During the summer when I was 12, my parents decided that it would be a good idea to get me out of their hair while they dug up the back yard to get at the sewer system. So on that week, they sent me on a special trip to Camp Sandy Hill.

Camp Sandy Hill is a Christian camp. They do things that regular camps do, but with a Christian spirit and other Christian activities mixed in. There are regular prayer times, and all of the camp songs are about Jesus or God or the bounty of God or how God smote someone bad or raised up soemone who was good or maybe Noah. You get the idea.

I wouldn’t actually be staying at the camp. I would be part of a group of hikers taking backpacks across many miles of the Appalachian Trail. As a former scout, camping wasn’t unknown to me, although this would be my first time out in the wilderness with only a backpack for supplies and feet for transportation.

Our first night was on the campground, staying in a cabin. We used the day to pack the camp’s additional supplies (food, tents, cooking tools, etc.) into our packs. We learned how to pack properly (something I already knew from scouts), including how to distribute weight in a pack and the most important thing about using a hiking pack - all of the weight goes on the belt.

In the morning, about 10 of us and two counselors took a van to our starting point, somewhere in southern Pennsylvania. I wish now that I had more detailed information about the hike. I used to have a photocopied map on my bedroom wall that showed the exact route we took, but that’s long gone. Soon after we unloaded from the van, we started hiking.

The first hour of the hike was awful. The van had essentially dropped us off at the bottom of a mountain, and the trail took us straight up. I remember here that there was barely a trail to follow, and my assumption is that most people simply avoided this stretch of trail because of its steepness.

It did take forever to get to the top. My 12-year-old body, although much more fit then, wasn’t used to carrying many pounds of backpack up mountains. My calves burned. My lungs ached in the high atmosphere. And at the top, we didn’t stop to rest.

Eventually, the walking became easier. At that point, I had simply resigned myself to the walking, knowing that failing to keep up meant being lost in the woody mountains of southern PA forever.

The kids on the trip started talking when we encountered blackberries in a clearing that the trail passed through. We picked and ate quite a few. And when we had to move on, we stored some berries in our canteens for the trip. The taste of raspberries and blackberries still reminds me of the aluminum-tinted taste of my camping canteen.

We did stop for meals. Most of the meals were dehydrated food. We ate from the same containers every meal, using the same fork, giving them only a rinse from our canteens. Our water came from streams on the mountain, to which the counselors added drops of bleach, enough to kill any lurking bacteria, but not enough to cause any permanent damage to the hikers.

We prayed in a group four times a day. Once at every meal, and once before bed. I was never one for prayer, especially not group prayer, and I don’t think that this experience improved my attitude toward it.

On one morning while walking through the woods, a couple of the kids started a discussion about what denomination everyone was. Being 12 and as uninvolved in my religion as possible, I had no idea of the differences between the denominations of Christianity. I didn’t really care. I agreed to go hiking, not to suffer ridicule for beliefs that I didn’t even know the origin of.

I made quick friends with Tim, who seemingly had the same attitude toward the hike in terms of religion, even though he was a bit more practicing than me. It turned out that he lived only a few doors down the street from my grandmother. This was oddly coincidental considering the camp itself was in Maryland.

On Wednesday it rained. We were still going uphill. I remember climbing a specific path, where the rain had eroded a nice stream where the trail would have been on a dry day. The water was up to my kees and flowing in the opposite direction to the one I was headed. The rain on the leaves was loud enough to cover my screaming of everything I hated at that moment. The kid three feet in front of me didn’t hear me screaming about how slow he moved, or how much I hated the trip, or how much I hated my parents for sending me, or how much I hated God for being so simultaneously cruel and vacant.

At the top of the mountain the rain stopped, and as we prepared for lunch, I used my pocket knife to literally shave the caked-on mud from my legs. Soon after, I learned that my pack was not entirely waterproof, and my sleeping bag was damp. The rest of the trip thankfully proved warm enough to go without it.

With the rain cleared, we were treated to some of the most spectacular views one can imagine. From the height of the mountain, I could see across huge unspoiled valleys. The shadows of little puffy clouds rolled playfully across the canopy of lush green trees spread out below us.

At one point, the dense woods opened onto a small bridge. The bridge was enclosed in a fence, and overlooked a four-lane highway. We marvelled at the civilization that flashed by below us for the brief bridge crossing, then just as suddenly vanished when we dove into the woods on the other side.

From atop a cliff near the end of our hike, we looked down on a canyon in which a freight train was passing. It looked like a toy, and chugged along seemingly slowly. We watched until the whole train passed out of view, then started our descent.

Only one of the kids couldn’t hack the hike, and the counselors had to call a ride to get him out of the woods. He still had to hike quite a bit to get to a place where the trail crossed a road, and the bunch of us did our best to convince him to stay during that time. We weren’t able to convince him, and after all of his whining over what ground he did cover, we were glad he left.

When they took him away, we had stopped in a small camping area with shower facilities. It was the only place on the trail that had them. We spent many nights in our tents, but we were lucky to be able to use some of the trail lodgings along the trip on the nights that the weather wasn’t great. The structure was basically a permanent lean-to; one of two around a central fire pit.

Towards the end of the week during our evening prayer, our counselors revealed to us how they came to accept Jesus in their lives, and how gracious the camp had been to give them jobs working with children after they were released from prison. Praise the Lord.

On our last hiking day, we stopped for lunch in a park through which the trail crosses. For whatever reason, the counselors had left the bagel lunch wrapped in a hiker’s pack until the last day, using all of the dehydrated food early in the trip. By the time we settled down for our last lunch together, the bagles were all moldy from the moisture during the trip. We cut out the moldy parts and ate the remainder, but the meat had gone completely bad, and we were hungry for the rest of the day.

Our hike ended at Harper’s Ferry. Being a ferry, there are rivers. And the perfect end to a hike is always a whitewater raft ride, which is what we did.

Our group loaded into two rafts with floatation vests and helmets. We were briefly instructed on how to stay in the raft, and then we shoved off down the river.

The rapids weren’t all that rapid, but they were fun. The boat guide told us that the state lines of three states crossed at one point in the river, and that if you floated over it, the boat would feel like it was going over a bump. He told us all to close our eyes and feel for the bump. We did, and shortly afterward, there was a thump on the boat like someone hitting it with an oar. “Did you feel that?” he asked, as he steered the boat back toward shore.

Our trip was complete. We loaded onto another van and made the trip back to Camp Sandy Hill. We had time to swim in their pool and to attend some kind of meeting/ceremony that all of the other kids were familiar with. We hikers had no time to learn any of their religious camp songs, and we were too tired to care.

The next morning, Mom and Dad came to pick me up. I remember the one counselor saying, “God bless you,” and in reply I said nothing and must have looked awkwardly like I didn’t know what to do. When we got to the car, Mom said that the usual polite response was, “Thank you,” which made sense after I thought about it. It’s a single point where I remember mentally assembling two things I knew and learning something.

At home, the back yard was a muddy mess, devoid of grass, but all the work was done. The hiking trip was fun, and certainly an experience that I have not forgotten.