A five-month journey and 2,200 miles equal one life-altering experience for Hillsville’s Matt Hall.
Hall recently finished the full length of the Appalachian Trail – a 2,200-mile hike from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain, Georgia. He began the trek in late June to begin his Appalachian Trail (AT) Chaplaincy sponsored by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. Hall was the fifth AT Chaplain to take on the journey spanning 14 states.
Hall finished the trail Nov. 19, and during his 135 days of hiking he averaged nearly 17 miles per day.
Many people who take on the Appalachian Trail do so in soul-searching capacities. Hall’s mission was to provide a spiritual presence on the trail for hikers. In the end, he said his fellow AT hikers taught him just as much.
“I did find it to be life altering. My original thoughts were I were going out there to help people and serve them and hopefully impact their lives, but the further I went along the way I realized just like everything else in life it is a two-way street,” Hall said. “Not only was I helping others, they were also helping me and changing the way I look at things.”
All in all, the Hillsville man said he felt like he accomplished what he set out to do on the Appalachian Trail. He said he had to be reminded that not everything is always going to be like a Billy Graham revival at all times.
“Ministry has a lot of different faces and it is not just baptisms and confessions of faith and those things, but it is also the pastoral care and the ministry presence and listening and just being with other people,” Hall said. “My expectations and the reality of it definitely were two different things. They weren’t at odds with each other, but they definitely shifted.”
While the five-month mission may not have been entirely what he was expecting, Hall said he knew from day one he was in the right place. It started the very first day, on June 21, when he began the climb up the mile-high Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the northernmost part of the AT.
“When I summited Mount Katahdin, I thought a cloud was going to blow over and I was going to get a view but the clouds were sitting on top of it,” Hall said. “It starts hailing and raining with winds about 60 or 70 miles per hour. I get to the mountain and I am coming back and I never felt more like I was right exactly where I needed to be in my life. The hair on my arm was standing up with excitement. It could have been the actual electricity in the air because I was in a cloud and it was lightning, but I felt like that was exactly where I needed to be.”
Just like anything, Hall said he expected to catch some flak from some folks. And while it wasn’t all roses, he said he caught much less pushback then he expected. The only time he really was confronted, he said, was near the start of the journey from a lady in New Hampshire. Hall said the woman claimed she was Jewish and asked Hall what he knew about her faith and how he could help her. Hall said he told the lady he didn’t know a lot of about the Jewish faith, but that he knew the Old Testament and they have many things in common there.
“Part of this role is to be humble enough to say, ‘I don’t know, but I know people in the area with resources that can help you,’” Hall said. “And she must have been satisfied with the answer because a few minutes later we are sitting there playing guitar and singing along to a John Prine song.”
There were also ministerial moments that Hall said blew him away. One of his favorite such episodes on the AT came when he met a hiker in New York that was just hiking the 140-mile New York stretch (70 miles both ways). Hall said the man admitted being picked on in school because of his stutter. In addition, the man admitted to struggling with addiction and having a couple of felonies on his record.
“He said he tried church before but never could find a place he fit in so that is why he hiked the Appalachian Trail. That was the one place people accepted him, even his stutter, the way he was and all his flaws,” Hall said. “But he was sitting there reading a little bitty New Testament. I asked him what he was reading and he said, ‘Well, I am reading this part in Luke and it has always confused me but I don’t know anybody who knows anything about the Bible.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am no expert, but I have read it a time or two and I work for a church actually.’ So he asked me a couple of questions and I must have answered it to his satisfaction. I woke up later that night and I see his light is still on in his tent at 10:30 at night. He had stayed up most of the night reading the Bible. The next morning I am sitting there making coffee and he comes over and has about 10 more questions. So we had a little Bible Study right there.”
Another touching moment for Hall came in Stratton, Maine, about 180 miles into the trek. Only expecting to go into town to pick up a food package, Hall’s daily agenda was quickly altered. Not only could his package not be found, a thunderstorm hit, sidelining him for the day. There, a man offered to take him to the next town where a big meal was being planned for hikers. Hall ended up staying the night there in a hostel, in a place he wasn’t even supposed to be.
“And there I meet this Marine who just had retired after 20-some years, and he said he was going in the opposite direction, going north about to finish his hike. He said somewhere in the Smoky Mountains he realized that after almost 30 years the military had been his God, and being retired now without them telling him what to do he kind of felt lost,” Hall said. “He said he kept hiking and realized what he was missing was a spiritual connection. But he didn’t know really where to go with that and he had been wrestling with that idea since Virginia, for almost 1,300 miles.”
The Marine told Hall he had never really met anyone in the church that he could talk to, but admitted to never really trying either. At that point, the Marine asked Hall what he did for a living.
“And I said, ‘Well, I work for the United Methodist Church. They send a chaplain out here every year to meet people where they are at instead of waiting for them to come to where we are at, that I am just here to talk with people and experience life together,’” Hall said. “He was moved, almost tears in his eyes, by the fact the church cared enough to send someone out there. We started talking throughout the night and I shared with him how I definitely didn’t have a perfect life to lead me to church but I found I place that would love me and accept me the way I was. And I encouraged him that there were places like that all over America and it is just finding somewhere you are comfortable with. And we talked about Jesus and how I understood him to be working in my life today and how I understood him to be working in my life when I came to faith. Those were two of my favorite encounters.”
Aside from the mental and spiritual exercise he practiced daily on the AT, ironically it was the physical aspects that seemed the most taxing for Hall. While the 2,200-mile trail is a daunting task for anyone, Hall entered the extended hike in optimal shape as he participates in several 5K races and other endurance events each year. Still, the AT quickly turned into a grueling physical test.
“When I got to Maine and started out, I think one of the hardest days for me was the fifth day. It hailed on us and rained on us half the day. I was going 16 miles and my body was just tired,” Hall said. “I climbed over four mountains that day I just remembered to be difficult. I remember thinking day three that as good of shape as I was in coming out, I wasn’t in shape to be doing this. It took me almost 500 miles to feel like I had gotten in hiking shape. I met a guy who did a 300-mile hike three weeks before he left for the trail to prepare and he said he still wasn’t prepared for it.”
Now that he has finished the trail, Hall will soon be traveling to and speaking with different churches along the AT about his trail ministry. A locally-licensed pastor for the United Methodist Church, Hall gave a presentation to his home church, Out of the Box Worship Center in Hillsville, the Wednesday he returned home. He plans to set a date to talk about the hike at Out of the Box another evening in the near future.
“The Methodist Church helped me achieve a lifetime goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail and I am very grateful to the Methodist Church,” Hall said. “The ministry is fully funded by donations from people that hear of the ministry, so for us to put next year’s chaplain out there I need to do some fundraising. I think it will be fun because before I left I was talking in theory, and now that I know what happened out there it is a little bit easier to talk about it.”
Anyone who has questions for Hall about the ministry may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his blog about the hike at www.trailjournals.com/matthall2041/ or his Facebook page (Appalachian Trail Chaplain).
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4602 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN