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.
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