In the early days of his seven-month hike on the Appalachian Trail, David Smith wondered if he was “just hiking” or if he was fulfilling his responsibilities as a United Methodist chaplain.
“Lord, you put me out here,” he prayed on those first shivery March mornings in north Georgia. “Now bring me opportunities where I can have an influence.”
By the time he completed his 2,200-mile on Oct. 8, Smith felt sure his prayers had been answered.
Besides wearing out three pairs of boots and eating through 46 boxes of food (mailed or delivered to him along the way), Smith aided a hiker suffering from Lyme Disease in Pennsylvania and another with an injured ankle in Virginia.
When two men got lost near Waynesville, N.C., Smith quickly contacted rangers who were able to rescue the hikers before a storm hit.
That’s what he was there for, said Smith, age 69, the second-ever United Methodist chaplain selected by Holston Conference to “thru hike” the Appalachian Trail from start to finish.
“This ministry exists for the community on the trail,” Smith said. “It’s an opportunity for churches to have a representative on the trail – an opportunity for people to share their stories and for me to help whenever opportunities avail themselves.”
Each year, between 2 and 3 million people walk at least some part of the Appalachian Trail as it passes through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. In 2013, 875 hikers completed the rugged 2,200-mile journey.
The chaplain from Knoxville, Tenn., said he usually asked his fellow travelers, “’What brought you to the trail?’ They frequently responded that it was a life-long dream to hike the A.T.”
The “A.T. Chaplaincy” patch on his backpack was a conversation-opener, often prompting hikers to ask, “What’s that all about?” Smith said.
“I didn’t approach people or aggressively push the subject. I let people approach me," he said.
Other than emergencies requiring his quick action, Smith says he had countless conversations with hikers about faith, life struggles, or both.
“One of the most surprising things I learned is: There are a lot of people out there in recovery,” he said, referring to alcohol or drug abuse.
An elementary school principal talked about his 27 years of recovery. A young woman walking with her dog said she had just celebrated nine months of sobriety.
One hiker whose husband had just died said she was hiking the A.T. to work through her grief. “It was much like what I did two years ago,” said Smith, who discovered long-distance hiking after the death of his four-year-old grandson.
One man, recognizing Smith as a fellow thru-hiker, ran out of a Maine storefront to talk with him about salvation and grace. Another man shared how he had been abused as a child and kicked out of his home.
“It was some powerful stuff,” the chaplain said. “There were a lot of opportunities to just be a listener and let people talk. It’s pretty natural for people talk about what they’re afraid of, once they trust you.”
Smith didn’t always feel led to offer a prayer, but several times hikers asked to pray for him.
In addition to connecting with travelers along the way, Smith was interviewed by a couple of reporters and spoke at a few churches on Sunday. He visited three churches in Holston Conference and three in the New England Conference. A church member in Jefferson, N.H., picked up Smith at a road crossing and hosted him overnight before taking him to Saint John’s United Methodist Church the next day.
In Maine, Smith was hosted by the Rev. Stephen Dean, pastor of Brownville Junction United Methodist Church and author of “Backpacking with Jesus.” Holston’s Appalachian Outreach Ministry Team (A.T.O.M.) hopes to develop a closer relationship with Dean and other United Methodist churches, according to Smith.
“One thing we learned is that visiting churches along the way is important for introducing local churches to the hiking community and helping them understand how they can be in ministry to them.”
The ATOM group meets Nov. 12 to make plans for the 2015 hike and to celebrate Smith’s successful venture. To invite Smith to speak to your group, email email@example.com.
See our former stories on the A.T. chaplaincy
Chaplain aims to complete hike on Oct. 8 (9/23/14)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.