My First Shelter on the Appalachian Trail

Stover Creek Shelter

If you have never hiked much on the AT, you probably wonder what it must be like to hike for 10 or 12 miles and then setup camp. About 10 years ago, I hiked a few miles into Maryland from Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia—what some think of as the half-way point on the AT though it’s technically not). That was first time I ever saw an AT shelter so I had a vague idea of what to expect along the way. But after several days on the trail, you realize how important these shelter locations can be. This is the Stover Creek shelter, the 2nd shelter you come across if you begin to hike northbound (not counting the Black Gap shelter on the approach trail from Amicalola Falls) from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain.

Whether or not you actually sleep in a shelter, these locations provide a good place to get out of the rain, cook a meal, and meet other hikers. On Day 1 of my AT hike, I got to this shelter around 4pm after hiking nearly 12 miles. A light had just concluded so I hung my sweaty damp clothes to dry while I setup my tent about 15 yards away from the shelter. And this became a daily routine.

By about 7pm, 3 other hikers had joined me at this shelter and then “May” showed up as I was settling into my tent for the evening. “May” and I would leave together the next morning and share much of the first 16 days of this hiking journey. Most days, we would pick a shelter that was anywhere from 10-15 miles away as our next campsite.

So shelters represented a daily destination. A place to rest, eat, and experience community.

As I continue to reflect on the trail experience, I think about the “shelter” experiences we have in our every-day lives. For most of us, our shelters are our homes…the place we land at the end of day to seek solace from work, play, or whatever activities we might engage in away from home. But our “shelter” is a place of safety and a place where we can get comfortable, share a meal with family and prepare for the next day’s adventure.

My first good view of the mountains

Being on the trail and sleeping at or near shelters gave me a much greater appreciation for the comforts of home and the joy of spending time with my wife and kids. Returning to life “off trail” came with a deep sense of gratitude but strangely, I find myself missing the trail. And that seems to be a tension that we all live with at some level. There are things that draw us away from daily life. Many of us crave adventure and variety…new terrain with incredible vistas. But the need for safety and shelter and the love of our domestic blessings also provide so much goodness. Although I am beginning to plan out my next section hike of 100-200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, for now I will make the most of my “shelter” and my time with family.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 23:6

Trail Names & Faces

Me & May

Some people seem confused when I talk about my Appalachian Trail experience, that I’m throwing in lots of stories about community and the people I was hanging out with on the trail.

“Didn’t you go hiking alone?” they might ask.

So here’s the deal. Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. Some for a few days, some for a few weeks, and even some for a few months. There was only 1 night during my 23 days on the trail that I was completely alone at a shelter or campsite at the end of the day.

In the picture above, “May” was one of the people who joined our “shelter family” that first evening at the Stover Creek Shelter. I didn’t know it at the time, but he and I would hike together for a little over two weeks. His trail name was “May” because when he was 19, he shattered his femur in an accident and one of his doctors said “You MAY never walk again.” Over those two weeks, “May” and I got to know each other pretty well and spent several hours each day chatting about his life in Charlotte and my life in Cincinnati. So the relationships on the trail really became a substantial and great part of the experience!

Trail names are also an interesting part of the hiking experience and community on the Appalachian Trail. Some people can get a trail name when they do something weird or interesting. Like one thru-hiker we met was “Subway” because when he started hiking at the northern terminus, he had several Subway sandwiches in his pack so he didn’t have to cook anything for the first few days. Folks started calling him “Subway” and it stuck.

JavaMan & Catfish

One of the other guys I hiked with (actually the first hiker I met when I was signing in at the visitor center in Amicalola Falls) whose real name is Jim almost got the trail name “Boyscout” because I noticed him wearing a Philmont t-shirt. But then I learned his nickname in the Navy had been “Catfish” because of his mustache…so we called him “Catfish!”

My manual coffee grinder

My trail name didn’t take long to stick because I woke people up each morning with the sound and aroma of grinding fresh coffee. “JAVAMAN” quickly became my moniker.

One of the younger guys we found ourselves trying to keep up for a few days was “Boots.” He seemed to be intent on experiencing maximum pain & suffering because he had a 50lb pack and boots that must not have been quite right. There were several times when I saw blood as he removed his hiking boots and socks to doctor the feet. But he was an ROTC-engineering student at Princeton who was just trying to develop his ability to withstand intense physical struggle in preparation for future military training. Super smart kid and fun hiker connection! Here he is with May & I shortly after (or before) we cross the state line from Georgia to North Carolina.

Boots, JavaMan, & May set off for the day’s hike

And there were lots of other hikers we spent time with along the way…like Sherpa, Smiles, Duct Tape, Veggie Delights, the Gossip Girls, another “Sherpa”, Stone Legs, etc!

The Appalachian Trail has this power to create community. It brings together a diverse group of people who share this passion to be outdoors and challenge themselves physically. Any amount of suffering (sometimes what hikers may call “embracing the suck”) tends to create some extra relational bonding energy that catalyzes community more quickly than what we usually experience in our normal day-to-day lives.

Praying with Your Feet

As I look back on my hike and the first couple of days of journaling, I remember the first quote I was reflecting on as a prayer exercise while hiking.

Charles Spurgeon wrote these words: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand we must trust His heart.”

The hashtag #PrayWithYourFeet had become one that I often used when posting photos about my pilgrimage on Instagram and Facebook. To me, the idea is that prayer not simply be a routine spiritual exercise but something grounded in physical activity…integrated with the hiking itself. As I hiked the first 10 miles or so to get to a shelter area that first day, my hope was that the very act of walking along this blazed trail would become a way of spiritually engaging with God.

It is difficult to say exactly at what point in my hike prayer became fully integrated with the physical journey, but I know that it did not take very long. And after experiencing significant struggles with prayer over the past few years, I was pleasantly surprised to find my conversations with God while on the trail were coming more freely than they had in years.

By the 2nd day of my hike, I had also made some relational connections with a couple of fellow hikers. “May” and “Catfish” would be my main hiking companions for the first few days and then “May” continued to journey with me for the first two weeks on the trail. We had some great experiences and conversations together, but I found myself eager to hike ahead of these guys for the first few hours each day in order to protect my times of solitude and prayer on the trail.

For the next few days, I would slowly immerse myself in the 23rd Psalm which became the most impactful passage of scripture for me during the entire 23 days of hiking (coincidence?) and I began each hiking day prayerfully quoting each section of the Psalm as I walked along. Although it took a few days of hiking meditatively to get through the whole passage, each day of my hike would begin with these words:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need!”

God as shepherd and Christ as our “good shepherd” (John 10:11) are very familiar images and motifs in the Bible. All throughout scripture, this image of being a sheep under the care of the Good Shepherd recurs but it has often felt like churchy or religious language that doesn’t make much sense to non-agrarian folk like myself. However, over the next 23 days, I owned this language and began seeing more deeply into the words and David’s proclamation in Psalm 23 that the Lord is my shepherd.

Pray with your feet! This phrase has become more than a hashtag, it has become something like a prayer activator for me. To walk…to take steps along any path towards a destination reminds me to keep in step with the Spirit.