Church group hikes the Appalachian Trail

Staff Writer

By Elizabeth Greene
Outlook Intern
Four days, hiking 40 miles, no cell phones, and no showers. The recipe for summer program Wilderness Trail does not sound enticing on paper, especially since it is geared to teenagers. It would be hard enough to convince them to give up their cell phones for a couple days, not to mention showering.
But that is just what attracts hundreds of youth to the mountains of Virginia when summer rolls around. Where they could be laying out by the pool and keeping regular hygiene, they trade in flip-flops for hiking boots and happily hit the Appalachian Trail.
Each summer, First United Methodist Church in Newton takes a group of youth up for a week Wilderness Trail. The program has been a hit amongst youth and the church has continued to take groups for eight years.
This year, eight youth from the church ranging from middle and high school age participated in Wilderness Trail. The youth begin their week at the Wilderness Trail property, which is similar to most other church retreat spaces. They spend their first day packing their packs, going over trail guidelines, and getting to know the staff member that will lead them through the course of their four-day hike.
The youth wake up bright an early the next day and head off onto the trail. Though most of them had hiked with Trail before, it was Adam Wilson’s first time.
“I was kind of nervous because I had never really done anything like it. But everyone was telling me I was going to be fine and that calmed me down.”
Rev. Shannon LeMaster-Smith, Minister of Discipleship, also went up with the youth group, though she chose not to hike. Whereas many people might be nervous about going on a four-day hike, she says the youth were fearless.

“All the kids were really excited to get on the trail. They were ready for adventure and whatever was going to happen.”
Out on the trail, each day has a similar routine. Hikers wake early in the morning, share breakfast and prayer, then head onto the trail. They hike for a majority of the day, stopping for lunch and snack and water breaks. At the end of the day, hikers arrive at a campsite for the evening. They set up their own tents, collect firewood, and prepare a group dinner. Getting into camp also means an opportunity to rest their feet, play with friends, and enjoy having the weight of heavy packs off their backs.
The four days continue on in that routine. Some hikers say that it can feel repetitive at times but hiking in a group makes it easier. Wilson says that though the repetitiveness is not fun, his favorites parts are the views and everyone being able to hike together. Jamie Richard, a four-time hiker, says his favorite part is “getting to camp, taking your packs off, and having that sigh of relief.”
A familiar phrase mentioned on Wilderness Trail is “trust the process.” A large part of hiking is doing just this, especially since the youth have no idea where they are going. Watches are also not allowed. All of the trust has to be placed into a college-aged staff.
Surprisingly, this loss of control is a welcome change for the youth. Jamie's sister Julia, a second-time hiker, says, “It's freeing in a way because you don't have to worry about anything, you don’t really have to do anything other than hike. Jamie adds, “You really have to trust them when they send you out with an 18-year-old leading you.”
Though she did not hike, LeMaster Smith spent the week on the Wilderness Trail property and ran support runs out to the hiking groups. By running support, she got to meet hiking groups out on the trail and replenish things like drinking water and snacks during the middle of the week. Even though she did not hike with the youth, she’s glad she did support. “If I hike next year, I’ll appreciate it a lot more. It’s a lot of work.”
Following their four days of work on the trail, the youth return to the property for the time-honored tradition of “Git Back Day.” Highlights of the day included well-needed showers, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, and an infamous game of Wiffle ball. Hiking groups also create group names and a skit to represent their hike. It’s a fun way of reflecting on the hike and the closeness of the group after being in the wilderness.
When the youth got back, it was clear that all of them had a meaningful experience. LeMaster Smith noted an obvious change in the closeness of the group, saying “Even though they were close to begin with, you could tell they were better because of it.” Julia Richard says, “You feel super welcomed and there’s so much love throughout everybody. You get to grow spiritually and are just surrounded in this week of love.”
Wilderness Trail seems to leave a lasting impression. Jamie Richard is already planning to be a junior staff in the future. After Adam Wilson’s first year, he says he “definitely plans on doing it again.” As for LeMaster Smith, she’s also planning to hike next summer after hearing about the youth’s experience.
Though not everyone might be able to go out and hike 40 miles, Wilderness Trail can still provide useful lessons for all. Perseverance, trust, kindness, and support for one another are exemplified during the hike. The hikers that challenge themselves to go out on the trail get to learn these lessons in a wholly unique way.
Jamie Richard sums it all up pretty well: “What other camp have you gone to where you go out into the woods with teenagers and hike 40 miles. It’s just an awesome experience. It’s like nothing else.”