At age 69, David Smith from Knoxville, Tenn., will be the second United Methodist chaplain sent by Holston Conference to hike the Appalachian Trail.
When he sets off from Springer Mountain on March 6, he will begin an arduous six-month foot journey from Georgia to Maine. His goal is not primarily to finish, Smith says.
“We in the United Methodist Church -- what we’re trying to do is put a presence of Christ on the trail,” Smith says. “A community of caring.”
Last year, Josh Lindamood, then age 26, was the first chaplain to blaze the path for a new United Methodist ministry which Smith will continue.
Delayed by a debilitating rash, Lindamood completed all but 500 of the 2,200-mile trek from April to October, while serving as an encouraging spiritual presence to other trekkers tendered by nature and physical challenge.
Lindamood plans to master the final 500 miles later this year – after his June wedding to Jen Blake.
Smith, a retired Macy’s executive and grandfather, will begin his journey with more experience than Lindamood, according to the Rev. Alan Ashworth, founder of the ministry now known as A.T.O.M., or Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry.
“Dave has already had experience in hiking the Appalachian Trail. He’s very much aware of what he needs to do to be successful,” said Ashworth.
“He's also been injured on the trail, and he’s struggled spiritually until he came to the realization of God’s love through hiking,” Ashworth said. “So Dave is the right person to point the way to others who are looking.”
Smith and his wife, Lala, are natives of Elizabethton and Roan Mountain, Tenn. After 36 years of living in Cleveland, Ohio, then Washington, D.C., the couple retired in Knoxville. They are members at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Smith wasn’t a hiker until 2008. It was the year he lost his four-year-old grandson, Walker, to pediatric cancer.
“God and I had a difficult time seeing eye-to-eye after that,” says Smith. “I was pretty mad at God.”
Walker died in April 2008, just five months after his diagnosis. The loss was so anguishing that Smith spent his days driving aimlessly from morning ‘til night. It went on for months -- until in October 2008 he was driving on the Cades Code Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains, crawling along with the sightseeing traffic.
“I saw all of these cars pulling into a parking lot,” Smith says. “So I decided to pull in to the parking lot, too. Then the people got out of their cars and started hiking. I got out of my car and hiked, too.”
On the five-mile trip back and forth to Abrams Falls, “I must have talked to 50 people,” Smith said. “It did wonders for me.”
When he got back into his car, the grieving grandfather realized “that was the best day I had in months.” What followed was a hiking love affair that made Smith stronger and stronger, emotionally and physically.
He joined the Great Smoky Mountains 900-Miler Club and other hiking groups, finding that he could stay out longer and longer on the trails. In November 2010, Smith raised money for “CureSearch for Children’s Cancer” by hiking 29 miles in one day. He finished third place out of 45.
Between 2011 and 2012, Smith traveled the Appalachian Trail in sections, crossing 14 states and reaching Mount Katahdin, Maine, in September 2012. In July 2013, he set out to “thru hike” the Appalachian Trail in reverse from Maine to Georgia.
However, six days and 67 miles into his journey, Smith fell and broke his shoulder. It took 10 hours for rescuers to get him to a hospital.
“If we knew of a city or town within our bounds that was unrepresented by the United Methodist Church, we would move heaven and earth to establish a church there,” says Ashworth in a new video about the Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry.
“I would like to see us approach the ‘AT’ as that sort of community, as a people deserving of the same kind of services of any other community within our bounds.”
Last summer, as Lindamood hiked through the Virginia states and Smith carried his arm in a sling, the A.T.O.M. team was already searching for a chaplain to join spiritual seekers on the Appalachian Trail in 2014. Smith had already been invited to a previous meeting and had impressed the team with his experience.
When Ashworth learned that an injury had temporarily thwarted Smith’s Appalachian adventure, he invited him to attend the next team meeting. By the end of that meeting, Smith had received an invitation to hike the trail as the next official chaplain.
“I didn’t think I was worthy,” Smith says. “I told them I would have to pray about it.”
Smith met with his pastor, the Rev. Stephen DeFur, who listened for a while as Smith gave him all the reasons why taking on the A.T. chaplaincy challenge might not be a good idea. (More than half of Appalachian Trail thru hikers are in their 20s, and fewer than 500 who have successfully finished were in their 60s, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy.)
Smith laughs as he recalls DeFur’s response, which finally led him to commit to the six-month journey.
“DeFur leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Look, dude. It didn’t work for Moses, and it won’t work for you.’”
As March 6 approaches, Smith is well into preparation for his long and difficult mission.
“I’m trying to hike as much as I can,” he says. “I’ve got my food plan together, and I’ve already packed 46 re-supply boxes. Lala will mail them to me on a schedule.”
Smith’s backpack is packed, and on Feb. 17 at Holston’s Clergy Convocation, he will be commissioned by Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor.
Regarding the chaplaincy part of the hike, Smith says he’s ready to meet the thousands of hikers who hike the A.T. each year.
"I've been on the trail, I know what's on the way," he says. "It's all about community and the people you come into contact with, the relationships you form. It's a close-knit community that you don't expect. It's just natural for me."
To support this ministry, make a check to “Holston Conference” with “Appalachian Trail Ministry” on the memo line. Mail to: A.T.O.M., P.O. Box 203, Bastian, VA 24314. For more information, contact Alan Ashworth at email@example.com.
- Video: "Appalachian Trail Ministry," by Eric Light (Vimeo, 1/21/14)
- "Appalachian Trail chaplain: Finishing what he started" (Wytheville Enterprise, 1/26/14)
- "United Methodists send first chaplain to hike 2,200-mile A.T." (The Call, 1/4/13)
- "Virginia pastor leads churches to offer kindness to hikers" (The Call, 1/4/13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.