Some of Dale Clem’s most vivid memories are linked to the silence and solitude of the woods.
On Christmas Day when he was 12 years old, his father, grandfather and uncle took him squirrel hunting near the family’s home in Huntsville.
With the opening of hunting season, Clem would be his father’s companion. Saturdays were spent training the dogs or hunting dove or quail.
If they weren’t hunting, father and son were fishing.
Most of their time was spent among the Alabama pines, hills and creeks.
Though he spoke little, it was clear to Clem that his father felt most alive and at peace with himself when he was "united with nature."
From father to son, that appreciation was handed down. It was that same quest for stillness and inner peace that led Clem, now the pastor of Anniston First United Methodist Church, to the Appalachian Trail some 40 years later.
In 2012, Clem, now married, father of two, felt called to the near-mythic 2,200-plus-mile trail that he first discovered as a Boy Scout. Having just turned 50, Clem decided to spend 40 days alone, hiking a section of the trail that meandered 443 miles from Maine to Vermont, considered by many to be the most difficult portion of the trail.
Clem detailed his personal, spiritual odyssey in "40 Days in the Wilderness: Reflection and Prayers along the Appalachian Trail," a book that’s equal parts travelogue and religious meditation. The book is available from Amazon for $19.55.
"I hadn’t planned on writing a book, but more like a 40-day devotional or something," said Clem, who kept a journal during the hike. "But the more people I told and let read what I’d written, the more said they wanted the blood and guts, the real story."
‘I’d never been alone like that’
Clem’s call to spend 40 days in the wilderness wasn’t especially popular, given that it would take him away from his family for so long. It was also difficult to adequately explain why he felt compelled to attempt something so arduous by himself.
"Throughout history, men and women have received a call to leave their homes and families," Clem writes in the book’s prelude, "for a purpose unknown to them at the time."
Already an avid outdoorsman and hiker — both alone and with his family — the trek along the Appalachian Trail was unlike anything Clem had attempted.
"I had really no idea what I was getting into," he said with a laugh. "But I feel like I did pretty well. It was the loneliness that most caught me by surprise. I’d never been alone like that."
While Clem undertook the journey by himself, he was rarely alone. In addition to the other hikers he met along the way, the memories of friends and family — those living and dead — were with him every step of the way.
"My thoughts wandered back to when my family and I camped and sat around the fire in the silence," Clem writes on Day 6. "My dad was a quiet man, but thinking about him made me tense, I realized. He had very firm ideas and rules about what he expected of me, and the memory of me sitting on my bed, crying and saying, ‘I’ll never make him happy,’ brought tears to my eyes. After all these years, I was still seeking his blessing and approval."
Sitting around a fire later that night, Clem forgave his father and looked to heaven in seeking his father’s forgiveness.
"My tears dropped into the fire, making a sizzling sound," he writes. "The wind picked up and I heard rustling in the night. The biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel came to mind, and I named what I’d been doing: ‘Wrestling with my father,’ hoping for a blessing.
"Taking a deep breath, I tried to imagine my dad giving me a hug and saying, ‘I’m proud of you, son.’"
Returning home richer in spirit
While hiking, Clem’s solitude was interrupted by a variety of interesting characters.
"You meet a lot of people, especially young people," he said. "They’re often people who are trying to find themselves, who are looking for something. It’s a real community. It’s part of the magic of the trail."
One of the people Clem met was an older man who said it had taken him to years to find peace within himself. Yet, the man was plagued by second thoughts that he’d made throughout his life.
"Hearing this man’s stories caused me to wonder what hidden wounds I carried," Clem writes on Day 11. "Hiking alone, I was able to make multiple lists of my resentments. Backpacking makes it clear that there are many things that are out of our control …
"I prayed I would find my identity in God, would face my struggles gracefully and would keep moving toward being grateful and at peace and away from being a judgmental, bitter man."
At the end of his journey, having hiked 443 miles, Clem made his way up the Etna Hanover Road to the Vermont border. He caught a bus to Portland, where he would eventually catch a flight back home. Sitting down, bloodied and bruised, smelling rather pungent and with a full beard, Clem was proud of how far he’d come.
"I was not returning home rested in body, but I was much richer in spirit," he writes. "I was aware that I did not do it alone. It would’ve been inappropriate to just say, ‘I did it,’ and more honest to say, ‘Thank God, I did it.’"
Brett Buckner is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star. Contact him at email@example.com.