Q&A: Appalachian Trail Chaplain discusses her long trek ahead

LONG TIME COMING: Rachel Ahrens was first named Appalachian Trail Chaplain in 2020. But COVID-19 postponed her journey over the last two years. Photo by Jess Dudt

Typically, Appalachian Trail hikers give each other trail names during a long-distance trek. But not all names are equally embraced. For Fletcher native and Western Carolina University graduate, Rachel Ahrens, she was nearly dubbed “Snack Pack.” Fortunately, she says, a mentor stepped in, christening her “Dragonfly” instead.

The insect, she explains, symbolizes transformation and self-realization — two experiences she’s eagerly anticipated since 2020, upon first accepting the role as the Appalachian Trail Chaplain through the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. Two years later, she’s finally taking the journey from Maine to Georgia, after COVID-19 postponed the opportunity to fulfill her duty.

As this year’s thru-hiking chaplain, Ahrens will aid and minister to hikers as well as share physical, emotional and spiritual support throughout her time on the trail. The program also enlists circuit chaplains, who provide the same support to hikers encountered on designated sections of the trail throughout the hiking season.

“The more that I’m called Dragonfly out in the woods, the more I’m becoming this person,” she says.

Of course, some of her fellow chaplains still refer to her as “Snack Pack,” she reveals, on account of the fanny pack she wears loaded with treats, which she readily hands out to fellow, hungry hikers.

Xpress recently sat down with Ahrens prior to her June departure to discuss what it means to become the AT Chaplain after a long two-year wait.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: What’s your process been like in preparing for this role.

Ahrens: It’s a combination of mental, physical and logistical preparations.

For about six months now, I’ve been drying and prepping all of my meals. I’ve opted to go the mail drop route when it comes to my resupplies and how I get my food. [The process involves shipping items ahead of time to future destinations along the trail.] I’ve been trying out a bunch of different foods. This weekend, I took out a lot of the foods that [I and my fellow circuit chaplains] had already prepped and asked, “Do I actually like these?”

I’ve also been at the gym most days, working on elevation gain and trying to get as toned as possible. And then I’ve been reading other people’s journeys on the AT because the AT is just as much a mental game as it is physical.

Last weekend, I was out with a couple of the other chaplains, and we did over 50 miles in the Smokies. These were not well-maintained trails; they were very challenging. We ended up in the pouring rain for most of the weekend with lots of river crossings. Shakedown hikes like that have been really helpful in making sure that all my gear is working the way I want.

What does it mean to you to be the AT Chaplain this year?

What I love about being the chaplain is being able to just walk alongside individuals who are hiking the AT. A lot of times, people are attempting this in a time of transition or change. They all go seeking something, even if that’s just the dream that they’ve had to always hike the AT. And to get to be present in that is incredible.

Being the chaplain is not necessarily going with one goal or another but meeting people where they’re at and being what’s needed in that gap. Some days it may be just having someone to hike with, even if it’s in silence. Being flexible in that way is what makes the chaplaincy so special.

How did your personal and professional journey over the past couple of years change your approach to the work of being a chaplain?

When COVID hit, I switched gears from hiking to grad school. And I was like, “Why not go to grad school while the world is trying to figure itself out, and use those two years that you have?” I went to Western Carolina University, and I did a lot of work there focusing on diversity and social justice initiatives, and what it means to actually advocate for someone. What it means to be their ally.

When I look back [before my time at grad school], I realize I thought I was already that [person]. But I was not educated enough to know what it meant to stand up for someone and stand in the gap. That forced me to grow my awareness and grow myself. … Personally and professionally, that was a big change from undergrad, which was when I was first supposed to leave for the AT versus now.

I also worked in a traditional church for about a year as a director of youth and college ministries. I wanted my students to thrive, be the best version of themselves and have a support person, even if it wasn’t necessarily what the church thought of as ideal. Being in the walls of those systems made me reevaluate why I was going to the trail in the first place, and how I can meet people where they’re at and be what’s needed, even if it doesn’t look like traditional ministry.

How has your personal mental health journey informed your professional work in the past two years?

My personal mental health has drastically improved my work approach toward mental health. I have been more empathetic toward people I work with and more aware of things that may be going on rather than just assuming the outside of what’s happening. I have more of a sense when something deeper is going on and know when to ask more probing questions. Honestly, it comes down to being available for people in whatever way that presents itself, but most often, just listening and processing with people.

This summer, I expect to press into my authentic self, becoming even more at home with who I am. I also want to enjoy the journey, experiencing it to the fullest and being present with those I meet.

Editor’s note: Ahrens sustained a foot injury while on the trail. She is currently off the AT, seeking medical treatment. For updates on her journey, visit avl.mx/bqp


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