Heather Warren / Religious Studies

For thousands of years people have walked long distances through wild terrains to gain inner clarity and meet their God at holy places, usually on mountain tops or at other remote locations. Such trips included an extended period of spiritual, mental, and physical preparation.  In the western world these journeys became known as pilgrimages and those who undertook them as pilgrims. These pilgrims experienced transformation, as much along the way as at their destinations. like pilgrims of old, Appalachian Trail hikers—whether thru-hikers who cover the trail in one year or section hikers who piece their journey together over several years—undertake their trip as a pilgrimage or have it turn into a pilgrimage along the way.

In 2005, I completed the Appalachian Trail ending a 15-year pilgrimage, and for over a decade I have helped maintain the trail along the Blue Ridge.  My dream idea fuses my passion for the Appalachian Trail (AT) with a love for leading others in theological reflection (a practice I incorporate in my undergraduate autobiography course and teach to chaplain interns at the UVa Health sciences center).  I would delight in offering a 4 credit-hour seminar for six third-year students that teaches them theological reflection through the combination of an academic examination of pilgrimage, supervised communityservice (“hospitality” plays a significant role in pilgrimages), and hiking 56 miles of the AT, culminating atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, the AT’s northern terminus. Students would be chosen based on a personal statement and an interview.

In the course of a semester, the students and I will examine secondary sources and memoirs as part of our multi-faith inquiry into pilgrimage—e.g., Belden lane’s landscapes of the sacred, Conrad Rudolph’s Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The road to Santiago de Compostella, roger Kamentez’s “Jewish Writing and the spiritual Journey,” and a few AT hikers’ narratives.  We will also study the history of central Maine to learn about the Penobscot and Abnaki Native Americans who held Katahdin in respectful awe, the logging industry and its camp life, and more recent eco-tourism. Guest speakers will enrich these academic explorations.  For their part, students will submit expository and reflective essays based on the readings and discussion.

Preparation for our hike in Maine will involve more than books. Students must commit themselves to a weekly regimen of exercise (determined for each participant by a trainer at the afc), 2 hours of community service work per week, and several hikes in the Charlottesville area. A warm-up backpacking trip in May will take us along the AT near Roanoke over Tinker Mountain. We will read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker creek (the trail crosses the creek)

As part of this adventure.  The students must keep a journal and reserve a week of their summer—late July or early august—for the trip to Maine. Afterwards we will meet to “debrief” (decompress?) and evaluate as a group.

The Mead Endowment grant would cover the costs of travel, a session with a trainer, and outfitting the students. The manager at Blue ridge Mountain sports has assured me that he will work with us to outfit the students for under $2,000 (this includes boots that are truly made for walking!—the most important piece of equipment).

I would be honored to receive funding from the Mead Endowment for this pilgrimage in reflective education.  I believe that the student-faculty interaction on our journey from classroom to summit will provide us with abundant opportunity for transformation—physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual.