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Joe Kotula Completes Appalachian Trail

Joe Kotula looks out over the Shenandoah Valley of Maryland where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together in the distance.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Making All Things New, the e-newsletter of Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Community. The text has been edited for style.

He never wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. That wasn’t part of the life plan of Joseph Kotula, OFM. In fact, he started hiking the Appalachian Trail by default.

When Joe had been section hiking the Long Trail in Vermont in 1999 and 2000, he also did a portion of the Appalachian Trail as the two pathways share 107 miles. But completing the 2,190-mile trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia, wasn’t part of his hiking plan. At least, not yet. He was still chasing a goal out West during his annual hiking vacations.

“I’ve always wanted to see a grizzly bear,” Joe said. “Finally, I saw a grizzly bear.  It was very close, like 75 feet away. We had our nice little encounter and the bear left and I said, ‘Well, I saw my grizzly bear. I don’t have to drive to Canada to go hiking anymore.’”

Friends started to ask what he would do for vacation now that he had his grizzly bear encounter. Joe didn’t know.

“And that scared me. Because there was never a year in a lot of years that I didn’t have some kind of hike planned,” he said. “So, I said, oh I’ll start hiking the Appalachian Trail. It will be a 10-year plan. I don’t care if I ever finish. At least every year it gives me some place to go.”

Joe with two hiking companions — Emily Tanski, a St. Bonaventure University graduate, and Judith Marklan, an alumnus of Houghton College. He says they are “great friends,” who, when he felt like quitting when it was rainy, provided morale, motivation and encouragement.

10+ Years Hiking the AT
It took a little longer than 10 years. Joe began section hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2004, completing his final portion this summer. He hiked 234 miles in 19 days beginning at Lehigh Gap in Pennsylvania and ending at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Yeah, it’s an accomplishment, but it’s almost as if other people get more excited about it than I do,” Joe said. “It’s because I’ve been hiking since 1971. People say the Appalachian Trail has been a big part of my life.  Well yes, it’s been a big part of my life, but I would have been planning a hike someplace even if it wasn’t the Appalachian Trail.  The Appalachian Trail, because it’s long-distance hiking, became its own way of hiking. I wanted to finish. The past couple years, I decided I’m this close, I’ve got to finish. And it’s getting crowded, so I wanted to be done with it.”

He wanted to be done with the goal of section hiking the Appalachian Trail, which entails documenting segments hiked over the course of time, as opposed to the thru-hikers who start at one end and take anywhere from three to six months to hike continuously to the other end.

But Joe will never quite be done with hiking. It’s not just part of who he is, but an integral part of his relationship with God.

He started hiking in the early 1970s when he moved to California. On his way, he stopped at the Grand Canyon and hiked to the bottom and out on the same day.

“It was a long hike,” said Joe. “I was young, no problem, but it was not easy. I went at sunrise and got back when the moon was out. I saw people with backpacks, so when I went to California, I went to a swap meet and bought a backpack and I’ve been backpacking ever since.”

When he first started hiking, Joe, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1985, said he often had mystical experiences. They were very brief flashes of knowledge that went deeper than anything he could learn intellectually. These were spiritual moments that kept Joe returning to the woods.

“When you’re out hiking in the wilderness, that’s when you get this experience that you’re a guest,” said the western Pennsylvania native. “We as human beings tend to think everything is there for us so I’m in control. But you get out in the wilderness and you realize, or I realize, I’m pretty small. They’re welcoming me. I’m a welcomed guest, but I’m a guest.

“Whenever I had an experience like that, that’s what I called mystical. It’s powerful. It stays with me. And it continues to be part of my own faith journey. When faith is not making much sense, when try to I use reason and intellect, it still doesn’t make sense. But if I have these experiences connected with my intellect and reason, then this is wonderful. This is all real.”

He remembers one instance during a long backpacking trip where he was tired and physically beat. Joe was thinking about his discomfort and that he had six miles left to get to his shelter for the night.

“This stinks. I just want to be there,” he said.

“The message I got was to move to an experience of just putting one foot in front of the other. I was trying to connect that with my breathing and the name Jesus. So, it would be ‘Je-sus. Je-sus.’ That would be my step.

“And I was going uphill and all the trees were trees and I’m thinking they’re all trees, they’re all the same. I realized no, they’re not all the same. Every tree is its individual self.

“And then I got ‘here is there and there is here.’ You know we only have the moment. There is no past and there is no future. You’ve got right now. That’s all there is. Truly. So, there is here and here is there. Because when you get there, you’re here. You’re nowhere else. And when you’re here, you’re there. Because you’re nowhere else. There’s been spiritual mystics that that. I felt blessed to have that given to me. It wasn’t a thought. It wasn’t like I sat there and thought this up.”

Those mystical experiences don’t come as frequently these days for Joe. But that’s part of the journey, as well.

“Now the past couple years, it’s just been really walking in the woods,” he said. “I haven’t had those gifts again. It hasn’t stopped me from going hiking but it makes me go, ‘Wow, I miss that.’ It’s a gift. When it comes, I’ve got to be grateful for it. If it’s not there, I’ve got to be grateful for walking in the woods. I’m able to do that. A lot of people can’t.”

Joe along the Appalachian Trail, near Duncannon, Pa.

His Next Hike
What’s next? He is planning to return to New Hampshire to hike the Presidential Range, combining a shorter adventure, maybe five days, with visiting friends in New England.

And then there’s this one idea that he can’t seem to let go of.

“I used to think I’d like to walk across the country as a friar,” he said. “But I’m not so sure that’s ever going to be in my cards. Maybe. You never know. It doesn’t go away as a thought. If I entertain it at all it can become very exciting. But once the excitement wears off I know the reality. And the reality is not easy. People could hear it as a romantic endeavor. There ain’t much romantic about it at all. It’s just difficult. But it could be very rewarding, the number of people one would meet. If I really had a feeling like God said this is what I want you to do and I truly believed that, then that would be the reasoning. Maybe that would touch people, maybe it wouldn’t. Who knows?

“I walked from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Rhode Island, once as a test in 1969 or 1970. And I ended up with terrible blisters. I had the wrong kind of shoes. So I did learn that.”

Amy Moritz, a 1995 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, is communications manager for Kevin Guest House in Buffalo, N.Y.  She is a member of the Mt. Irenaeus Communications Committee.

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