Larry Mulder with members of his church's youth group standing on bridge
Larry Mulder, crouching at left, with members of the youth group from his church in Hope, Michigan.
In passing on his love of the A.T. to the next generation, Larry is upholding a time-honored tradition.


A commitment to introducing kids to the great outdoors becomes a transformative experience

The journey typically transpired something like this: Two minivans packed with seven middle-schoolers, three or four adults, and their gear depart Holland, Michigan. They drive some 700 miles to a pre-selected section of the Appalachian Trail. Upon nearing the destination, the vans diverge and travel to two trailheads roughly forty miles apart. Then, two groups begin a four-day trek along the Trail, walking towards each other until they meet somewhere in the middle. They spend a night together at the same campsite, sharing stories of their adventures and vying for the chance to talk. The next morning, the adults swap car keys and each group proceeds to the other group’s minivan. Eventually they all meet up at a motel on the drive back to Michigan — where pizza and pool time are prerequisites.

It might seem simple on the surface, but the impetus, planning, and preparation for the annual journey would not have happened without Larry Mulder. For more than twenty-five years, Larry led small groups of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds from his church’s youth group on a weeklong hiking trip on the A.T. His commitment to introducing kids to the great outdoors at a formative time in their lives resulted in some 150 young people having a memorable — and often transformative — experience.

“They thought the four-day hike was as rustic a thing as you could ever do in life,” recalls Larry about the students who participated. “At the end, many of them said they would never do it again — but the vast majority of kids who went once came back for a second or third trip.”

Larry reviews A.T. maps in preparation for an upcoming youth hike.

Larry reviews A.T. maps in preparation for an upcoming youth hike.

A Personal Connection

The choice of the A.T. was personal. Larry spent most of the 1980s section-hiking the A.T. with his son Michael, completing two or three sections a year. By the time Michael graduated from high school, the duo had completed the southern half of the Trail. When Michael went away to college, Larry began casting around for others to bring along on his hikes. That was when he realized that other young people might be interested in an A.T. hiking adventure.

The A.T. is in and of itself a multigenerational project. It simply would not exist without care, protection, and love for it passing from one generation to another, for 100 years. So in wanting to share his excitement about the Trail with a younger generation — first his children and then youngsters in his church community — Larry is upholding a time-honored tradition.

Rachel Medina née Smith was in the first group of middle-schoolers from Hope Church in Holland, Michigan, to hike on the A.T. with Larry. And she was one of the kids to go back — again in middle school, then for a few years in college, and then in 2000 when she completed a thru-hike. “Hiking with Larry directly inspired me to thru-hike the A.T. when I did, and that choice has changed the trajectory of my entire life,” says Rachel.

Now a middle-school English teacher in Colorado, Rachel regularly takes her students on hikes and teaches a nature appreciation class. She also led a group of students on a trip to Tanzania, where they summited Kilimanjaro and then volunteered at a nearby orphanage. “There is no way I would have had the confidence and leadership skills necessary to take eleven young people to a developing nation if it hadn’t been for Larry,” Rachel says.

Memorable Introductions

For Larry, the opportunity to introduce young people to the A.T. each year provided the chance to see it with fresh eyes. “After years of hiking, I had become a little blasé about the wonders of the A.T. I had forgotten the awe of standing on a mountain peak and looking at clouds in the valleys below me. I no longer wondered at a spring of pure water coming from under a rock,” Larry admits. But the sights and experiences that had become mundane for Larry provided once-in-a-lifetime memories for the kids.

“I remember the time we were hiking and we saw a rattlesnake draped across the Trail. Everybody started freaking out except Larry, who walked up to the snake, picked it up with his hiking stick, flicked it off the Trail, and kept on walking as if nothing had happened,” recalls Aaron. Others learned valuable lessons. “Hiking the A.T. with Larry taught me many things. Most importantly, it taught me how to be a leader, and that the best leaders don’t rush ahead and leave others behind. True leaders make sure everyone is okay,” says Jake.

“My A.T. experiences taught me I can do difficult things and be better off because of them, and that sometimes a test of strength actually makes life even more beautiful. That’s a lesson I’ll continue drawing from for the rest of my life,” says Bethany.

Closing the Loop

At the top of Larry’s most fond memories along the Trail was completing his section-hike with his son Michael. “We had hiked the first 1,000 miles together on the southern half of the Trail, but then for ten or twelve years we didn’t hike together at all,” says Larry. They reunited on the Trail at the southern end of the Hundred Mile Wilderness and summited Katahdin together. “To finish up with Michael was very special.”

And there were many more unforgettable moments. Like being snowed in at Clingmans Dome with Michael and not making it up to the observation deck. Or spraining his ankle eight miles from a trailhead and having to send thirteen-year-old Michael ahead on his own to tell the shuttle driver to wait. Or hiking on two separate occasions with youth group members through Rhododendron Gap when the woody plants were in full bloom.

But most of all, it’s observing the impact of the outdoor experience on the young people that Larry considers essential. “The first time they have to cross a bunch of rocks on a boulder field or in a stream, it’s scary for them. When they do it, and get to the other side, it’s really wonderful to see how they feel about it,” says Larry.

“I believe the experience they had when they were in their pre-teens has had a positive impact on their lives. And I’m thankful I was able to be part of that.”

Supporting the Damascus Trail Center

Larry and Karen Mulder unveil the name of an interactive display at the Damascus Trail Center

Larry and Karen Mulder unveil the name of an interactive display at the Damascus Trail Center that encourages visitors to share stories of their outdoor experiences.

As part of their commitment to introducing new generations to the Appalachian Trail, Larry Mulder and his wife, Karen made a generous donation to the new Damascus Trail Center. Included in the center’s exhibitions is a storyboard, named for Larry (whose Trail name is “Dutch Plodder”), where Trail visitors of all ages can share memorable moments from their outdoor adventures.

For more information about the Damascus Trail Center see “A New Model for Visitor Centers” on page 32.