April 4, 2023

The Call of the Trail

Throughout its history, the Appalachian Trail has been a place many hikers go for peace, for inspiration, for community, for physical challenge, and in some cases, as a sort of personal spiritual journey.

Further Reading

Susan Bratton. The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail: Community, Environment, and Belief on a Long-Distance Hiking Path. University of Tennessee Press, 2012. 

Jennifer Pharr Davis. The Trailblazer

Sarah Robinson. And Then I Walked, October 20, 2021.

Cindy Ross. A Women's Journey. Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2009.


[Sounds of War in the background]

[mournful, yet hopeful music]

MILLS KELLY: When Earl Shaffer embarked on his successful thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1948, he had a very personal goal. Earl was a veteran of World War II. After returning home from the Pacific campaign, he was having a very hard time getting over the war and the death of his friend and hiking buddy Walter Winemiller. Earl’s solution was to hike the entire AT in hopes of “walking off the war.” His hike was a pilgrimage of sorts – a walk from darkness toward light.

KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m your host.

KELLY: Throughout its history, the Appalachian Trail has been a place many hikers go for peace, for solace, for inspiration, for meditation, for community, for physical challenge, and in some cases, as a sort of personal spiritual journey. Sometimes people go to heal from past traumas. Sometimes to reset the trajectory of their lives. In our show today, we’re taking a close look at the history of these inner motivations to hike.

JENNIFER PHARR DAVIS: I think in our everyday life, we have to work really, really hard to carve out time for something that's quiet or something that's holy, you know, for different people, different things meditation, prayer, whatever it is, I just found on the on the trail I mean if you're out there a long time you're either going to talk to yourself or talk to God when no one else is around depending on your you know, faith and worldview and whatnot like you're you just start talking

KELLY: That was legendary long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis talking about the spiritual side of hiking.

DAVIS: Hiking became sort of this constant prayer of like, I'm having these feelings I'm having these emotions. I'm going through this. Where do I go with all this? And I just got to very naturally like, turn towards prayer and turn towards God so yeah, the walking became sort of a faith practice in itself.

KELLY: When Jennifer embarked on her first AT thru hike she was 21. And she wasn’t seeking the same sort of reset that Earl was after, but that hike did send her onto a different path.

DAVIS: I can't tell you how often I just think, to myself, that life would look very different if I had not taken that hike. I’m so grateful that I kind of stumbled upon the AT when I was 21 years old. And I think the catalyst for change, it really changed my outlook and values, it changed my definition of success. I feel like I got to build my life around what became important to me on the trail. And I've seen in so many other instances, people have to deconstruct their lives to get to what they find is important to them, with or without the Appalachian Trail. But having that experience gave me just a deeper knowledge of myself, gave me a better understanding of the world around me, of nature, of community.

KELLY: And she’s not alone when it comes to finding her time on the AT transformative.


SARAH ROBISON: My name is Sarah Robison, and I'm a nurse anesthetist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I resigned from my 15 year career there in March of 2021 to thru hike the Appalachian Trail Northbound and I completed that thru hike in October of 2021. And then I went on to complete the Vermont Long Trail in September of 2022.

KELLY: Sarah hadn’t intended to thru hike the AT. In fact, she had planned instead to section hike the trail over many years. A few years ago, she was on one of those section hikes, from Bear’s Den in Northern Virginia south to the middle of Shenandoah National Park. And then, as so often happens to long distance hikers, a chance conversation changed her life plan.

ROBISON: I was at Big Meadows campground, and I was sitting on a picnic table. And a woman who was just camping with her family in a trailer for the weekend. actually thought I was a thru hiker, and she came up to me and asked if I was and I said no. And she said, “Do you want to hike it all?” Do I ever, I just don't think I'll ever have the courage to get over that hurdle. And she said, “You will never be in your 70s and a rocking chair saying I really regret that time I thru hike the Appalachian Trail.”

ROBISON: I wish I could find her now. Her words stuck with me. And through a series of personal events over the winter of 2020 into 2021. I was living in an AirB&B with all of my belongings in storage, house hunting with no debt, approaching 41, with nothing but a cell phone bill and my rental payment. And it was thru-hiking season. And I felt like it was being handed to me on a silver platter. And the only thing between me and getting to Georgia was fear.

