Five years ago, Chris Hennig graduated from college and began planning his future. One goal? Show up to his five-year reunion with his own Corvette after making it big in Nashville, Tenn. Instead, he’ll be visiting classmates with a very different accomplishment: completely hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile footpath that extends from Georgia to Maine. Most importantly, he will have hiked it not to find a sponsor like Merrell or Patagonia but to encourage people to be sponsors for children around the world through the organization World Vision.
Week 1: Chris begins hiking the Appalachian Trail on March 29 at Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia. The southern terminus is on top of Springer Mountain. To reach it, he starts at the park, climbs 600 stairs, and hikes 8.8 miles, gaining 2,100 feet in elevation. Then the trail begins. After four days and 40 miles with a 53-pound pack, he sees the first sign of civilization: Mountain Crossings Outfitter, Neel’s Gap, Ga.
Chris’s journey toward hiking the Appalachian Trail began in 2004. He moved to Nashville hoping to travel with a band, playing piano or as a road manager. Instead, he was “accidentally” connected to World Vision by a friend and began traveling with the organization. “World Vision allowed me to tell people about something that is life-changing. It really resonated with me.” While traveling over the next three years with anyone from Casting Crowns to the VeggieTales cast, Chris began to sense a change in himself.
Initially, he was on the road talking about the importance of child sponsorship while dropping money on Diesel Jeans and Prada sunglasses. In college, when he heard someone talk about sponsorship, he rationalized it away. “I thought, ‘I can’t afford it. Someone else will do it.’ But as I worked with World Vision, I realized the need is great and in some places, getting worse. When individuals sponsor, there’s power in numbers.”
Week 2: “I hitchhiked for the first time,” Chris blogs from Hiawassee, Ga., at 2200miles.com. He hikes through rain, sleet and snow, following the trail which is marked by white blazes on trees. At night, hikers stop at shelters, three-sided wooden huts. After several days of hiking in North Carolina, Chris finishes the week on Easter Sunday and finally sees the sunrise!
Chris couldn’t escape the logic behind using his money for something with a more eternal value. “I have money and many people don’t. I know Jesus wants us to give. I know it’s something I can do,” he says. Amazingly, what began as an act of obedience grew into a deeper connection. “Now I get teary-eyed every time I see a new World Vision video,” Chris says. “There’s still a need; it’s still happening. Sponsorship is part of the answer for kids and how we can be obedient to the Bible.”
In 2007, Chris began traveling with a larger exhibit, the World Vision Experience: AIDS tour, subtitled “Step Into Africa.” The walk-through experience allowed visitors to see another face of AIDS: children. “In Africa, many children are born with AIDS or orphaned by parents who have died from it,” Chris says. “I often thought of James 1:27. Faultless religion is ‘to look after widows and orphans in their distress.’”
Week 3: Chris ups his average to 15 miles per day. On one of the coldest yet most beautiful mornings, the dew freezes sideways on the tree branches. The trail straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border and climbs to the highest point on the trail, Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet. Then Chris hitchhikes into Gatlinburg. He finally sees a bear, but from the comfort of a car. To blog, he ships his laptop 10 days ahead of him and picks up mail drops at hostels as he goes.
Also in 2007, Chris heard about the Appalachian Trail by reading A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson. The trail appealed to him though he spent most of his days in comfortable hotels traveling for the World Vision exhibit. After years of staring at the facts, Chris realized the trail was an opportunity to practice solidarity, to actively place himself into scenarios where he would be isolated from comfort. There he could focus on his relationship with God and how He would have Chris interact with the least of these.
Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Chris agrees: “Hiking lets me combine my passions and interests with a great need in the world. It continues my effort to help the less fortunate, to understand my own ability to steward resources.” Chris hopes to connect truth to life by getting away from running water, electricity and a bed. “Ironically, we do this for sport, vacation, adventure. But it’s reality for the rest of the world,” he explains.
Week 4: The trail continues to meander between North Carolina and Tennessee. The elevation changes are relatively small, so Chris hikes a new high of 20.7 miles in one day. The financial weight of the hike grows heavier (hostels, food and new hiking shoes add up), but Chris remains certain that hiking is what he’s supposed to do. Sermons, books and Jim Gaffigan’s comedy bits keep him focused during the day. He finishes the week in Erwin, Tenn., 350 miles from the start. His pack now weighs 43 pounds.
Chris’s hike is a chance to break from the norm. He can take time to think about questions we all have, which is why it’s fitting that he’s blogging while on the trail. About every eight days, Chris posts an update about the hike: animals seen, terrain covered, weather encountered. His site, 2200miles.com, further explains the Appalachian Trail’s history and the need for child sponsors. His blogs are a way to connect the facts to our hearts. More than 26,000 children die every day from preventable causes. Chris hopes he can help 2,200 of them. “I’m now obsessed with that number. I want to get 2,200 kids sponsored by the time I reach the end of the trail, Mt. Katahdin in Maine.”
Week 5: Chris is determined to make it to Virginia in a week, so after a few zero days in Erwin, Tenn., he hits the road. He bounces from shelter to shelter, hiking 32.9 miles in one day, then collapses into bed at a hostel in Damascus, Va. He also gets a trail name, a moniker every hiker receives on the trail. Chris is known as Feed Bag, earned because his food pack hangs chest-level for easy access while hiking. Chris is secretly pleased. Also in his food pack is his MP3 player, loaded with sermons and Scripture. Man doesn’t live by bread alone, right?
Chris hopes to finish the trail in late August or early September. At least 100 days from now, will he see 2,200 kids sponsored? Chris explains what World Vision does that makes it stand out: “Everything is for the best interest of children. When you sponsor, not only does it directly benefit the child, World Vision makes sure the family and surrounding community have access to clean water, schooling, health care and spiritual nurturing. It’s a truly holistic approach to child and community development.”
Ultimately, Chris felt prompted to do something beyond standing at a booth or setting up an exhibit so he could grow personally and deepen his understanding about the world. By hiking the trail, he can literally put feet to faith. “I can’t wrap my mind around this even though I know this is real,” he shares. “There’s a real need. These are real people.” As Christians, we’re encouraged to give locally to our church and support global evangelism through missions. Chris prompts us all to consider how long we can continue to know the truth before we are forced to act.