The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Praying Like Wild, An A-Z Trail Guide



As a child, I argued over Jesus with my three siblings. During the month before Christmas, we battled over the right to tape a felted image of the infant Jesus, the size of a quarter, on the Advent calendar that hung from a nail on our kitchen wall. My mother made us take turns, which meant that every four years, each child would place Jesus on the calendar on Christmas Day.


“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.”

When we were teenagers, my siblings and I served as acolytes and crucifers, sitting in the sanctuary of St. James Episcopal Church. During the Nicene Creed, I often doodled on the church bulletin, judged the outfits of parishioners (thumbs up, thumbs down), or imagined myself as a character on the TV show Emergency. If we started giggling, my mother would give us the evil eye from her perch in the first pew, even when she seemed deep in prayer.


The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile-long trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington state. The trail is one of three long-distance hikes in the U.S. that comprise the Triple Crown, along with the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, an average of 700 to 800 people attempt to thru-hike the trail each year, with about 60 percent completing the journey. The diverse natural landscapes of the trail—from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River – have reached millions through the bestselling book and movie adaptation of Wild by Cheryl Strayed.


“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Episcopal Church

My mother’s father, the Rev. Cecil Jones, went to seminary to become an Episcopal priest, along with three of his eight brothers, who all grew up in the Mississippi Delta. My grandfather started Camp Bratton-Green, the Episcopal Church camp in the pinelands of Mississippi. With my grandmother, he raised my mother and her brother in the rectory in Columbus, Mississippi, the former home of Tennessee Williams.


“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Good Friday

On Good Friday in 1982, we observed a day of silence in our suburban home on Wild Oaks Road in Fairhope, Alabama. We woke in silence, ate in silence, pestered our siblings in silence. Somehow as a teenager, I felt relieved to spend a day in silence.
The next year, a car ran over our dog Chek on Good Friday. My brother named our dog Chek—with this exact spelling—after a generic brand of soda from Winn-Dixie. Even though I was old enough to know better, I wondered if Chek would rise from the dead.

Holy Week

On Ash Wednesday, we knelt at the altar at St. James Episcopal Church and received the ashes on our foreheads. After the service, my mother told us to wash off the ashes before we went to school. The gritty ashes drained down the white sink in the bathroom of the parish hall, adjacent to the church library, with its stacks of Guideposts and The Book of Common Prayer.


After my grandparents’ deaths, I inherited three icons, crucifixes from faraway places like Istanbul and Jerusalem. In my small living room, I placed three nails in the wall and hung the crosses. When my best friend and priest, the Rev. Brian Cole, came to my house one day, I took a deep breath and asked: “Do you think it looks too…Christian?”


“Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind…”


At the Bee Natural Farm, Gwen Synder and Phil Strinste grow organic vegetables like kale, green beans, and arugula in the clay-filled soil of Fairhope. After working as Peace Corps volunteers, Gwen and Phil returned home to Alabama to start their own organic farm, and now families buy shares in the farm’s CSA program, the acronym for Community-Supported Agriculture.


Last month, I found this message on my Facebook wall: “I heard your talk at the Wild Goose Festival last summer, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how your parents gave up driving and trash for Lent when you were younger. Could you tell me exactly how they did it? I’m thinking of giving up trash for Lent with my family, but I’m not sure how to do it for 40 days.”


In 2005, the city of Fairhope dedicated a new bike path, “The Ann and Larry McDuff Trail.” For about five years, biking enthusiasts lobbied for this trail, although a few property owners opposed it, worried the public would come too close to their bayfront homes.

Night Hike

The acre of woods behind our house on Wild Oaks Road included a path that led to Rock Creek, which empties into the estuary of Mobile Bay. Sometimes before bedtime, my father challenged us to walk from the safety of the house to the creek and back home. “You need to know how to walk in the dark without a flashlight and trust that your eyes will adjust to the change,” he said.


My parents’ Lenten discipline became a spiritual offering in their daily lives. After giving up trash for the 40 days before Easter, before the advent of recycling, they continued to limit the amount of packaged food they bought. After my father gave up driving for Lent one year, he began biking almost everywhere he could.


On the Day of Pentecost, following the resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended to the disciples, showing them that God gave life, even in the face of death. At St. James Episcopal Church, on Pentecost Sunday, construction-paper flames of red, yellow, and orange hung from the chandeliers, as if Jesus had commandeered a kindergarten class to do an art project aimed at redemption from above.


Cheryl Strayed often shares this quote when she describes the elements of a strong plot: “And nothing was ever the same again.”


“Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood from the wounded side that flowed
Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.”


