Appalachian Trail chaplain engaged in ups and downs of journeys
The woman at the water, wearing black long underwear beneath blue shorts and a blue quick dry T-shirt with a pink bandana wrapped around her brown, shoulder-length hair, blended in with the small group of hikers filtering water at the spring. Standard hiker wear, standard hiker activity.
As the group dispersed, she lingered, left alone with Chuck Jones, the 2016 Appalachian Trail chaplain commissioned by the Holston Conference, as they finished their chores.
"The long uphills and being hungry out here is not my biggest struggle," the woman at the water said in a deep, scratchy voice. "My biggest struggle each day is whether or not I am going to kill myself today."
Hiking for fun, hiking for more
The 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail that famously run through 14 states from Georgia to Maine attract people with as many reasons to hike the trail as there are mountain peaks. Lifelong goals, friends' outings, day trips and nature connections top the list for many. Beneath the carefree, environmental-loving ilk of many treks, however, are a number of hikers searching. For some, such as the woman at the water, they are searching for a reason to live.
Jones being on the banks of the spring at that moment, in what he called a "random, but God-appointed, encounter," is why the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy exists. Meeting people where they are may mean struggling up rocks, setting up a campsite or hiking in the mud.
While Jones' job description is short, it includes listening, helping and, when needed, praying with fellow hikers. That most crucial responsibility, he says, is more of a promise than a duty.
"I will walk the trail with you," said Jones, whose trail name "Cold Turkey" is a nod to his personal struggles with addiction and recovery, a plight not uncommon to many on the trail.
Ministry of eggs, bacon and a biscuit
The chaplaincy program grew out of hikers' need for a hot, home-cooked meal. For the past 14 years, breakfast has been served at New Hope Union United Methodist Church, located 1½ miles from where the trail crosses State Route 615 in Bastian, Virginia. Members at the host church, as well as at Pine Grove United Methodist Church, provide transport for the hikers, and, when possible, rides into town to the bank or post office. The Rev. Alan Ashworth, the program's founder, is the pastor of both small churches.
All along, Ashworth's vision stretched beyond the breakfast table.
"We started with an idea to intercept hikers and minister to their needs," Ashworth said. "But we had a desire for lasting relationships and long-term contact. We have an opportunity to offer something beyond food. We can offer encouragement."
Chaplaincy connection multi-directional
Now in its fourth year, the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy originated with the Holston Conference. It is starting to reach outside Holston's borders into the other annual conferences connected by the Appalachian Trail, as well as other conferences not connected geographically, but, by an affinity for the trail.
United Methodists within the New England Conference and the Western North Carolina Conference have opened their homes and provided other support to the chaplains. The Arkansas Conference annually sends folks to help serve meals. The West Virginia Conference is exploring ways it might be involved. The ministry is planning to add an intern to the trail, a Yale Divinity School graduate from the Virginia Conference.
"I'd like to see the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy evolve into an inter-conference cooperative ministry overseen by representatives from the 11 annual conferences hosting Appalachian Trail miles," Ashworth said. "I'd like to see a network of local churches along the trail all engaged together in hiker outreach."
In 2013, Josh Lindamood became the first trail chaplain commissioned by the Holston Conference, which provides training, gear, food, insurance and other expenses for the hike's duration. A family emergency took Lindamood, a.k.a. "Hardtack," off the trail mid-way. David "Shortstop" Smith took the challenge in 2014, seeking solace along the trail following the death of his 3-year-old grandson, crediting his hikes with helping him move through his grieving. Post-chaplaincy, Smith is an active advocate for the ministry, speaking throughout the eastern United States.
Bert Emmerson, better known on the trail as "Wildcat," was taking to the trail for his second time as a thru-hiker when he was commissioned as the 2015 Appalachian Trail Chaplain.
The ministry of Emmerson, who has earned the elite title of Triple Crown (meaning he has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail), was one of service, carrying water, starting fires, assisting with others' aches and pains. For Becky "Nightingale" Sandrik and Danford "Woodford" Moore, who met and traveled with Emmerson, he made lasting impressions.
Leading by example in a humble way is what Sandrik most admired about Emmerson. As a novice hiker, she learned much hiking with "Wildcat." Often, Sandrik said, when the two would be standing at a fork, Emmerson would ask, "Nightingale, does that look like the trail to you?"
"I think that question," Sandrik said, "might be something that I hear the rest of my life as I ask myself, ‘Becky, are you on the path, are you on the trail that you want, the path that you're choosing purposefully or is it just the easiest one?'"
After spending time with Emmerson, Moore is a big fan of the chaplaincy ministry, believed by leaders to be unique among mainline denominations.
"With Wildcat and the chaplaincy, he took outreach from a church and put it at a human needs level, to provide for other people physically, not just spiritually," Moore said. "He wanted all parts of their being to be healthy. And I think that speaks highly of not just the person but also of The United Methodist Church. It's a very positive way to show the teaching of Christ."
As often happens on the trail, people wander in and out of one another's company along the way. Jones, who lost touch with the woman at the water just after the initial encounter, ran into her again a couple of days later. The two spent a few hours together as she recounted her story and he listened, shared and prayed with her.
"I have a feeling that even though I am being sent onto the trail as a servant, that I will find that I will be the recipient of more blessings than I would ever be able to reciprocate," Jones said. "My prayer is that I will be able to step out of the way and let him move and work, and that I will simply have eyes to see and ears to hear."
Crystal Caviness is a public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.
To be a part of the Appalachian Trail chaplaincy
To donate or apply to the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy, contact the Rev. Alan Ashworth at email@example.com or 276-688-6151. Applicants are not required to be Holston Conference United Methodist Church members.