Semester-A-Trail Series: Experiential Learning On The Appalachian Trail

by wherelearnu

hiking Appalachian trail

hiking Appalachian trail

Image courtesy Amara Gardner

by Stephanie Harper – Hiking long amounts of time under the changing skies while piecing together the sounds of stillness between each mile before realizing the aches of constant moving are equally important to the aches in the belly. Appalachian Trail sunrises and sunsets as lasting treats, the buds forming on trees, and the layering of clothes picked out for the long journey stuffed in a pack alongside a journal. 

“This is weird but amazing–the way the world works naturally. As the seasons change now we’re starting to notice things are a lot more complex but simple in a way.” 

While most students were tucked away in their dorm rooms or at home tapping away the months of the school season on their laptops, a group of nature-loving students banded together on a single journey of discovery and all wanting the same goal of knowing they could complete the task of doing a thru hike while gaining some much needed time during COVID.

Semester-A-Trail Program at Emory & Henry College

Having the opportunity of a lifetime to hike the Appalachian Trail and spend several months experiencing nature in solitude is just one of the ways students can earn credit for their coursework while immersing themselves through Semester-A-Trail, an outdoor program at Emory & Henry College in Virginia. Emory & Henry has a rich history of liberal arts and their  studies are known to incorporate project-based curriculum, study abroad trips, and research opportunities all based in experiential learning. 

While most adults may think a long term trek like this is unfathomable, the students who are selected to participate are really focused on not only receiving credit for school, but a trip that they’ll remember forever with new skills they’ll use in their adult lives.  “This is not about showing off and demonstrating that you’re a backcountry badass–it’s about transformation. It will be more challenging than you thought but it’s also far more beautiful.”

Jim Harrison, Director of Semester-A-Trail hiked the AT early in his life and carried on his love of stewardship and community building by encouraging students to see the value in being outdoors. “As a traveler, someone who’s away from home, you’re going to discover something very homeric. You’re going to see the best part of humanity. People are going to want to feed you, take you home, it’s a beautiful experience.” Harrison also explains that each student has plenty of time to prepare for their thru hike and even outfits them with his own knowledge of what to bring while having them memorize the Leave No Trace principles. 

Students get to choose if they want to begin the hike in January and continue on a thru hike of the AT or decide to do a long section hike. This year’s selected participants’ coursework is a mix of art, history, and writing to name a few–all of which certain components of what they are learning on the trail will be integrated back into their studies on campus when they return. 

Take a journey with us as we talk to some of the selected students for this year’s Semester-A-Trail and see how they prepped, what they expected when they started, how this experience differs from being on campus through COVID, and learn about one students’ choice to fundraise for a dear friend during their time away. 

Jett McReynolds

After deciding he wanted to join the Semester-A-Trail cohort, Jett became familiar with knowing his systems in hiking through “shakedowns” which are longish hikes meant to give a hiker a sense of how a thru hike will be and allow them to adjust their gear preparation before the big trip. Even with the intense preparation, however, his easy-going approach is something that resonated with me in our interview and I could sense his chill vibe echoed in his personal style. “I feel like a lot of it is doing what makes you feel comfortable. I like having extra food. I like having an extra hat. To lose so many things that make you comfortable, that’s just not my philosophy.”

Jett even carries a kindle which he uses to read constantly on, taking advantage of winding down in his tent with a good read when he can. He continues to describe how fast he has hiked with fellow cohort member Carter Momsen-Hudson and passed through towns without really having time to get to know who he meets along the way. Still, the experience itself seems to be teaching him the importance of powering on and having a strong mental space to complete the hike ahead.

As a double major of History and Religion, spirituality plays a huge part in how he sees his experience in nature. Changes in the weather has been the one thing that has captured his attention in the most beautiful way. “It was pouring rain and giant winds into the next morning. Then [Carter and I]  woke up and it was still rainy but then we got to the top of this mountain and it was so sunny. It’s the balancing act and constant contrast in how the weather works naturally. That’s really connected with us.”

hiking Appalachian trail

hiking Appalachian trail

Image courtesy Amara Gardner

Amara Gardner

“People do this? People go out for months at a time? Once I learned about it, I asked myself why can’t I do it?”

As a newly discharged Air Force network technician, Amara found herself writing to Emory & Henry and received an email back pretty quickly from Jim who was happy to have her join the cohort. She had been taking classes off and on for several years while serving in the Air Force and had some time now to delve into life again and in nature. Learning about hiking on the AT interested her right away.

During the beginning part of the hike, she paired up with Lexie, another fellow member in the cohort and they have been trekking together since. “I had a really hard time at first. I struggled with a little bit like why am I out here? But at that point the program was new to me still–but actually just being dropped off and told you’re on your own, hit me all at once and I told myself all I have to do now is walk.” 

Being new to backpacking, Amara began to understand the resources and support system she had around her and why choosing Semester-A-Trail was the best choice for her. She hadn’t been taking any Zoom classes this past semester before the thru hike because she was already planning to thru hike on her own had Jim not reached out to her.

