‘Trail magic’: reflections on a mission in Appalachia

By Bill Cato Special Contributor I recently had the opportunity to be part of a unique mission trip: to serve hikers along the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Virginia and West Virginia. Bill CatoWe worked in conjunction with a group called Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry (ATOM) led by the Rev. Alan Ashworth, a United Methodist pastor in the Holston Annual Conference; and his two congregations, New Hope and Pine Grove UMCs in Bastian, Va. The ministry reaches out to “thru-hikers,” that is, individuals who are trying to complete the entire trail—a 2,100-mile journey that takes about six months. My fellow Arkansan missionaries were Herrn Northcutt and Greg Floyd, both of Highland Valley United Methodist Church. Herrn and Greg have been involved with ATOM for about five years. This was my first trip, and from the minute I met my first hiker I was hooked. Our primary job of the week-long mission trip was serving breakfasts and lunches to hikers. We also handed out toothpaste and toothbrushes, mailed cards and letters for the hikers, provided transportation to stores in town and handed out New Testaments. Such activities are an AT tradition known as “trail magic.” The real mission work, however, took place during our many conversations with hikers. Stories shared Naturally, we heard funny stories, like the hiker who got the trail name “Southbound” because he woke up one morning and started hiking the wrong direction. Then there was the young woman who was chased through a field by a cow, and the man with a pop-up tent that kept coming loose from his backpack. (When he turned around, his tent would be unfolded and all set up on the trail behind him.) But if the hikers stayed around long enough for the humor and laughter to die down, the conversation would inevitably turn to more serious matters. The AT stretches from Georgia to Maine—that’s no Sunday afternoon stroll. Thru-hikers have a reason for being out there, and most of the time they are more than ready to talk about that reason. We listened as hikers talked about losing their jobs, trying to find themselves after retirement or looking for some direction for their future. I remember one particularly interesting conversation with a young Jewish guy from New York City. His trail name was “Gandalf,” and he hiked in his boxer shorts… seriously, he did. But he also possessed a deep spirituality. We talked for a good half-hour about our understandings of God, and how his connection with the world around him had grown during his time away from city life. He also had spent time in the Holy Land, and wanted to return there to do peacemaking work. Healing on the AT Herrn, Greg and I reminisced recently over some of our experiences. They recalled how we were very busy during the next-to-last day, with a lot of hikers coming through the pavilion for lunch. Greg struck up a conversation with a lady who was a youthful early 60s, hiking with another woman from Florida. As we talked, she shared how she and her late husband were hikers through most of their marriage. After he died, she discontinued her hiking as she went through her grieving process. She later remarried to a retired UMC pastor and became a full-time caregiver for her parents. When both of her parents died last year, she decided to hike the AT as a way of helping her through her grief. “We talked about many things,” Herrn said, “but I remember most her feeling that God was walking with her on the Trail and freeing her from her pain. I have read several stories about people getting on the Trail after the loss of someone close to them, but this is the first time I had the opportunity to hear firsthand about the healing powers of hiking the AT. This was God extending trail magic to me.” From left, Yvanna and Andi of Germany and John from Massachusetts were three of the hikers Bill Cato met while engaging in mission on the Appalachian Trail. COURTESY PHOTOOne of the ways I knew we touched a hiker’s heart was when they would say that they were going to pass on the kindness to other hikers. We met two hikers from Germany who said they had watched videos about hiking the AT before coming to the U.S. They had heard stories about trail magic, but something about it did not quite translate for them. When they started their hike and actually got to experience some trail magic, they could not believe people actually do that kind of thing for hikers. Astonished, they said, “You mean you came all the way from Arkansas to cook hamburgers for us?” “Yes, we did,” I said. “We’re United Methodists, and that’s just the kind of thing we do to show people how much God loves them.” They both commented that nobody really demonstrates that kind of hospitality to hikers in Germany, and began making plans to perform their own trail magic when they returned home. Those are the kinds of conversations that show how God’s love spreads through you and me. Greg, Herrn, Alan and I talked a lot about stirring up interest and recruiting new people from Arkansas for the trip next year. The hikers are such an interesting group of people, and they literally walk right into your life. It’s a prime opportunity to learn some profound lessons from them while sharing God’s love in small but meaningful ways. I definitely plan to go again next year. I hope you’ll consider coming along too, so that together we can experience some of God’s trail magic along the AT. The Rev. Cato is a provisional elder who serves as pastor of First UMC Fordyce. He may be reached at william.cato@arumc.org.