A Walk in the Woods

Among Friends   Fall 2015

A Message from the Head of School

Larry Letter Header


Earlier this fall, the much-anticipated release of A Walk in the Woods, a film based on Bill Bryson’s 1998 nonfiction bestseller starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson, created a lot of buzz about the Appalachian Trail. News stories included Associated Press and New York Times articles about possible overuse of the A.T. as a result of the movie. The Appalachian Trail, running nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, is the nation’s premier hiking trail.

Each summer I spend at least two weeks on the Appalachian Trail. This past summer, I passed the 1,500-mile mark. (That’s 71.3% of the Trail, but who’s counting?) I hope to complete the Trail within the next five years.

I enjoy hiking for a number of reasons. For starters, it reminds me of being with my father, who began backpacking in Vermont in 1932 and introduced me to hiking when I was in third grade at MFS. Another reason is that hiking was actually a vocational activity for me in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, I worked as a Vermont state ranger and as a U.S. Forest Service forestry technician in New Hampshire. Eventually, I served for six years as the Executive Director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the 48,000-member organization based in Harpers Ferry, WV that is responsible for the management and protection of the A.T.

One of the appealing features of hiking and backpacking is that it requires no particular physical prowess. Although a majority of A.T. long-distance hikers are extremely fit twentysomethings (Chris Kimberly, Associate Head of School, was 22 in 1995 when he did the entire Trail in one trip — called a “thru hike”), a surprising number of hikers and backpackers are people my age or older. Len Shapiro ’60, for example, completed the Trail when he was in his late 60s. Hiking is really just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

What the Trail does require is a lot of persistence. Dirt, insects, cuts, bruises, hunger, and thirst are all an integral part of the experience. For the hiker who does not have a high tolerance for discomfort, the Trail experience is unhappy — and short. Each year, about 80% of the 10,000 hikers who set off to do the entire Trail drop out. Bill Bryson was actually one of those who didn’t make it.

Although I often day hike with my wife, Margaret, nowadays I generally do overnight backpacking alone. Solitude on the Trail puts me in close touch with my thoughts and with nature (including an occasional bear!). Hiking the A.T. requires me to slow down not only physically but mentally — in short, to experience “mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is receiving so much attention today that it risks becoming a cliché. Amazon lists more than 13,000 titles on the subject. But its popularity is rooted in its importance. Our minds tend to race in work and school situations. Digital media and communications have added to the frenzied feeling many of us experience daily. Being in the woods for a week or more allows those pressures to slip away. It is a sort of “enforced mindfulness,” not entirely different from the way Meeting for Worship requires that students and teachers take a deep breath and break away, even for just 40 minutes, from the intensity of daily life. As one’s mind becomes progressively more uncluttered, there is receptivity to new ideas and new possibilities. Recent studies at Stanford substantiate that walking in a natural setting has important cognitive benefits, and other studies have shown that quiet meditation yields similarly positive outcomes. Quakers and Friends school students have known that for generations. The experience of Meeting for Worship is a chance to detach from minute-to-minute worries — to think deeply and, in short, experience mindfulness.

There are many aspects of Friends schools that differentiate them from public and other private schools, including the inclusive sense of community and the importance of ethical decisionmaking. These characteristics of Friends schools are all built on the fundamental Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone. Mindfulness is an essential–and indelible–part of the MFS experience.


Larry Van Meter

Larry Van Meter ’68
Head of School



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