March 12, 2024

Iconic Locations: Priest Mountain Shelter

Did you know a significant number of hikers confess their sins in the logbook in the shelter on Priest Mountain? Why do they do this and what do they confess? Find out on today’s Iconic Locations episode.

Did you know a significant number of hikers confess their sins in the logbook in the shelter on Priest Mountain? Why do they do this and what do they confess? Find out on today’s Iconic Locations episode. 


Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction


Amber Pelham  00:07

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I tell day hikers I'm so hungry to solicit free food.


Rachel Birch  00:15

Forgive me trail father or don't, for I have no shame. Sometimes I sing Christmas songs out loud. Despite the suffering it will cause to my fellow hikers.


Alexandra Miller  00:28

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I have lived the majority of my life without a mullet. The horror.


Mills Kelly  00:37

Hello, and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly. And I'm your host. AT hikers love to create traditions, to half gallon challenge to for state challenge, and even hike naked day. Today, we're going to take a closer look at the tradition of confessing your sins in the very public priest mountain shelter logbook. The priest is the tallest of the peaks in the so called religious range. Just south of the Tye River in Amherst County, Virginia. These mountains, the priest, the cardinal and the friar are some of the most beautiful in Virginia. But getting to the summit of the priest can be a challenge, especially if you're hiking from the parking area next to the Tye River.


Trudy Phillips  01:33

From Virginia 56 which is the highway it's a 3000 foot climb up to the top of brief mountain there are a few switchbacks but there's a lot of displaying going up. First part of it, it's reasonably graded. The last part of it the best we can tell they were trying to get it done too fast to basically go straight up the ridge. So it's quite a climb.


John Phillips  01:57

As far as actual terrain crossed by the at the priest is the last 4000 foot until you get to Moosilauke in New Hampshire.


Mills Kelly  02:07

Trudy and John Phillips, who you just heard are the volunteer maintainers of that challenging section of the trail and the shelter at the top of the mountain. Whether a person is a thru hiker or a day hiker, the pre segment is a popular place. If the weather's nice, the parking lot at the base of the trail is almost always full on the weekends. It's not one of those locations on the AT where you have a lot of alone time.


John Phillips  02:34

The goal of a wilderness is small groups. You're not supposed to see lots of other hikers as you get into the solitude of the wilderness. And so while the priest is a designated Big W wilderness, it's not solid to you're going to meet other hikers you're going to meet runners you're going to meet families on there. It's designed in to be popular.


Mills Kelly  02:58

Trudy and John Phillips they met more than 50 years ago in the Explorers Club, when they were students at Carnegie Mellon. And they've been adventuring together ever since.


John Phillips  03:10

We sort of figured out that we could tolerate each other one of the trips was a canoe trip. And we have nicknames for two person boats. They're divorced boats. And we figured if we could survive navigating through the rocks in that and still be friends, we could survive.


Mills Kelly  03:26

Fortunately, for those of us who love the AT, John and Trudy turn their love of the outdoors, into a commitment to helping with the AT. They've been volunteers on the trail for more than 25 years.


Trudy Phillips  03:39

I've been a member the natural bridge Appalachian Trail club since 1994, and an active trail maintainer since 1999. In addition to being a member of the club, I've served on the board and president of the club, Virginia regional partnership committee chair and a representative on AGC Stewardship Council. Currently, my husband and I maintain the section of the unity from the Tye River to the priest shelter.


Mills Kelly  04:12

It's not clear how the mountains of the religious range got their names.


Trudy Phillips  04:17

There's documentation that says it goes back to the 1700s.


