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.

The Discipleship Journey with College Students

Recently, I sat down with a college student who wanted to “dive in” to the spiritual waters of discipleship in a deeper way. This is a student I’ve been alongside of as a spiritual mentor for a couple of years now and it’s always encouraging to know that a college student wants to put some emphasis on developing their faith as well as their academic and vocational life.

What can be a bit frustrating at times in college ministry is that a student you’ve spent time with demonstrates a lack of understanding when it comes to basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. With this particular student, biblical intimidation seems to be the main obstacle. Some have a fear of reading the Bible for themselves because they don’t believe they have the tools for interpreting the Bible or the ability to “get anything out it.”

So I took this student through a simple exercise of reading a brief passage (James 1:1-8) and demonstrating some simple ways of asking questions about the passage, journaling, asking practical questions, and then writing out a prayer in response to the passage…inviting God to bring wisdom as they try to apply biblical principles to their lives. In about 15-20 minutes, we had a great experience together in God’s word and the student walked away encouraged about the simplicity of the process.

This “discipleship conversation” was a great reminder to me of the benefits of sitting down with a student and simply reading the Bible together. As I reflect on that conversation, I thought it might be good to outline the process here which may help others:

Step #1

Pick an appropriate passage. There are parts of the Bible that lend themselves to easy understanding and simple application. I have found the short letter of James in the New Testament to be a great place to start.

Step #2

Read through the passage and make notes of key words or topics. Try to put the author’s intention in your own words. Before we get to “what this passage means to me” we need to have a good idea of the author’s intention.

Step #3

Ask questions of the text. Who is the author speaking to? What do you think the historical context of the original audience was? What is the main principle or teaching in the passage that might apply to our own lives? Is there something going on in your own life that the Holy Spirit might be calling your attention to? What would it look like to incorporate this biblical principle in your own life?

Step #4
Pray. Sometimes it’s good to write out a simple prayer. From this passage in James, a prayer might look like this: Lord, help me to see the trials in my life as opportunities to grow and mature in my faith and not just opportunities to complain or stress out.

Step #5

Take Action. What is one simple thing I can do this week to apply this teaching to my life? When a trial or difficult circumstance pops up, I want to immediately respond with a simple prayer: Lord, help me see my life and this obstacle as an opportunity to grow closer to You.

In the same way that physical exercise and good nutrition can lead to physical health and growth, spiritual exercises need to be a consistent part of our lives if we want to be spiritually healthy and fit.