Emory & Henry Semester-A-Trail Students Reflect on Their Journeys

Posted by Leah Prater

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime experience sought after by about 3,000 people a year. 3,000 people, and a few adventurous students from Emory & Henry College, a small liberal arts school located in Emory, Virginia, these students are participants in a Program called Semester-A-Trail.

In this program, students are able to hike the Appalachian Trail, while also receiving college credit. College credit is earned by taking classes for the two months leading up to the hike itself and for completing academic coursework along with their trail experience and afterward. This structure allows students to be able to focus and immerse themselves in the task of hiking the trail.

The Emory & Henry College Semester-A-Trail program is one of a kind. Created by a former thru-hiker, Jim Harrison, the program provides a chance for students to learn life-long lessons on the trail.

In 2021, Semester-A-Trail had its largest cohort of students yet, seven students, four of which completed a thru-hike. The students in the 2021 Semester-A-Trail cohort were Amara Gardner, Carter Momsen-Hudson, Jett McReynolds, Lexie Morrell, Maria Pickerill, and Matanya Lowenthal.

Each student had their own very unique experiences with the trail.

When asked about her favorite section of the trail, Amara Gardner, a transfer student from Greenville, S.C., said that she loved Massachusetts, and not for the reason you would think. Amara said “Despite three weeks of unending rain and ruthless mud to trudge through, I was glad to have someone to suffer through it with. The trail offers both good and bad weather, and the best you can do is keep moving.” The reason she enjoyed Massachusetts wasn’t the weather or the views, but rather the person she was with. This isn’t a singular experience. It seems some of the best moments on trail are those spent with other people.

When asked about one of his favorite memories on trail, Carter Momsen, an Emory & Henry College student, said that one of his favorite memories was arriving at Harpers Ferry (the unofficial halfway point) with his Semester-A-Trail hiking partner, Jett McReynolds. “When Jett and I got to Harpers Ferry, it was the first time we realized that we could actually do it (thru-hike the Appalachian trail). Also when we got there, people were smoking brisket on the street, and the guy serving the brisket said he had never seen someone eat two plates of it before. So, after I ate those two plates, I felt like I could do anything I set my mind to.” The trail is much more of a communal experience than people expect. Hikers frequently come into contact with other people, whether that be other hikers, locals, hostel owners, or family and friends. Semester-A-Trail transfer student from Denver, Co., Matanya Loewenthal said that one of his favorite trail experiences was proposing to his then-girlfriend in Harpers Ferry. He had family members come and set up for the proposal, and in his own words “the proposal went well.”

While the communal aspect of the trail is incredibly meaningful, hikers also experienced meaning in other ways on the trail. One of the ways they experienced meaning was through the raw beauty of nature. Jett McReynolds, an Emory & Henry College student said, “My favorite portion of the trail was, without a question, New Hampshire. More specifically, the Whites. The Presidential Range all the way through the Mahoosuc Range sported awesome views, incredibly beautiful flora and fauna, and it was just great hiking.” On the trail, it seems the effect of the beauty of the landscape often outweighs any negativity. Even on a “bad” day, hikers seem to look forward to the beauty to come.

Just as hikers experience meaning in different ways on trail, they also experience milestones at different times. For Tucker Grimshaw, an Emory & Henry College student, his most meaningful moment came when he crossed Jennings Creek in Buchanan, Va. For him, it was a walk down memory lane. When he was in the sixth grade, his mother (who happened to be his science teacher at the time), took his class on a field trip to the Appalachian Trail, to meet and listen to the stories of previous thru-hikers. It was that moment that he knew that he wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. He said “It was surreal to sit in the exact same place I learned about the Appalachian Trail. It felt like a dream come true.” For Amara, her most meaningful moment happened at the Vermont/New Hampshire border. When asked about this experience, she said, “Most other milestones felt like a checkbox to me, but once I reached that bridge, I felt that the end goal was within reach.” Different moments stick in hikers’ heads when it comes to milestones on trail. Amara’s was the New Hampshire border, and Jett and Carter’s was when they got to the unofficial halfway point, and Matanya’s was getting to the 100-mile mark, he said, “Also, hitting that 100-mile marker at the fire tower felt amazing! It felt like such an accomplishment at the time.”

While certain milestones and accomplishments are a big part of hiker’s experiences on trail, so are difficulties and failures. With those difficult moments, hikers have to find a certain grit or drive within themselves to push past them. Amara said that her darkest moments on trail came when she passed through Harpers Ferry. When asked how she was able to get through this time she said, “I just had had to find people to be with, and I just had to set smaller goals for myself. I just took my hike one week at a time, which were much more attainable goals than thinking about the end.”

All things, including the experience for this cohort of thru-hikes must eventually come to a conclusion. When asking the Semester-A-Trail cohort about the end of their section hikes and their thru hikes their responses varied. For Matanya, it seemed to end where it began. He said, “It was great getting to Manassas Gap where I officially ended my hike, especially because it was where I had done my first solo overnight hike, three years before.” For Carter, the end of his hike felt like something was missing, he said, “The end somehow felt anti-climatic. I felt a lot of emotions at the end. Mainly relief and sadness, but the overwhelming question for me at the end was ‘now what’?” Tucker felt that ending the trail left him with unshakable confidence. He said “The end felt surreal, it was crazy to be done with something I’d been dreaming about for years. On another note though, it made me feel capable of living out any dream or goal that I set my mind to.” For Jett, finishing his hike was one of his favorite moments on trail. “Katahdin was by far the best mountain on trail. The climb to the top didn’t even feel like a climb, I was just too excited. But once I got to the top and touched the sign, I knew my hike was over. All I had been working towards was complete. I’m honestly still processing the emotions and feelings I felt on top of that mountain.” Amara had a similar experience to Jett. She said, “The day I climbed Katahdin, it was very windy and quite cold. The whole climb up I was thinking “This is fun but I need to finish or I’ll freeze.” When I finally saw the sign at the top of the mountain, I shouted “I SEE IT!” I was so relieved to have finally made it, and I was so excited and proud to have actually finished my thru-hike.” The end of each of the student’s hikes was an end to a magical chapter in their lives, and each of them will enter their next chapter with an altered perspective.