KELLY: And I have to say, Sarah had some fears.

ROBISON: I have always been afraid to feel alone. And I and I exaggerate the word feel because it's not be alone. It's not to physically be alone the feeling of loneliness petrified me, past tense.

ROBISON: When I decided to thru hike, I had this fictitious image of me for some reason in the Smoky Mountains because the Smokies had a name so they were scarier to me in a tent in the snow in the cold, like bleeding came out of my femur.  With no one in sight, crying, feeling super lonely, like, Why did I just throw my life down the drain? Is that feeling of loneliness that I've ran from really my entire life and I have attached myself to potentially the wrong people, or saying yes to things I wanted to say no to, in order to gain acceptance. And being physically alone, but also emotionally alone having to make really critical decisions. I grew through that very organically. And I learned that those feelings always pass.

KELLY: The Japanese have popularized the concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Forest bathing is, essentially, a form of eco-therapy that encourages us to disconnect from the hurly burly of the loud, busy, and often crazy and technology-infused world we live in and to reconnect with nature, with the kind of peace we can find in the forests.

KELLY: Forest bathing emerged as an idea sometime in the 1980s, but it wasn’t a new idea. In fact, this sort of wilderness rehabilitation experience was the very thing AT founder Benton MacKaye had in mind when he first proposed the trail in 1921. In that essay, MacKaye wrote, “The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a natural resource…that radiates to the heavens its enormous health-giving powers with only a fraction of a percent utilized for human rehabilitation.”

KELLY: MacKaye believed that the trail would give the toilers in the cities the fresh air, the peace one feels when walking under the trees, and would release people from the stress of living in modern industrial society, if only for a few hours.

KELLY: In this belief, MacKaye was part of a long intellectual and religious tradition, including writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and Protestant religious figures such as Jonathan Edwards. In various ways, these writers and theologians saw the forests and the mountains as places of healing, places of worship, and home to a sort of “nature spirituality.” 

KELLY: Their belief holds true for many hikers today. 

DAVIS: For me, and for a lot of people, you know, the outdoors, the woods, our natural environment, like it is, it is sacred, and we need to set it apart, we need to protect it. And so a big reason for my interest and passion for conservation is not just my experience, but it's this faith that says, We need to keep places that are set apart, we need to, like, respect the sacredness of the outdoors and make sure we're like having places where this is going to last in perpetuity and plan for that.

KELLY: The more I researched this episode, the more Sarah’s experiences fit with what I was reading about many hikers, whether they were long distance hikers like Sarah and Jennifer, or hikers out on the trail for a few hours or a few days. The trail gives them something they need in their life, whether it was something profound and life-changing, or something less obvious like a day when their stress levels dropped for the first time in a while.

KELLY: Susan Bratton is a professor of history at Baylor University and is the author of the 2012 book, The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail. Her book is an in-depth study of the motivations and experiences of long distance AT hikers and of the communities along the trail who interact with and support those hikers.

KELLY: According to Susan, the vast majority of hikers do not go out hiking seeking a major spiritual transformation. But they do often hit the trail hoping to reset some aspect of their life.

SUSAN BRATTON: It's a very common motivation. And it's very common for people to initiate a long-distance hike might be part of the trail, they might be section hiking, or it might be the entire thing, at a time of life transition between college and graduate school, between jobs when you're reorienting your life, occasionally, after a marriage had broken up. And it's not an uncommon retirement trip.

KELLY: We don’t often think of hikes as pilgrimages, but Susan argues that hikes can be just that.

BRATTON: This is a traditional motive for pilgrimage in the world space, not just in Christianity, but also in say, Buddhism, and other religions that women would stop and go on a personal journey, often walking long distances, perhaps after becoming widowed, or because there was an illness in the family or because of some form of life transition.

BRATTON: In terms of expectations, you can see the influence of romanticism, very strongly, you can see Transcendentalism, and some of American historic thought about the worth of the individual, it's still very much hike your own hike.

