I struggle with insomnia. The last few weeks have been particularly challenging. Usually, I try to take advantage of my sleepless nights by reading, researching and writing. The other night, I felt like a member of the walking dead, so I perused Netflix for something to watch.
While perusing I stumbled upon Mile…Mile & a Half. (The film can also be streamed via Amazon). The film follows’a group of artists who] leave their daily lives behind to hike & record California’s historic John Muir Trail, a 219 miles stretch from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney.’1 Over the span of twenty-five days, the group documents their adventure, while capturing some breathtaking scenery.
Admittedly, I watched the movie, mainly, because it seemed like it would be relaxing. Yet, two days later, I can’t stop thinking about the film. As beautiful as the scenery was, it’s not the spectacular landscapes or the panoramic sunsets that I can’t stop thinking about. Rather, it’s the group’s nature and dynamics.
The group begins small. Five friends hitting the trail with camping gear and audio/video/camera equipment in tow. Days into the journey, one of the five bows out. The remaining four continue. Over the miles the bonds of their friendship are deepened. The hike is a liminal experience, leading to self-discovery and a new group dynamic.
What impressed me the most, however, wasn’t the introspection of the group members or the ways in which the relationship of these four friends was transformed through the experience. The truly captivating thing for me was the way that the group grew. Four became six, as a couple from Colorado decided to complete the John Muir with four acquaintances, who would become their ‘trail family.’ And, over the course of the remainder of their journey, the group continued to grow. The friend who had dropped out would return for a brief while. Two other friends would join up towards the end, completing the journey that their friends had began. A solitary Japanese hiker would conclude her journey by traveling the last few days with a group whose language she couldn’t speak.
By the end of the film, there’s a rag-tag ‘trail family’ sitting around the fire, eating and singing together. They are a diverse group. Old friends and new. They don’t share a common language. Yet, it’s clear that they’ve come to appreciate one another. Care for one another, quite deeply. As they summit Mt. Whitney, the pauses to rejoice. Collectively, they celebrate their shared accomplishment. They sit atop the mountain, singing and making music together.
I’ve found that last scene inescapable. The four who initially set out on the journey have grown. They’re different. The journey has changed them. But, they’ve not just changed as individuals. As a group they’ve grown. Their friendship has deepened. They’ve become a family. A family that has adopted others. A family that has welcomed, with open arms, strangers and vagabonds. Their shared experience has united them––forging bonds that would have possibly taken years to develop under any other circumstance. And, as they reach the end of their journey, together the join in song, as they eat together for one final time. (An act that is ritual in nature and felt incredibly sacramental, as I watched as an outsider looking in).
I can’t help but think: This is how the church should be. The church should be a diverse people, who journey together and through that journey are transformed individually and corporately. Along the way, the group engages in shared rituals––rituals that both shape the group and reflect what is taking place. Rituals that remind us of the sacredness of the journey. And, at the end of the journey, the group shares in an impromptu expression of glory and praise that wells up and explodes from within.