You walk into the kitchen of a hostel in the mountains in North Carolina at 8 am, to see a youth group in one room and a man drinking a beer in the other. The difference is astonishing, yet neither group is upset by the other. When you spend a week living with thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, you learn to expect the un-expected. This situation would have upset so many people in the ‘front country.’ Yet, in the back country, there is a mutual respect between everyone, and a sense of community that you cannot find anywhere else. And that is what is amazing.
I was not hiking the AT when I experienced this, even though I was staying in a hostel on the trail. I was getting Advanced Wilderness First Aid certified, and also enjoying the mountain life. I went there knowing nobody, and within 15 minutes had some new friends. From bonfires on the river to chilling with thru-hikers in the kitchen, everybody was fully immersed in the mountain life. I learned so much from people I spent 30 minutes of my life with, something unheard of in real life.
The community became even more apparent after the third day. Basically, I had to go to the bathroom really badly, and had my computer in my hands. I started running, fell, and partially tore a ligament in my foot. I made it to the bathroom and my computer survived, but the irony of injuring myself while I was getting my AWFA was not lost on me. My friends I had made in my course helped me immediately, and everyone else was very supportive.
One lady, a member of the youth group, shocked me though. She offered to help the next day as she saw me hobbling around, and I told her not to worry. She then startled me by asking “Are you a religious person?” She did not specify a religion, but having lived in Kentucky half my life, I assumed she was Christian. I do not consider myself a member of any religion, nor do I have a belief in any. Terrified she would be upset, but not wanting to be rude, I said: “No, but if you are that does not bother me.” So she said, “May I pray for you?” And I urgently reassured her that if she wanted to she could. Only later did I realize that I never knew her religion, and that she in no way pressured me to believe anything. She just wanted to see how she could help me, and if I was refusing physically, I might enjoy some spiritual help.
I am still not spiritual after this experience, but am thankful to that lady for being so respectful of my beliefs (or lack thereof). She really solidified the community that I felt in the mountains, and that we can all overcome differences in beliefs in a respectable manner.
I wish the world could be like the mountains. And that’s why I want to work with kids in the outdoors, so they can not just experience nature, but experience the community that is part of nature.