Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The following is from my neighbor, Sheila Sherwin, who, to my great admiration, began her homeschooling journey with her son by hiking the Appalachian Trail with him and another 11 year old boy (both boys were 12 by the time they finished and their adventure actually took place in 6th grade but was prepared for in 5th).  Not only did Sheila's son emerge well satisfied and eager to move on to the more usual academic approach to learning, but his friend Jakob, who had been restless in the classroom, was, as his mother told me, so satisfied after this journey that he settled back into school life with a sense of deep contentment. I was thrilled when Sheila sent this to me and eager to share it with you all because in the rush and worry of finding the right resources and curriculum materials it is easy to forget that life's most important lessons have little to do with books and paper – and everything to do with relationships with other people and with learning about oneself.

Fifth Grade in Waldorf Education is pentathlon year. The pentathlon centers around the concepts of “beauty and grace” focus, discipline, hard work, good sportsmanship, and friendship- all of which are qualities necessary for successful adulthood. And the pentathlon is perfectly placed in the curriculum as youngsters begin to transition into adolescence. During this transition, the cultivation of will forces is absolutely necessary, and the year-long preparation for pentathlon is the perfect antidote to the restlessness and push of young adolescents. 

The restlessness of young pre-adolescent boys is nothing new, and was a defining factor in my son’s classroom last year. At times, things seemed slightly out of control as several young adolescents pushed against authority and tried to establish a new balance in the classroom. My son, being one of the younger boys in the class, was not yet totally swept up in the rebellious behavior, but knowing him, knowing that he needs to move his body a lot I felt certain that as he got a bit further into this adolescent shift he too would feel increasingly frustrated by the confines of the classroom.  

I was fortunate enough to have time, a supportive husband, and a relatively independent daughter, so the possibility of taking my son out of the classroom for a while in order to provide him with an experience that would challenge and form him, was not completely absurd. I settled on hiking part of the Appalachian Trail with him.  

When I presented Will with the idea, he asked to think about it. After a little while he asked me to spell out what things would look like if he hiked the Trail and what they would look like if he stayed in school. I started with the trail.

“It won’t always be fun.” I said.

“It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging.”

“I want to hike the trail” he replied.

“But wait, we haven’t even talked about what it would be like if you stayed in school!” I protested.

“I want to hike the trail.” He insisted.  

After a while I asked him what had made up his mind so quickly and decisively. “I want a challenge.” he said.  

We decided that we would go out and hike a northern section of the Appalachian Trail. I  knew that I was in a rare position to be able to do such a crazy thing, but that many children might wish for and benefit from such an experience, so I asked a few others if they would like to join us. An immediate and enthusiastic yes came from my son’s friend Jakob, who also seeks personal challenges and has a love of the outdoors.  

In early September, after weeks of preparation and a 1500 mile car ride to northern Maine, we were all itching to go. Climbing to the top of Mt. Katahdin (the northern terminus) is a rugged, 4000 ft climb, but going up and coming back down can be accomplished in one long day of hiking. Because it is a day trip, I offered to carry the pack with all of our food, water and gear, and allowed the boys to climb without packs. The last time I climbed Mt. Katahdin was 20 years ago, at the end of my AT thru-hike. It felt much different this time around, with 0 miles under my belt and a much older body.  The boys, on the other hand, released all of their excitement and pent-up energy on that mountain and climbed like a couple of mountain goats as I huffed and puffed my way along. On day two we were ready to head south –into the 100 Mile Wilderness- and the first leg of our trip. The 100 Mile Wilderness is a 100 mile tract with no amenities   whatsoever. This means that one must carry enough food for the duration, and also that if something goes wrong you face a great challenge getting out. There are only a couple of logging roads that cross the tract. Though we set out enthusiastically, the weight of the packs (filled with 10 days of food) quickly sobered the boys into recognition that this journey would be a far greater challenge than they had anticipated. 

Days turned into weeks, and we quickly found our rhythms: hiking, eating, purifying water, setting up camp and dismantling it the next day -day in and day out. We studied geology as we watched the composition of the rocks we walked upon change by state. We studied math as we calculated times and distances, and played many rounds of cards. And we read stories about Roman kings and warriors in the evenings. But the simplicity of these rhythms was matched by the challenges of weather, terrain, and logistics, all of which pushed our patience and stamina to the limit more than once. After 6 weeks of walking, we had covered nearly 500 miles, and come away with a profound experience. 

In hindsight, I think this was the perfect experience for boys of that age. Everyday they had to rise up and face discomfort and challenge, both physically and mentally. They learned self-control, but they also learned that in the comfort of friendship, it safe to break down. They learned that we sometimes need to rely on the kindness of strangers, and they learned that they are many kind people in the world. They learned the value of cooperation and the importance of kindness and patience –even when you don’t feel like being kind and patient.  

Though I doubt that Will or Jakob will be able to articulate what they learned on this trip for quite some time, they came away changed. They share an experience of depth and profundity –an experience that allowed them to walk into these transitional years with poise and confidence –their own 6-week version of the pentathlon. 

Posted on March 9, 2010 in Family Life and Parenting, Older Children

  • Jim Nariel says:

    I’ve seen this hike on You Tube and placed it on my blog – very scary stuff – good article

  • Sumiyeh Haqtalab says:

    “…after weeks of preparation…”
    Being another mom with an aging body and zero miles under my belt, I’d like to hear all about these details! what exactly did the author do to get ready for this 6 week long trip? What type of security issues can be anticipated on a long hike such as this? At present, I’m very wary of being in isolated areas alone with my 10 year old son. the idea of this is very appealing to me, but very foreign and intimidating.

  • Kristine says:

    Wow. Thank you for this essay. Funny how just this morning my husband noted that our newly-homeschooling son won’t be in the Grade 5 Olympics at our Waldorf school. How inspiring to read of this family’s own “olympic” experience!

  • You have great courage to take two children to do the Appalachian trail. Especially children at that age. Many studies have shown that hiking in nature helps to increase children’s concentration, and also to increase their self-confidence

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