The hike

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By Tom Wilmoth

    The missionary leading our trip gave out the warning: If you have any reservations about taking this hike, don’t take it. A Philippine woman from the area had stated: “Tell the big ones not to go.”

    I went anyway.

    We were midway through our medical mission trip to the Philippines. Eighteen area residents, including myself, had flown out of Roanoke on Feb. 19 and arrived in Manila in the early morning hours of Feb. 21. We then had a four-hour drive to what would serve as our home base for the trip. After a couple of days there, and one medical mission at the church there, we headed north. By the time of the hike, we had already completed three of our medical missions. It was Wednesday, Feb. 25, and time for our much-anticipated hike.

    The night before we had stayed at a guest house at a linguistics center in Bagabag. We ate pizza that night and drank soda. We slept in a bed, not the floor like we had the night before, and had hot showers. For breakfast we had eggs, toast, fruit and some heavenly cinnamon buns. This was an oasis, albeit for only a night. The hike loomed in my mind: “Pass me another cinnamon bun, I can use the strength.”

    To say that my preparation for the hike was inadequate is an understatement. Yes, I had walked a lot while visiting in Florida, but the sidewalks of the Sunshine State now seem a bit mild. And, yes, I had even walked the loop here in Bedford with a backpack and 30 pounds of weights inside. But, quite frankly, the hill up from the hospital didn’t do what I was about to face justice. I was about to embark on the hike of my life.

    From Bagabag we traveled one hour to Bam Bam to get 4 wheel drive jeepneys. Jeepneys are one of two major modes of transportation in the Philippines. Jeepneys, I’m told, date back to World War II. They look like a jeep with extended backs with benches on either side of the back. There are also bars on top so people can travel up there as well. Some of our team chose to ride the three-hour trip from Bam Bam to Mongol from that perspective. I didn’t, and I’m glad. That trip was an adventure in itself as we traveled up a mountain on what was supposed to be a road, but didn’t quite measure up to that distinction. Periodically those of us inside the jeepneys would hear a scream from up top as we bounced around and held on, but no one fell off.

    In Mongol, the church leader for that region had arranged for us to have lunch. No cinnamon buns here: rice and vegetables, the staples for our trip. Then it was time for the hike.

    I began with great anticipation: “Just how hard could it really be.” Five minutes in, and two slips on my rear end later, I knew I was in trouble. For one, the shoes I was wearing were obviously not made for hiking. They had done just fine on the sidewalks of Florida and Bedford, but put them on some loose gravel or wet rocks and I might as well have been walking on ice. In fact that might have been safer.

    But it was too late now. The hike was underway and I was doing my best to keep up.

    Our team was made up of folks of all ages and all walks of life. From doctors and nurses to students and housewives. From those not yet in their teens, to those pushing 70.  The hike to Caritas had begun.

    I stepped carefully that first hour. And to be honest, those early parts of the trip weren’t too bad. The teens showed early on they would be the class of the field. They would hike for a while and then wait for us; hike and wait. Eventually they would stop waiting and just push forward, finishing the hike a couple of hours ahead of the rest of us. A quarter of the way into the trip I slipped in some mud as I made my way down to the river. That led to our first real hill. At this point the teens were still hanging back waiting for us and they must have sensed I was in trouble. They gave me some encouraging words that would sustain me through the halfway point of the trip. And that next portion was pretty much all uphill.

    The paths we took were, for the most part, either straight up or straight down. Every now and then there would be a level area, but those seemed few and far between. The sad part was it was difficult to enjoy the beautiful area — full of green, lush rice fields — we were traversing through. It’s hard to appreciate scenery while you’re gasping for your next breath.  We crossed over a make-shift log bridge, climbed over some rocks and began an ascent up a steep hill. Halfway up many of us stopped, some taking the break as a chance to measure their heart rate. I didn’t bother. When we finally crested the hill, we came upon a simple little church. In fact, it was a church from the ministry — the Philippine Bible Methodist Church — that we were working with as part of the trip. The church had a few benches inside and some scriptures pasted along the top of the walls. At the front it had a sign: “Jesus, King of Kings.”

    We all sat down and caught our breath. Tim Keep, the missionary from the Philippines leading our trip, began to tell the story of that church. It had only been there a few years and prior to that the only worship the people there knew was sacrificing animals to the spirits. Now it stood as a lighthouse on a hill, proclaiming Jesus as the King of Kings. We had a time of prayer and then sang “Amazing Grace.” It was probably the most emotionally moving moment of the trip for me as I contemplated God’s great grace, both for myself and for those folks living in that area.

    It was soon time to move on. We were halfway through the hike.

    We knew we were in trouble when the teens radioed back (we had some walkie-talkies) to expect the trip down the mountain to be treacherous. We stumbled, fell and slid. I wore out the backside of my pants, choosing to use the most padded part of my body as my safety net in the most difficult areas to traverse. It took us probably an hour to get to the bottom and to the river, a bit of flat terrain teasing us before our final ascent. I crossed the bridge, enjoying the view of the river beneath and then I looked up. There was nothing but  a mountain in front of us.

    For the next hour and a half we took one step after another going up. At the bottom of the hill we had found some walking sticks and I was glad to have mine. As my legs grew heavier that stick became my lifeline. I would plant it in the step ahead and pull myself up. Step up, plant and pull; step up, plant and pull. My legs felt like they were made of concrete blocks; my arms were doing the work.

    I would take 10 steps up and rest; 10 more steps and rest. The mountain didn’t seem like it would ever level off. And then, finally, there was a crest. I peeked over and saw some of the team sitting by the path. I joined them.

    Just a few hundred yards away was the village of Caritas. There would be one slight incline left to climb. But for some time we just sat. Others made their way up the hill and eventually everyone was there. We watched the sun set from that spot; we were now able to enjoy the beauty of the area. We walked the final part of the trip in the dark. Some women from the church had dinner ready when we arrived. The teens had been there for some time. We ate, we found a place on the church floor to put our sleeping bags and we slept. It had been a very long day. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    Everybody completed the hike, from the youngest to the oldest.

    The next day we had one of the best medical missions of the trip. Hundreds came through. We gave shots, vitamins and de-worming medicine. The doctors and nurses diagnosed illnesses, gave out medicines and treated all that they could. We had children’s ministry with the kids, presented a drama and made balloon animals. Those two days would prove to be the hardest and most rewarding of the trip. They were days filled with challenges, rewards and grace. That’s a good recipe for any day, as far as I’m concerned.