There’s nothing original about saying that life is a journey, not a destination. A quote to that effect is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but at least one “Quote Investigator” has been unable to find it in Emerson’s writings. The first documented appearance I’ve seen was from 1920, in a periodical called The Christian Advocate, where pastor Lynn H. Hough wrote that Peter “wanted his friends to realize that life is a journey and not a destination; that the heart must be set upon those matters of character which are eternal and not upon those matters of sensation which pass away.”
Any number of people have expressed the sentiment since, including the rock band Aerosmith. In a 1993 release entitled “Amazing,” they sang “Life’s a journey not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings.”
I pondered that sentiment last weekend while hiking south of Asheville. On a beautiful clear day we took the Graveyard Fields trail, which leads to two nice waterfalls — sort of a destination hike with some beautiful scenery along the way. The next day we again set out on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and quickly ascended into the clouds. We had decided to hike parts of the “Shut-In Trail” that runs in near-parallel with the Parkway from Highway 191 to the Mount Pisgah parking area.
We remained in the clouds for the full three hours we were on the trail. Rain fell for at least half of that, but beneath the forest canopy it wasn’t much of a problem, even though we hadn’t worn any rain gear.
We weren’t going anywhere in particular: just to a certain point where we planned to turn around. There was no waterfall or spectacular gorge beckoning to be seen at the end of the path we had chosen. That made me more conscious of appreciating the trail itself. Its unglamorous name comes from the laurel or rhododendron thickets it sometimes passes through, leaving one feeling “shut in,” but most of the trail gives more of the sense of mountainous, woodland beauty: colorful trees standing tall or bent by the wind, bright green moss exploiting the shade, massive boulders jutting out here and there.
Though I’m a big fan of waterfalls, there was something special about hiking when we weren’t concerned with how much further it was to the destination, and the trail itself was the focus. Cliché or not, anyone who can’t find a lesson for life in that just isn’t paying attention.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.