Jefferson Vann reflects on his experience as a long distance hiker.
The Appalachian Trail
It’s called The Appalachian Trail. It stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin in Maine, U.S.A. It is 2190.9 miles long for Americans— that’s about 3526 kilometers.1 For many years now, my wife and I have hiked several sections of the trail whenever we had the time. This year, we are transitioning, so we decided to take a few months, and see if we can do the whole thing.
Types of hiker
Along the trail, you meet all types. One way of categorizing us is by how much of the trail we are committed to. First, there are the day-hikers. These take a water bottle and perhaps a lunch with them, hike a small section of the trail, and are back in their car before sundown. You can usually tell a day hiker by the size of their backpack. Some don’t even carry one.
The next level is section hiking. The section hiker may be going overnight for a few days. They carry packs with food and clothing for however many days it takes. When my wife and I were section hiking, we usually did our section twice, because we had to turn around and go in the opposite direction to get back to our car. Some section hikers arrange for a friend or shuttle driver to pick them up and bring them back to where they started.
The final level is thru-hiker. A thru-hiker is committed to doing the entire trail. There are basically three subcategories of this creature. The north bound thru-hiker is called a Nobo. These start in Georgia and end in Maine. This is the most popular route. The south bound thru-hiker starts in Maine and ends in Georgia. These are called Sobos.
Because it can get a wee bit crowded in the woods if you are hiking with everyone else, another subcategory of thru-hiking has developed. These are called flip Floppers. The flip flopper starts somewhere in the middle of the trail, gets to one end, then flips back and does the other half. That was our plan. We started in Virginia and first headed north to Maine. As I write this, that is where we are now— Maine. We have done much of the trail already— over a thousand miles.
Most thru-hikers, and even many section hikers adopt trail names for themselves. A trail name is a nickname that you use to identify yourself. Some give themselves a trail name; others are branded by others they are hiking with. Here are some examples of last year’s trail name alphabet.
- Big Foot
- Cave Cricket
- Early Bird
- Honey Badger
- Ice Cream
- Jump Start
- Peak Freak
Part of the fun of meeting people along the trail is discovering their trail names and the stories behind the names. My wife and I used to call ourselves “Rev times 2”, because we are both ordained ministers. I have retained the trail name “Rev”, but she now calls herself “Reverse” because she often goes backwards downhill. Most of the people on the trail never learn our real names. But hundreds have memories of “Rev and Reverse.”
Food and Water
Feeding yourself on a long distance trail can be a challenge. Hiking for several miles every day normally produces a voracious appetite. Hiking and climbing mountains and long stretches of trail makes dieting totally unnecessary. You have to consume thousands of calories every day just to make up for the energy your body is expending. I started this year’s hike bordering on the line of overweight, at 165 pounds (75 kilograms). Within a few months, I lost all my excess fat, and the slight thickness I had developed in my waist. I am now holding steady at 146 pounds (66 kilograms). All the time, I have been utilizing the see-food diet. We usually eat two or three meals before lunch. And we carry foods that are calorie rich because we need the energy.
But we do have one restriction when it comes to food. Whatever we carry has to be light weight. When possible, we carry dehydrated meats, fruits and starches. Water is available on the trail from streams, brooks and ponds, so carrying dehydrated food helps keep the weight down. We try to keep one or two liters of water per person on us at all times.
Having food with you can be a bit of a problem, however. Chipmunks, mice, raccoons and other varmints like to snack on human food. These critters are quite persistent, so hikers need to be careful to keep their food packed away when they are not eating.
The big problem is bears. You can hardly avoid them. My first bear encounter was in New Jersey. I pretended to be scary. I wasn’t very convincing, but it worked.
Some areas of the trail have bear poles: tall metal poles with hooks at the top where hikers can hang their food bags for the night. You want to hang your food bags high where the bears cannot get to them. A bear who discovers human food becomes a menace to humans, and sometimes has to be shot. It is much better to remove temptation from these beautiful creatures. Some places have metal boxes that can be locked to store food bags overnight. Elsewhere, you have to throw a rope over a tree limb, and lift your bag to the top to keep bears away.
Some hikers drink water straight from the streams, but having served as missionaries, my wife and I are a little more cautious. We filter the water we retrieve through a filtering device we carry with us. As a second level of protection, we treat that filtered water with a few drops of chlorine. It might taste like pool water, but at least we are pretty sure it’s safe. Most of the water from the streams we encounter looks pristine, but we have sometimes had to settle for something less — from yellow to brown to red. As the hike has progressed, we find ourselves less and less concerned about such trivial things as the color of our water.
Our hiking day usually begins early (with a 5am wake-up alarm from a cellphone) and we hike until we come to a campsite or shelter sometime in the afternoon. The best hiking happens in the early morning before the sun (if there is one) begins to bake. The distance one can hike in a day varies considerably due to the terrain, weather, and the health of the hikers. Usually we arrive at a campsite totally exhausted, and then the hard work comes. You have to set up your tent (or tarp, in our case), retrieve water for overnight and breakfast, filter it, make dinner, set out your sleeping bags, hang your food bag, and then— oh, the joy of lying down for a few hours of rest.
