Clarice KeatingWhen Deacon Chuck Amsberry was 33, working at Holy Name Parish in Coquille, he got the call from his Mount Angel Seminary mentor, Benedictine Father Andrew Baumgartner. Would he like to go on a five-month-long backpacking trip?
Of the Catholic Sentinel
It was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, and Deacon Amsberry took it.
When Amsberry was a seminarian, Father Andrew guided student groups on summer backpacking expeditions, so the two men had hit the trails together before.
On May 8, 1985 they started at the barbed wire fence at the border of Mexico.
Father Andrew, then 51, invited Deacon Amsberry to lead. It became clear after 500 miles that the burly German monk would be the one leading the pack.
“Physically, it’s like Olympic training,” said the deacon, who today is stationed at St. Michael the Archangel Church Portland. “You’re walking a large part of the day with a heavy pack. It takes about three weeks and you’re down to your ‘trail weight.’”
They hiked up and down mountains, where snowmelt runoff had washed out bridges. There were mosquitoes, yellow jackets, rattlesnakes and bears.
But the experience was spiritual. Father Andrew celebrated Mass every day.
“When you’re on the trail, and you’re high on a ridge or near the summit, you can see for miles to the east or to the west,” Deacon Amsberry said. “You’re reciting prayers and psalms about God’s glory, and you’re there, you can see creation all around you.”
Many days they would hike in silence or spend hours praying the rosary. News travels fast up and down the trail, so people often had heard already about the strong monk making his way north when they met on the trail. The monk befriended hikers, and stays in touch with a handful of them to this day.
They spent days lost, with snow obscuring portions of the trail.
California’s trail was mostly up and down ridges and peaks, and Oregon’s section was comparatively flat. Once hikers cross over the Columbia River, they’re back to ascending and descending mountain peaks.
One day the two men stopped at a country store for some ice cream. They set their packs on the porch, walked inside with spoons in hand, and bought a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. As they speedily, yet politely, demolished the entire container, two young children stared at them, eyes wide.
“You work up an appetite,” the deacon said. “Your body becomes a machine and it needs fuel.”
By Oct. 8, the duo had reached Snoqualmie Valley, just south of Mount Baker. The snow had started early, but they had two more weeks of hiking to reach the Canadian border. A ranger gave them a 50 percent chance of making it before heavy snows hit.
“We got up in the morning and putting on our wet boots was like putting on blocks of ice,” Deacon Amsberry said. “I had a Grizzly Adams beard, and I was ready to go back to warmth, shelter and food.”
They turned to go back home, but returned the following year to finish the final leg of their trip.