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Trailblazing

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Trail Chaplain Matt Hall prepares for a 2000-mile spiritual journey

By SARA BLANKENSHIP
Staff

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Matt Hall’s personal and spiritual journeys have brought him to the start of his next great adventure: a 2,190-mile journey as the latest Appalachian Trail Chaplain for the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The chaplaincy is an ongoing ministry in which a new chaplain has been placed on the trail each year for the past four years. Hall, a 27-year-old Carroll County resident, will be the fifth to attempt the journey.
In one of Hall’s favorite books, “Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World,” author Bob Goff writes that “living a life fully engaged and full of whimsy and the kind of things that love does is something most people plan to do, but along the way they just kind of forget.”
That quote nicely sums up Hall’s mission of putting love into action.

History
The ministry started about 20 years ago in Bland County, where the Appalachian Trail passes through the southern part of the county. The National Scenic Trail runs from Maine to Georgia and passes through 14 states, two national parks, eight national forests and 11 conferences of the United Methodist Church,
“A local pastor up there set a trash can out and that’s how it started,” Hall explained. “Periodically, he’d go empty it and about five years after that, they started serving breakfast during a two-month period from April until the end of May.”
Hall said they would serve breakfast to any hikers who happened to be in the area on the Monday mornings during that time frame. They would load the hikers up and shuttle them to a little church with no running water and feed them.
During those meals, the pastors realized that Bland County was around the quarter-way point of the trail and was a place where people started to get discouraged and were ready to quit. “The fun had wore off,” Hall said. “So, they looked at the possibility of putting a chaplain out on the trail.”
And that’s just what they did in 2013.
The Rev. Alan Ashworth of Bastian and the Rev. Bob Hayes of Maryville, Tenn., started the program that year. The chaplaincy program was backed by the Holston Conference, which includes more than 800 congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia and northern Georgia. At the time of its inception, the conference didn’t have intentions of sending a chaplain out every year, but clearly that changed.
The United Methodist Conference is the only large denomination that sends someone out on the trail, although there are other chaplains out there that choose to go themselves.
According to Hall, it’s been a varied age group of individuals, although they have been all men. “The first one was around my age, the next two were in their 60’s and then one in his 40’s, then myself, “said Hall. “So far, it’s all been men, but we do have some women applicants for next year. They just pick the position based on the Holy Spirit’s leading.”
Of those chaplains, it’s been a 50 percent success rate, Hall said. The first chaplain didn’t finish due to a death in the family, but plans to return this year to attempt another thru-hike, and last year’s chaplain wasn’t able to finish due to injury.
Overall, that is above the total finish rate for thru-hikers on the trail. “On average, less than a quarter of the people who start it finishes it,” said Hall. “Last year, 15,000 people set out to do this and rough numbers are 4,200 actually finished it, which is up from 5,000 people in 2006 who even attempted it, so a lot more people are going to the trail.”

