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Wednesday, 14 September 2016 16:13

Hiking for Hope: Robbinsville man raises $70,000 for children with A.T. hike

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It was nighttime in the White Mountains, and Steve Claxton was pretty sure he wouldn’t make it till morning. Rain was falling, and winds were ripping through his campsite at 90 miles per hour, sharpening the 40-degree temperatures like a knife. He’d known that camping above treeline was a bad idea, but an incoming storm had forced him to do it — now he was afraid it was the last thing he would ever do. 

“At Mount Washington there’s a huge wall of people who died in the White Mountains, most of them in July and August and most of them from hypothermia,” Claxton said. “I really thought they were going to have to add my name to that.”

But eventually dawn came, and Claxton was alive to see it. He shouldered his pack once again, continuing his trek along the Appalachian Trail in search of Mount Katahdin. Soon afterward he came by a group of rangers who were astonished to hear where he’d camped, and that he’d lived to tell the tale. 

Claxton would have many more tales to tell in the coming weeks, and the best one took place at noon on Aug. 23, when he marked the end of his 2,189-mile walk from Georgia by summiting Maine’s Mount Katahdin. 

“It was a very emotional moment,” Claxton said. “I tried to do a live video, but I was really choking up.”

 

The relativity of impossibility 

Claxton, a Swain County native who recently moved to Robbinsville, had been hiking the trail since Feb. 22, the fulfillment of a lifelong goal that he also organized as a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Graham County. He made the journey solo, his early start meaning that he missed the “bubble” of the estimated 3,400 people who started an A.T. thru-hike this year.  He spent only about seven days out of the six-month journey walking with somebody else. 

“I’d really go through a tough time or really get lonely. I hiked by myself,” Claxton said. “I say by myself — it was a very spiritual journey. It was me and God hiking the trail side-by-side together.”

Claxton has a hard time talking about his hike without talking about his spirituality. It begins with his trail name, “Mustard Seed,” which comes from a verse in the Bible where Jesus tells his disciples that with the power of God behind them, even faith the size of the tiny mustard seed is enough to move mountains. 

“It just fit what I was doing,” he said. “This journey wasn’t impossible.”

To some, it seemed impossible. Claxton had had knee surgery in November, just three months before he left. And, at 60, he was most definitely in the upper age bracket of A.T. thru-hikers. Since it was completed in 1937, about 12,000 people have successfully thru-hiked the trail — fewer than 500 of those were older than 60. 

“I thought, ‘That sounds like a challenge,’” Claxton said. “I thought, ‘I can be one of those less than 500.’”

His doctor didn’t agree. 

“My doctor said, ‘I’ll give you 500 miles and you’ll be back.’” Claxton recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll do 2,200 miles and I’ll be your poster child.’”

Turned out, Claxton was right. He came back to the doctor with a poster of himself at Katahdin in tow. 

Completing the trail was a personal victory — a commercial outfitter who currently lives just half a mile from the A.T., hiking the trail in its entirety had been a lifelong goal. 

But it was also a victory for people across Western North Carolina and even the world. 

A 14-year volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Swain County, Claxton had originally planned his hike as a fundraiser to launch a chapter in Graham County, where he lives now. He put together a fundraising page and set a goal of $20,000. 

He raised $38,000. And counting. 

The son of teachers who is now the father of teachers, Claxton’s always had a heart for kids. And his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters has been more than sufficient to show him that there’s a need for strong, loving role models to connect with kids whose home lives have involved a certain amount of trauma. 

“I’ve seen so many kids’ lives completely turned around, stories that you couldn’t even imagine,” Claxton said. “Kids that have witnessed things that were unimaginable. The murder of their parents. At 5 years old the kid’s so psychologically distraught. You get them a big brother and just see them connecting.” 

While he was away, the folks in Graham County actually succeeded in getting a chapter started, and Claxton is excited to see where it goes. Angela Knight, superintendent of Graham County Schools, signed up as the first big sister in the program, and he believes that bodes well for the future.

“That really set a precedent for the local community,” he said. “If she’s willing as busy as she is to become a big sister, hopefully others will follow.”

