Ryan and Anna Silvis are pictured with their parents, Curt and Jacene, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, during a ski trip with relatives in 2022. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Early last February, Stone Lake couple Curt and Jacene Silvis hiked eight miles in Georgia’s Amicalola State Park to reach the starting point of a 2,000-mile journey. Their goal was the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus of the famous Appalachian Trail.

Remote Preparation

This endeavor, considered extreme by some, was nothing new to the couple. Jacene teased that outdoor pastimes were almost a dating requirement for them both. Curt proposed to her in Glacier National Park and 33 years ago this August, they honeymooned on a “rustic cruise” in the Boundary Waters.

The two met working in the same hospital in Kalispell, Montana. Curt was a pharmacist from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who’d attended college in Montana, and Jacene had looked for work as a nurse. She’d fallen in love with the mountains after visiting her brother in eastern Montana.

Jacene and her siblings were raised by a father who loved the “camping lifestyle” and a mother who was “very tolerant” of it. She learned from them that, “You can enjoy nature all you want, but when it came time to go to Mass, that always took priority … We got cleaned up, no matter how far out in the sticks my dad had us.” Her mother would make sure the children were sponge-bathed at the picnic table and had clean, pressed clothes for Sunday Mass.

After graduating high school, she took a bikepacking trip with an older brother. Riding from their hometown near Chicago to the Maine coast and back, the pair didn’t miss Mass once. After completing the trip, her brother suggested their last stop be to offer thanksgiving at their local church.

“I never knew you could miss Mass,” she said and admitted that lack of access to Mass during the six months they would be on the Appalachian Trail gave her pause when her husband brought up the idea of making the trek.

Faith has been integral to their family life, including for Curt who converted to Catholicism after both their sons were born. “There’s a lot of correlation between being out in the beauty of creation and your journey on the spiritual path,” she affirmed.

However, in reflecting on her experiences, Jacene said she hadn’t realized just how “during so many seasons of life” she has turned often to nature. She recalled the 200 miles they hiked over months in Glacier National Park with their eldest child, Evan, as an infant on her back. After Evan passed in 2014 at 19 years old, the family sought refuge on a backpacking trip with some friends to Isle Royale.

“I have looked for peace and tranquility in the simplicity of nature,” Jacene said. “Being taken by surprise by the awe of creation that surrounds me, I feel very insignificant in all the grandeur, but know I am very relevant as part of creation, too.”

Curt had known about the AT for years, but it wasn’t feasible while working or raising their three children. With their youngest in college, there was “no reason why we couldn’t do it,” and he wanted to start planning. Jacene had told him she would follow him wherever he went and acknowledged her gratitude for his mastery of planning the logistics of backpacking, a crucial element for a successful trip.

“Everything you have is on your back,” he stated, “Food, water, shelter and your faith. That’s all you got, until the journey’s done.”

On the Trail

In the fall of 2022, the Silvises backpacked the Superior Hiking Trail along 300 miles of Minnesota’s North Shore and came home confident in their decision to take on the Appalachian Trail. Starting Feb. 8, they thru-hiked the first 1,500 miles from Georgia northbound, stopping mid-June in northwestern Connecticut to take a planned break for a family wedding.

Curt said that the AT is “set up pretty good” with locations every five to seven days of hiking distance where you could get “off trail” to shower, stay in a hostel or hotel, rest and restock supplies. Carrying everything you need on your back requires detachment and flexibility. “It’s not healthy eating,” Curt said. The recommended daily calorie intake is 4,000 calories, and when you’re carrying your kitchen, hikers eat a lot of protein bars, pop tarts and ramen in addition to coffee and freeze-dried food. He added that you try to make up some of those missing calories when you get to a town, eating hamburgers and ice cream.

To practice the sacraments, Jacene chimed in, “bring a priest with you.” She had never missed the Sacred Triduum. As Holy Week neared, they looked ahead for a Catholic church and found Holy Family Parish in Pearisburg, Virginia. They were excited to see mention of a Catholic hostel there and delighted when the keeper, ‘Twig,’ had a bin of clean clothes where they could find something to wear to Mass. It wasn’t the pressed outfit Jacene’s mother would have had, but she was “so happy” to attend Mass and adoration in clothes that weren’t filthy.

There the Silvises learned about Kevin ‘Greyhound’ Riedel, a Catholic seminarian who had been a trail-runner and thru-hiked two 300-mile long trails in the region. Riedel started a website, Campanarius.com, to provide information about Catholic churches near the Appalachian Trail. Although the young man unexpectedly passed in January 2022, his friends and family have maintained the site.

“Trail magic” was one of the biggest surprises in this “world with its own culture, community dynamics, lingo and names.” That magic came in the forms of trucks parked near trail access points with open tailgates and treats for the taking or passing by a running stream with a pack of cold beer for hikers to enjoy.

“It’s beautiful,” Jacene said, “because you don’t know who to thank.”

They hit “the jackpot” finding ‘FreshGrounds’ on the trail one day. The man fried them up a hearty breakfast with fresh fruit, served hot coffee and provided a charging station in his van, complete with folding chairs to sit on.

