Each year thousands of people attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from start to finish. Only one in four completes it. When then 58-year-old Paul Stutzman took his first steps on the 2,176 mile journey, he wanted more than a great adventure. He was looking for an encounter with God.
Years before, Paul was busy living life. He was happily married, had three children and a great job managing a large restaurant in Ohio's Amish country. Then in 2002, doctors diagnosed his beloved wife Mary with breast cancer. Although they did everything they could and believed God would heal her, Mary passed away four years later.
Learning About Grace from God
This devastated Paul and left him consumed with a burning question for God. Why?
A year after Mary's death and still with no answer, Paul knew he had to do something different.
"And I just felt God say, 'It's time, give it up, go on the trail and I'm going to meet you there,'"he said.
So Paul quit his job and started his journey on the famous Appalachian Trail, nearly 2,200 miles of rugged wilderness that begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, passes through 14 states, and ends at Mt. Katahdin, Maine.
"The first night on the Appalachian trail, I'm in my tent, I'm lying there, I can't sleep, it's raining and I just gave up a good job to be out here in the woods to get rained on. So I just kind of reflected back on my life, and how I'd grown up and I just told God that night, you're going to be my hiking partner and I want answers and I want to know more about grace," he said.
Paul says his journey progressed much faster than he expected.
"I had planned on six months, but growing up Amish and Mennonite, we have a strong work ethic, so I'd get up early in the morning and I'd just hike all day. I ended up doing it in four and a half months, which is pretty fast."
"My average on the whole hike was seventeen and a half miles a day, but that includes eight days where I took a zero day, which means a day off. I also had a couple of days in Virginia that were 23 miles and even a few 28 mile days. But then in New Hampshire and Maine where it gets pretty rugged, there were days where I only did ten to twelve miles, but the average was seventeen and a half," he said.
Apostle Paul Headed to Damascus
"I picked the trail name Apostle and I took that name (obviously my name is Paul) so I was the "Apostle Paul," and 500 miles up the trail is Damascus, Virginia – so I was the "Apostle Paul" headed to Damascus," he said.
"I enjoyed Virginia especially. Virginia is the longest state, probably about 600 miles, but it's not quite as difficult. But the scenery coming over the Shenandoah National Park, the scenery is just gorgeous in Virginia," he added.
During his first month on the trail Paul lost 30 pounds and got in the best shape of his life.
A Hiker's Reward
"Once a week, I'd hitchhike into town because I had food boxes sent to me about every 100 miles. The average hiker burns about 6,000 calories a day so you can't eat enough."
Paul says despite the rain and hunger, the trip ultimately healed him.
"The first year after my wife passed away I ran, I stayed busy and finally on the [Appalachian] trail [hiking] at two miles an hour I was exhausted. My body was exhausted, but my mind was becoming very sharp – and the farther I would hike and the more tired I got, the more clear my mind became and I started seeing a purpose in what God was doing," he said.
Day after day, Paul cried out to God...then, on a Sunday morning somewhere in New Hampshire, he finally got his answer.
"He took me on my face in tears when He revealed to me why I was on this trail and God said, 'you're writing a book, put this message in the book' and I said this message is sort of for pastors and ministers not for a hiker and God told me that morning, 'I will get that book and I send you places pastors can't go,'" he said.
Jesus is Coming Back
While it wasn't the personal message he was hoping and expecting – Paul saw it as a word for everyone….Jesus is coming back.
"I'm coming back and tell people that I am coming back, I'm in control, I know what's going on.' What I heard was I had to take your wife to get you out here on this mountainside to hear this message," Paul said.
Paul says that when someone loses a spouse he needs to remember the loved one is no longer going through pain.
"Grieving means we loved somebody; the only way not to grieve is not to love. Our loved ones want us to go on with life – they've got it made, they're in heaven, they're just having a ball, and we're the ones that are kind of suffering down here and they want us to enjoy life and there's a lot to enjoy," he said.
And Paul talked about what he would like his own grave marker to say at the end of his life. "Would I want it to say he worked at a restaurant all of his life?" he mused. "Or would I want it to say, he took a chance, he took a risk, and he quit his job and he hiked the Appalachian Trail? I decided I wanted it to read that way," he said.
Paul successfully completed his journey on the Appalachian Trail in August of 2008.
He's the author of Hiking Through: One Man's Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail as well as six other books about his adventures, including his latest one about walking the Jesus Trail in Israel. That book is set for release in November 2017. For more information on Paul's life and travels you can check out his website: http://paulstutzman.com/