By Sue Moore
Bruce Sweet who grew up in Schoolcraft, the grandson of Judge Lucian Sweet, hiked the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail this summer from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Baxter State Park in Maine. He did it in the name of Jesus, he told parishioners of Schoolcraft’s United Methodist Church recently.
He believes that as an Ambassador of Jesus on the Trail, he impacted people’s lives in a positive manner as they challenged their legs each day to go the next 16 to 20 miles and more. Through aching and blistered feet, he would inspire those along the trail who felt receptive to prayer to help them recuperate in some small way.
Sweet chose his trail name of “14” for several reasons since nobody on the trail uses their given name. It was unusual to adopt a number for a trail name so it got hikers attention, he said. “They would ask me what’s that all about? Then I could answer that I wanted to find 14 people who would love Jesus, just as I do.” It also signified the 14 states he passed through on his way up and down the mountains. “People had a strong response one way or another. I tried to be gentle with the dialogue, but my marching orders were to share Jesus and help them believe in Jesus. You can plant the seed, not everyone will grow but some will eventually be harvested.”
Choosing to hike the Appalachian Trail as a ‘through’ hiker was part of Sweet’s transition from retirement as a psychologist and mental health worker in Coldwater. Through hikers are like rock stars Sweet told his audience. There are also section hikers and day hikers, with only about 15 to 18 percent of the thousands who hike the trail each year, find they can complete it in one fell swoop.
He experienced five straight days of rain, and getting lost a few times as the trail is not always easy to follow the white marks on trees. Trail maintenance varied from state to state. It was narrow in some spots and wide in others. The White Mountains in New Hampshire were the hardest part of the trail but the views are tremendous he said.
Hunger is a lingering theme throughout the trek, he said. “I really like to eat but you learn to ration yourself as you have to carry a 40 pound backpack and can only get to a town to resupply about every five days. There is no food that tastes as good as what you don’t have to carry. We were blessed by trail angels who served hikers as part of their churches ministry, most noticeably in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I might go downhill to one of their missions to get to a hamburger and then go up hill to walk it off. Hot coffee was an even further blessing.”
He lost about 20 to 25 pounds as it was easy to walk off the extra piece of pie he would have while stopping in a town to replenish. He might stay in a hostel where he could have a shower, wash his clothes and actually sleep on a mattress, before setting off the next morning back on the trail.
The trail is not really wilderness as he thought it might be, more like rural as it crosses roads regularly and sometimes even goes through the middle of small towns. He did see six black bears, six rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania mostly, two moose cows, a bobcat, and a copperhead snake.
His routine meant rising at 5:30, breakfast of packages of oatmeal, one cup of instant coffee and a power bar. Lunch would be in the form of snacks two or three times each day. He would quit by about 5:30, finding a three sided shelter for the evening where he was glad to take his boots off and talk with other hikers. In the early going, he figured on a 10-15 mile hike each day, later stretching it to 16/18 miles, depending on the elevations, then 23 miles on a good day. The longest day was 27 miles as his mind set started to tell him to just keep going and not stop. The scariest is going down the mountain, because if you were to fall the hike would be over and he was determined to go the distance feeling he had made a significant difference in more than 14 people’s lives.