To understand a person, walk
a mile in his shoes. But if that person is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker,
you’ll have to walk several hundred miles.
“It’s not until about mile
500 that they start to listen,” says North American Mission Board (NAMB)
Mission Service Corps (MSC) missionary Suzy Miles.
“Before that, they’re
MSC missionaries Craig and
Suzy Miles started Appalachian Trail Servants (AT Servants) six years ago so
they could represent Christ through service, evangelism and discipleship to
reach the longtrail hiking community trekking the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail
The couple has hiked about
1,000 miles of the trail themselves, and visited most of its length to conduct
ministry training to churches near trailheads and to minister to hikers through
acts of kindness.
The couple is part of the
more than 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories
supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering (AAEO). They are among the
NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer (WOP), March
7-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Share God’s Transforming
Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million.
As MSC missionaries, the
Mileses must raise their own support among family, friends and related
Although they are
self-funded, they also receive additional support — such as training, administrative
support and field ministry assistance — from the AAEO.
The Appalachian Trail is a
marked, yard-wide footpath winding through the Appalachian Mountains from
Springer Mountain in north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine.
Conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937, it passes through 14 states.
More than four million
people hike some part of the trail each year, and another 2,000 “thru-hikers”
attempt to go the entire distance.
Suzy grew up in Dahlonega,
Ga., with a family and a father who took hikers in, fed them and shared with
them the truth about Christ.
A native of Stone Mountain,
Ga., Craig had already earned a degree in economics at the University of
Georgia and seminary master’s degrees when he met Suzy. Suzy had been the hiker
in her family and shortly after, the couple and her family began hiking almost
every weekend in the North Georgia Mountains.
At the time he met Suzy,
Miles was working in information technology for a regional bank but believed he
had a higher calling.
One morning on the way to
work, he stopped by his Baptist church and prayed a simple prayer: “Lord, how
can you use our time and talents for your glory?”
God was about to answer
“Right after I prayed that
prayer, I spotted a missionary magazine on a table next to me,” Miles said.
“On the cover was a story
about extreme hiking in China. It just clicked in my head that we needed to
start a ministry on the Appalachian Trail. Suzy and I were seeing hundreds of
hikers pass over the roads and trails and through the woods of north Georgia,
but we knew their spiritual needs were not being met.”
Miles and Suzy married and
now six years later, their home and ministry are based in Franklin, N.C., only
a short drive from a major Appalachian Trail trailhead.
With two infant children and
an expanding ministry, they continue to serve hikers but are beginning to focus
their attention on training churches and leaders who have a heart for hikers
who visit the area.
Taking on new name
Hikers are a subculture,
Miles said, and most of them use trail names rather than their own.
The Mileses are no
Craig’s trail name is
“Clay,” taken from Romans 9:21, which describes God as the potter molding the clay.
Suzy’s is “Branch,” which comes from John 15:5 where Jesus refers to Himself as
the vine and believers as branches.
Whether simply hiking on a
crisp autumn weekend or thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, the sport is
not for the faint-of-heart.
Backpacks containing tents,
sleeping bags, food, clothes, first-aid and water purification equipment can
weigh 35 lbs. or more.
In addition to the obvious
physical and mental challenges, other hazards include severe weather, Lyme
disease, steep grades, limited water and poison ivy.
“Thru-hiking the Appalachian
Trail takes a tremendous commitment of time and resources,” Miles said.
“And the hardest part is not
the physical aspect but the mental. Within the first 30 miles, 20 percent drop
“By North Carolina, 50
percent have dropped out. By West Virginia, 75 percent have quit.
“Only 15 percent of those
who start in Georgia make it to the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine.”
To reach these hearty souls,
the Mileses have focused their efforts on training churches and trail chaplains
— a select position with AT Servants that requires a mature walk with Christ, a
missionary mindset and the ability to walk thousands of miles under often heavy
“We receive dozens of
applications every year, but only one or two meet the criteria,” Craig said.
Trail chaplains, which have
the greatest direct impact on hikers, trudge the 2,175 miles with every ounce
of gear any other hiker would carry and with a goal of enjoying the journey and
reaching the end.
But chaplains sit around
shelters and campfires with the purpose of representing Christ, answering hard
questions from thoughtful, hurting people and walking alongside those same
people for days, weeks and months.
In 2005, recent college
graduate Jonathan Carter finished his stint as a trail chaplain.
In October 2009, Joel and
Cortney Leachman completed their journey.
Both of these projects created an
entrance into very difficult seasons of people’s lives, and resulted in several
hikers receiving Christ.
The Mileses believe God gives
Christians divine appointments, and they should expect them and take advantage
“We pray for and expect a
daily divine appointment during which we might be able to share our
testimonies, answer difficult theological questions, provide counsel or share
the gospel,” Craig said, recounting his and Suzy’s experience on the trail.
He recalled a sudden evening
thunderstorm that drove him, Suzy and a group of fellow hikers into the closest
trail shelter for protection against a cold, stinging rain.
“Since the next shelter was
10 miles away and none of us wanted to brave the cold rain to get there, we
stopped and shared the same shelter for the night. This gave us an opportunity
to strike up some spiritual conversation,” he said. “This was a divine appointment.”
Still on the lookout for
divine appointments, Craig and Suzy cultivate the soil of the hiker community
with a sense of urgency for those churches and individuals with a heart for
“We have an amazing
opportunity,” says Suzy. “If we can represent Christ to someone during a
critical few months on the trail, we can see Christ change them for a
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller and
Noah are writers for the North American Mission Board.)