Entering its 24th year, Camp Kanuga Trailblazers has touched the lives of many 15–17 year olds. This outdoor expedition program encourages growth in self-confidence, leadership skills and a greater appreciation for the natural world. It offers teens positive wilderness experiences with eight-day guided adventures on the Appalachian Trail.
These lessons in personal development remained with Macon York years after she was a Trailblazers participant. York, a young woman who cannot remember a time when she didn’t know about Kanuga (she started visiting Kanuga at the age of three alongside her mother at the annual Christian Formation Conference), attended Camp Kanuga as a young child, and then Trailblazers as a teen. The Kanuga experience that was most rewarding for her—and gave her the sense of confidence and courage that she later drew upon to make substantial changes in her life—was her first Trailblazers adventure.
“The first time I was in Trailblazers was hard. It rained the whole time and my pack was heavy. We were sweaty and wet the entire trip, and the experience was difficult. But afterwards I was so proud of myself and what I had accomplished. I felt really strong.”
York’s fellow Trailblazers gave her the nickname “Iron Woman” for her resilient character.
“I would say to the other Trailblazers, ‘Alright y’all, it’s nasty and raining, but let’s make the most of it.’”
As part of the Trailblazers experience, each camper serves as one of the leaders for a day, setting the pace for the group, deciding when to stop for breaks, and checking on other campers’ progress. York says she experienced a surge of self-confidence when she was chosen as a leader, and it served her well when she was faced with making important decisions in early adulthood.
York graduated from Sewanee: The University of the South with a degree in art, and afterwards worked her way into design positions at leading magazines in New York City. She was fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams, but she became aware that other dreams were waiting in the wings.
“I fell in love with New York City on my first trip there when I was 10. Plus, I loved magazines and design. But, after I worked my way up from intern to graphic designer, I saw how my bosses were stressed and had no free time for their family. I realized I didn’t like where I was headed. I didn’t want that lifestyle.”
As she neared the age of 25 in New York City, she says an old dream was reawakened. It was one she first had at Camp Kanuga.
“The first time I heard of the Appalachian Trail was when I was young at Camp Kanuga. We would stand by the bus and cheer for the older Trailblazers as they were about to leave on their big Appalachian Trail adventure.” She was curious about where they were going, and excited to one day become a Trailblazer herself.
“Then, after I completed my Trailblazers experience, I made a promise to myself that I would hike the entire AT before I turned 30. I was 15 at the time and it was a specific decision. The dream took the backseat to New York City for a few years, but it was still in the back of my head.”
As she contemplated her New York City life, York found herself thinking of her earlier Trailblazer days out in the woods along the AT, and yearned to surround herself with nature again. She was also curious to see how she would stand up to a physical challenge. She began to consider leaving the city to hike the entire trail—from Georgia to Maine. “I had been challenging myself creatively and mentally at my design job. I was eager to test myself physically, and was looking forward to a 180-degree change.”
York began preparing for her thru-hike. She read books about the trail, signed off from her job and sublet her apartment. Before beginning her thru-hike, she took the autumn to volunteer on organic farms in the South of France. Upon her return to the states, her journey was about to begin.
“I finally reached the conclusion that I was as ready as I would ever be, that the time had come to just go.”
On March 20, 2012, York’s parents took her to Springer Mountain, GA, the official southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. “The day was full of joy. I was so excited for the adventure ahead. On one hand, I had done the research and felt I was as ready as ever. On the other hand, I had no idea of what was ahead.”
Once on the trail, York came to realize that her time as a Trailblazer many years before had not only reinforced her confidence, but had given her the essential skills needed to thrive on the Appalachian Trail. From how to choose the right sleeping bag to where to hang a bear bag and how to backcountry cook, York says it was her Trailblazer days that helped her more than any other preparation for her journey.
After several weeks on the trail, York was surprised by how much she enjoyed the experience. “In a funny way, the trail was more fun than I had anticipated,” she says. “I had prepared for it so seriously, and expected it to be really hard, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I laughed. It was a joyful experience.” York explains that many people go into their thru-hike thinking it is going to be romantic and fun, but then quit because it’s so difficult. “I went into it the opposite way.”
As for her favorite part of being on the trail, York says she loved being immersed in nature. “I was able to closely watch and truly experience the seasons. I started on the first day of spring, when everything was brown and dormant. As I hiked along, I started to see the tiniest green buds and shoots of grass eventually blossom into a full, lush spring. In our normal lives, we may spend an hour a day outdoors. On the trail, you are in nature the whole time, truly watching the seasons change. “
York lived outside for six months and crossed 14 states by the time she completed her 2,184-mile trek in Maine in September. She says one of the important lessons she took from her journey is how you can accomplish great things when you take it one step at a time.
“When I look at the map and see the entire trail stretching up the East Coast, and think that I hiked that, it’s so big I can’t wrap my head around it. But, I didn’t hike it in one fell swoop. I did it step by step. I would think, ‘Let me hike these five miles and then I’ll get lunch,’ and so on. Eventually those steps amounted to a big accomplishment.”
Now, York is following another dream—continuing to grow her own creative small business in Asheville, NC. Her successful business, Macon York Letterpress & Design, keeps her busy creating wedding invitations, stationery and more. She has become a well-respected member of the letterpress and artist community in the area. And, she shares her love of the outdoors with others by leading hikes in nearby Pisgah Forest.
She says she applies lessons she learned on the AT to her everyday life.
“I’m very much a Type A personality, and like to be organized and in control. On the AT though, I wanted to be open to whatever the trail brought me. I could only control my attitude, not a steep trail or the weather. That approach still helps me today when I want to control more than I am able. I can’t make life easier, but I can be open to the goodness that’s out there.”
To learn more about Camp Kanuga Trailblazers, please visit trailblazers.kanuga.org.