Your trail name, the couple explained, is given by others on the trail. Jacene’s came 700 miles in when they encountered a couple doing trail maintenance to give back after their hike the year before. They invited her to paint one of the white blazes marking the trail and then asked what her trail name was. Not having one, they dubbed her ‘Blaze.’

Many get their name from a “tramily,” or trail family, that hikers might connect with along the trail forming larger groups. Two hundred miles further, around a campfire with other hikers, someone gave Curt his trail name by spelling his name backwards, ‘Truc.”

Hiking as a couple, both admitted some challenges spending that much time together and given the variables of bad weather and snake sightings, etc. Some days they allowed space for each to hike at their own pace, but Curt said they’d “always end up in the same spot.” He added that they had great teamwork setting up and taking down camp; Jacene recognized her husband grew in his patience with her.

You learn to be more aware of each other, she said. “You each have different needs at different times… and those things don’t get honed unless they’re challenged.” Daughter Anna joined her parents on the trail in the Smokey Mountains for a few days during her spring break. They said she was their biggest cheerleader the entire trip.

One of their greatest obstacles came when it was time to return to the trail. Jacene’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer some months before they began, and she had taken a turn for the worse. Although Jacene loved the experience, she knew her parents needed her – besides missing her kids and friends, daily Mass and, admittedly, running water and flush toilets.

Deciding not to head back and finish the trail, she was convicted, “You gotta go where you’re called.”

Curt returned to the AT and began hiking again on June 15. He said it was definitely “lonelier without her company,” and challenging carrying all the gear solo. Jacene and Anna drove to Maine – with a detour to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Massachusetts to pick Curt up near Millinocket, Maine.

He summited Mount Katahdin on Aug. 7 and was reunited with his wife and daughter the next day. In total, he hiked 2,198.4 miles.

In all, counting the 27 “zeros” (days you don’t hike), 14 which were planned, the trip was a commitment of six months – 180 days plus the time preparing. The couple said was like an expanded retreat in many ways, but also acknowledged they were largely disconnected from the happenings at home and in the world.

“Ordinary life doesn’t just pause,” Jacene said. “It really stops while you’re out there. Hiking the one urban section where the AT passes west of New York City, the skyline could be seen in the distance. Not realizing they could hop on a train to go into the city, she commented just how much they “lost a sense of where the rest of the world was” while hiking.

There’s a lot more than physical and logistical preparation, and Curt knows that some would see that, plus the effort to find and filter water, sleep and go to the bathroom outside for months just not worth it.

All that said, not once did quitting enter his mind. “There were days walking through mud, jumping over puddles and crossing swollen streams I was ready for that day to be done,” but he was firm in his decision to finish what he started.

This resilience was highlighted by Anna as well. When she asked her dad if he ever thought about quitting, he said, “Honestly, no.” Anna didn’t believe him at first, but he iterated that he got up every day with that end goal in mind, but knew he would get there only by putting one foot in front of the other.

The young woman reflected how easy it is “to get caught up in the future or depressed about the past, but resilience is to take life one day at a time. It’s being consistent over a long period of time.”

“Discipline,” she added, “is knowing what you have to do, even if you don’t want to do it, and doing it anyway.”

These aren’t abstract concepts to Anna, who is a college junior, a nursing student at St. Scholastica’s in Duluth, and enlisted with the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. Both of her brothers also joined the service. Evan joined the Army National Guard right out of high school, and Ryan, a journeyman electrician, is part of the Air Force National Guard.

This drive to challenge themselves is something the Silvis children learned from their parents in large part through backpack camping, where they were “grounded in reality, explored the world as God created” and fully immersed in outdoors adventures.

She confessed it wasn’t until middle school that she realized her family’s definition of camping was different than most: “It blew my mind to hear that people considered sleeping in an RV to be camping.”

“I’m so thankful for how I’ve been raised,” Anna said and credited her parents’ example for many of her choices. “How your parents raise you really affects how you show up in life.” Silvis, who spent part of her 2023 summer as Totus Tuus missionary, added that she hopes to also encourage and challenge others to realize their own capabilities.

Anna and her mom are planning to travel to Lourdes this summer, assisting pilgrims, while Curt will be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. From early March through spring and summer, he will hike 2,655 miles from the Mexican border in California all the way to the border with Canada in Washington state.

As Curt and Jacene Silvis hiked, they asked numerous hikers what their reasons for hiking were. Some hiked as a pilgrimage of sorts for some specific nonprofit or philanthropical cause, some for health and rehabilitation reasons after serious illness or disease. On the trail, everyone’s a philosopher or poet, Silvis said. Sharing from her notes, she quoted one, “You can sit at home with your aches and pains or you can walk the trail with them.”

“The trail is a natural therapist,” one of their shuttle drivers shared. “The trail is like a mirror. Eventually you have to look at yourself and the things you kept hidden will confront you.”

One couple they met the first night on the trail looked exhausted from carrying their enormous packs. Around 40 pounds, Jacene said, when the goal is keeping to a base weight of 18. “I packed for all of my fears,” the woman told her. She thought how that hadn’t gotten the hiker very far.

At an evening campfire in Pennsylvania – where the trail has a lot of jagged rocks and requires extra attention – when asked what he did all day, one hiker responded. “I’m never more present than when I am hiking. One step at a time, I’m just present navigating my steps like a paddler navigated the river.”