DAMASCUS, Va. — In about three months, several hundred hikers will summit a northern Maine mountain called Katahdin, a 5,000-foot-high peak just south of the border with Canada. Many of them will have completed an arduous 2,175-mile journey and fulfilled a dream.
Those who complete the millions of footsteps from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin are forever changed with stories to tell well into retirement: encounters with bears, demanding 30-mile days, odd new acquaintances, lifelong friends.
And some might tell the story of First Baptist Church in Damascus, Va., where Southern Baptists washed their feet and provided hot showers, medical care, Internet access and a good conversation about God.
“It started as a hotdog cookout,” says pastor Wayne Guynn, who credits Linda and Jeff Austin with taking over the ministry and ramping it up.
Now, Guynn says, they partner with churches in Alabama and Georgia and with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia (SBCV) to simply make life more pleasant for hikers who come to the annual event known as Trail Days, which ran May 15-17 this year. In the process, they get to love hikers and tell them about Christ.
From 200 hotdogs served in 2001 to a three-day stream of hikers this year filtering through the church parking lot, the Trail Days outreach has touched hundreds of lives. Many hikers still keep in touch.
“All along the way up the trail, churches help us out,” says Cody Johnson, a thru-hiker from Wyoming “but we haven’t seen anything like this.”
Damascus is a town with two traffic lights and a population of a few thousand. When Trail Days is in full swing during the first days of May, the population jumps to 20,000, filling yards with tents and houses with hikers.
“When hikers have come this far up the trail, they’re sort of reaching the breaking point,” says Craig Miles, who with his wife, Suzy, serves as a North American Mission Board Mission Service Corps missionary and as head of the ministry, Appalachian Trail Servants. The Miles’ organization trains churches like FBC Damascus to minister to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.
“When you reach the 500-mile point then you’re really hiking, then it becomes a job,” Miles says.
“Before that, especially in the first few days, hikers are heroes,” adds Suzy. “They talk about their feet filled with blisters and doing 30 miles a day. At this point talking about God is impossible.”
Adds Craig: “But once they hit the 500 mile mark, the trail breaks them. They either stop hiking or they work through it. This is when they start dealing with what’s going on inside them spiritually.”
More than 90 volunteers from nine churches in Alabama, Georgia and Virginia served hikers from 40 different states and 21 countries. In all, volunteers served 700 meals, 340 hikers received medical care, 500 took showers in the SBCV Disaster Relief shower unit and more than 500 Internet café time slots were filled.
Four hikers accepted Christ. Volunteers will follow up and stay in touch with dozens more along the rest of their hike and into the future.
“It seems to be the consensus that this was our best yet,” says Linda Austin. “We had very few problems besides setting the kitchen on fire a couple of times. Flexibility is the key to mental health, especially during Trail Days.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine.)