Trips often change more than the scenery.
Last April, Charity Stoltz, 22, planned a month hiking the Appalachian Trail before starting grad school to get a degree in physical therapy.
She found it too much fun to stop.
One month turned into five months, hiking 10 to 15 hours a day, through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, carrying a 25-pound backpack, often sleeping outside in a hammock.
Hiking 2,193 miles was, in her words, the trip of a lifetime.
Never mind calloused feet, bear scares, slapping down spider webs strung like tightropes across the trail and a terrifying night stalked by an unknown wild animal. She wore out four pairs of shoes along the way.
Stoltz, who is a member of Southeast Christian Church’s Crestwood Campus, wouldn’t trade anything for her journey now.
It was the beauty of the trail, seeing lots of deer, porcupines, beavers, loons and spotted ducks. But it was also time alone to think and ponder, time to listen to music, podcasts and sermons.
All new roads teach some lessons. Days on the trail continue to change how life looks today.
“I learned so much about myself, other people, about making decisions and about God. He was present in many ways,” Stoltz said.
For the first three days, Stoltz walked alone.
“That’s when I learned that community is important,” Stoltz said. “I was so glad to meet other hikers.”
Stoltz finally teamed up with three young men who became her “trail family.”
One is a Christ follower, and the other two are atheists. They had lots of conversations about faith as they hiked, and all three remain close friends.
Stoltz also learned about other people. People walk the trail for a wide variety of reasons. Some had battled alcohol or drug addiction, many had different opinions and struggles, but everyone was respectful of everyone else.
“I learned that we could disagree all day with utmost respect for one another. I grew up in Crestwood, which is a specific community,” Stoltz said. “On the trail, I met a lot of different people with a lot of different ideas. They were genuine people with different experiences and opinions.”
She learned to value a helping hand.
“I’m not good at asking for help,” Stoltz said. “I would rather help someone else than take care of myself. But one of the guys, a physical therapist, treated the callouses on my feet. He taught me how to take care of myself and reinforced that is OK.”
With multiple doors open for Stoltz’s future, she realized that choosing the right open door is not a matter of life and death.
“I believe if it’s not the right path, God will close the door,” she said. “Life is not always in one direction.”
At a stop in Irwin, Tennessee, Stoltz found a Christian book stashed on a shelf in a hostel. She flipped through it but left it there for another hiker. But further up the trail, she found it in her backpack. Hiding the book became a game between hikers. It was stashed in her backpack when they reached the end of the trail.
The path ahead isn’t crystal clear. Stoltz is applying to grad schools, working and hiking whenever possible. She still prefers to sleep in a hammock and drink filtered water from a stream. She keeps a list of challenging hikes for the future.