We learned a life-changing lesson about money while hiking the Appalachian Trail for three months as a young couple. Taking a long trek on the Appalachian Trail had been a life-long goal of Keith’s, and our chance came after he finished seminary. We didn’t have any kids yet and it seemed to be in an interim year between ministries. Soon we were in his parents’ basement among a myriad of backpacking paraphernalia, sorting out what to take and what to leave behind. Moccasins to lounge around in after a day in stiff hiking boots would be so comfortable, so I packed them in. A tiny radio to keep in touch with the outside world and weather reports…in it went. A small bag of essentials that formed my basic make-up kit was a definite. I was intent on making my three-month journey in the woods as comfortable as possible.
Satisfied that we had everything we needed, I carefully shouldered my pack and weighed in. Subtracting my own weight, I found my pack weighed about 40 pounds. My husband’s pack weighed in at almost 50 pounds. Neither of these was extraordinarily heavy according to the prevailing backpacking wisdom of the 70s. We tightened the waist strap snugly, and walked around a bit. They actually felt fairly comfortable, at least in the basement. Carrying them on the trail was quite another matter.
The Pain for the Gain
We started our three-month trek in Georgia and signed the hikers’ register, proudly listing our destination as the Susquehanna River, 1,000 miles to the north in Pennsylvania. Tears welled up in my husband’s eyes as his life-long dream came to reality.
The euphoria quickly wore off. What seemed an okay weight in the basement definitely made our backs and feet ache, especially since most of the Appalachian Trail is uphill. Soon we lost all interest in taking any side trails to the many panoramic views, and all we looked forward to was our next hourly rest stop. I remember one time during this period when my husband, who was leaning forward under his towering load, asked, “Why are we doing this?” I too was bent over looking at the path beneath me, and cynically replied, “Why dear, it’s to see the scenery!”
The Secret Discovered
Then we learned the secret of joyful backpacking: The lighter the load, the greater the joy. How ironic! The very things we had packed to make our journey comfortable had become the burdens that drained our joy away. We began to see all the possessions we were toting as the enemies, not friends, of our comfort. Finally one evening, we spread out every single item in our packs and decided which were truly essential in light of their weight.
The results were shocking. All at once my little radio didn’t seem necessary any more. Sure, it was handy, but hearing weather reports didn’t change anything. Out went the radio. My lounging moccasins, which had seemed so important when I packed them, went in the luxuries pile along with the radio. My husband’s fancy little Swiss knife with blades and gadgets to do just about anything you could imagine — well, you can guess where that went. The small make-up kit I had included to maintain my self-dignity during this trek…well, I kept that. Some things are clearly necessities!
We had quite a bonfire that night when our luxuries (formerly necessities) went up in smoke. The items that wouldn’t burn were packed in a special place to give away later (e.g., there were several Boy Scouts who eagerly accepted our gifts, never recognizing they then had to carry them out). A few days later, we walked out to a post office and sent home a whole bag of nonessentials.
What a difference! We could now swing our packs onto our shoulders from a standing position. And we would often scamper down a side trail to drink in the beautiful views of the Appalachian valleys below.
Cutting our weight became a regular diversion for us. We carefully compared the ounces of every food item we purchased at country stores each week, discarding unnecessary wrappings and boxes. And before each scheduled post office stop, we decided what weights we could trim from the burdens we still carried. We even decided to cook over a fire and sent our cook stove home. The more we did without, the more we realized we could do without. By the end of our hike, we had trimmed 30 pounds from our packs. We had discovered the joy of backpacking by traveling light.
Then we settled down. My husband got an assignment working with our denominational headquarters, and within a month of completing our trek on the Appalachian Trail we had moved to Indiana. We rented a house, retired our packs to the attic, and began settling into a new routine.
The needs of a normal life were far more sophisticated than trail life. Take clothing for instance. On the trail, I had reduced my needs to one change of clothing. Then, working in an academic community, it seemed I needed seven or maybe even ten outfits as a minimum requirement. Soon my closet began overflowing, and extra outfits had to be stored in the hall closet. We kept the hand-me-down furniture for the family room when we bought new living room furniture. Then, of course, there was the kitchen to outfit with a mixer, toaster oven, blender, food processor, everyday dishes, special china, and a dishwasher. These just seemed like basic essentials. And, after a few years, we bought a house with an electric garage door opener, and that luxury soon became a necessity. Then we moved to Indianapolis and built a house, larger still, since “we have two growing sons and my mother-in-law with us now.”
Little by little, we accumulated the ingredients of a comfortable life. Sure, we both worked hard and took care of our things, but was this really what God wanted for me? Would I ever be done fixing up my house? Was I really happier than ever before? Several Christian speakers addressed the issue of materialism. I cringed…for a while, at least.
What hit me was God’s Word. One of the ways I have always been able to tell God is speaking to me is that I keep seeing or hearing a particular truth everywhere. Here it was in a book I had borrowed. Now it jumped out from a message by a visiting speaker. Then it surfaced in a magazine article. But most of all, verses kept popping out from scripture: “Do not pile up treasures on earth.” (Matt 6:19) But Lord it’s all committed to you, isn’t it? “If we have food and clothing, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). But contentment also includes a garage door opener, doesn’t it, Lord? “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15). Who, me, Lord? Am I greedy? “Put to death…sexual immorality, impurity, lust, even desires, and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) Lord, why put an innocent thing like greed in with those really serious sins? God’s Word kept hammering away at me.
Then the Lord took me back to my Appalachian Trail experience, and seemed to say this truth still works: the greatest joy comes to those who travel light. I had fallen into the trap again. I was assuming that all these things would produce a more comfortable life and effective ministry, yet some things we owned seemed to own us! They were loading us down and draining the joy of traveling through life on earth. Even when we had accumulated a houseful of nice things, they didn’t seem to satisfy.
So we decided again to make cutting down on our possessions a regular habit. We often ask what were really necessities? What things could we sensibly get rid of? What things were legitimate aids in our ministry to others? How much of this conviction should we subject our children to? What should we keep until the kids are gone? What do we need in order to care for my mother-in-law? What is an investment and what is an expense? How far should we go in this?
None of these answers come easily. We continue to struggle with most of them, sometimes every day. But it’s the painful struggle that gives me the peace afterwards. I know that I’m not being led by hollow, simplistic answers that won’t last. I have a God-given conviction that brings contentment and joy.
If you have been thinking about this subject recently, why not start unpacking stuff and start giving it away. Who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy the trip much more with a lighter pack.
Sharon Drury committed her life to Jesus Christ as a teenager, and enjoyed being a pastor’s wife after marrying Keith Drury in 1967. They raised David and John, who are married and each has 3 children. Sharon was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years and founded a national ministry for pastors’ wives called Yokemates in the 1980’s. She went on to work at Indiana Wesleyan University for over 20 years in various positions of leadership. She retired in 2013 after serving for 7 years as Professor of Organizational Leadership in the doctoral program at IWU.