Reprinted with permission from The Daily Times
MARYVILLE, Tenn. (March 5, 2016) -- If you trip over a rock in Pennsylvania along the Appalachian Trail and develop a hernia, how much further could you go?
If you’re Bert “WILDCAT” Emmerson, you walk another 400 miles, into Virginia, until a second rock sends you to the dusty trail floor.
"After that second rock, I decided God was trying to tell me something,” he said. “I got off the trail and got (the hernia) fixed here. I was off the trail for three weeks.”
Emmerson is a member of Maryville First United Methodist Church and was chosen to be the 2015 Appalachian Trail chaplain for the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. His charge was to walk the entire length of “the A.T.,” all 2,190 miles from start to finish. He was a “southbounder,” or “SOBO,” meaning he started up in Maine, at Mount Katahdin and was to end up in Spirnger Mountain, Ga.
THE LONG AND WINDING PATH
He did start in Maine, on June 18, 2015, but after the hernia surgery he did a flip-flop, choosing to reconnect with the trail down south, at Springer, and walk north.
He stepped off the trail on Nov. 8 and came back after Thanksgiving.
It worked out perfectly. The hikers who became companions at the start of this journey would now be headed his way. They could see he was OK.
They were happy to see him and a little surprised after Emmerson’s bad luck with the rocks. Only 25 percent of the folks who attempt the AT actually finish. But Emmerson really had nothing to prove. He’s already done it once, back in 2004 as a thru-hiker.
Letting them see his grit might have been enough to keep some of them trodding along.
“I had preached determination to them early on,” he said. “That is what it takes to complete the Appalachian Trail. They saw that I could walk the walk and talk the talk.”
As he tells it, there was no pain associated with the hernia. It just got bigger after that second fall. Emmerson admits he was a little concerned about doctors trying to persuade him not to carry on with his mission. Turns out, he had nothing to worry about.
“Fortunately I got a doctor who told me walking is the best thing you can do to help hernia surgery heal,” Emmerson said. “I said, ‘This is going to work out well for both of us.’"
EXPERIENCE COMES IN HANDY
This was a challenge Emmerson was well prepared for. He is an experienced long-distance hiker, having completed the Triple Crown. That includes the Appalachian Trail (2004, northbound), the Pacific Coast Trail (2005) and the Continental Divide Trail (2007). The trails in the Smokies are some of his favorites.
Before he started, he planned to average 12 miles a day and finish up around Christmas 2015. The three weeks he left the trail in November meant that didn’t happen. He also averaged 11 miles a day and not 12. Having to hike into January and February meant fewer daylight hours as well.
But, none of that matters. Emmerson said from the get-go, this was to be about the people he’d meet and how he as a chaplain could help them on their personal journey.
“I learned early on that the fast hikers don’t need my help,” Emmerson said. “It’s the slow hikers that need my help. When you are helping the slow hikers, you tend to go a little bit slower than you might otherwise.”
He did spend days off the trail speaking to churches in various cities along the way. During one such visit, he had to catch a bus into town after missing his original destination.
January dealt its own special blow. It was Jan. 24 and Emmerson was somewhere near Damascus, Va.
“Have you ever had a ballpoint pen freeze?” he asked. He had a gel pen that did just that. “It was so cold my pen froze up, so I couldn’t write in my journal.”
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Arriving at McAfee Knob was memorable as well. It was zero degrees that day. This rock is a favorite spot of many on the A.T. who stop to strike a pose for photos.
“As I was walking up there, it dawned on me there probably won’t be anybody up there to take my picture,” he said. "I didn’t get a good one that time before.”
As it turns out, he was wrong. There was a couple at that spot who gladly took his photo. The man was even a Triple-Crowner, just like Emmerson.
“What are the chances of that happening?” he said. “There are only a couple hundred Triple-Crowners in the world and one of them is waiting for me at McAfee Knob to take my picture. I thought that was unusual.”
That night, it snowed 10 inches so Emmerson got to walk 10 miles in it.
A hiking log he carried with him is full of names and addresses of the people he met. He and some others had to help one man who developed an infection in this foot after he tried driving a tent stake into the ground while wearing flip flops. He got a puncture wound. That was in New Hampshire.
Emmerson got him to a place where they were able to stay the night. A nurse was able to dress the wound and her husband drove the hiker 50 miles into a Vermont town for a tetanus shot.
He was able to complete the trail, Emmerson said.
BONNIE AND CLYDE
Two other determined hikers were Bonnie and Clyde, a couple Emmerson met at Fontana Dam Shelter. They had been waiting for a package of supplies that was late. Emmerson suggested they hike into Cades Cove where his wife could pick them up.
“I told them I am sure they have enough food in Maryville to feed three hungry hikers,” he said. “We ended up bringing Bonnie and Clyde home with us for Christmas.”
There were on their way to Mount Katahdin, to be married. Emmerson got in touch with a United Methodist minister in the area who agreed to do it.
Last time he heard, Bonnie and Clyde were still making their way.
Other interesting tidbits: Shenandoah National Park is a favorite territory for bears. Emmerson said he saw a dozen in one day. And if you’ve ever tried to cook outdoors in the dark in freezing temperatures, it’s a bear of a challenge.
“It’s tough to do things like open and close a Ziploc bag when it’s zero,” this hiker will tell you.
One other memorable hiker Emmerson crossed paths with was a Korean-born man who goes by the trail name Solar Body, as in a body powered by the sun. He told Emmerson he is the eighth Korean to thru-hike the A.T. and his goal is to be the first Korean to thru-hike the Continental Divide.
He was full of questions for this experienced hiker.
WHY THEY ARE HERE
People who lost their jobs after 20 years, men just out of the military, retired folks and those just completing college were all putting one foot in front of the other with Emmerson. There were others who were battling drug addictions who told him backpacking was the best way to beat that demon.
“There were lots of people in transition,” this trail chaplain said. “I didn’t provide them with all the answers, but I tried to be a really good listener, to walk with them and let them talk it out.”
Emmerson arrived back home in Maryville on Feb. 24. He completed the entire length of the trail somewhere above Buena Vista, Va., along Highway 60, logging trucks whizzing by. Not the thrill of being atop Katahdin or in Springer at the end, but a sense of relief and accomplishment nonetheless.
He can also boast that he now weighs what he did in high school. That’s a 25 pound loss.
The next trail chaplain has been commissioned for 2016: Chuck “Cold Turkey” Jones.
Emmerson said he knows people who are looking at 2016 as their year to conquer the AT.
There is no magical formula for success. And Emmerson’s measuring stick for achieving it is not that you push yourself from Maine to Georgia or else.
It’s that you take the opportunity.
"I recommend it," he said.
"Listening for God on the Appalachian Trail" (UMTV, 1/9/15)
"New AT chaplain, age 69, starts six-month hike on March 6" (The Call, 2/2/14)
"United Methodists sends first chaplain to hike 2,200-mile A.T." (The Call, 1/4/13)