KELLY: Susan’s take on hiking as a form of pilgrimage fits very nicely into Jennifer’s experiences as a long-distance hiker.

DAVIS: One of the things that the trail did is it just took a lot of things in my life that were more or less metaphorically speaking, like in a box, whether it was education that had happened inside and in a classroom, or whether that was religion, that mostly happened inside a church building, and like, all those things, all of a sudden, you're outdoors, you're on the trail, and you start to think and feel and experience things outside the box, which is so important that we get so tied up organizationally with things of like putting people in boxes and categories and buildings and to leave that behind and beyond the trail which, you know, I, I feel closest to God on the trail, I think because it's closest to our origin, it's the closest to how things I think should be right and, and so the environment plays into it and also just the gift of like, time and space.


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[End Music]

KELLY: The natural world also gave Jennifer the strength she needed to persevere in the face of obstacles few hikers have experienced.

DAVIS: I had a extremely difficult first thru hike and I say that with some perspective and many other thru hikes under my belt, but when I was 21, I went out there and got hit with a huge blizzard in the Smokies had my eye freeze shut at one point had a really awkward social experience in Virginia where this other hiker followed me for like a week and I didn't know how to get away. I was struck by lightning. And then in Pennsylvania, hiking by myself and I came across the body of someone who had committed suicide. There I am. 21 very naive, and so scared and so upset that all these things have happened and just being like, well why and why me and I thought I'm supposed to be I thought I was supposed to hike this trail and now I feel so scared and so unsure. And, you know, that was a human gift, a spiritual gift, you can look at it either way. But I think through that first journey, and through the hardships I faced, I also really came to understand and appreciate this whole concept of like nature therapy, because I did have these obstacles, I had these challenges. But every time I went through one, the response from other hikers on the trail, the ability to be in nature, the time and space to process, the freedom to pray through it, pray about it, I felt so much more healing through those hardships on the trail, and then staying in nature and continuing forward than I ever would have off trail.

KELLY: Although Jennifer’s first thru hike had more than its fair share of hardships, her experience wasn’t that unique. Hikers on the AT are constantly faced with the unexpected – the rattlesnake sitting in the middle of the trail, a slope that seems far too steep to climb, or a sudden summer hailstorm. Persevering, getting through those difficult moments, becomes a kind of shared experience common to all hikers.

KELLY: In the late 1970s, Cindy Ross set out on a long hike of her own.

CINDY ROSS: My name is Cindy Ross. I am an author. Right now I am 100% caregiver to my husband. Who fell off the roof, is now quadriplegic, so that what I do full time. But my past life and hopefully in my future life I will be an author again.

KELLY: Cindy didn’t set out on her hike seeking a reset, or a new direction, or a spiritual transformation. She just wanted to be like a thru hiker like a man she and a friend met when they were in college.

ROSS: We were in Eckville, Pennsylvania. which is where the trail crosses down there, and this thru hiker went through. And I was just awed at his pack, and his short little body and a huge pack and plastic bags of fruit swinging from his pack and everyone wanted to talk to him, and he was polite. But he had no interest in standing there chatting with us because he was on a mission I was thinking, “Boy, I want to do that some day.”

KELLY: And she did. In her book, A Woman’s Journey, Cindy recounts hiking the Appalachian Trail and unlike the standard hiker narrative, Cindy’s book is also lovingly illustrated. You see, she was a studio art major in college and so wanted to capture the visual side of her hike as much as she did the story of the hike itself.

ROSS: I was crazy what I carried, I had a hard cloth bound sketch book and I had ink and a calligraphy pen that I dipped in the ink. Well, crazy photography equipment. I had three lenses. One of them was a telephoto and a big SLR camera.

KELLY: After her thru hike, Cindy and her family hiked all across the country, eventually including the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. And since her husband’s accident, hiking has been her way to cope.

ROSS: I go out for a hike every day because I have to, it's by important release an hour or two every day just to get away from spinal cord injury issues. I said to Todd, you know, that's more mental for me to clear my head and be out in nature. And he said, well, that's spiritual too of what you're absorbing and needing and things like that. So, you know, every day, it's more important than ever. To me that I get out and go for a hike every day because it's such an incredibly hard job helping somebody try to get their life back.

