Like Hiking With God

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A while ago I was pleased to receive a phone call from an old friend living near Atlanta, Georgia. His warm greeting was familiar and immediately brought back memories of our friendship that had spanned the most influential five years of my life. As we discussed the most recent events in our lives, I thought about the kind of person my friend was. And maybe it was then that I decided to write this article. I want to share his story with you. For David Kennebeck is more than just a great friend to me, he is an amazing example of the dedication and bravery it takes to bring one's dreams to life.

For as long as I can remember, David has always been talking about one thing: his dream of backpacking the Appalachian Trail. A positive, energetic, apparently born outdoorsman, David loves all things pertaining to the natural world.

To prove his love, he co-taught the "outdoors living" class at Camp Woodmen in Alabama for two consecutive years. Campers probably didn't realize the amount of experience and knowledge David had to share! His dedication to his dream has given him more experience in truly living outdoors than most of us will encounter in our lifetimes.

In seventh grade, David decided that he wanted to backpack the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail, more commonly abbreviated the AT, is a continuous marked footpath that leads from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. The total distance of the trail is around 2,160 miles. Hikers may choose to "through-hike" the trail, completing the entire route without returning to their homes for any lengthy period of time. Another option is to hike a part or parts of the trail according to the needs and time limits of the hiker. In either case, the trail is a unique experience.

While backpacking, hikers sleep in shelters, three-sided structures with a nearby privy and water source, or they may choose to sleep in the open air or tents. They carry everything they need to survive in their large backpacks, often weighing around 50 pounds. They do have the opportunity to stop in towns near the trail to purchase food, take a shower or even enjoy the luxury of a real bed in a hotel room. Since the trail was first hiked in 1936, 6,605 people have hiked the entire route. In seventh grade, David decided that he wanted to be one of them.

Of course he had a few obstacles to overcome. First of all, he had to grow up. No one's mother in her right mind would allow a 13-year-old boy to hike to Maine. No, he had to wait until he graduated from high school, a full five years. But the wait, as waits tend to do, turned out for the best. During this period, David focused on preparing for his trip. He trained physically, went on numerous shorter backpacking trips and saved lots and lots of money. The average through-hiker will invest $3,000 to $5,000 in their experience, with $1,000 of that purely for equipment. Undaunted by these figures, David continued to plan and prepare for the day his dream would become reality.

Finally that day came. On Feb. 10, 2002, 18-year-old David began his hike from the trail's starting point in Georgia. His goal was to experience truly living outdoors, whether that meant finishing the trail in a through-hike or completing it over his lifetime. His father, Lon Kennebeck, would accompany him for the first few days, and after he passed through the pet-free zone of the Smoky Mountains, his dog, Cherri, would join him.

David kept a daily journal of his travels, which he mailed to his father during his trip. These journal entries are posted online at www. yellowjacket. He hiked an average of 16 miles a day, excluding the much-appreciated Sabbath day. His pack weighed in at 53 pounds. The nights and early mornings were often bitterly cold. And he was, for the most part, completely alone.

You've got to give him credit for even wanting to attempt this feat. But he had his reasons. Just as Thoreau went to the woods to "live deliberately" and to "suck all the marrow out of life," David explains his motivations as such: "I guess what it all comes down to is this is what I love. Backpacking gets down to the core of life, no distractions, just you and the raw wilderness, maybe some new hiking friends and God."

It may be that deep inside we all crave that kind of simplicity. This excerpt from David's journal further explains his reasons for hiking:

"... I got this wonderful feeling today; I get it every once in a while. Just being in the woods, not thinking about anything in particular, and then, BAM! This amazing sense of joy hits me. The same feeling you get at the Feast sometimes or when I get to see great friends again ... I think that's why I love hiking so much. When I get that feeling, it's like I'm hiking with God. I feel so close to Him. It doesn't even have to be during a beautiful part of the trail. So thanks to God for hiking through those fields today."

While feeling closer to God was a source of encouragement to David, he was plagued with persistent illness almost from the onset of his trip. Consistent rains did not permit his things to dry, and he began to have knee problems. On April 2, 2002, after 53 days and 667.4 miles of hiking, David decided to end his trip—for the time being.

In his final journal entry, he expresses mixed emotions but sums up his trip with this statement: "I feel like I've accomplished what I've come out here to do, so I'm not disappointed." A bold statement, but if you think about it, it is a perfect expression of what life is about. In a sense we are all trying out dreams to see how they'll work and to learn what we can from them.

David is one of the rare, brave people who dare to try out one of those big dreams, the kind we have in childhood but, sadly, typically put aside. He gained an invaluable experience, something to "tell his grandchildren." He also became closer to God and, most of all, through the lessons he learned on the trail and prior to it, he added to that most precious facet of human existence: his character. And for that he deserves respect. I know he will always have mine. VT