Mills Kelly  04:21

Some say the name of the priest comes from a hermit pastor who lived in the area. Others believed the mountain was named after the influential priest family who owned a bunch of land on the mountain. While the genesis of the peaks names is a mystery, we do know that white settlers began occupying their religious mountain range about 230 years ago. Settlers claimed land grants ranging from 100 to 200 acres and proceeded to clear cut the forests hunt, fish, and mind for various metals and minerals. The lands resources were soon exhausted and the land was abandoned. When national forests were established beginning in 1918, the area became a focus for protection and restoration. When the Appalachian Trail was first laid out in the 1920s and 1930s, the priest was not part of the trail. But after World War Two members of the natural bridge Appalachian Trail club, proposed relocating the trail from its original route just to the west, to bring it over the summit of the priest and then down to the Thai River. The ATC approved a proposal and plan to ceremony on the summit of the priest to declare the trail fully reopened after a long period of neglect during and immediately after the war. The night before the event, the president of the natural bridge club received a telegram that said ATC Chairman Myron Avery was gravely ill and wouldn't be able to attend the event or give a speech. It was too late to cancel. So the participants hiked up to the summit and painted a white blaze to commemorate the moment. If you've listened to episode one of our show, you know that Avery had a serious heart condition and died later that year from a heart attack. The current shelter on the summit of the priest was completed in 1960. And it's a popular place for hikers to visit. And a significant number of those hikers confess their sins to the priest in the shelter logbook. No one knows when or why this particular tradition began. The trail guides haven't all been great about saving their shelter logs. But I have seen some dating back into the 1980s and hikers were already confessing their sins. What do they confess to? You can find some pretty despicable sins in those logbooks, ranging from stealing someone else's Pop Tarts, to not digging catholes to hiding a hiking partner's flashlight. I mean, who steal someone's Pop Tarts? I asked John and Trudy why they thought hikers confessed such things.



I have a theory. And the theory is that combining the name of the peak the priest with that extremely rugged time up, people feel like they've already done the atonement. They've already paid the penalty for their sin by the time they got there. So they might as well add the confession to go along with it.


Mills Kelly  07:32

I've hiked across that summit. And I have to agree with John that it does feel like a penalty. It's the kind of hike where you start questioning your life choices when you're on switchback 10 and only halfway up to the top. Here's one of John's favorite confessions.


John Phillips  07:50

Forgive me father for I have sinned after getting off the trail for a week, a yellow bliss six miles on the trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway to catch up from my family.


Mills Kelly  08:00

For those who don't know, yellow blazing is a hiker term for hitchhiking. And it's kind of embarrassing to admit to fellow hikers because you're skipping parts of the trail instead of hiking the mileage. Beautiful scenery, challenging hikes, or simply spending time with family members are among the main reasons hikers returned to the at again and again. In passing those good times on from one generation to another, is one of the great hiker traditions. Here's Trudy reading another confession.


Trudy Phillips  08:37

My name is Grace. It's my first time here. I'm eight years old, and I live in Houston, Texas. I'm here with my mom and grandpa. So then we have Grace's mom. My name is Tara I'm Grace's mom. I started coming to the priest when I was about her age with my dad. And now we are sharing one of our favorite places and memories with her. We are 8, 42, and 70 years old. My dad can still carry more in a backpack than I can't. I hope you're all enjoying this special part of the trail as much as we always have.


Mills Kelly  09:16

Grace's logbook entry is a good reminder that hiking isn't just about putting one foot in front of another or about crushing miles. Grace and her family were on the trail to be together to share their love of hiking. The simple joy of being on the trail really sums up my so many of us hike. remembering why we hike is just as important as hiking itself. Trudy and John feel the same.


Trudy Phillips  09:45

A lot of us like being outdoors. Just the being outdoors is the magic. Being out in the woods here and the birds and the whatever.


John Phillips  09:53

It's the Graces. It's the little kids who are out there for their first time hiking. It's the people who are just getting into it and get the exposure into Oh, I didn't know you could do this. It's the volunteers who come out for just one time to work with trail crew, they'll come away with an appreciation of the value that's been put into the AT. So it's watching the value of that show back up in someone's face.


Mills Kelly  10:20

Maybe we need to give ourselves some grace, and enjoy the journey of hiking and stop worrying about the destination.


Rachel Birch  10:27

The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios, part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me Rachel Birch and Mills Kelly. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a special thanks to Trudy and John Phillips for taking the time to talk to us and for all of their work, caring for the AT and the Priest Shelter. Thanks also to Amber Pelham and Alexandra Miller for reading entries from the Priest Shelter logbooks. Original Music for our show was performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd Virginia. We're able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. To help us continue to produce the world's best podcast on the Appalachian Trail. Please visit our website at R2 and click on the Support Us link to make a donation of any amount. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon

John Phillips

John Phillips has been a member of the National Bridge Appalachian Trail Club since 1994 and an active maintainer since 2001. In addition, he has served as a member of the board, a web administrator, and the president of the club. Currently, he and his wife Trudy maintain the section of the trail from the Tye River to the shelter on Priest Mountain.

Trudy Phillips

Trudy Phillips has been a member of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club since 1994, and an active trail maintainer since 1999. In addition to being a member of the club, she has served as on the board and president of the club, Virginia regional partnership committee chair, and a representative on ATC Stewardship Council.