Personal Journey
So, was this something Hall always wanted to do or did he just fall into it?
Turns out, it was a little bit of both.
“As a kid, I thought it would be cool when I first started hearing about this [Appalachian Trail] thing,” Hall said. “But, I put it off as something I might do when I retired, but I treated it like what they call a ‘pipe dream;’ I was taking no steps towards it.”
Hall said he then heard about the chaplaincy position at a church conference he attended and thought it was something that the bishops picked someone for. He didn’t consider that it was a position that someone could freely apply to.
Last year, Hall had the opportunity to meet the co-founders of the program and it was all set in motion. “The first week of June last year, the two co-founders of it, they were up at Camp Dickenson [in Fries] and were the ministers in residence there,” said Hall. “My friends, Lauren Roper and Amanda Terry, talked me into coming up there that evening and I wound up sitting down and talking with them and [I] thought ‘yeah, I’ll apply for it,’ thinking there was no shot I’d get it.”
Then, they called Hall for an interview. “I just thought they were being nice and that I’d go out there and shake hands, and they offered me the position, so I definitely fell into it at this point in my life.”
When asked about the requirements, Hall said there really weren’t that many other than someone who wanted to serve. “They just wanted someone who was passionate about hiking and passionate about loving people and you know, just being of service,” Hall said. “A lot of people get confused and think it’s me going out there and preaching as much as possible and it’s really just me going out there and hiking and being an encouragement and being a resource.”
Hall is definitely qualified as an encourager and a resource due to his recent drug and alcohol recovery journey and his path in the church the last few years. Hall has been sober for exactly four years and in that time; he’s been attending Out of the Box Worship Center in Hillsville. He was instrumental in helping start the Recovery at Hillsville program and said it all started because he was trying to start a support group meeting for people who deal with addictions.
As that progressed, Hall has also enrolled in a program to become a local pastor with the United Methodist Church. But, he makes it clear that talking isn’t as important on his trail journey as listening.
“The things I’ve learned and what’s going to help me on the trail is that lending a listening ear is always a good tool…being a good listener is much more important than being a good communicator,” Hall said. “I tell people it’s not so much me going around knocking on tents saying, ‘Hey, have you heard about Jesus Christ?’ as it is me just going out there and being with people. Listening is the biggest part of my ministry when I’m out there. I’m not even encouraged to say I’m a chaplain; I’m just out there to be another hiker.”
Hall will also pull from his recovery background and his experiences with addiction because, according to last year’s chaplain, it would be important for whoever was the next chaplain to have a background in that area.
Many people who use the trial “are either going through grief, drug addiction or loss, because a lot of people go out to find themselves or because they are running away from something,” said Hall. “They were looking for someone who knew a little bit about that and that’s where my strong point is.”
The chaplaincy opportunity also came up at a point “where I wasn’t too wild about the idea of being a lead pastor anywhere, but I wanted to do something different to get more experience under my belt in ministry and I liked the idea of doing different ministry…something that’s not conventional, something you’ve not heard about.”
Hall started hiking not far into his recovery journey and has only been hiking about three and a half years. “I got back in the gym and I started working out. A guy I was working out with at the time, we were doing Crossfit a whole lot and I was running a whole lot. I was talking about being sore and he said I needed to take an active rest day where I do something, but I’m not working out, so he took me hiking and that was the first time I had ever hiked a trail or anything like that.”
An adrenaline junkie of sorts, Hall says he jokingly tells people that part of this journey is trying to figure out where his endurance lies. “I’ve done everything from ride a bull to run half-marathons to sign up to hike for six months and I’m pretty big into any sport that I can play,” said Hall. “Just anything that gets me active and doing something that clears my mind, I’m all for it.”
Hall also plays guitar and hopes that will help start connections on the trail. “I was gifted by a good friend of mine, Dennis Day — who taught me pretty much everything I know about guitar — a backpacker guitar as a gift to the ministry. They weigh about two pounds and I don’t think I’ll carry it the entirety of [the trail], but when I’m in this area hopefully it’ll get out there to me.”
“Music’s just one of those things, especially in the trail community,” said Hall. “You know if I can sit down and play a song, something that someone knows the words to, it might start a conversation and be a catalyst to something more.”

June to December
Hall will start his trek on June 19 in Bangor, Maine, and head south. “My goal is to finish within six months,” Hall said. “I want to finish before Christmas and that averages out me doing 12 miles a day. I think I could physically do it in four or five months, but I’m there to do ministry.”
The mileage goal would average out to Hall hiking for six hours each day and then setting up camp and using the rest of the time to connect with people.
Throughout his trip, Hall will also have encouragement from others who will send food replenishment, offer overnight accommodations and hike with him for portions of the trail.
At the beginning of the trip, Hall will meet up with a local pastor in Maine who will house him for the night and then hike with him to Mount Katahdin, the official start of the trail. “There’s a church camp that’s towards the middle of Maine that has offered to let me stay there a night or two and as I go through, there’s different points where people will allow me to stay into their house,” Hall said. “Of course, when I get relatively close to here, there’s a lot more connections and people in the Smokies because [from] there to Bland County seems to be the epicenter of the ministry.”
Ashworth will be responsible for sending packages of food replenishment and other items to Hall every five days. The packages will be sent to designated points along the trail and Hall will just have to go pick them up.  
“This is the first year that he’s done this himself and he’s pretty excited to see how this works,” Hall said. “With this being the fifth year, we are really going from infancy to a different point where we are trying to mature a little bit.”
Hall’s pack will weigh in right around 30 pounds, including food and water, he said. “I will be carrying a little bit extra water because I’ll be hiking in the fall when it starts getting a little drier. When I get a chance to get water, I need to get a little more than I would if I was hiking in the spring.”  
Throughout the trip, Hall will be able to send things home as he no longer needs them and have things sent to him as the weather conditions start to change.
In 14 states, there are a lot of landmarks that Hall will pass by, but he says in addition to Mount Katahdin, he’s most excited to see the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Hall said the ATC is part of the “three-legged stool” that keeps the trail up and running and it has Civil War history, to boot.
“Mount Katahdin will be exciting since that’s where the journey will begin,” said Hall. “The ATC Headquarters is in West Virginia and I’m pretty excited about that. I’ve read a little bit about the history there and it just seems to be a really interesting place. It connects Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth, it puts them all in an event within a month of each other so, that’s probably the place I’m looking forward to the most because of what it means.”
Another aspect of the trail is the nickname that each hiker chooses to go by and what is known as their trail name. Hall has chosen “Trigger” and it has ties to Hall’s history and hobbies and has significant symbolism for him.
“Of course, that’s Roy Rogers’ horse and Willie Nelson’s guitar, but when I was in treatment for drug addiction back in 2013, they talked about identifying your triggers,” said Hall. “Back then it was a negative term, it was something that made you do things you didn’t want to do and think about things you didn’t want to.
“Now, it’s a much more positive term for me. I know a trigger; just like on a gun, when a trigger’s pulled something happens…change happens. Out on the trail, I’m not going out there seeking life-changing experiences for everyone I encounter, but maybe if I can encourage them that day or encourage them to go on the next day, maybe that moment will trigger them into a good habit or good behavior that will lead them further on their journey.”
Hall said the main reason he chose the name was because of the symbolism that name represents as the iconic guitar of Willie Nelson. “It’s got a story of it’s own, it’s got character, it’s got a draw to it,” Hall said.
Nelson’s famous guitar — covered in Sharpie marker, with an extra hole and held together by putty — is known by music fans the world over and has become a larger-than-life symbol of the man and his music.
“If you didn’t know what it was, you’d look at it and go ‘that’s a piece of junk,’” Hall said. “I feel like that’s the same with everyone with their walk in life and my walk in Christ. When I first became a Christian, I thought I didn’t have a use, I thought I was a piece of junk. So [I chose that name] to encourage people to share their stories, to realize they are unique and that they are loved. That’s all part of it.”