Along the trail, there are some buildings (if you can call them that). Most are shelters with only three walls. If you are lucky enough to get to a shelter in time, you can spread out your sleeping bag and stay the night there, without having to pitch your tent. Another advantage of shelters is that there are usually several other hikers sharing the same space. Nothing is more conducive to getting to know your fellow hikers. Most of the initial conversation has to do with the miles you have hiked, and what you have encountered along the way— and food, of course. But if you meet someone in a shelter more than once, perhaps you will hike with them for a while. Very soon you will become close friends.
Each shelter has a log book (or register) in which you can record your experiences, talk about your hike, or just ramble. When we arrive at a shelter, we usually check the register to see if hikers we have met have left messages in it. It is one way of keeping track of the friends we have made who have hiked on.
The register records the joys of those who have finished the section they wanted to, and the heartbreak of those who have to leave trail.
Sleeping in a new place every night can take some getting used to. There are different sounds— from the roaring stream just outside the shelter to birds and other animals nearby. And, there is often a chorus of snoring. It is all part of the experience.
When we started north from Front Royal, Virginia, there was still a bit of snow on the ground. We have encountered everything from snow and sleet to driving rain to a blazing sun. As we traveled north, slowly the bare trees took on leaves as we moved from winter to spring. The world took on color. It happened so gradually that we were somewhat shocked to discover it. I remember a day when I was hiking alongside another hiker, and I pointed out a huge expansive meadow of beautiful green grass. I told her “that is what God can do with only one crayon from the box.”
Water is the hiker’s friend, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing. When hiking the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, the trail sometimes had a current. We could soak our tired and injured feet in it! Here in Maine, we are discovering that what we are doing is not actually hiking. It is more like climbing up and down waterfalls in the rain.
And when the sun is out, it is relentless. One day, early in our hike, we came upon one lone tree that offered a ten foot section of shade. We took advantage of that gift from God. We lay down and rested in it, and blessed that tree, because it had been a blessing to us.
The Appalachian Trail traverses fourteen States. We have always been encouraged when we reach a state border. Usually we have a picture taken at the border, and post it online. Our friends on various social networks are able to trace our whereabouts. Some States have only a few miles of trail. But others take weeks to get through. But it is extremely encouraging to get to a State border and know that you have walked through the entire State.
In Vermont, we experienced a real treat. Some friends picked us up from the trail and we stayed the weekend with them. It was such a blessing to catch up with their lives, eat, pray and worship with them.
Most people who encounter us and hear my trail name think it has something to do with how fast I walk. But then, after they discover that I am a slow walker, they realize that “Rev” stands for reverend. I explain that both my wife and I are ordained ministers. The invariably ask where we have served, and we tell them about our years as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. We tell them about our life work of training people for ministry. We tell them about how God has used our family and blessed us as we have served him and his church. Some of the people we meet are believers as well, but some have little or no experience with actual Christians. The trail is a great place to witness. We have also been blessed by the many other Christian brothers and sisters we met on the trail.
We have also been blessed by the saints who have taken on the hiking community as their ministry target. Several of the hostels we have stayed at were run by Christian ministries. Many of them offer shuttle services to and from the trail. They give hikers a place to rest, shower, resupply, and access to medical help if they need it. In some towns, it seems like only the churches care about hikers. One hostel owner told me recently that he feels like he has entertained angels without knowing it.2 These ministries are a beacon of light for the long distance hiking community.
Long distance hiking also gives one a renewed appreciation for the miracle of the human body. You push yourself to your limits, and discover that you can walk further, climb higher, and survive so much more than you thought. What a wonder the human body is.
Yet, sooner or later, everyone discovers their limits. We are all mortal beings, and the trail has several very effective ways of reminding us of our dependence on God. I am a praying man, but I find myself praying more on the trail. It is not just the “Lord, get me through this” prayer. I pray for those I meet. I have been translating a section of Psalms, and writing a short devotional based on it, every day. As I am far away from many of the distractions of life (including my computer) I find it easier to focus on God and his word.
As a conditionalist, my appreciation for God’s plan to raise the dead has also revived. I see human bodies being tested by extremes beyond what I had thought possible, and I marvel at the creation that God has chosen to represent him — to carry his image. But I am also reminded how fragile we are, and how little we can control. Circumstances and a harsh environment can quickly do us in. I have to carry creams, bug spray and bandages and pain relievers to get me through a day’s ordeal. When corresponding with me before the hike began, a former professor lamented that he hoped there were trails on the new earth. I replied that I am sure there will be, but no blisters!
How encouraging it is to know that this earthly tent is not God’s final plan for us. We have a permanent home: a body so much more glorious than this one. Our Savior is coming back to reign, and we will reign with him in a renewed state of glory and strength.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; ~ 1 Corinthians 15:42 (CSB)
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. ~ Revelation 20:6 (CSB)
On the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
- Source: The Hiker Yearbook 2017.
- He was referring to Hebrews 13:2.