“There’s a book called Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis that really helped me prepare before leaving. It helped me write down my reasons for hiking in a list–you’re going to have days where you’ll want to quit but if I have my list then it’s like ,ok, I know I’m doing this and can stick it out. Having the support system of friends and family at home and the people doing the hike with you too is great.”

Amara’s calm disposition was shrouded with a layer of creativity and she mentioned part of her motivation was her feedback on her blogging on The Trek website and being able to do artwork on the trail. “I have a sketch book I’m working on for an art class but I have a goal to create something afterwards like an illustrated book. I’m also journaling and writing for The Trek website–the interaction from the community on this site is really encouraging too.” You can follow Amara’s journey through The Trek for updated sections of her thru hike.

Carter Momsen-Hudson

Putting together a fundraiser for his friend while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for a semester was something that came natural during the planning process. Carter, a junior at Emory & Henry was inspired by his friend Abbey who advocates for foster care kids. She suggested that like thru-hikers, foster care kids just carry all their belongings on their back. That’s when Carter put his philanthropic side to work and created a Go Fund Me to raise money during his hike for kids who need backpacks. 

His kindness and love of family go hand in hand as throughout the interview he gushed about his walks with his mom and family, an inspiration for why he chose the semester-a-trail option. “My family and I work hard as stewards of the land–my grandparents live on a farm. We weren’t accustomed to the outdoors or wilderness.

My view of the outdoors has changed–it’s not as much a resource anymore, it needs to be maintained.” Carter’s reverence for the mountains is clear and his perception of starting off in absolute isolation has changed. “There’s people everywhere and we go into towns a lot. It’s not as lonesome as I thought it would be. It’s cool to get to talk to people and the people we meet in the mountains are so kind.” 

hiking Appalachian trail

hiking Appalachian trail

Image courtesy Amara Gardner

Lexie Morrill

As someone who was mostly an indoor person until her teens, Lexie found her love for the outdoors as a summer camper in early years. She gained experience being outside taking part in the adventure team at Emory & Henry and being a part of that was part of the impetus for joining Semester-A-Trail.

“I figured we’d be backpacking, resupplies, but mostly excited about meeting people.” As a self taught outdoorswoman, Lexie is focused on hiking slow and decidedly took her last semester off (she is a sophomore) and wanted to use the semester-a-trail as an opportunity to knock out some course work while still enjoying being outside. 

One of the essential items she is brought with her on the trail is a video camera which she is using to document her experience. She also brought some other items she named essential. “I’m a knick-knack person. I have this notebook with postcards, pictures from home (Maine), and a little felted manta ray, that I hang around.

We cross towns once a week so while I’m on trail I write postcards then hand it to a shuttle driver or drop off in town.” She collects footage on the trail of weather-like captures including nature which she will compile when she finishes her trip. As one of three female hikers, she is accompanying Amara and they’ve been hiking together off and on.

When COVID hit, she knew she wanted to spend her time being outside in a small bubble of like minded kids. “I’ll be away from COVID, hiking, hanging out with my friends in my semester-a-trail bubble, so it made sense to do it. Classes were going to be closed on campus. I hadn’t thought about it at all my freshman year, like there’s no way I’d hike the Appalachian Trail?” 

Maria Pickerill

Prior to deciding to hike Semester-A-Trail, Maria had moved to Emory & Henry with the sole purpose to hike the AT. She is participating in a Marketing internship and writing blogs throughout her trip away. “I really tried to not have any preconceived notions about the hike. We did our shakedown hikes in February, it was raining on us and foggy, climbing through the mountains without seeing any views.

hiking Appalachian trail

hiking Appalachian trail

Image courtesy Amara Gardner

Our tent was wet, it was so miserable–that was when I was like I’m gonna hate this. I was also really concerned about hiking by myself as a woman. But I think it was way less scary being on my own for about three days and the culture on the trail is all about everyone helping each other out and I’ve been able to find people to hike with on and off.

I found a group that’s actually from the city where I’m from in Columbus, Ohio and another group from Michigan and one person from Florida. We’ve been calling our group the Midwest plus 1.” Maria’s goal is to complete the whole trail by the end of the semester. The entirety of the trail goes from Georgia to Maine. 

She leaves behind some advice for anyone wanting to hike the AT and of course it does include food. “Coming in with minimal expectations, keeping a positive attitude, roll with the good days and bad days, and just eat everything! Oatmeal is my favorite ever and it’s not messy, you can add peanut butter, and it holds you over forever. My favorite is strawberries and cream oatmeal and candy bars.” 

While picking up and leaving for a backpacking trip on your own can seem daunting, these college students prove that taking a chance and jumping in feet first can be a learning experience and one that can be remembered forever. With guidance, the right training, and a sense of curiosity for nature during a tumultuous time, their hope is to come out on the trail with new skills and a new outlook on connecting with people who followed similar paths to their own–whether it be Religion, Writing, Videography, or just a general sense of 

For more information on the Semester-A-Trail Program at Emory & Henry College, to follow along with these inspiring thru hikers, or more information on how to support or get involved, visit the Outdoor Program section of their website.

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