Posted on April 19, 2017
In 2016 EOM began preparations for what we hope will be a long lasting and widely used ministry opportunity known as "Unplug." The simple premise is that we are so tied to our electronics today that we find it difficult to interact with real people and a real God. We wanted to create an event that directly combated that mentality and lifestyle. We crafted bible studies and activities/challenges to go along with our hiking experience and began to plan a route. In February 2016, with our Unplug director, Chuck Gatzman of the Sharon community, we took a scout trip and then our first true trip in March 2017.
We took a group of 9 guys up to the Tennessee/North Carolina area of the Appalachian Trail. Our anticipated route would take us around 31 miles total in 5 days. We knew we were headed for cold weather, but wait awaited us on the way up was way more difficult than we ever imagined. Our starting point was closed, so we were forced to take an alternate route on Day One, hoping to get back on track by night 2. Here's a look at the group immediately before hitting the trail:
However, due to the change of route, our anticipated 4.25 mile Day One hike was nearly doubled. We'd be tackling more in Day One than in any of our days on our scouting trip. We covered just over 8 miles with ease and made it to our camp location with plenty of daylight to get our hammocks set up, get a fire going and enjoy a warm meal before heading to bed. Much of our Day One hike was along a beautiful creek so we were able to enjoy not only the fellowship with one another, but also celebrating in God's amazing creation.
Setting up camp is one of the most enjoyable times on any hike. After walking with a pack on all day that weighs anywhere from 30-50 lbs, it is a welcome relief to: 1. Walk around without a burden on your back and 2. Look forward to eating something out of your pack which makes it weigh less for tomorrow! Also with nearly any hiking experience your group can get spread out. Even if you're within 100 yards of one another, single-file walking isn't always the best opportunity for fellowship. Camp is a time to "unpack" both physically and emotionally. All of our guys opted to hammock camp this year, so our rain-flys could be seen scattered around in little groups near the most useful trees.
About the time that everyone was getting settled in their hammocks for the night, the rain began. As the temperatures dropped that night, the rain turned to snow. And did it ever snow! For guys from up North, I'm sure this was a common occurrence, but seeing as how our 9 were all from Mississippi, not many expected the sight we encountered upon emerging from our sleeping bags. An estimated 4-5 inches of snow had fallen in the night and EVERYTHING was white. There was no starting a fire this morning. Everyone began to tear down camp to tackle the 5 miles that lay ahead that day. It would be nearly all uphill and it would take longer than any of us imagined.
The "short" 5 mile hike took around 7 hours to complete. It was physically and emotionally draining. Imagine walking up a mountain for 5 miles. Now imagine that mountain is made of sand. Now imagine that it's below freezing. Got the picture? The most exhausting part emotionally was the lack of any point of reference on how far we had traveled. Each turn we expected to see the next sign. Each turn our hopes were dashed. We arrived in 2 main groups. With about half of each group immediately getting into the shelter in their sleeping bags, attempting to get warm. Some (like me) got wet from sweat on the journey up. Wet clothes don't do too well in sub-freezing temperatures. Some of the guys were able to scrape up a few pieces of firewood and get a small fire going to attempt to get warm and dry our clothes and shoes. On top of the issue of wet clothes, it also reached such cold temperatures that our water bladders were all frozen. There was a nearby water source, but keeping any water warm in the shelter was difficult. We were joined that night in the shelter by a host of through hikers who had experienced a difficult day like ours. Some were preparing to move on, some were staying put, one would journey down the mountain with us. That night it would dip below 0 degrees. With 9 different guys, each taking pictures as they desired, we don't have a single picture of the shelter. Everyone was focused on taking care of each other and staying warm.
With another night of cold weather expected, another 5 or so fresh inches of snow in the night, and a bleak forecast on the upcoming trail conditions from the through hikers, we opted to cut our trip short and get down the mountain to safer shelter, and hopefully off the mountain entirely. As we packed our things and prepared to head down, most of our shoes had frozen solid in the night making them like ice cubes on our feet. With 13 miles to accomplish in one day, we set out with some anxiety, but hopeful that we would be warm and safe soon. The journey down was much easier and with a little break in the clouds, it provided us a chance to enjoy the beauty of the weather we had been dreading. Here's a picture from our journey down the mountain:
With a pretty strong motivation of wanting to get off the mountain, we made great time and made it out of the woods to our van just before sundown. The temperatures that night on the mountain would push -24 degrees with the windchill. We were glad we opted to come down. So in three days we had covered nearly 26 miles. In the 2016 scout trip that's the same distance we covered in 4 days. The group opted to try out a day hike on the following day and it wound up putting us at the 31 miles we intended to cover in our original route. We took Thursday and journeyed into Cade's Cove, took a 5 mile day-hike to a beautiful waterfall and then celebrated by heading into Gatlinburg that night.
Throughout the journey we had great times of fellowship. We learned how to encourage one another. We spent time debriefing and talking about how the Lord would use this trip in each of our lives. Ultimately our goal was accomplished. Even in the hotel, we opted to not turn on the TVs or be consumed with our phones. We trust that the Lord will continue to use this experience to grow us in our love for one another, our love for the Lord and even to be more faithful stewards of the time we have. Here's one last photo of our group with our dear friend Jeff who joined us on our way down the mountain.
Check out our video on YouTube for more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zx5JYz9yH4g&t=14s