KELLY: The resilience hiking has given Cindy is something lots of hikers talk about. Susan Bratton found this to be especially true among long-distance hikers who’ve been on the trail for a while.

BRATTON: People who've been well paced and have gotten into it after the first week or two, I think often experience relief of stress from the walk. And that's a part of what you might say a spiritual benefit to, if you can release things if you can get burdens handled, or reflect and put your life in a place where you can look back on it and understand where you're coming from and where you're going.


KELLY: Something Sarah wrote recently in her blog, And Then I Walked, sums it all up nicely.

ROBISON: At 11:20am on Monday, October 11. After 207 days of life on foot I summited the majestic 5269 feet of Mama K. Mount Katahdin. Not only does the wooden sign that rests atop her peak signify the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but my arrival to its legs signified my evolution of self my confidence, my courage, my strength, my fearlessness, my acceptance, my patience, my wanderlust. My willingness, my dedication, my grit, my pain, my faith, my trust, I did the thing. I did the thing, which was to let go.

KELLY: I hope the next time you’re out on the AT you find what you’re looking for. 

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the Executive Producers. 

KELLY: A special thanks to Jennifer Pharr Davis, Sarah Robison, Susan Bratton, and Cindy Ross for sharing their experiences with us for this episode. 

KELLY: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. 

KELLY: Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you back here soon. 

Sarah Robison

Sarah is a master's degree trained Nurse Anesthetist and has been practicing for 15 years, specializing in Neurosurgery. She resigned from her position in the spring of 2021 to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, ridding herself of her home, job and the comforts of the same. She began her hike on March 18, 2021 and successfully completed the trek, summiting Mt. Katahdin on October 11, 2021. She continues to blog on her website, https://www.andtheniwalked.com/, and is working towards the publication of her memoir, hosting a podcast of her own, and public speaking.

Cindy Ross

Cindy Ross is the author of nine published books, six of which she illustrated. She is a Triple Crown Hiker and traveled the world with her family, using the whole world to teach and educate her children. Along with her husband Todd Gladfelter, they led their very small children on llamas across the Continental Divide. The couple built their own log home from scratch and have lived a voluntary simplistic lifestyle. Todd recently suffered a tragic spinal cord injury and is a c3-5 incomplete quadriplegic. Cindy is journaling as she cares for her husband, as they use all the strength acquired from living their adventurous lifestyle to learn to walk again. She will write a book about their road to recovery. For nearly a decade, Todd and Cindy run a 501c3 non-profit River House PA- Healing Veterans in Nature, helping veterans cope with their trauma in the outdoors.
Cindy is also the author of:
Walking Toward Peace- Veterans Healing on America’s Trails- Cindy Ross, Mountaineers Books, Seattle 2021
The Log Cabin Years- How One Couple Built a Home from Scratch and Created a Life- Skyhorse Publishing, NYC, 2021
The World is Our Classroom- How One Family Used Nature & Travel to Create an Extraordinary Education, Skyhorse Publishing, NYC, 2018

Susan Bratton

Susan P. Bratton began conducting research projects in the Appalachians in the 1970s when she was a PhD student at Cornell University. After receiving her doctorate in botany, she worked for the US National Park Service as a research scientist at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other parks in the southeast. During the 1980s, she served as director of the US National Park Service cooperative at the University of Georgia. She received a second PhD in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1997 and has published extensively on ecotheology and religion and the environment. She is currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and plans to shortly retire to Virginia, near the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park.

Jenifer Pharr Davis

Jenifer Pharr Davis is an award-winning author, speaker, adventurer and entrepreneur. She has hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, set the fastest known time on the A.T. in 2011 by hiking 47 miles a day for 46 straight days, and served on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Board of Directors for three years. She has been named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, appeared in IMAX film Into America's Wild and TV shows like America Outdoors and the Highpointers, and currently serves on the President's Council for Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. She's been called "the Serena Williams of Long Distance Hiking" (PBS) and she lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband Brew and their children Charlotte and Gus.