As Catholics continue on their Lenten journey, setting their sights on the final destination of the resurrection, Heart’s Home invited all to hear the testimony of a man who finished the Appalachian Trail at the age of 75. It took him eight months to hike.
Soren West, who took on the trail name Sojo, visited St. Francis of Paola Church in Williamsburg March 20 to share his experience of fulfilling a life-long dream.
This Yale and Villanova educated semi-retired lawyer is no stranger to the outdoors.
At the age of 6, he went away to his first sleep away camp. At 12 he hiked the White Mountains of New Hampshire and at 14 West realized he wanted to traverse the entire Appalachian Trail.
That’s 2,2000 trail miles from Georgia to Maine. Prep-school, college, law school and life in general got in the way. West went on to be a successful trial lawyer. He raised five children with his wife, Bonnie. But the Appalachian call never truly left him.
At age 65, he broke the news to his wife: he would finally do it. She was supportive because she knew it was something her husband simply had to do.
By 2010, West climbed mountains and tested gear with his dog, Theo. He became accustomed to thinking about getting through hikes on their own six legs.
Through training and preparation, one thing became painfully clear – the Appalachian hike would not happen without knee replacement surgery. In 2014, West went under the knife.
He was not deterred. This was no longer something that might happen – it was something that would happen. Though not set in stone anywhere, West set it in metal. He ordered a license plate from the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles that stated to the world: IK9AT16, meaning he and his canine would hike the Appalachian Trail in 2016.
On Feb. 21, 2016, Sojo and Theo took their first steps of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain in Georgia.
Though Theo was not the only dog to begin the Appalachian Trail in 2016, West believes Theo is the only one who completed the journey. West explained that dogs would simply lie down and refuse to go any further, never truly becoming accustomed to the trail. He saw dogs object to packs being placed on their backs. Theo was different. Though no young-pup himself at age eight, he was always willing to try. West said that no matter how ridiculous or impossible a climb or jump might have seemed, Theo always at least tried. At times, the dog seemed unsure, scared or tired, but he would go on. It took him a bit to get used to the pack on his back, but he soon ran towards West when he saw it was time to put it on.
West was similarly pre-disposed. He set out on the trail knowing this is where he belonged. There was no rush. He could take his time to take in the beauty. He would finish in his own time.
His journey would be filled with beauty and trials. It was just Sojo and his dog Theo up and down mountains, through seemingly impossible rocky trails and into the majesty of nature.
“God was in every breadth,” West said, explaining that the whole hike was spiritual.
Though they were alone for most of the journey, the duo relied on others to support them. Of course there were the people who maintain the trails, staff mail and supply stations and offer the comforts of an occasional trip into town, but there were also many unexpected heroes. Trail Angels were good samaritans along the way who brought food to hungry hikers as an extra boost for their journey. There were the doctors who mended West enough to continue his journey and there, of course, was his family.
West likes to say that he lost 30 pounds on the trail and has since found every single one. But that is only a glimpse of the calorie-depriving venture he undertook. With the constant physical strain and food portioned out of that which he could carry, West developed an appetite. He was most grateful for the man who came out one morning to make omelets for Appalachian hikers. He ate a nine-egg omelet with all the works and could have eaten more.
In Virginia, he stumbled onto another couple offering sustenance for the hikers and this time they had recognized him, at least by name. They had hiked the entire Appalachian the year before and came across a Trail Angel themselves: Christopher West.
Christopher, who is known for his Theology of the Body books and talks, was in the area for a public speaking gig. He had brought along his sons who wanted to hike part of the long trail. So he drove them over. That’s when he met the couple. They needed a ride into town from the trail, which he offered. Christopher told them about his father’s plans for the following year.
There was also the woman he met in a café. She brought some goodies to celebrate with him on the trail when she learned it was his 75th birthday. His family planned a celebration for him later down the trail.
He said the love of his family gave him the extra boost he needed to finish the trail. He thought of them and it strengthened him. They showed their support continuously, even when he least expected it.
In Maine, when he was so close yet so far, he stopped at one of the shelters off the trail and took sometime to eat his lunch in the company of other hikers. He laughed and had a good time.
Then he was alone.
As he was gathering his thoughts – out of the corner of his eye he saw something he could not comprehend. His reaction was to put his arm up and brace himself. He simply could not compute what was happening.
There in the middle of the wilderness, just off the trail, a figure appeared. It was his own flesh and blood, his son, Nathan. Nathan had figured out his father’s location and had come out to show his support.
The end of the trail proved especially adventure-filled for West. Also in Maine, the last state of the trail, he had broken a tooth in his gums on one of many falls. He found a dentist, who set the tooth back into place and sent his patient on his way.
When West was on his last days of the trail, his shoulder gave him trouble. He realized he would have to go to the hospital to drain it. They wanted him in there for surgery, but that would mean he could not finish. He realized he was not in that much pain, even though he could not raise his arm, and he did not have a fever.
He decided to finish.
To complete the trail, he and his dog climbed the treacherous mountain at Baxter State Park. Staff tried to persuade him to leave the canine behind, but there was no way West was going to leave Theo behind. They were in it together.
It was a dangerous climb of rocks but they made it. And then back down and out of the wilderness to wait for Bonnie in the rain to pick them up.
Heart’s Home Mission
Father Alex Morard of Heart’s Home said this story gets to the bottom of Heart’s Home mission.
“I really believe that if you do not have passion, you cannot have life,” he said.
Melanie Delesalle, a permanent member of Heart’s Home, meaning that she has taken promises of chastity, obedience and poverty but is not a religious sister, said the event embodies the work of the group’s volunteers.
Youth volunteers devote a year or two of their life to work with the poor and needy far away from their home. The young people are asked to completely let go of their own norms and expectations and offer themselves to the work of the mission, much in the same way that West gave himself over to the trail. West’s daughter, Marian, was one of the volunteers.
Delesalle wanted to offer West’s testimony to the community to help explain that phenomenon of letting go of self.
To add to the personal and community touch of the event, Heart’s Home invited musicians and dancers to perform before the talk, as attendees enjoyed dinner together, and after the talk.
Gloria Valdez, a parishioner of St. Paul -St. Agnes, Cobble Hill, saw the event advertised in her church bulletin. She was intrigued. Being 77 herself, she wanted, to hear West’s story. She asked fellow parishioners if they would come with her, but they opted to watch the talk on-line. But Valdez wanted to see him in person, to get that personal contact.
After the talk, Valdez asked him about the mountain by her summer home, Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, on the Appalachian. He had and they spent a moment reminiscing on its beauty.
Soren West is in the process of publishing a book about his Appalachian adventures, which he hopes will be available in a few months. To learn more about the book, the man, the dog and the adventure, visit hikersojo.com.