Somewhere, lost to history, is the first person to have uttered some semblance of the phrase “walk a mile in their shoes.” It’s a saying often used to foster empathy for others. We put ourselves in their position, trying to understand life from their perspective as we attempt to break down barriers of ignorance and misperception.
If walking just “a mile in their shoes” could do us good then it stood to reason that setting out to hike the better part of a day on a primitive track traversing the mountains and remote jungles of Papua New Guinea had the potential to be an extremely enlightening endeavor. It wasn’t just any hike on any track over any mountains, it was a hike which members of an ETHNOS360 church planting team here in PNG make regularly in order to continue ministering to the church they’d seen the Lord establish among one of the hundreds of remote people groups here who only in recent generations have heard, understood, and had the opportunity to respond to the glorious gospel of grace. Despite the existence of a now established church, the work of translating Scripture, teaching, and discipling remains. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
<< Rewind <<
In early 2019 news had gone out across the field here that a photographer from the US had volunteered their time and expertise to come for few weeks in the summer. As different departmental needs were kicked around some ideas to promote aviation rose to the top and we were connected with Travis Tank. This was not just any dude with a camera, Travis is a fellow brother in Christ, world traveler, and accomplished international photographer.
One of projects we asked Travis to tackle for us was shooting a video to help our team tell the story of what we get to be part of here in Papua New Guinea, communicating the critical role aviation plays as we work to facilitate the vision of seeing a thriving church for every people. What better way to get fresh footage and some personal perspective on it all than to take him on a trip out to one of our many remote ministry locations? So that’s what we figured we’d do.
Challenge 1, we were on the short end of the staffing curve following the mass exodus which takes place here over the summer break.
Challenge 2, having not had the opportunity to summit Mt. Wilhelm (the highest point in PNG and the greater Oceania area) earlier in the year due to inclement weather, Mary Kate was really wanting to join this mini expedition.
Challenge 3, due to packed flight and aircraft maintenance schedules we had to shoehorn said trip into the existing flight schedule as space permitted.
So, the way it shook out because of challenge 1, I signed up to accompany Travis on the hike, and, caving to the pleas of my baby girl, I said Kate could join in on the adventure which, as the tight schedule determined, would start at 3:00AM the morning after Travis arrived in country. Ratcheting up the degree of difficulty on the whole deal we moved forward with a sort of “go big or go home” philosophy.
>> Fast Forward >>
It’s now 3:00AM and I’m groping for the phone on the nightstand to silence the obnoxious sound emanating from it. After not sleeping most of the night due to the building anticipation, somehow my body then decided to revolt, refusing to get out of bed. The mind won, sort of, and I stumbled around the house for the next hour getting the last of our gear packed and in the car. The sounds of the diesel truck engine turning over and the knobby off-road tires crunching up the gravel hill to the guesthouse echoed across the mission campus (or the “Ponderosa” as we affectionately call it). We loaded up Travis and his gear and set off for the airfield, headlights cutting through the foggy morning darkness.
We got to the airfield, opened up the hangar, weighed everybody and everything, helped the pilot get the plane ready to go, closed up the hangar, jumped in, started up, and we taxied down to the departure end of the runway where we sat, engine running, ready to launch into the breaking dawn the instant it was official sunrise and the control tower gave the word that we were cleared for takeoff. We were given the green light and the Kodiak lurched forward as power was added and the brakes were released. We climbed effortlessly out of the valley and pointed towards our destination 75 miles away.
Just ½ an hour later we touched down on a small cleared strip of land running up an isolated ridgeline. A few smiling faces emerged from the curious onlookers gathered at the top of the airstrip where we shut down to disembark. A couple men and a few teens (including two young ladies who’d come just to accompany Kate) had hiked in the day before from the village which was to be our final destination for the day. These smiling faces weren’t just any trail guides, these were also brothers and sisters in Christ who embraced the opportunity to use their time and expertise to serve us as we sought to catch a glimpse of the stories God was writing in their lives.
6 hours. That’s how long it had taken the small group to hike out to this airstrip the day before, most of that in the pouring rain over what we were about to find out was some extremely challenging single-track broken up by some crazy sketchy river crossings. In comparison, we were aiming for a “pedestrian” 12-hour trek back in to Mibu. To make it before nightfall, though, that meant we had no time to waste. We paused to watch the Kodiak plummet over the rise in the airstrip on its takeoff roll. I didn’t realize it until the plane climbed back into view in the distance, but I’d been holding my breath awaiting a sign it had safely lifted from the airstrip. While it was a relief to see the plane buzz over as it headed to its next destination of the day, as the last sound of its engine faded the “bigness” of what were now committed to undertake sunk in and I was thinking going home didn’t sound so bad at this point. Too late for that, though, we’d already slathered on sunscreen and bug repellent and were sliding down a muddy path towards the valley below.
After what could only have been about 15 minutes tops our guides hesitantly suggested that if we were going to have any shot at making it to their village by nightfall they’d need to carry our packs for us. So, having reluctantly handed over my pack in exchange for a long, thick bamboo pole meant to serve as a walking stick, the slipping and sliding down the side of the mountain resumed at a somewhat improved pace.
Spirits were high and the conversation lively for about the first hour. The second hour we settled into a steady rhythm as we slid and stumbled our way over the muddy, twisting trail. Mary Kate and the girls slowly pulled ahead of the rest of the group and disappeared down the trail about the time I slowly tumbled head first and disappeared over the edge of the trail. Thankfully the thick scrub brush snagged me long enough for the guides to grab my feet and pull me back up onto the path, preventing what would have been a rapid but painful descent to the base of the mountain far below. We counted that as our rest stop and set off after the ladies.
