On Sunday, Feb. 28, a group of students from Emory & Henry College departed campus to embark on a long-section hike of the Appalachian Trail. The hikers are a part of the Semester-A-Trail program at E&H, which gives students the opportunity to hike the trail while earning college credit.
Amara Gardner, one of the hikers, explained that the students have had to go through rigorous amounts of training before even leaving the college.
“The training we have done in the program has included day hikes, shakedown hikes, which are multi-day hikes testing our new backpacking gear, and most importantly, mentally preparing for the hike,” she said. “The mental challenge of walking 2,200 miles is bigger than I expected!”
Despite all the training, Gardner admitted that she is still nervous about some aspects of hiking the trail, including learning to cope with a changing environment.
“There are going to be times we hike in the cold rain for days and days, and having a bad mood is really a killer while hiking. Knowing how to get motivated and finding a mood boost will be important,” she explained.
E&H sophomore Jett McReynolds expressed that, while he believes training is important, nothing can compare to physically completing the hike.
“In my opinion, no amount of training can sincerely prepare you for a long-distance hike like the Appalachian Trail,” he said.
McReynolds is also concerned about how the trail could negatively affect his emotional and mental health.
“It’s not so much the physical challenge that is causing me some anxiety, more of the mental game that comes on with the trail,” he said. “Hiking day in and day out can beat someone down. I just want to be able to keep my head in it.”
Both students have had aspirations of hiking the Appalachian Trail for years, but McReynolds mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic provided him the perfect opportunity to take part in the program.
“I’ve had this dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail for a couple of years now. With the way COVID has played out through this academic year, I cannot think of a better time to hit the trail,” he said. “Looking at my time on the trail, I’m sure the experiences and adventures I will have with fellow hikers and even my time in town will be quite unusual due to COVID.”
While spending time in nature is a major appeal of the program, it isn’t the only aspect of the hike Gardner and McReynolds are looking forward to.
“I’m most excited about the people that I will be meeting and the friends that will be with me along the way,” Gardner said, the excitement evident in her voice. “I’m really excited to get out of my comfort zone and to grow from that,” she said.
McReyonlds echoed that sentiment and tone as he is excited for both the good and the bad experiences he is going to gain from hiking the trail.
“I’m excited about all of it,” he said. “The people, the landscapes, everything. The trail can give you a lot – both good and bad – it’s just a matter of taking whatever is thrown at you.”
Hiking the Appalachian Trail doesn’t mean the students get to dismiss their coursework completely, though. Gardner explained that the hikers are still expected to engage in academic pursuits while they are away from E&H.
“We have established projects for certain classes while on trail to get credits for those courses. For me, this includes Art and Mass Communications, while other students are doing Film, Environmental Science, or Religion,” she said.
Both Gardner and McReynolds recommend the Semester-A-Trail program to anyone interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, and they hope more students will take advantage of the opportunity in the future.
“Many people I know hadn’t heard about the Appalachian Trail before I started talking about it. It would be really amazing if other students knew about this program,” Gardner said. “Once the program has really settled in and established itself, it can grow from there.”
Students interested in the Semester-A-Trail program, or any other aspect of the outdoor program at E&H, can find more information and ways to get involved on the Outdoor Program’s website.