is a fair amount of hobbling, that adjustment of gait that happens when you are trying to put your foot down on the small part of it that is unblistered. There was some grumbling ('I don't why we said we'd do this'). But there was also a sense that those who have walked the way have experienced something. They have seen vistas that only open up 10 miles from the nearest road, they have looked into another land and seen beyond these island shores.

The Pennine Way is hard.

But it has its own rewards and at the end there is almost always a crowd at the pub, offering a great 'Well done'. There is celebration and there is a book for one's name.

So too our following of the Way. It is hard, it is often unseen and unseemly. We get lost on it, we fall off it and rejoin it again. We wonder at its quirks, rejoice in its brief moments of certainty and are treated to some of the most glorious views of life and love and fulness.

And at the end there is a crowd that raises a cup and says 'Well done', as our names are etched into a book.

Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar 

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