“I’ve always been fascinated by it,” Jones said of the 2,200-mile marked hiking trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. “As I grew older, I decided one of these days I was going to hike it. I wanted to do it by the time I was 30, but work and responsibilities happen, and 30 came and went.”
Today, Jones is 37 and he’s finally getting his chance to hike the AT.
Jones stepped out on the trail on March 15 as the fourth United Methodist chaplain sent by the Holston Conference to attempt the hike since 2013.
The chaplains have brought their own experiences and their own stories to share with other hikers they meet along the way. And Jones, a Blountville native and Sullivan Central High School graduate, brings a story of recovery.
While taking a brief respite from his hike and visiting some friends in North Carolina, Jones spoke to the Times-News last week.
Jones says an addiction to prescription pain medication robbed him of a job he loved — director of Fries, Va.’s Camp Dickenson, a camping ministry of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Jones first began to explore a call to full-time ministry as a student at East Tennessee State University. At age 19, he was appointed as a supply pastor to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Church Hill. Later, he served at Benham's Circuit in Bristol, Va., and Damascus Circuit in Damascus, Va.
However, it was giving up his camp job that Jones says was devastating to him. He says he’d reached a point where he knew he needed help and really had no other choice.
“I was addicted to prescription pain medicine for about nine years,” he said. “It was stuff the doctor gave me, but the outcome was the same whether it had been something else I was addicted to. The pain pills quit treating my physical pain, but began treating my emotional pain. I was going through a divorce. It was a perfect storm for me to end up having a problem. For years, I went back and forth from doing OK to not doing so OK. Around 2006 and 2007, I started to notice the switch was getting harder and harder to flip to the off side. It was probably even worse than what I realized because it’s hard to see that in yourself. Finally, in the summer of 2007, I knew that I needed help.”
Jones says he abruptly left his camp director job that year and began the recovery process.
During that time, he has lived in three different states and had three different jobs.
But in August 2014, he returned to his hometown of Blountville.
Jones has since reconnected with some of his former ministry colleagues, including a few of his former staff members at Camp Dickenson.
Someone suggested to Jones that he apply for the 2016 Appalachian Trail chaplaincy. It turns out that the Appalachian Trail Ministry Outreach Team, which supports the AT chaplains emotionally and financially, felt that someone who’d been through what Jones has fought to overcome would be perfect for the job.
“Everybody knew that I had struggled. It had been discussed that they’d like to have a chaplain out there with a background in recovery because so many others are struggling with addictions and all sorts of things. On the AT, you run across people who are there because they’re working something out, whether it’s an addiction or they’re getting over the loss of a loved one or getting over a divorce,” Jones said.
Jones, whose trail name is “ Cold Turkey” — a reference to what he’s been through — says he is transparent about his own struggles and is not out there to be a “preacher.”
“I’m out here trying to follow the Lord, serve other people and just be real,” he said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin. What’s happened in my life has happened and I think people appreciate my transparency. Sure I’ve got a little AT Chaplain patch on my backpack, but I’ve also been to rehab more times than maybe they have. My experience really opens the door to talk about stuff. I’m pretty open about my addiction because it helps me in my own recovery to keep talking about it. When I’m hiding it, that’s when I’m not doing so well.”
Jones admits that he may actually be the one to benefit the most from his hike on the AT.
“People keep saying, ‘It’s a great thing you’re doing ... to go out and be there serving these people.’ But, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘You know, really, I’m the one benefiting from this the most.’ I really feel that way. I was going in the wrong direction for a very long time. I want to tell people what they’re going through doesn’t have to be the end of the world.”
Jones hopes to finish up his hike sometime in September and says he’s not sure where life will take him after that.
“I was just a kid when I started pastoring my first church. I don’t think I’ve lost my ‘calling’ to be a full-time minister. But I’m a completely different person than I was when I first got into the ministry at 19. The Lord has molded me into a different person,” he said.
You can follow Jones’ journey on the Appalachian Trail chaplain’s Facebook page.