Now let’s get into the Q+A with the hikers:

Amara Gardner

Amara Gardner in Maine on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-T...Amara Gardner in Maine on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-Trail Program

Do you have any memorably funny or embarrassing stories from the trail?
There were many comical mud falls (like, banana peel slips. Legs flailing, recovering, slipping again, and ending up rear end in the sloppiest muck you’ve ever seen. Embarrassing moments include walking into people who think that the trail is a toilet. When you gotta go, you gotta go!

What were your meals on the trail?
I started warm days with pop tarts but colder weather breakfast turned into oatmeal packets and hot chocolate with instant coffee. Lunch ended up as Clif bar, salami in a whole wheat tortilla, or peanut butter and honey in a tortilla, and kettle chips (I needed the crunch!). Snacks included more mixed nuts, granola bars, beef sticks, snickers. For dinner, usually, I had rice sides (easy risotto from Knorr ended up being rare but delicious) and tuna. I always finish with dessert! Even if it was a couple of peanut M&Ms or twin snakes, which were the best pick me up ever.

Why would you recommend this experience to others who might be interested?
It is no joke. It was much harder than I was ready for in every way and different than the picture I had painted in my head. I am so grateful for the support of the school and the people I knew who were living vicariously through my experiences. A lot of my struggle was with where I was at in my life, so if the trail is something you want to do, know your reasons but don’t be scared to go for it. It was awesome.

Jett McReynolds

Jett McReynolds at Mount Washington on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's...Jett McReynolds at Mount Washington on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-Trail Program What were your meals on the trail?
Mostly peanut butter (JIF Natural) and bars. But couscous was a dinner staple I always looked forward to at the end of the day.

Was there a moment you thought you wouldn’t finish? If so, what did you do to push past it?
No. There were definitely difficult moments but I just had to remind myself of the bigger picture. There would always be bad days during the week, but the good days always outweighed the bad.

Why would you recommend this experience to others who might be interested?
Hell yeah!

Tucker Grimshaw

Tucker Grimshaw at Katahdin Summitt on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's...Tucker Grimshaw at Katahdin Summitt on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-Trail Program What were your meals on the trail?
Knorr Spanish rice and a pouch of fajita chicken followed by lots of trail mix.

How did it feel getting to the top of Katahdin or the end of your section?
It felt surreal. It also made me feel capable to live out any dream or goal that I set my mind to.

Why would you recommend this experience to others who might be interested?
For me, it was a dream come true and a life-changing experience that can teach you a lot about yourself. It is an outlet to a new perspective on the society we live in.

Carter Momsen-Hudson

Carter Momsen-Hudson in New York on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Se...Carter Momsen-Hudson in New York on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-Trail Program Do you have any memorably funny or embarrassing stories from the trail?
I burnt my leg with boiling water and suffered a 2nd-degree burn, doing something that I was specifically taught not to do.

What were your meals on the trail?
Knorr Spanish Rice and Chicken Ramen.

Was there a moment you thought you wouldn’t finish? If so, what did you do to push past it?
I thought about my Grandma saying “so you are a quitter now?” and that pushed me through.

Why would you recommend this experience to others who might be interested?
If you want to explore the world in a way that you never thought possible. Then this is for you.

Matanya Loewenthal

Matanya Loewenthal at McAfee's Knob on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry CollegeMatanya Loewenthal at McAfee's Knob on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College's Semester-A-Trail Program Do you have any memorably funny or embarrassing stories from the trail?
So many! Basically, every conversation I had after getting off the trail started with “When I was on my hike, there was this one guy…” I always love to tell the story of how I had to do eight miles of road walking because my shuttle didn’t show up. I ended up getting a great tour of Poor Valley South Virginia, which was definitely not on trail!

What were your meals on the trail?
I actually gave up trying new dinners on trail, and ate dehydrated beans and rice with cheese and Fritos for every meal. I did a calculation at the end, and It looks like I ate almost 100 meals of just beans and rice. For the rest of the day I just ate snacks, every hour on the hour.

Was there a moment you thought you wouldn’t finish? If so, what did you do to push past it?
I’m not sure there were times when I wanted to be done for good, but definitely, times when I thought the goals I had set were too long or too hard to achieve. I found that taking a good nap helps to move past me, as well as adjusting goals as I see what they actually entail.

Why would you recommend this experience to others who might be interested?
Of course! I’m biased of course, but there is no possible way to regret at least giving it a shot.

  • Amara Gardner in Maine on the Appalachian Trail with Emory & Henry College’s Semester-A-Trail Program

For me, it was a dream come true and a life-changing experience that can teach you a lot about yourself. It is an outlet to a new perspective on the society we live in.

Tucker Grimshaw, Student in Semester-A-Trail Program

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