It feels like such a distant memory at this point, but stands as a key moment in my development. I simply wouldn’t be who I am, but knowing my character, it was probable that an event like this would happen. It could’ve been the military, or maybe college, but instead it was a Mormon Mission. 

To clarify what I mean, a Mormon Mission is a 2 year commitment where a young man/woman will share their religion with strangers. You ever see 2 young men riding bikes while dressed in white suits with black name tags? That was what I was doing.

Missionary life is a very structured life. You have to wake up at 6AM, read scriptures individually for an hour, read scriptures with your missionary companion for an hour, proselyte until dinner, go to bed at 9 pm, repeat for 2 years. And between it all you pray.

You aren’t allowed to watch movies, play video games, read non-scriptural books, listen to un-permitted music, hug women, cuss, and a plethora of other distracting activities. To a Mormon, it’s exclusively about spirituality and building your relationship with Jesus Christ.

It was July of 2014, and I was serving with my missionary companion Elder White. He was my 4th missionary companion, and we were serving in Roseville, California.

I was nearing 9 months into my 24 month mission, and to be honest struggling with some theological ideas. I was not sure why I was out there, spending my money to proclaim an ideology I didn’t agree with. I started to get desperate and felt that I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I needed God to proclaim the truthfulness of it all or else I’d leave the mission.

Elder White and I were going to the Sacramento Temple in a few days, and so I prepared spiritually.

I didn’t eat food for 2 days to clear out my body, doubled down on the scripture reading, and prayed more to God than I communicated with anyone else. That way, if nothing happened in the temple, I could comfortably say that I gave it all I had.

I went to the temple and prayed for 4 hours, and through it all I felt nothing. I went back to our apartment feeling very defeated.

The next day I looked at the map of the mission boundaries which was slapped on our apartment wall. To the very east of the boundary was a long red line, meandering north and south in the mountains of California. It was the Pacific Crest Trail.

I learned about long-distance backpacking when I was 14. My dad was taking me on a 1-2 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. I remember him telling me that there were also two other big trails in the United States. (Referring to the Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.)

Ever since my dad told me what thru-hiking was, I knew when I grew up that I wanted to experience that.

But there I was, now 21 years old, and feeling the call of the wild. I had determined if I would experience God that it would be in the wilderness. To me at the time, the wild represented the place where you could get closest to God on this planet, and anything man-made or influenced would sway me farther from God. 

If anywhere I would relieve those theological itches, it would be in the wild.

The closest part of the Pacific Crest Trail to me was off of Hwy 50 near Lake Tahoe. My plan initially was to hike northward to Canada and then carry on to Alaska, where I intended on ditching society for good.

I told Elder White that I was planning on running from the mission into the wilderness on my 9 month mark. He understood and supported the idea, though also felt I was going to change my mind as time neared. 

That day I trashed my missionary clothes, and bought $500 of survival/backpacking gear. 

On my last day of my mission I uploaded a video for my family on Facebook to explain to them that I was going to disappear into the wild without a phone and would be gone indefinitely in my pursuit of God. 

I then packed up all the gear I felt I needed. I ended up with 2 backpacks, one sat low and the other on top. In total I had 80 lbs of gear and health foods.

That night our missionary phone started ringing continually. It was several missionaries trying to get a hold of me. This was unusual since it was now midnight, and it was mostly the highest ranking missionaries calling. I realized they knew I was running. Somehow the information was leaked. They were on their way to stop me. I had to run.

I grabbed my backpacks, got on my bike, and rode into the night. 

I rode to an anti-Mormon woman’s house, knowing she’d keep me safe. Within an hour of my arrival to her house, her phone went off. It was Elder White. Near him were police that were called in. The church had called them claiming that I was attempting suicide. There were also around 10 other missionaries now at the apartment.

The anti-Mormon woman told Elder White on the phone that I wasn’t at her house, and so the missionaries preceded to search all night for me around town. The police had dropped the case once they read a note I left behind entitled “Why I’m Leaving the Mission.” Once they realized my disappearance had nothing to do with suicide, they left. 

After a few days of hanging low at her house I managed to convince her boyfriend to drive me to the trailhead off of Hwy 50.

When he dropped me off I remember that huge weight of worry immediately lift. I no longer had to do what the church told me, I was the most free I had ever felt before. I felt alive, optimistic, and full of vigor. 

I proceeded to hike northward on the Pacific Crest Trail, knowing very little about backpacking and survival. With no map, no experience, and no phone I was left to guess where to go and what I’d need to do to keep alive.

Around 200 miles in my attempt at ditching society I started to feel incredibly sick. I felt feverish, and had diarrhea constantly. My energy drained and soon I wondered how healthy it would be for me to keep hiking. I approached LaPorte Road and started walking the 11 miles to get into the town of LaPorte.

It was a hot day and I was out of water. I walked about 6 miles before feeling so sick that I figured I couldn’t go any further. I laid down to die. Within seconds I noticed thousands of small green caterpillars wiggling around the nearby terrain. I got up feeling repulsed, and kept hiking towards town. About 2 more miles went by and I figured that it would now be a fine place to lay down and die. So I laid down, and again there were thousands of caterpillars. I got up and made it to town because of my repulsion to a mass migration of caterpillars.

When I finally arrived to LaPorte I had fading vision, and my ears were struggling to pick up sounds. I walked into the nearby trading post and picked up some food and water. I then asked the cashier if I could use their phone to call my parents. I called them, they didn’t answer, and so I left a voicemail letting them know my whereabouts. I started feeling a lot better, and so left the trading post to stealth camp nearby. 

What had made me so sick? It is hard to say, but the leading theory is I got arsenic poisoning from my diet. For backpacking food I packed out a ton of almonds and walnuts, and both contain small amounts of arsenic. I would feel sick, eat more almonds and walnuts to fill in my belly, and get more sick from the food; a vicious cycle.

The next day as I walked into town, a lady immediately approached me to converse. She explained to me that the previous night missionaries had come into town looking for me, claiming that I was in a motorcycle accident and needed to be picked up. In such a small town word spreads fast, and the town knew I was running from the Mormons. So they kicked the Mormon Missionaries out of town, and she told me that they would keep me safe. 

I called my parents shortly after, and found out that they had called the church because of how sickly I sounded on the voicemail that I left. After a bit of talking to my parents I determined I was done trying to ditch society. They were now driving out to California from Missouri to pick me up. Within 2 days of hanging around my stealth spot, my parents showed up. We drove back to Missouri. 

Though I was on the PCT for around a week, the freedom I tasted left an imprint on me, and I consider this event my introduction into the world of hiker trash.

To this day I am known as the Runaway Missionary in the Roseville Mission. I’m used as a lesson for missionaries to “watch yourself lest you end up running away.”

Currently I’ve hiked around 13,000 miles of long-distance hiking trails. I’m a Triple Crown hiker, hiked a long-trail in every major physiographic region in the USA, and am the creator and first thru-hiker of the Fourth Crown Route. (a 2900 mile route combining the Arizona Trail with the Idaho Centennial Trail.)

It’s amazing to me that it all started when I was a young man searching for God. I can’t say for certain I found God, nor do I have the same theological view today on what God would even mean.

But I can tell you that this search gave me a sense of belonging, joy, and fulfillment. I love being hiker trash, and so in that way I am grateful that I chose to run to the wild.

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