Susan Bratton, Ph.D.: The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail: Community, Environment, and Belief

Dr. Susan Bratton

The Appalachian Trail covers 2,180 miles, passing through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Each year, an estimated 2 million to 3 million people visit the trail, and almost 2,000 attempt a "thru-hike" - walking the entire distance.

For many, the journey transcends a mere walk in the woods and becomes a modern-day pilgrimage.

Susan Bratton, Ph.D., a Baylor University professor of environmental science, addresses the spiritual dimensions of hiking the trail in her new book The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail: Community, Environment, and Belief (University of Tennessee Press, 2012).

Hikers often speak of how their experience as thru-hikers changes them spiritually, but this is the first study to evaluate these religious or quasi-religious claims critically.

The book has been nominated for The Crader Family Book Prize, which recognizes a published, peer-reviewed first book which best exemplifies the values of the Crader Family Endowment for American Values - individual liberty, constitutional principles and civic virtue - and examines the historical development of the political, religious and economic heritage of Western Civilization.

Here is a question-and-answer session with Bratton:

Q: What has been your own experience traveling the trail?

A: Some of my greatest aesthetic and natural history experiences have been on the AT -memorable wildflowers, sunsets, and even meteor showers. I also have met a variety of interesting people and had some great conversations around the camp stove. I also find the Trail to be a friendly environment for prayer or conversations with God.

Q: What were some of the experiences hikers had? You said in the book that hikers "were not, on average, pilgrims to the temple of the God among the venerable trees and ancient mountain ranges."

A: Some hikers have very intense religious experiences on the Trail, including interactions with natural features. About a third of the hikers reported experiencing God in nature, or the trail as a spiritual environment. Hikers have a variety of goals and preferences. Some are very social and find fulfillment in the camaraderie and constant interactions with new people. Others are very oriented toward the journey itself accomplishing mileage, crossing the highest points. Some are just getting away from their day-to-day lives. Disciplined mysticism is rare, however, and for most hikers who report a religious or spiritual experience, it is a secondary priority.

Q: What approach did you use to determine how their trail experience affected people in body and mind?

A: Aside from conversations and reading journals, over 200 hikers long distance responded to a relatively long survey about their experience on the trail. The volunteer support network, who have frequent contact with hikers, also provided numerous insights.

Q: Did you see differences depending on hikers' ages, genders, income, etc.?

A: In terms of difference in the experiences generated by the hike, more senior hikers were different than younger hikers for a number of variables. Older hikers were less likely to experience stress or to think the trip changes their lives for the better. More mature hikers are potentially better organized, and on a more established life path. Women's experience was relatively similar to that of men, while they were more likely to be traveling with someone else, particularly a "significant other." Mileage completed was a better indicator of a highly meaningful experience than either age or gender. Walking farther was correlated to higher levels of building friendships, managing life transitions, improving physical fitness, learning and enjoyment.

Q: What are some of the notable statistical findings?

One of the most important statistical findings is the frequency of engagement in prayer or meditation had significant correlations to 10 personal outcomes, and these included the trip making a hiker feel positive about his or her life, the trip providing a sense of harmony with one's life, and the trip promoting healing, either from a physical or emotional injury or illness.

Q: The book also talks about "trail angels" who live in small towns on the trail and help hikers who need food, shelter and sometimes medical and spiritual care. How does this affect them?

A: The Trail Angels are very caring people who go out of their way to assist others. They include everyone from widows who have a house by the trail corridor, to pastors of rural churches, to small town mayors, looking out for community welfare. They are consistently welcoming and try to understand the AT experience from the hikers' perspectives. They are remarkably forgiving and persistent in their support. They identify with the AT as much as the end-to-end hikers do.

Q: The photos are black and white, and this is not what would be considered a "coffee table" book with photos of breathtaking vistas. There is scenery, but there are plenty of nitty-gritty ones even one of clothes spread out to dry and eliminate odor! And one of you, soaked after a rain! What made you take this approach?

A: The photos are intended to capture the context of the journey outside the topographic and natural history realm. They concern hostels, shuttles, slogging through mud, and enjoying small favors. They are intended to capture the interactions which provide the social environment for the Trail. The black and white is less expensive to print for an academic press and very adaptable for e-book formats.

*Susan Bratton is the author of Six Billion and More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics, Environmental Values in Christian Art, and Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire.

To interview Dr. Bratton, contact Terry Goodrich, 254-710-3321, or the Office of Media Communications at (254) 710-1961.