Professor giving a lecture to students in old main
Wofford students make film of Appalachian Trail journey

By Jenny Arnold
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Published: Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Appalachian Trail was a classroom for two Wofford College students earlier this year, where they not only learned about its history and culture, but also about themselves.

Sophomores Alex Bentley and Matthew Aurednik hiked 225 miles of the trail in 15 days during Wofford's January interim, a month-long term that offers hands-on learning and a change from the rigors of traditional academic courses for both students and faculty.

Bentley and Aurednik didn't know each other before the hike. Aurednik, who loves the outdoors, had only done day weekend backpacking trips.

"This was my very first experience hiking long distance," said Aurednik, who plays soccer for Wofford. "I was pretty much a packhorse to this guy (Bentley). I had been looking for something like this. I didn't want to sit in a classroom for a month."

The two decided to present a project about the history and culture of the trail and produce a documentary called "Flow." The documentary will be shown today at 6 p.m. at Wofford's Leonard Auditorium. The film contains interviews with the 25 or so hikers and trail experts Bentley and Aurednik encountered along the way.

The pair started Jan. 4, along Route 311 in Catawba, Va. They were joined by Bentley's cousin Chris Cinatl for part of the hike, and trekked 80 miles before a polar vortex, and Bentley catching a sinus infection, bronchitis and the flu sidelined them for five days.

"The cold got old real fast," Aurednik said. "It's 15 degrees in the morning. Getting out of the sleeping bag is the worst ever. Your hands don't want to work. It's brutal."

Because of the season, the students often had the trail to themselves, apart from the owls, woodpeckers, deer and bears, the latter evident from large tracks in the snow.

"We went three days without seeing anyone," Bentley said.

"It was lonely at times," Aurednik said. "It was beautiful."

The bare winter trees made for great visibility along the trail.

"On the ridges, you can see out and it's just stunning," Aurednik said.

Their longest day was 25 miles, the shortest, six. Some days they hitchhiked down a mountain to have lunch, find a place to resupply and recharge their phones.

It was a demanding hike both physically and emotionally, Bentley and Aurednik say, but the two don't complain as they recount their journey.

"I never thought it would turn out like it did," Aurednik said, while not giving away the climax of the documentary. "I thought it would be a little hike in the woods."

During their two weeks on the trail, they encountered snow and pitched tents in 40 mph winds. In the evenings, they dried their socks by the fire and wrote down their experiences in their journals. Bentley recorded their journey each day with Canon Rebel SL1 and GoPro cameras, capturing the beauty of frost-covered wilderness, does grazing among the trees, rigorous walks through driving snow and even the day he walked around with tissue jammed into his nostrils to stop a nosebleed.

As they encountered hikers, they'd stop and interview them.

"Everyone we met had something interesting to bring," Aurednik said.

The journey ended in Harper's Ferry, W. Va. The students ended up with 70 GB of footage to edit down into a 1-hour documentary. At the end of the film, they ask each person to sum up what the trail means to them in one word. Community, sanctuary, healing, rugged, beautiful, awesome and surprising were some of the answers.

For Bentley, who's been backpacking since he was a teenager and has done a 700-mile trek along the Appalachian Trail before, it means something different each time. For this trip, the word that comes to mind is freedom.

"It's the closest you can get to pure freedom," he said. "You're not weighed down by culture or restricted by tight schedules. I can hike five miles or I can hike 20. I can eat whatever I want and sit down and look at the birds. Freedom of thoughts comes from talking to different people from different backgrounds. The trail fulfills what you're seeking at that stage in your life, and it always manages to be meaningful."

Aurednik was moved by the words of hiker, professor and trail expert Kip Redick, who told them to open themselves up to what the trail can teach them.

"That's how I went in — I'm just going to learn from it," Aurednik said.

Peace is Aurednik's word for the trail.

"There are moments of solitude," he said. "You get a lot of time to yourself to just think. Out there, there's nothing. You don't have to worry about anything."

Aurednik said there is no way the documentary could have encapsulated their journey and what they took away from it, but the pair is looking forward to sharing their film with the Wofford community tonight. The public is invited to the free event.

"It means a lot to me because it's a very true form of expression of how we were affected by the trail," Bentley said. "I hope people are inspired by it and will take something from it."

Bentley and Aurednik will be joined tonight by Jennifer Pharr Davis of Asheville, who will give a presentation on her own learning experiences on the trail after the documentary is shown.

Davis, 32, is a hiker, author, speaker and the 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She's hiked more than 12,000 miles on six continents, hiked in all 50 states with her husband and 2-year-old daughter and holds the overall fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail — 47 miles a day for 46 straight days.

Davis is from Hendersonville and lives in Asheville. The trail was her classroom as she hiked the entire length, 2,185 miles, as a 21-year-old. If she could, Davis would prescribe a hike along the Appalachian Trail for every young person like Bentley and Aurednik, and she said she's proud they took the opportunity and chance.

"You learn so much and grow so much through that experience," she said. "It's one of the best transitions into adulthood that someone could have. The trail helps you realize you can always do more than you think is possible.

"It's not about the mileage. It's about being outdoors."

Follow Jenny Arnold on Twitter @JennyArnoldSHJ

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