Somewhere around the third hour into the trek someone mumbled something along the lines of, “this isn’t a hike…this is a death march.” It was about that time the last photo of the day was snapped. For the next 12 hours we climbed and descended one mountain only to be faced with another. Thinking of what awaited us at the end of the trail we shuffled along for awhile repeating, “spaghetti…shower…spaghetti…shower” with alternating steps. Legs turned to jello and as breath became shorter, lungs burning for oxygen, we trudged ahead in silence.
The dazed silence was disrupted by intermittent exclamations of pain and momentary panic as we passed through sections of the trail with high undergrowth hiding hungry leeches. They weren’t big, but they definitely made things more exciting for a while. The only livelier stretch may have been that which was full of a dreadful plant akin to stinging nettles on steroids. The smallish scrubby plants were a bit more scrub brush like than just a weed, some having sharp spikes running up their woody stems. Time after time as we lost our balance we either found ourselves sliding into these cursed things or grabbing hold of one when we instinctively (but regretfully) threw out our arms, grasping for something to steady ourselves. I’m not sure which was worse, the immediate swelling and throbbing pain or the anticipation of what it might turn into after hearing tales of others’ misfortunes shared by our guides.
Making it by dark was clearly not going to be possible and we began to question if we would be able to make it at all that day. The potential of overnighting on the trail and making the final push to the village in the morning was seeming more and more likely. Any last vestiges of the “go big or go home” bravado we’d approached this mini expedition with had been left behind hours before in the first ravine we’d come to. Continuing on at that point meant crossing over a broken cable suspension bridge which listed awkwardly to one side and was missing a number of the decking plates, leaving gaping holes beneath your feet which provided a fantastic but distracting (maybe terrifying) view of the torrent rushing below. A large tree had fallen across the far end of the bridge, uprooting the anchoring structure and leaving it lying awkwardly on top of the ground, perched precariously on the slope just above the edge of the drop-off into the ravine. That was the best “bridge” we saw all day. If you don’t count the lengths of bamboo which had been fastened together with jungle vines to fashion a rickety yet effective* means of crossing another river, it was really the only bridge there was over any of the streams and rivers we encountered that day.
*I feel the term “effective” bears some further explanation here. The lashed together bamboo bridge was effective in the sense that the locals and professional tightrope walkers from the circus could easily use it to avoid having to negotiate the rapids which crashed noisily through large boulders at that point in the river. Being neither a local nor a circus entertainer you might as well have asked Travis, Kate, and I to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. At that point in the day it’s pretty much what we felt they were asking us to do.
So, yeah, we’d gone big…climbed over big mountains, crossed big rivers. We’d pushed ourselves to our limits and then somehow beyond. Now as we paused in the dark, headlamps off as we fought for breath, trying to summon up hidden stores of energy to summit yet another peak, I think we all wished for the fortune of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” only there were no ruby slippers to be found, just soaking, mud-caked trail shoes. No amount of clicking our heels together was going to whisk us home. Despite wanting nothing more than to tap out, leaving someone else to get the shots and write the story, the only option was to get back up, turn the headlamps back on, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, advancing ever so slowly (and painfully) toward our objective.
Rounding a bend as we neared the village our lights illuminated a crowd of faces. They belonged to kids and teens who, growing impatient as the time of our anticipated arrival had long since come and gone, decided to make their way down the trail to find us. Excited, they ran ahead, carrying word that the visitors would be arriving soon. Mary Kate, pressing on with the teens while Travis and I stopped to rest, arrived first. By the time the rest of our party reached the village there was a welcoming fire going in the hut of one of the young widows in the church who’d cooked up some potatoes with greens and a bit of onion and had the hot food ready when we walked in her door. Collapsing on the uneven bamboo flooring of the house, soggy bare feet on the edge of the fire pit in the middle of the room, it was several minutes before we could muster the energy to even hold the small metal bowls to eat the food which had been so graciously offered to us.
We could have probably slept there on the bamboo floor until the morning, but the missionaries’ houses were another half-hour further up the mountain, beside the airstrip the village had been working for two decades to see opened. As good as spaghetti and showers had sounded earlier in the day, it was hardly motivating as we limped back out into the night to don cold, sopping wet socks and shoes for the final push of the day. It probably took Travis and I another 45 minutes or so to reach the top. Between patches of trees and stands of bamboo we caught glimpses of light emanating from the missionaries’ houses as we painstakingly navigated the twisting trail. The houses were so tantalizingly close. As we drew closer yet, faint sounds of laughter cascaded down the slopes from the house above. Kate had summited already and was flushed with newfound energy after reuniting with her friends and classmates, children of the family we were there to visit.
With an entourage of guides, porters, and quizzical observers Travis and I lumbered stiffly up the final rise in the trail where we were warmly greeted by the missionaries. Regrettably, their warmth and enthusiasm were not immediately reciprocated. At that point I could think of little more than collapsing and lying motionless in one spot for about the next decade or so. A shower and a hearty dinner behind us, we began to process the day’s events. Terms like “sheer” and “utter” exhaustion seem woefully inadequate for capturing our condition as we turned off the lights and climbed, at last, into bed that night.
A bit more than “a mile in their shoes,” Fitbit logged 38,621* steps over the course of the 15-hour trek from the airstrip to the village. 38,621 excruciatingly unforgettable steps.
*It is to be noted Kate logged well over 40,000 steps over that trek. While I attributed it to my longer stride, she suggested that it was more likely due to my propensity for sliding rather than walking down the mountain trails as she had.
So why do this, again? That’s a story of its own, one which deserves its own space to tell, and it will be told (see “The ‘Why’“). All the pain had a purpose and every bit was worth it.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”Romans 10:13-15 (ESV)
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”