Commentary: Spiritual lessons learned on the Appalachian Trail


I was recently hiking on the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia with some friends. One of my companions was Jack, a 25-year-old young man from Nashville, Tenn. I was told Jack had just checked his compass when he called out to me, “What direction are we going?” It’s an important question while navigating the AT, you don’t want to become disoriented on the trail.

Immediately my internal GPS kicked in and I responded, “North!” We hiked a few yards further when I stopped dead in my tracks. Paused for a few seconds before correcting myself, “Well, actually we are heading south!”

The southern terminus of the AT begins on Springer Mountain, Ga., and winds 2,200 miles north, ending on Mount Katahdin in Maine. Hikers are either “northbound” heading towards Mount Katahdin or “southbound,” heading to Springer. Yet, at any moment because of switchbacks, contours along the ridges, streams, rivers, or for other reasons, one may be heading north when they are southbound or south when they are northbound.

Under those circumstances, one can easily get disoriented. It’s the same way for us spiritually, there are moments when we walk by faith that the path may seem confusing or uncertain. It feels like we are heading in the wrong direction. The Bible says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Indecision is not a decision; one must press forward by faith, using the word of God as our compass.

A second principle for navigating the AT is avoiding distractions. It’s easy to miss the white blazes that mark the trail when paying attention, much more so when distracted. Especially in states that are stingy when it comes to painting blazes!

In 2016, I was hiking on the AT in northern Vermont, this was before we began using map-tracking apps on phones. On this day, a part of the trail was on an old roadbed running through an awesome hardwood forest. There was a quintessential, moss-covered, stacked stone wall that stretched for miles along the right side of the trail. We had hiked for several hours when we came upon something unusual beside the road, an art installation. Someone had stacked rocks, taken a large piece of a mushroom, and arranged them beside some ferns. It was so unusual that we stopped and took some photos before continuing.

We had gone on about another half mile or better, making good time, when I noticed the blazes were no longer the white AT blaze, they were a blue diamond. Somehow, we had gotten off the trail. We began retracing our steps, they took us back to the art installation, where it turns out, we should have made a 90-degree turn off the roadbed onto a forest trail. To add injury to the insult, when we looked at the photo taken earlier, there was a very visible white AT blaze and a sign in the background we missed!

We were distracted, heading in the wrong direction before we finally found our way. The Christian life is full of distractions. Even good things can distract us from that which is better. Like Jonah, often it is necessary to retrace one’s steps, to discover where we got off the trail and begin heading in the right direction. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Arise and go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation I’m going to tell you” (Jonah 3:1-2).

Thirdly, the Christian life, like the AT, has its unexpected delays. If one aspires to be an AT hiker, one needs to expect to get wet, cold, windswept, and hot, sometimes all on the same day! Occasionally, it is the weather that will keep a hiker off the trail. Last summer in Maine, it was the aftermath of weeks of record rainfall. Standing water and mud were our companions even on sunny days. The trail was slick and dangerous, especially when ascending and descending boulders and slabs or while balancing on slippery and partially submerged six-inch-wide beams placed across bogs; the going was often incredibly slow.

There was one section of the trail we hiked over two days that was particularly grinding. We like to average two miles an hour, the first day it took over 14 hours to hike 11 miles to the tent site/shelter for the night. The following morning our hike was delayed while helping to establish communication to secure a rescue crew to carry out an injured experienced hiker who had accidentally stepped off a beam while crossing a bog the previous day. It then took another hard 10 hours of hiking to cover the final eight miles.

Even though it didn’t rain, it had been impossible to keep our feet dry on the soaked trail. I very rarely have a blister but had developed two extremely large ones. We often build in “zero days” for rest, this was the first time I had ever had to take two zero days in a row to recuperate. Just as in our Christian life, there will be delays, but those delays are often preparing us for that to come. “Yet those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Disorientation, distractions, and delays, whether on the AT or in the Christian life are things all believers need to learn to take in stride.


Charles Jones is a Southern Baptist historian and a retired pastor.