Smoke on the trail

By Joe Chambers, Restoration Church Mukilteo | Oct 09, 2013

I hiked the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail in August. I spent the first week and some 50 miles hiking solo from Ashland, Ore. to Fish Lake Resort.

I picked up the first re-supply package that I had mailed myself two weeks earlier, and I made my way to the campsite.

A tall, lanky, gray-bearded man came lumbering up. He bowed low and with open arms said, “Welcome, sir, to your new home. We are all family here and anything I have is yours. Let me know if you need anything. On the trail they call me ‘Smoke.’”

He stuck out his left hand to shake mine. We shook, he kissed two fingers on his right hand, bumped his chest over his heart twice, pointed at me, then walked a few yards away and crawled into his tent.

Over the next 24 hours while I was there, I learned he was not a hiker. He just hung out at the PCT camp because he had no place else to go.

He would pick up trash around the resort and sort out the hiker box, where backpackers stored foodstuffs they didn’t want to carry. I think he ate out of that box.

He never completed a sentence when I talked to him. He often would finish a story or conversation with lines from movies or lyrics from ‘70s rock songs.

His favorite rock and roller was Bob Seger. I told him that my favorite Seger song was “Turn the Page.” He said, “Thank you.” Whether the gratitude was from entering into his passions or giving him credit for having good taste in music, I couldn’t tell.

One time he asked me what I did when I wasn’t hiking. I knew this was eventually going to happen. When I tell people that I am a pastor, they change. Smoke smiled – ear-to-ear.

He and I had long discussions about the Bible as I took a rest day at this resort. Smoke would talk and talk and talk. But he didn’t speak in linear ways.

He would start down a line of logic and split off and chase a different topic like a beagle that has jumped a rabbit, eventually coming back to the trail, but you didn’t really know where he’d been in the meantime.

He mentioned it was his 83-year-old mother’s birthday and he had no way of calling her. I offered him my cellphone and he called someone and wished them a happy birthday; I assume it was his mother.

The more you listened to him the more you knew he was a kind and gentle man. He wanted nothing from anyone, offered what he had to anyone who came along.

He wrote me a three-page letter confessing sins, a life of drug abuse and rambling lyrics from old songs, sprinkled with clips of verses from the Bible.

When I packed up to go he was talking a mile a minute and I turned to him and said, “Smoke, would you mind if I prayed for you?” ]

He said, “I would count it a privilege if you would just remember my name from time-to-time down the trail, pastor.” I said, “Smoke, can I pray for you right now?”

He nodded his head. I asked him if I could put my hand on his shoulder. He nodded his head.

I began to pray, and “Smoke” tilted his head back just slightly as if basking in the last warm rays of the afternoon sun.

When I said, “In Jesus name, Amen,” I looked and big wet tracks of tears were flowing down his pock-marked cheeks. I placed my hand on his chest and said, “Smoke, you have a good heart beating in this chest. God loves you very much.”

He smiled and said, “Pastor, my name is Gary.”

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