Religion News: Psalms in my Backpack

The Niedfeldt family: Ben, 16, Caleb, 14, Joel, 12, Carla, 9 and parents Janie and Tom (not in order) set out with overloaded backpacks. Submitted photo.

Family hike provides life-long inspiration

Janie Niedfeldt doesn’t remember if she or her husband, Tom, came up with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail for three months with their four children, but whoever had the idea first had no trouble convincing the other.

The children were more skeptical: Ben, 16, had to interrupt his weight-lifting program and delay his driver’s license; fourteen-year old Caleb didn’t like the idea of missing basketball camp. Joel, 12, was a little more enthusiastic, although he had to find someone else for his paper routes; and, at 9, Carla thought the adventure a good one, and hoped it would include a bear.

The hike was more than 30 years ago, but it transformed the family in many ways that have lasted. The parents saw it as a bonding experience for the deeply religious family, and Niedfeldt kept coming back to it as a turning point that confirmed and strengthened her faith.

Niedfeldt spoke about her experience on the trail at Waynesboro’s Stone Soup Books last month, answering questions as part of a tour to publicize the book that came out of the family experience, Psalms in my Backpack: 154 vignettes from our Appalachian Trail Hike.

“We were a family of faith,” she said, “but it was on the trail that I felt the presence of God so deeply, and His protection.” When reviewing her journal and the one her husband kept several years ago, she was struck by how similar the conditions they endured were to those described by the psalmists.

“King David and the other writers of the Psalms lived in a rugged world,” she wrote, “sometimes behaving in bizarre ways, fluctuating from happy to miserable.” Her family had many of the same fears: of storms, wild animals, snakes, biting insects, heat, hunger, thirst and cold. She decided to take the journal entries and pair them with verses from the Psalms to convey her growing trust that her family was being guided and protected even in dangerous circumstances.

Their trip was before cell phones and other advanced technology that makes today’s through-hikers a little more comfortable. Niedfeldt prepared most of her rations herself before the trip, freeze-drying, dehydrating and organizing the meals neatly, and coordinating it with their schedule and the facilities of each night’s potential stopping place.

“In some ways we were over-prepared,” she said. She had every meal for every day separated in plastic bags, and packages with replenishments scheduled to arrive at post offices at appropriate stops.

In other ways, they were under-prepared. Many of the questions at her stop in Waynesboro concerned what the family carried. “Far too much,” was her answer. The family packed in all the plates and utensils for a full meal service, for example, when other, more experienced hikers traveled with just a bowl and a spoon. The packs that seemed quite bearable when shouldered at home became painful and unwieldy after a few miles in.

That wasn’t all: her husband’s knees gave out and were a constant source of worry and pain, there were more brushes with poisonous snakes then she could have imagined, and there were times when her children felt they were on the verge of starvation, times when she knew they were affected by the heat. Some days, they were thirstier than they had ever been in their lives. Other days they were soaked through, cold and miserable. Gypsy moth caterpillars rained down on them, they encountered ominous strangers, cowered in steel-poled tents when lightning crashed around them, and tried to make sense of confusing maps and directions.

But help would come out of nowhere: a ride to the hospital, kind advice from veteran through-hikers, overnight stays offered by families near the trail, snakes that slithered off rather than attack, and bears that kept their distance.

That’s not to say that everything was spiritual and prayerful on the trail. There were times when all were frustrated, angry, almost in despair. “I tell people looking for a pure devotional that this isn’t it,” Niedfeldt said. She’s honest about the small spats and moments of selfishness, but also truly moved by the way the experience has shaped all their lives, even many years later.

“For one thing, we’re all much stronger,” she said. “We learned what our bodies were capable of and have continued to push ourselves.” But most of all, she has retained the lasting peace she felt when acknowledging she was not the one controlling the outcome of this adventure.

“I think the verse I chose for the front of the book says it all,” she said: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” 

Find Psalms in my Backpack at Stone Soup books in Waynesboro, or buy it through the author’s website and learn about her other books at 

Small blessings

Crozet United Methodist Church has returned to in-person worship for both the 9:30 contemporary and 11:30 traditional worship, as well as broadcasting on Facebook and YouTube. The Church welcomes all to a “Bless the Pets” event June 12 at 1 p.m. St. Paul’s Ivy is holding indoor services, drive-in services, and online services, and there will be a vacation Bible camp. For information and times of the camp, contact Audi Barlow at [email protected].

Senior Pastor Sarah Wastella blesses United Methodist pets at a previous event. Submitted photo.


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