Sheffield churches' outreach to hikers makes for happy trails

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SHEFFIELD — After several strenuous hours hiking the Appalachian Trail, Becca Cook found an unforeseen, noontime respite at the edge of a field along West Road.

Cook, trail name "Pepper," saw two blue canopies providing shade from the hot August sun Wednesday, and several people offering fresh water, baked goods and fresh fruit.

"The watermelon is calling my name," she said.

"Would you like a burger," asked the Rev. Erik Karas, pastor of Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield.

"Did you say burger?" Cook replied. "This is awesome, I can't pass this up."

Cook was experiencing "trail magic," an unexpected act of kindness that long-distance hikers experience along the Appalachian Trail.

For three hours every Wednesday and Saturday since mid-July, members of Christ Trinity and First Congregational Church have welcomed more than 100 trailblazers of all ages to sit under the canopies, nosh on some nourishing food and regale their hosts with tales on the trail.

The volunteers also have given a few hikers a ride into town looking to replenish supplies.

Cook and her hiking companion, Josh "Buckles" Huffstetler, both East Coast natives, started in eastern Pennsylvania, headed for Mount Katahdin, Maine, where the trail ends. Cook is looking to complete the nearly 2,200-mile journey, having hiked three years earlier from Pennsylvania to Springer Mountain in Georgia, the trail's southern end.

The hospitality station is a shared ecumenical ministry; the two churches reaching out to visitors on a spiritual path with nature.

"Ministry is not just about Sunday morning," said the Rev. Jill Graham, pastor of the First Congregational Church. "It's every aspect of life."

"We're creating a corner of kindness," Karas added. "We had one hiker say this has inspired him to pass on the kindness."

A grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts paid for the small grill, canopies and other essentials for the pop-up rest stop.

"People from both congregations have brought baked goods [such as] zucchini bread, brownies, and we have watermelon, that's been a staple," Karas said.

Whether stopping for several minutes or almost an hour, the hikers are truly grateful for any hospitality along the trail. Eastern Pennsylvania native Amy Noble began hiking the entire trail, south to north, on April 4, expecting reach Maine in September.

"It's definitely a morale booster. After 1,500 miles, I need to hit the reset button," said Noble, who goes by trail name "Zippy."

On July 27, torrential downpours drenched the site just as the churches were about to pack up. That's when hikers needed them the most, according Christ Trinity parishioner Estie Dallett

"One woman stepped under the canopy, stood there and said, 'Just to be out of the rain,' " Dallett said.

The volunteers ended up helping six people, taking them into town for lodging and a chance to dry out for the night.

As relaxing and engaging as the respite is, the longer the stay, Noble says, the harder it is to strap on the 20- to 25-pound backpack and get back on the trail.

"That final summit, Mount Katahdin in Maine, is a motivator," she said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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