 

A legion of cheerleaders

While $38,000 is quite a chunk of change, that’s not all that Claxton’s hike brought in. It also raised $34,000 for the Friends of Barnabas Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that aims to provide medical care and community health training to help children in Honduras. 

The alliance with Friends of Barnabas happened quite by accident — or by design, depending on your take on God. 

A Friends of Barnabas volunteer named Kyle Kirby had started the A.T. to raise money for the organization, but 100 miles in he injured his legs and had to drop out. Another team member, Ronnie Dillon, took over to add another 48 miles to Kirby’s journey, but then he met Claxton. 

The Friends of Barnabas folks had been using a small GPS to track the hike, allowing followers to see exactly where on the trail they were at 10-minute intervals. Dillon asked Claxton if he would carry the GPS, at least as far as Virginia. 

“I said, ‘Well I’m going to Maine, so I’ll go to Maine for you,’” Claxton said.  

When he uttered those words, Claxton couldn’t have known just how difficult the journey would be. He would encounter rattlesnakes and bears. He’d almost die of exposure. He’d lose his water filter deep in a boulder crevice, during one of the most difficult and isolated sections of the trail — coming across a couple day hikers with a replacement filter to offer up was borderline miraculous. 

But he kept going, even when it was difficult. Because he wanted to finish, but also because he knew there were more people than he could count cheering him on, depending on him. His Facebook page, where he posted photos and thoughts daily, exploded to 3,300 friends, and because the posts were public it’s impossible to say how many people actually viewed them. 

Once he logged on to see that a woman with paraplegia had posted a photo of herself and her service dog next to an A.T. trail sign.  

“It says, ‘This is as close as I’ll ever get to hiking the trail, but I’m able to hike it vicariously through you,’” Claxton recalled. “That touched my heart. Real suddenly I realized there were 100s of them (people with paraplegia) following me. I had to do it for them.”

For them, and for his friends back home, and for the kids whose welfare depended on the funds he’d raise for Big Brothers Big Sisters and Friends of Barnabas. 

 

The journey of a mustard seed

Claxton took one notable break from his interminable press onward. 

Six years ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters matched him with a sixth-grade kid who was so many miles behind in school that he was sure he’d never catch up. He couldn’t wait to drop out. 

“I told him he wasn’t going to drop out. He was going to walk across that stage and I was going to be there to watch him,” Claxton said. 

When he made that promise, he had no idea that he’d be in the middle of an Appalachian Trail thru hike when graduation day came. But he was still planning to keep his word — though he kept that plan a secret from the soon-to-be graduate — and decided to travel home by bus to save money. 

Then, his kind gesture to Friends of Barnabas came back around to him. The organization bought Claxton a plane ticket. 

“To see him walk across that stage was just indescribable,” Claxton said. 

The journey to graduation day is perhaps symbolic of Claxton’s overall adventure. In terms of human company, his hike was one of solitude. But its success was really all about people — the friends he made along the way, the people he helped, the people who helped him, the stories he told and was told. Claxton counts his digital cheerleaders among those numbers too, referring to them as newly adopted family.

Each step is small, but strung together with the power of prayer and encouragement and God walking alongside, the steps combine into something big. To Claxton, that is the journey of a mustard seed. 

“You learn so much about yourself and so much about life itself by trudging on and getting through the hard times, getting through the mountains and the rocks and the roots,” he said. “You learn you can do a lot more than you ever thought you could do.”

 

 

Help the cause

Steve Claxton’s hike is complete, but the journey is not. The causes he hiked for — Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Friends of Barnabas Foundation — are still in need of donations and volunteers. 

Give online. The GoFundMe account that Claxton set up in support of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Graham County chapter is still open at www.gofundme.com/z3r3f7ws. In addition, Friends of Barnabas has a page and donation portal dedicated to the hike — with updates from Claxton after he took over the hike — at www.fobf.org/kylekirbyhikeforhonduras

Volunteer. Big Brothers Big Sisters has chapters in counties throughout Western North Carolina and is always in need of volunteers willing to spend time building positive relationship with children who don’t come from a stable, two-parent home. Find out more at www.bbbswnc.org.

Live vicariously. Claxton chronicled his adventure on his Facebook page — the posts are public — and on his blog, www.steveclaxton.com/hiker

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