Standing along the rim of the Grand Canyon staring at monumental rock formations fanning out across the landscape can be a divine experience.
Encountering the sunrise over the misty peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains or camping beneath the Milky Way in the Mojave Desert seems almost mystical.
The Rev. Steve Schaftlein, pastor at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Franklin, is used to considering the sacred in all aspects of life. In solo hiking trips throughout the U.S., he has found a way to stay both physically and spiritually healthy.
He’s watched the sun rise and set over the cliffs of Mount LeConte along the Appalachian Trail, seen towering saguaro cactuses rise in forests across the scrubby mountains of Arizona and scaled the highest summit in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney.
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Being in the middle of the wilderness helps one appreciate God’s creation even more, Schaftlein said.
“The first cathedral was the universe that God created,” he said. “We evolve in a natural setting, and though we don’t live in nature, it doesn’t mean we’ve evolved away from that.”
Schaftlein has been hiking for nearly 30 years, chipping away at sections of trails 50 to 100 miles at a time.
As a pastor, he has only a few weeks each year for hiking trips. So he plans new routes to take on famous trails and slowly pieces together the completed trails.
He has hiked on the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail in Arizona, the Pacific Crest Trail along the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest Trail in Glacier National Park.
Growing up near Floyds Knobs in southern Indiana, Schaftlein spent hours walking through the wooded hills around his home. In college, he bought a backpack at an Army surplus store and started going out on longer day trips near campus.
“I had never been a Boy Scout or anything like that, but I always had this hunger to be like that,” he said.
By the time he was ordained as a priest in 1978, he had become fully immersed in hiking. The Hoosier National Forest was his main stomping ground, and he started going on group camping trips with his parishioners, exploring the trails of the national forest and other wild areas in southern Indiana.
Indiana’s forests gave way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and one of the country’s grandest trails — the Appalachian Trail.
“We’d go 30 to 50 miles each year,” he said. “After I got a couple hundred miles done, I kept meeting these people who were through-hiking the entire trail.”
Schaftlein was impressed by these other hikers. They felt very strongly about their goal of completing the trail and were determined to work hard to make it to the end. Most importantly, they described an almost spiritual connection to being in nature for months at a time.
“I thought, I have to give that a try,” he said.
‘A freeing experience’
The following spring, Schaftlein traveled to a stop on the Appalachian Trail to start his first solo hike. The route took him about
50 miles over the course of about three days.
Though he was hiking by himself, the experience was far from isolating.
“I got over my fear of hiking alone very quickly. There were a lot of other people on the trail, and I could stand and talk all day if I wanted to,” he said. “It was a freeing experience, just getting in touch with nature and myself.”
One of his first major backpacking excursions on the trail had a lasting impression.
They looped along Gregory Bald, a nearly 5,000-foot-high mountain famous for its views and acres of azaleas. The group hiked through the afternoon rain, but fog limited the views, and water rushing down the trail left them with soaked shoes.
When they walked into a clearing filled with blueberry bushes, they thought their luck was turning.
“We started picking blueberries, but we kept hearing these weird noises,” Schaftlein said. “The fog cleared a little bit, and here were six adult bears, eating on the berries just like us.”
With ample food, the bears didn’t pay any attention to the group as the hikers calmly inched away. But the experience was important to Schaftlein.
“To be that close to nature and feel like you’re part of it is amazing,” Schaftlein said. “That experience of nature, it’s beauty and depth, and feeling a part
His hikes have allowed him to have experiences that otherwise he’d never discover.
‘Desert is magical’
The Appalachian Trail winds through dozens of historically important sites throughout the eastern part of the U.S. Schaftlein has passed through Civil War graveyards and seen where Audie Leon Murphy, one of America’s the most decorated World War II soldiers, died in a plane crash.
“At one point on the trail, you can look down and see where Civil War battles were fought,” he said. “Then at Bear Mountain in New York, you can see the lights of New York City.”
The landscape opens into a grander scale in the West, where Schaftlein hiked up Mount Whitney and looked down over
the desert flatlands near Death Valley.
