At age 69, the Appalachian Trail chaplain from Holston Conference is on target to complete his 2,200-mile hike on Oct. 8.
David Smith’s concluding steps won’t take place on chilly Mount Katahdin, however. The trailblazer actually topped the iconic summit in Maine on Sept. 10. Now, he’s hiking the remaing 240 miles in east Tennessee and western North Carolina that he skipped when an injury forced him to leave the trail in late March.
“I knew it would be easier to catch the lost miles on the end of the hike, rather than trying to hike Katahdin in October or November,” he said.
After a March 6 kick-off on Springer Mountain, Ga., Smith is the second-ever chaplain sent by Holston Conference to hike the trail, but he may be the first to conquer the trail. The first-ever chaplain, 26-year-old Josh Lindamood, halted his six-month expedition, 500 miles shy of completion, when his grandmother died in October 2013. Prior to that, Lindamood battled a debilitating rash that delayed his quest to “thru-hike” the trail.
“Not finishing this was never a consideration for me,” Smith said. However, he admits he was worried enough when back and leg pain sent him home to Knoxville, Tenn., to see a physical therapist in March.
“I knew I was in such pain that I didn’t want to run the risk of becoming disabled in the Smokies, which is a hard place to get out of.”
After 10 physical therapy sessions of “pure pain and torture,” Smith returned to the trail near Damascus, Va., on April 14 with trepidation. He was not only conscious of his most recent pain but also a fall that caused a shoulder break when he attempted to hike the trail in 2013.
“I knew that the end of the hike could come with any step,” Smith said. “So I started every day with a prayer: Lord, give me the focus and attention to stay upright.” His wife, Lala, prayed the same prayer.
Reaching Katahdin was more of a relief than a celebration, Smith said, as he felt progressively more fatigued and overnight lows in New England dipped to the mid- to upper-30s. “But that was nothing compared to overnights in the teens in southern Virginia.”
On Sept. 23, Smith reconvened his A.T. journey in Roan Mountain, Tenn. His friend and fellow church member from Cokesbury United Methodist, Max Brewer, will accompany him for part of the hike through territory that’s closer to home.
On Oct. 8, Smith hopes to hoof 18 miles from Cades Cove, Tenn., to Fontana Dam, N.C., where he will be greeted by his wife and members of the Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry Team. Then, with sore feet and a victory few can claim, he will begin to share his stories of the people he met and the faith he witnessed.
On Oct. 29, Smith will celebrate his 70th birthday.
Appalachian Trail Chaplain Facebook page
"New A.T. chaplain, age 69, starts six-month hike on March 6" (The Call, 2/2/14)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.