Along the Appalachian Trail, hikers can sleep in wooden shelters, simple structures with bunks and a nearby latrine. A few miles from Standing Indian Campground in Tennessee, about twenty volunteers gathered one weekend to construct a shelter in honor of my parents. My daughter Maya and I watched as a helicopter delivered the wooden beams, the length of a house, onto a grassy meadow by the trail.


Last summer, I hiked for a week along the Pacific Crest Trail. In full-blown perimenopause, my body expelled blood clots the size of cherries, so I stopped at every creek to wash out my reusable feminine-hygiene cup. (This didn’t feel like “leave-no-trace” hiking to me).

How did my mother deal with these menstrual floods when my parents hiked the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and almost all of the 3,100 miles of the Continental Divide Trail, I wondered?


One year after my own marriage, I shopped around for churches—visiting the Quakers and the Unitarians—since my husband, whom I’d met in the Peace Corps, didn’t care for the Episcopalians. One Sunday, while we were driving to my parents’ church, he started yelling: I don’t even remember why. At the next stoplight, I opened the car door, stepped out of the car, and walked home.


One evening, after a disagreement, my teenage daughter turned to me and said, “I hope what happens to your parents happens to you too!” (For the record, she later apologized.)


At my first writing conference in Portland, Oregon, I walked into the ladies’ restroom and stood in line behind Cheryl Strayed. In the cramped bathroom, we stood next to a life-sized poster of Robert Redford’s face on the wall. Cheryl held a pink handbag and wore bright pink shoes.

Wild centers on the death of Strayed’s mother, the dissolution of her marriage, and her quest to hike the PCT. As we waited for an open stall, I rehearsed what I would say to her about my parents, about her writing. But she walked into the next available stall while checking her phone. Without trying, I spied her pink shoes peeking under the stall.

That night, she read from an essay entitled “Munro Country,” and described meeting Alice Munro, whom she had worshipped for years, after her own mother’s death. While in line, waiting to meet Munro, she realized that she didn’t need a physical encounter with her idol. “I gave her a small wave and then shifted my eyes and walked away,” she wrote.


When I became pregnant with our second child, the midwife called to suggest a second ultrasound, followed by an amnio. When my husband and I met with the high-risk OB, I understood her description of an extra X chromosome in our baby girl’s genetic makeup. “That’s Turner’s Syndrome,” I said, dredging up knowledge from my summer job in college working in medical genetics.

The disease isn’t fatal, but it’s not fun and games. I suspected that my marriage wasn’t going to last, and a baby with a birth defect would only suffer. At the time, my parents were hiking the Continental Divide Trail. As soon as they heard of my decision to end the pregnancy, they hiked off the trail, rented a car, and drove cross-country to offer prayers, not judgment.

My mother always described hiking as a form of prayer.


“This is going to ruin my day.”

According to my father, those were my mother’s last words, after they biked from a Christian yoga class to the Bee Natural Farm, where my father worked in exchange for a share of vegetables. Realizing she had forgotten her gloves, my mother returned to retrieve the gloves, as my father needed to hurry to a doctor’s appointment.

Biking back to the farm, she was hit by a teenage driver and killed. My father rode with Phil from the farm to the hospital, although by then he had learned she was dead. “I don’t want anything to happen to the driver,” my father told Phil. “I want forgiveness.”

In the months after her death, he continued to bike everywhere, cycling with his panniers full of groceries, biking to the farm to sow seeds, riding to church. One year after her death, he took his first hike alone on the Appalachian Trail. “I didn’t realize how often I asked her to get something out of my pack for me,” he said. At home, he learned to follow her recipes for the vegetarian dishes she cooked with the farm’s produce. Without hearing the alliteration, he once told me that his tears fell into her soups, soufflés, and salads.

Two years after her death, he was biking to Bee Natural Farm—on a different road—when another teenage driver hit and killed him—instantly. My father was wearing a reflective orange vest, and according to the police report, he was riding on the shoulder, two feet from the car lane. After my mother’s death, he had written out a plan for his own funeral: a handmade wooden casket, a pickup truck to transport the casket, his Gospel band by the gravesite.

Two days before my father’s death, with no visions of the future, I shared the news of my recent pregnancy—although I was separated and would soon be divorced from my children’s father (not separated enough, some might say). The baby was a girl, deemed healthy by every available genetic test. Five months later, I named the baby Annie Sky, after my mother.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. And I sure don’t believe that sudden death happens for a reason. But I do know that my mother’s cousins burst into tears when they see my youngest daughter: It’s Ann, they always say.

Maybe we see what we want to believe. Or perhaps what we don’t understand about our connections is all we can truly believe.


From Luke I, the Song of Zechariah:

“In the tender compassion of our God
in the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

Mallory McDuff is a professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012) and a regular contributor to Huffington Post and Sojourners. Find her at More from this author →