The Ultimate Goal
When asked about his goals for the journey, Hall said he hopes to reach people, spread love and help them dream.
“This really isn’t so much about me going and hiking almost 2,200 miles through the woods or the Methodist Church sending somebody out to do this, it’s really more about us as a church,” Hall said. “We’ve done a bad job at reaching people in our backyards and we’ve somehow got the message confused saying, ‘Hey, y’all come here.’ In actuality, Jesus came to us, so we should be going to those people we want to meet and connect with.”
Hall continued: “I love talking about dreams and hopes. Even when things don’t seem practical, even when things don’t seem logical, it’s something we’re called to do even when it doesn’t make sense.”
Hall related that to the start of the chaplaincy program and how people started serving breakfasts in a church without running water. There may have been hurdles in the way, but those ministers reached out when nobody else was out there connecting to the hikers.
“Anything I can do to encourage other Christians or other churches or just anybody in any walk of life to dream big or to make the world a little bit better,” Hall said. “I read a book a long time ago called ‘Love Does’ that just completely wrecked me in the best possible way.... Love’s not stationary, love goes and does things. Love isn’t logical, it’s this thing where we just go and let the course take place. We be intentional, but we be open to how it flows.”
On the trail, Hall says he feels a connection to the people and that it is one of the things he loves most about it.
“Whenever I step on it, it doesn’t matter if I’m stepping on it in Maine or Georgia or the Smoky Mountains, I feel a connectedness. I feel connected not only to the people who are out there hiking with me that day and who’ll I’ll meet that day, but I feel a connectedness to the people who have gone before me. I feel a connectedness to those who will come to the trail later, whether they are just out there to relax or to unplug or they’re out there searching for a spiritual experience.”
In recovery, Hall said he learned that he was in isolation a lot and that a big part of recovering is “to draw closer into a community and to be around people who are like-minded and who have the same goals and intentions.”
The trail community “seemed like a community that was hyper-focused on a really impossible goal, but a lot more people are going to the trail to be in a community to learn,” Hall said. “I’m not going out there to try to teach anyone anything, I’m just going out there to experience and to just see what I can learn about myself, what I can learn about God and what I can learn from others.”
That sums up what Hall wants to do with life. “I want to learn from others that I normally wouldn’t come across…that in previous parts of my life I would have thought that I didn’t have anything to learn from.”

To keep up with Hall’s hike, you can follow
him at facebook.com/AppalachianTrailChaplain or on a blog at
trailjournals.com/MattHall2041. For more information on the
chaplaincy program, contact Alan Ashworth at alanashworth2@hotmail.com. If you would like to support the ministry,
donations can be mailed to Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry, P.O. Box 203, Bastian, Va., 24314. Make checks
payable to Holston Conference.