When David Smith picked March 5 as the day to travel to Georgia for his 2,160-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, he didn’t realize it was the first day of Lent.
It just worked out that Smith began his epic journey on the same day many Christians begin their own spiritual journeys toward Easter. The difference is, Smith hopes to keep journeying past Easter, and he’s giving up a lot more than Facebook or chocolate.
Smith, age 69, is serving as Holston Conference’s second United Methodist chaplain to “thru hike” the Appalachian Trail. He departed Thursday, March 6, from Springer Mountain, Ga.
By Monday, March 10, he had already hiked 50 miles into north Georgia. His destination is Mount Katahdin, Maine, before October.
“Anxious” is how Smith replied when asked how he felt, on the night before his departure.
“I’m anxious about this body that is supporting my mind, and I’m anticipating the people that I’m going to run into along the way," he said. "That’s what makes hiking the trail so special.”
Smith and his wife, Lala, spent Ash Wednesday, March 5, at Amicalola Falls Lodge, along with members of Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry (ATOM). Smith said he was concerned about back pain that had recently developed, while knowing most of his nights for the next six months will be spent on the wooden floors of shelters or on the ground.
Lala Smith said she was concerned about the weather, which was forecast for rainy and cold in her husband’s first few days on the trail.
“All of this has all been directed by God,” Lala Smith said. “I can’t see that God would bring him to this point without giving him the strength to keep going.”
The Smiths are members at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where they retired in 2006. David Smith wasn’t a hiker until his grandson, four-year-old Walker, died of cancer in 2008.
Smith discovered that walking was the best way to grieve the loss of Walker. People who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail are often in the midst of their own transitions, Smith notes. The purpose of the Appalachian Trail chaplain is to provide a spiritual presence for the community of seekers who hike the trail between spring and fall each year.
“We’re not out there to make those transitions for them,” Smith said. “But we’re out there to share and be a listening post as someone who cares, to be a connection to the church.”
At 69, Smith is older than most of the hikers he will encounter. Each year, about 3,000 will attempt to “thru hike” the Appalachian Trail from end to end across 14 states, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy. One in four will be successful.
More than half of hikers who complete the trail are in their 20s. Of the 14,500 who have successfully thru hiked since the trail was established in 1937, fewer than 500 were in their 60s.
On March 6, David Smith was the 259th hiker this year to register the beginning of his A.T. adventure.
“Dave has the advantage of having hiked the trail already,” says the Rev. Bob Hayes, a retired pastor in Maryville, Tenn., and member of ATOM. Between 2011 and 2012, Smith traveled the Appalachian Trail in sections.
“When hikers get to the point of asking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Dave will be able to encourage them,” Hayes said. “He’ll be able to say, ‘If I did it, you can do it, too.’”
With the encouragement of his pastor and friends, Smith says he’s learned to accept that God has called him for the unique friendship and experience he can offer on the trail. His trail name is “Shortstop” because when he first started hiking, “I wasn’t in the best physical condition. I had to make a lot of short stops along the way.”
Today, Shortstop is able to hike 10 to 20 rugged miles in one day through all kinds of weather, carrying a 30-pound pack on his back while watching for snakes and bears.
What he looks forward to most are the unfettered trail conversations he cherishes – like the one that was prompted recently when a young hiker felt comfortable enough to ask, “Shortstop, what’s really important in life?”
“There are not many things I will encounter out there that I can fix,” Smith says, “but I can be a sounding board and a listener, and I can be a friend.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.