Waking up in the mountains is a struggle. After being encased in a cocoon of warmth, that first breath of Georgia’s heavy, cold air is shocking. The Appalachian Trail wasn’t exactly a nurturing environment for 12 sleep-deprived college students, especially during our spring break. Nonetheless, our team from the Outdoor Adventure Club got up every morning, faced the brisk morning grey, put on our packs and started walking.
It was worth the cold. The team’s time on the trail left senior Katie Geertsema feeling “empowered.” Mornings that began on one mountaintop would transition down to a steep valley, followed by a sharp upward trek to the top of another peak. And then, repeat.
Despite strained shoulders and legs that felt like Jell-O at times, the sense of accomplishment made the sweat and heavy breathing a vague afterthought.
In Geertsema’s eyes, looking back at the conquered mountains caused her to love her first backpacking experience. When we stopped, whether it was to pump and filter water from a stream or just to catch up on breathing during an ascent, she would take a second to gaze back at the mountain behind us. As Katie summarized, an incredible sense of pride warmed her with enthusiasm as she thought, “Hey! I climbed that!”
Senior Austin Holton added that while those moments of retrospect were motivating, he found himself even more excited by the prospects ahead. “I like to look forward too and see where we are going—what we can do together as a team,” he said.
To some, that might sound just as cheesy as the packaged mac & cheese Mountain House Meals backpackers learned to fear and respect. But the team dimension of the trip was inseparable from the “empowerment” sensation Geertsema described. A win for an individual was a win for the team. Someone made it up Blood Mountain with a heavy pack? Admiration galore. Someone uttered a word of profound wisdom on the trail? Quotations and respect abound. Someone pooped in the woods for the first time? Mass rejoicing.
The hikers who passed by us during the week created a unique and fascinating culture of their own. Stories came from chats with through-hikers, those who were beginning the six month journey from the trail’s start in Georgia to its end in Maine. A majority of the hikers our team encountered claimed to be Christians, and faith was a readily approachable conversation.
Jon Croft, our trail guide and resident backpacking expert, accredited this to the incredible scenery unfolding around us. “When you look out and see all this, how can you not at least consider the idea of a Creator?” he said, gesturing out towards our campsite’s backyard. Rolling layers of blue- grey mountains standing resolute in the midst of an otherwise foggy horizon, and at night a sea of thousands of brilliant stars would take their place.
Every real hiker on the trail adopts a trail name, and our team took great interest in upholding this tradition. Sophomore Anna Kuechenberg earned the name “Giggles” due to her adorable laughter and positive spirit. Fellow sophomore Brandon Crockett earned the name “Chip” after using his axe to cut firewood for our dinnertime bonfire. Names that fell on the stranger side included “Ranger Thunder Calves,” attributed to Holton thanks to his apparent lack of sweat and physical stress, as well as “Old and Decrepit,” which 28-year-old Geertsema accepted openly. These trail names united us, and further, authenticated our hiking experiences.
For me, the true heart and soul of the journey was found during every day’s hour of solitude. During these hours we were encouraged to read our Bibles, reflect on life, or whatever else we needed to do in order to recharge. A strange sensation of the emerging of your own real, inner self happens in the silence. No texts waiting to be opened. No homework to complete. No internet distractions. “Its actual silence,” junior Elizabeth Jenkins said.
Tired and smelly, we all drove out of Georgia. We hadn’t showered in over five days.
But there was something powerful and different in the way we interacted with one another around campfires at night and during the 10-hour drive back. Exhaustion and distraction with school work was replaced with a relaxed atmosphere, filled with laughter and an openness to talk about real issues, life questions, and conversations about God. The mornings might have been chilly, but our team’s warm and refreshed energy was apparent as we rolled away from Georgia’s mighty mountains.
—Mariah Garratt, advertisement coordinator