UMC chaplain treks 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail to minister to ‘people along the way’

Appalachian Trail Chaplain Chris “Bone Spur” Estus, as seen on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey in May 2021.
Appalachian Trail Chaplain Chris “Bone Spur” Estus, as seen on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey in May 2021. | Courtesy Chris Estus

A United Methodist Church chaplain recently began an assignment offering pastoral and personal support for those trekking along the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail.

The Tennessee-based UMC Holston Conference named Chris “Bone Spur” Estus, who oversees a ministry to help those struggling with substance abuse, as their ninth Appalachian Chaplain.

In an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday, Estus explained that the position involves him being “loving, listening, and [a] non-reactive presence to people along the way.”

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Estus, who got his hiking nickname "Bone Spur" due to having a bone spur in the big toe of his right foot and being a San Antonio Spurs fan, began walking the trail on March 26. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking trail in the Eastern United States that runs from Georgia to Maine. 

“I've done two sections. I've done Maryland, and I've done New Jersey. And, in fact, I just finished New Jersey last week. And I did those as 'shake-down hikes,' just to make sure that I was properly prepared,” he explained.

“I'm doing what is called a 'flip-flop.’ [It’s] where you start halfway, and then you go North to Maine, and then you turn around, and you go back to where you started from, and you go South to Georgia.”

On May 22, Estus will start again on the trail, beginning at Pen Mar Park on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania and then head North.

Estus has a history of walking long trails. He hiked the Colorado Trail in 2020, a 485-mile route from Denver to Durango.

Estus told CP that while the Colorado journey was not an official ministerial assignment, he nevertheless “was able to do ministry along the way.”

“I am in 12-step recovery and have been for 21 years, and so, therefore, my entire life is sort of a walking ministry,” noted the chaplain. “I'm going to whoever is along the way.”

Having a traveling chaplain is not unprecedented in the UMC. The early Methodist Church of the 18th and 19th centuries was known for its itinerant preachers and circuit riders.

“I would say it's similar in that I'm truly itinerant with my ministry being 2,193 miles long plus the stops along the way. It’s not like I'm settled in one place, waiting for the people to come to me,” Estus said.

Regarding his experiences on the Appalachian Trail, Estus told CP that he's been impressed by “the willingness and actual thirst people have to talk about things that concern them most.” This includes encountering “a number of people who suffer from the disease of substance abuse disorder in one way or another.”

“A great number of people experiencing it not because they have the problem themselves, but rather a family member or a friend does. Frequently these people have no one to talk to, no one who understands,” Estus noted. “I'm fortunately in a position, after 21 years’ recovery, of being able to listen and offer my experience.”

“My experience has been that God can do for me [than] what I can't do for myself, whether it’s quitting drinking, trying to control the substance abuse of a loved one, or even climbing the next mountain,” he added. 

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