As part of the fund-raising effort for the Sylva First United Methodist Church’s mission trip, Brown and Cochran are planning a nonstop hike along a 70-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The goal is to finish in less than 48 hours. They’ll start the grueling endurance trek on April 23.
Though the two are both avid hikers and trail runners, neither has attempted a feat of this magnitude. Having recently completed the 21-mile Bartram Trail Run last month, they were plenty sore from running — and gasping — through rugged trails that rose 3,500 feet in elevation. For their Appalachian Trail hike, they’ll have more than 4,600 feet of elevation to climb from the start in Davenport to the top of Clingman’s Dome and then on down to Fontana Lake.
“Did you realize this before we got this thing going?” Cochran jokingly asks Brown. Then with a deadpan face, Cochran adds, “If Jon falls behind, I will not carry him out of there.”
Surely a little humor won’t hurt in helping them summon the courage for their daunting quest. While pure adrenaline and energy bars will carry them through the first day of the hike, the last leg will be pretty tough, Brown concedes. After all, this section of the AT is considered by some to be among the toughest segments of the trail.
“I think the big concern is leg fatigue,” Brown said. “We’ll be asking for the Lord’s strength.”
Fortunately, along the way, they’ll get some assistance from volunteers who will bring in fresh supplies, a change of socks and basic necessities at a few key points along the trail.
To prepare for the mega-hike, they’ve been taking 30 to 35-mile hikes and going on training runs at Deep Creek, Tsali and other trails that simulate the Appalachian Trail. Brown has hiked along the middle of the North Carolina section of the Appalachian Trail and completed his first marathon in October, but this latest challenge will top anything he’s tried before.
“It’s not your average 40-pound pack hike,” Cochran said.
In fact, the two will only be carrying the essentials — no need for sleeping bags, tents or cooking equipment.
Brown got the idea from a friend who took on a similar endurance challenge to raise money for a Christian youth organization called Young Life. The idea is to get as many people to pledge dollar amounts per mile or donations that will pay for the Sylva church’s mission trip to Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the hardest-hit cities during the Yugoslavian wars for independence back in the mid-1990s. Yugoslavia, a former Soviet bloc country in Eastern Europe, split into pieces after the fall of communism and the death of longtime Yugoslav Socialist President Josip Tito.
While Cochran acknowledges that other war-torn places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Darfur region of Sudan deserve international aid, there is still much to rebuild in the former Yugoslavian republic. Cochran visited the Balkan country during a 2005 mission trip, and he noted there were still unexploded mines, bombed out buildings and scars of an ethnic genocide that was one of the bloodiest parts of the decade-long war pitting Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and other ethnic groups against each other. More than 250,000 people were killed in the war — many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. In July 1995, Serb forces invaded the town of Srebrenica and removed and executed nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
Today, the region is still trying to heal from the scars of war. Even though Muslims inhabit much of Bosnia, Cochran doesn’t intend to use the trip for proselytizing new converts to the Christian faith. Instead of building a church, the mission team will be building new barns to house livestock that will help the local farmers.
“We’re going with open minds to help anybody,” Cochran said.
It’s about improving people’s lives, sharing love and building cross-cultural relationships, Brown explained, quoting a St. Francis adage: “Preach always; use words only when necessary.”
The last time Cochran and the Sylva United Methodist Church team went to Bosnia and Herzegovina, they were under the umbrella of UMCOR, a world Methodist relief agency, but UMCOR has since pulled out of the country.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done over there, and there’s still a lot of tension,” Cochran said.
The Sylva church has led its missions to Srebrenica, in part, because Susan Sterchi, a local pediatric physical therapist once lived in Sarajevo. After the war, she became attached to the people there, and as a member of Sylva’s First United Methodist Church, she lobbied for a mission trip to help the people there. Srebrenica is a small mountain town in the eastern corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina bordering Serbia.
“It looks like you’re in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Cochran said.
Fifteen members of the Sylva church are planning to go. But first they’ll have to raise dollars through various fundraisers. Brown and Cochran want to raise about $5,000 for the trip with their Appalachian Trail hike.
“And if someone wants to pay us $5,000 to stay home and watch TV, we’ll do that too,” Cochran said.