News - Alive and Thriving: GC's Unique Wilderness Heritage

Alive and Thriving: GC's Unique Wilderness Heritage

Photos by Charlie Herrick '16

Walkabout Photo

The end of 2014 may have marked the end of our nation’s yearlong celebration of the Wilderness Act and its chief architect, Howard Zahniser ’28, but it did not mark the end of Zahniser’s enduring influence on students at his alma mater.

Just as student leaders kicked off this school year on Walkabout, GC’s customary 10-day wilderness excursion in the Smoky Mountains, student leaders next year will do the same. In fact, for 17 continuous years, Zahniser’s legacy has lived on through students who followed in his footsteps to receive the “ministrations” and “spiritual benefits” the wilderness offers.

To gauge WalkAbout’s impact, organizers recently tapped alumni of the 30-mile trek for their reflections. The accounts revealed crises that preceded “aha” moments like the novice hiker who discovered that teamwork had more pull than the heavy gear that slowed his stride on the trail. Encouraged by others, he met each day’s distance goal.

The story is no surprise to Dustin Fenton, GC’s director of leadership development. Fenton knows that conventional classrooms don’t duplicate the learning environment an unpredictable wilderness forces. “What first appears as the chaos of an unfamiliar environment can be transformed into a learning laboratory for bringing order to fragmented self-images and superficial relationships,” he says.

The newly gathered stories also reveal the importance of fellowship and community on the WalkAbout trail. Here’s a sampling:

Walkabout Trail

Good stewards of thought

“During my second WalkAbout, I had to walk a few additional miles with Dr. Hall. During those miles we talked about life and God, and learned the Collect. I cherish the memories of that day and continue to ask, ‘What would happen if, when our minds wandered, they wandered to things of God?’”

Revelations ‘round the campfire

“Memories of people sharing shame, fears, hurts, joys and hopes around a campfire are the conversations that stick out the most. The ‘love feast’ when we all got off the trail and served communion to each other was profoundly moving.”

Shared hardship

“It was physically and emotionally draining, but since you go through that hard experience with other people, you all come out closer at the end. It’s hard not to form friendships during that time.” 


“The conversations I remembered the most made no sense and made everyone laugh like crazy when we were all down and tired from the long, hard, uphill journey. I’ll always remember the laughter.”

Fast track to fellowship

“It brought the term ‘community’ out of the recesses of my memory. I understood that to foster a bond between two people or a group of people, you don’t need years of experience with them; you only need a moment – one moment of genuine commitment, understanding, love and sharing.”

Front row seat to range of human expression

“I am no stranger to wilderness travels, but I was a stranger to a few of the folks in my group, at least in the beginning; by the end, we were thick as thieves . . . When I look back, I see the expressions of care, laughter, regret, sorrow, pain, surprise and exuberant friendship.”

Good-bye distraction, hello friend

Walkabout Trail Sign“It is amazing how meaningful and moving community can be when we don’t have the rest of the world interfering.”

Irretrievably revealed

“I see myself more as a shielded box when it comes to social interaction. When my friends described the reasons for the names they gave me [on the trail], I not only felt, but knew they had seen me for who I was, bared on the mountainside, irretrievably revealed to them. That profoundly impacted me.” 

Holy ground

“I did learn how to sit silently in the presence of God and how to be comfortable in his stillness.”

Howard Zahniser believed that the human spirit finds rejuvenation in a pristine wilderness quite apart from “the mechanisms that make us masters over our environment.” Today’s students at GC are heirs to the treasures his humbling realization brings.

Click here to join alumni and friends of the College by funding WalkAbout today. Just write “WalkAbout” in the Optional Gift Designation box.   

Click here to learn more about WalkAbout.

Photos by Charlie Herrick ('16)

This story was published on January 09, 2015

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