Skip to:Main Content

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University Campus Image

David Severson '12

Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Hikes the Appalachian Trail

Hometown: Wichita, KS

Majors: Biochemistry and  Mathematics

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Free Clinic Volunteer
  • Outing Club Hiking Key Staff
  • Waddell Elementary School Teacher Assistant
  • Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Studied at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland during my sophomore year (Fall 2009)

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant? Since I was a child I have always wanted to do a significant experience in the outdoors, and after my pre-orientation trip I decided that the Appalachian Trail would be an ideal setting for that experience. In addition, I have always enjoyed reading about history, philosophy and literature. But I have selected mostly courses in mathematics and the sciences, because my interest in those subjects is so strong. To some extent I missed the liberal arts and so in the spring I decided to combine the outdoor experience I have always wanted with a summer study of literature, philosophy and history. I applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant in order to fund the trip.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L? I designed my adventure in the spirit of the liberal arts education at Washington and Lee. Hiking on the trail I discovered first-hand the physiological consequences that occur with changes in metabolism, which I had learned about in biochemistry class the previous year. I witnessed in person how culture slowly changes with every mile, until the butter-soaked grits at breakfast have been replaced with fresh maple syrup. This summer I had the opportunity to learn in the transcendentalist way--by living and doing. So I seized that opportunity, believing it to be the capstone of my liberal arts education. I was informed along the way by the history and philosophy from which I read. Just as the liberal arts studied in the classroom informs our way of thinking and problem solving, this experience has strengthened my character and sharpened my mind in ways that will undoubtedly equip me to be a better biomedical scientist in the future.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience? Two mountain goats in the Shenandoah Valley, four bears, oh, and the porcupine... On a more serious note, I did not expect to make a lifelong friend from Magdeburg, Germany on the trail--but I did. We will probably finish some of the three sections I skipped together.

Post-Graduation Plans: 1-2yr Post-Baccalaureate Biomedical Research Experience

Favorite Class: Biochemistry with Professor Alty and Professor LaRiviere

Favorite Lexington Landmark: Lexington Coffee Shop



My sleeping bag is disgusting, my pack smells terrible, but I am having the time of my life. I just woke up at a lazy nine o'clock in a small wooden three sided shelter in Pennsylvania that is very typical of the Appalachian Trail. It is June 19th and I need to get a ride from the trail crossing at Duncannon, Pa., about twelve miles away. I want to be in Harrisburg that afternoon to meet my mom for a day off and then a three-day hike on the trail together. Unfortunately, I notice that my back hurts because my small lightweight therma-rest had begun to slowly leak at night about three weeks ago, just before Harper's Ferry, W. Va. I shrug off the backache, to which I have become accustomed after sleeping on the ground for the majority of the past sixty days. Carrying my dirty thirty-five pound pack all those days probably was not helping. Not to mention the fact that my hip belt, once snug when tightened halfway, had reached its limit a few days back, making the support it provided pretty much negligible.

Despite all of the complaints, I love that pack. It's my home. I'm carrying everything I need on my back. Food, shelter, water purification, reading material, I had the works in that lovely dusk colored Osprey. It's so satisfying to be self-sufficient on foot thanks to that pack. It never goes far out of my sight. Packs are the topic of a great deal of conversation out here. Everyone is always talking about the gear; I guess when we carry it on our backs for four to six months, it becomes a priority.

But I was talking about a lazy nine o'clock morning before I started talking about my gear. I hate waking up this late; it means no time for coffee and starting off extra sticky because I am too warm in my sleeping bag after about seven a.m. I curse my lazy behavior, and then remember that yesterday I did my longest day on the trail yet--it was a fun 33.8 miles from Pine Grove Furnace Park to Darlington shelter on the other side of the Cumberland Valley. Aha, that is the real reason my body hurts this much.

I can clearly remember reaching the shelter the night before. It was 10:30 p.m. and I had started hiking at 6:15 a.m. that morning. As soon as I dropped the pack, I realized that the adrenaline that had been constantly circulating for the past fourteen hours must have had one too many half-lives, because I nearly fell to the ground from exhaustion. I had to change and set out my sleeping gear quietly so as not to wake the other three hikers asleep in the Darlington shelter. Wishing that I could just fall asleep, I couldn't resist the need to eat. So I respectfully stepped away from the shelter to brew two packs of Ramen noodles. As usual, I added about a quarter-pound of pepper jack and one of those twelve-ounce spicy tuna packets to the dish. After about two minutes the water was boiling, and the food was ready in another three. I quietly thanked God for the speed of that Jet-boil stove. It only took me four minutes to scarf down the food. Since I was still hungry, I ate a six-pack of Oreos and a large chocolate donut for dessert.

After I ate, I remember dreading a trip to the privy before I hit the floorboards and crashed. The privies out here are handy given that there is a seat that comes with the hole in the ground. But there are regularly spiders that make these wooden bathrooms their home, and you can't see them all that well at night. So I usually avoid these things after dark. However, yesterday I had eaten a half-gallon of cheap Hershey's banana split ice cream in an hour as part of the traditional thru-hiker half-gallon challenge, and I didn't want to wait until morning.

As I approached I heard a bizarre scratching sound and felt a chill rush down my spine. Of course I had to investigate before I went inside. Shining my headlamp on the sound I saw a two-foot animal gnawing at the wood of the privy. At first I thought it was a badger, and made a point to keep my distance. Then it made that strange noise again and turned its back to me. When I looked closer I suddenly comprehended the hundreds of four- to five-inch barbed needles on the animal's back--the first wild porcupine I had ever seen.  I decided to wait until dawn for the bathroom and scurried back to the shelter, where I crawled into my sleeping bag. I do not remember anything after that, because I immediately passed out from exhaustion.

I quickly pack up, but before I roll out for the day I want to get in a good thirty minutes of reading. I am not in too much of hurry after all; Pennsylvania is the flattest state of the Appalachian Trail, so I can hike the eleven miles in about four hours with no breaks. I pull my Kindle out to continue reading Into the Wild by John Krakauer--a marvelous book to read on the trail, by the way. I have done a good bit of reading up this point, learning about Lewis and Clarke in Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and George Washington in Ellis' biography of him. I remember standing on top of Clingmans Dome in the Smokey Mountains and using the labeled picture of the eastern mountainscape to find Cold Mountain; at the time I was in the middle of reading about Inman's journey across the Appalachians to find Ada in the book inspired by that mountain. It really is amazing how the trail provides a connection with place more meaningful than anything possible in a car or train. After reading my Kindle and writing a quick entry in my journal about the porcupine, I slip on my pack and head down the trail toward Duncannon, Pa.

There is something magical about a long-distance backpacking trip. It gives me the time to think about my life away from its daily routine. Lessons of appreciation for what we need and what we do not need are everywhere. Kindness in the form of trail magic is commonplace, as is proof that the majority of people are genuinely good. In total I walked 1,254 miles of the trail and read 11 works of history, philosophy and literature. I started at the southern terminus of Springer Mountain, Ga., and I walked about 330 miles up to Erwin, Tenn. I took a week off for Washington and Lee's graduation in Lexington, Va. Then, from Buena Vista, Va. I walked about 770 miles to Williamstown, Mass. I skipped up to Hanover, N.H., and walked about 160 miles, finishing in Andover, Maine. I will never forget the physical, emotional and spiritual lessons I learned on the trail from the books I read, the places I walked, and the many wonderful people I met. It really was the adventure of a lifetime, one of which I hope everyone has a taste someday.