One time in California, Schaftlein slept under an interstate bridge south of Mount Shasta. It was the first time he had logged 30 miles in one day, and he felt he had earned the right to stuff himself at a mom-and-pop restaurant just off the Pacific Crest Trail.
Drowsy with food and tired from the day’s hike, he opted to set up camp under the protection of
He’s trekked through the Mojave Desert and marveled at the primitive darkness under millions of stars, far away from any light pollution.
“At night, it’s mystical. The desert is magical,” he said.
As a solo hiker, he has avoided any serious injuries on the trail. The one time he was hurt badly was on the Appalachian Trail, when a rock gave way and he broke his leg.
In a bit of serendipity, it was one of the rare times that he was with another hiker, who called for help and got him down the mountain.
“As I get older, I get a little more careful,” he said.
Keeping it light
Schaftlein has learned that less is more when outfitting his hikes. He carries a GPS system and transponder, in case an emergency arises.
He keeps a Nook e-reader with him, so he has access to books while he’s alone on the trail. A sleeping bag and tent, spare clothes and a basic stove are
“The lighter, the better,” he said.
When he can’t get away to one of the major trails, Schaftlein finds solace in the hills of Indiana. He recently hiked every horse trail, deer path and other walkway in the Clark State Forest.
He is in the middle of a project hitting every trail in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest.
“You don’t always have the time or money to go out West or even to the Smokies. But those are good local forests,” he said.
Hiking is that kind of activity that almost anyone can get started with. From walking around local nature preserves to trekking out to a mountainous park, it can be tailored to anyone’s needs.
Start slowly, he said. The more experience you have, the more enjoyable the entire hike will be.
“Give it a try. It’s more mental than physical holding you back,” he said.
The important part is connecting with nature while improving your own physical fitness.
“I used to hear people say that ‘I’d go out and commune with nature, but I wasn’t communing with God, that I had to do that in a church building,’” he said. “Anymore, I say that if you go out and say you commune with nature and don’t commune with God, you haven’t really gotten in touch with anything.”
Schaftlein’s greatest hikes
Five important places the Rev. Steve Schaftlein has hiked over the past 30 years.
1. Gregory Bald
What: The peak in the Great Smoky Mountains is known for its flame azaleas, which bloom every summer in colors ranging from wine red to salmon to white to pink.
Why: “We got one of these glorious sunsets, on a peak where you’re looking out over ridge after ridge for hundreds of miles. That’s where I got hooked, that experience of nature, it’s beauty and depth and feeling a part of it.”
2. Mount LeConte
Where: The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
What: A 6,400-feet-high peak, the third-highest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is famous for its views of the surrounding landscape. Trails off the Appalachian Trail lead up to the mountain.
Why: “The mists of the Appalachian Mountains are incredible, and at Mount LeConte, you can look both east and west off a cliff, so you get sunset and sunrise. As long as it’s clear enough to see the sun, it’s incredible.
3. Mojave Desert
Where: Southern California
What: A high desert in the shadow of the surrounding mountain ranges, where temperatures can reach up to 100 degrees in the day. The Pacific Crest Trail winds through the desert while climbing through the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges
Why: “You’re down in the desert totally, following the Los Angeles aqueduct for water, and the temperature hits 95 degrees. But then at night, it’s mystical.”
4. Pacific Northwest Trail
Where: Montana to Washington
What: A 1,200-mile trail that includes three national parks, moving from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Why: “I’ve done some on this trail, which starts in Glacier (National Park) west out through Seattle on to the Olympic Peninsula, with the last 100 miles on the seashore. Over the next several years, I hope to finish up that.”
5. Mount Whitney
Where: Central California
What: At 14,497, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental U.S. It’s craggy peak offers a stunning view of the Sierra Nevada.
Why: “Getting up there was quite a sight. I had a lesson there: I had hiked up to 13,700 feet with my backpack and saw all these people with no packs walk 10 feet and then stop, out of breath. When I got to 14,000 feet, almost to the top, I had to stop as well. It happened in a matter of seconds.”
“To be that close to nature and feel like you’re part of it is amazing. That experience of nature, it’s beauty and depth, and feeling a part of it.”
The Rev. Steve Schaftlein, on the spiritual aspect of backcountry hiking