U.Va. Professor, Students to Hike AT As Part of Course on Religious Pilgrimage

Summer's here, and the time is right for … going to class.

At the University of Virginia, about 4,500 students are taking advantage of the summer sessions to fulfill major requirements and take interesting electives. Among this year's notable courses is an examination of amnesia in film, a look at deafness in literature, the sociology of eating and exploring kinfolks, families and relating in the African diaspora. Look for  profiles of Summer Session courses here each Wednesday for the next few weeks.

July 23, 2008 — Over the course of 15 years, Heather Warren hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,160-mile footpath stretching from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.

Now, the University of Virginia associate professor of religious studies is fusing her passion for the trail with her love of theological reflection, leading six U.Va. undergrads on a 56-mile pilgrimage this summer.

"It began with an invitation to dream," Warren said of her opportunity to teach a course this spring on the history and meaning of religious pilgrimage, which culminates next week with the hike.

Warren's "dream" course was made possible thanks to U.Va.'s Mead Endowment. It is a program created in honor of beloved music professor Ernest "Boots" Mead by his former students to celebrate and perpetuate the University's tradition of faculty interaction with students.

Faculty members invited to apply for this program by their deans submit a "dream idea" that would allow them to interact with students in a way not afforded by normal classroom routine. The Mead Advisory Board selects several proposals and provides funding to make the professors' dreams reality.

Mead himself traversed southern Appalachia, Warren said, collecting English ballads along the way.

"He was a songcatcher," Warren said of Mead, who is now 90 and still teaching a seminar, she noted.

In her application, Warren wrote of her twin passions. For more than a decade, she has helped maintain the Appalachian Trail. Meanwhile, in her undergraduate autobiography course and work with chaplaincy interns at the U.Va. Health System, she leads theological reflections.

"I would delight in offering a seminar that teaches theological reflection through the combination of an academic examination of pilgrimage, supervised community service and hiking 56 miles of the AT," she wrote.

Warren, an authority on American religious history, and her students will rendezvous in Northern Virginia on July 27 to make their way to Maine. Six U.Va. undergraduates are accompanying Warren on the hike.

They will be keeping a log on the trail and are currently compiling a CD to listen — "what they consider mountain music," said Warren, which includes everything from chants to the Indigo Girls. During the course, they also read nonfiction works about pilgrimages and a history on Katahdin and wrote haikus and Canterbury tales of their own.

Warren completed volume I of a scrapbook on the course, which she presented to Mead on July 21. She will continue to document her work with the students while on the trail and will create a Web site upon their return.

For the service component of the course, Warren and her students participated in the Hike for Habitat for Humanity and raised $400 for the WomenBuild program.

"We did an almost 10-mile hike that day," she recalled, great training for the hike to come.