- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2006

CATAWBA, Va. — April Lucas slings a sleeping-bag carrier over her shoulder, hoping it will balance the others carrying leftover pizza, clothes and gear for a night in the woods.

A dozen or so companions look more ready for the trek to a primitive campsite, with tents and equipment hanging off backpack frames. But most in the group, except for the leaders, are hiking novices who know each other mostly through Internet chats.

They are taking a high-tech college course exploring a low-tech subject: the Appalachian Trail.

The course is no snap. Students must take weekly hikes on their own, recording their experiences in journals and photos posted online. They perform nature-enhancing projects, study art and literature by naturalists and learn how to survive in the woods.

One student spent hours trying to find and photograph a salamander. As night fell, she finally substituted a snake.

“Oh man, uphill already,” Kerri Williams, of Floyd, said as the group recently began a 7-mile hike toward McAfee’s Knob, with an overnight stop in temperatures that froze their water supplies.

The course was created by Bluefield College assistant English professor Mickey Pellillo, who offers it in collaboration with three others. One is by Bluefield colleague Walter Shroyer, an art professor who savors the peacefulness he finds hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“You mean there’s a place on this earth that is this quiet?” Mr. Shroyer recalled thinking on his first AT hike as a teenager.

After taking a job at Bluefield College, he enticed Mr. Pellillo to try hiking the trail.

“It was gorgeous,” Mr. Pellillo, 51, said of the panoramic views. “I couldn’t believe the world even looked like that.”

Mr. Pellillo has since hiked all 2,175 miles of the trail, a goal Mr. Shroyer still has before him. A fall in which he broke his wrist on the second day out last year kept him from completing the last 600-mile leg in New England.

The Appalachian College Association’s grant offer for an innovative, online, interdisciplinary course prompted Mr. Pellillo to come up with the class, which has been offered in the fall since 2004.

The course offering includes a collaboration with two Ferrum College teachers: biology professor Bob Pohlad and assistant outdoor recreation professor Linwood Clayton.

Students can take the course to fulfill a requirement for art, literature, science or outdoor recreation, but must do assignments in each discipline.

While the course attracts traditional students, more than half are enrolled in Bluefield’s adult-degree program. Most have limited experience with the outdoors, Mr. Pellillo said.

“We had some women from Richmond last year,” Mr. Shroyer said. “Their idea of being out in nature was a lawn.”

The online class has a couple of face-to-face requirements: a field trip to the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke or at least one of four overnight hikes on the Appalachian Trail.

Occasionally students ask whether they can take the class and skip the hiking part, Mr. Pellillo said. The answer is no.

Lisa Waller, of Halifax, wasn’t able to complete a 5-mile class hike in the Sherando Lake Recreation Area because she fell and was injured.

“I didn’t know what all I was getting into,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for a hike.”

Miss Lucas, a 25-year-old from Giles County, called one of the early hikes “a shocking experience” that required a day of recovery.

Mr. Shroyer said some of the beginning students “really dread these hikes,” but afterward feel a sense of accomplishment.

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