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November 17, 2008

Last year, my good friend David White hiked the entire 2200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Recently retired, David decided to take on the challenge he had long considered. For the previous ten years he had hiked a 100-mile section of the Wilderness Trail over ten days in the late summer. Last fall he arrived at the trail’s northern terminus in the state of Maine. Congratulations, David!

In an article published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921, Benton McKaye first suggested an Appalachian Trail.  The dream of a wilderness footpath that would stretch the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine was realized in 1937, only sixteen years after McKay’s original idea. 

While McKay was the father of the Appalachian Trail, Myron Avery was the organizer who put together the volunteers necessary to complete the trail. The dream became a reality.

The year our son Scott graduated from Wofford College, he and his good friend John Faris hiked the AT together. Buddies since kindergarten, Scott and John are now brothers-in-law. Bonds forged since childhood were made stronger on the high mountain path.

Stretching from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail is clearly marked with white blazes painted on rocks and trees along the entire course.  There is almost always a marking in sight.

            I have hiked the southern fourth of Appalachian Trail, almost all of it in 25 to 30 mile segments over the span of 45 years.  I have had many adventures on the Trail. One experience that was especially frightening.

            I had arranged to take a group of young people from our church in North Carolina on a 30-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  I spent time preparing these young people for the hike.  This included sessions on how to pack a backpack, care of their feet, proper clothing, food, water, sanitation, and how to hike as a group.  We checked equipment, bought food, and made all the necessary preparations.  I provided each person with a map.  I gave them careful instructions about the section of the AT we were planning to hike.

            At the last minute, three boys who had not been to any of the planning sessions wanted to join the hike.  I was reluctant, but their parents assured me that they had hiked the Trail numerous times and knew what they were doing.  I consented and invited them to come along.

            We arrived at the trailhead early in the morning in heavy fog, a common phenomenon in the mountains just after dawn.  After a quick review of procedures, we were off on our hike.  There were three adults and nine young people. 

We hiked in groups of four.  I was, as usual, at the back.  I am a slow hiker.  We were to regroup three miles up the trail at a shelter.  When I arrived with my group at the shelter, the three boys who had signed on at the last minute were nowhere in sight.  I asked their group leader about them.  He said, “They got tired of waiting and said they were going ahead.  I couldn’t stop them.”

            The fog never lifted.  All day long, we hiked.  The boys were nowhere in sight.  My assumption was that these three were fast hikers, that in their impatience they had gone ahead, and would stop at the place we had designated as our campsite for the night.  As the day wore on and the trail became steeper, my doubts increased.  These young experienced hikers could very well be behind me.  One or more of them might be hurt.  Throughout the day, I used a prearranged signal, three blasts on a whistle, to see if I could get a response from them.  There was none.

            Just before dark, the fog lifted slightly, and rain began to fall.  We arrived at our campsite with no sign of the three missing boys.  We set up camp.  I packed a few emergency supplies in a daypack and headed back down the trail, flashlight in hand.  As I backtracked, I used a roll of reflector tape to mark the campsite and to mark the trail between the white blazes.  By nine o’clock I was out of reflector tape.  I returned to the campsite about ten o’clock to devise another plan.

            As I considered what to do, I heard a whistling sound.  The three boys had seen the reflector tape and had followed it to the campsite.  They were whistling the “Colonel Boogie March” from The Bridge over the River Kwai.  I was both relieved and upset. I held my tongue.

After I was calm, I asked, “What happened?” 

Their simple answer was “We forgot that the AT was marked with the white blazes, and we took a blue blaze trail.” 

To this day, I tease them about going to blue blazes.

            The whole episode is a parable of life. There is more than one path to follow, but only one path is right. 

The morning after the boys were found, I asked one of them to lead our time of devotion.  I offered him the small Bible that I carry in my backpack.  He read Proverbs 3:5-6:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”


Kirk H. Neely

© November 2008

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