“He left me for dead in the rain. On the Appalachian Trail. I’m not kidding. There’s a video.”

That’s how Dave Ray introduces his hiking buddy, Mike Saylor. The two Ohio pastors recently visited ACRES’ office to check out Helen Swenson’s hand-drawn map of Wing Haven, to see the office, and to meet the staff who care for the land they love to hike. And talk about their hiking experiences.

Dave and Mike explain that for them, ACRES preserves provide weekday sabbaticals, personal retreats and group hikes. For overnight backpacking trips, they sometimes get away to the Appalachian Trail or the Knobstone, Clifton Gorge, or Hocking Hills. In between, ACRES satisfies their urge to get outside.

“When we discover a new preserve, we get so excited,” says Mike, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church of Convoy, Ohio.“ Beechwood was our first preserve. We were heading to Pokagon (State Park) and by accident literally stumbled on the parking area for Beechwood” (ACRES’ 90-acre Beechwood Preserve is adjacent to Pokagon).

“My favorite part about Beechwood is that you’re hiking along the trail and you come to this pond and there’s this bench — the perfect spot to just sit and chill out,” adds Dave, pastor of Jennings Road  Church of Christ in Van Wert, Ohio.

Mike and Dave’s Pokagon hikes also led  them to 255-acre Wing Haven, 4 ½ miles north of Angola, Indiana.

“When I hike, I want to be able to say, ‘This was gorgeous.’ That’s ACRES. When you go to Wing Haven, there’s a sense of serenity,” says Mike. “You get a sense that this is a significant spot, there’s a living history, a sense of something bigger than you’re normally used to. The emphasis is on nature. That’s it for hikers.”

Together, and sometimes with groups, the pastors are intentionally stringing together outdoor experiences. They enjoy traveling to their preserve destinations — that sense of journey, then stopping for lunch in small-town diners to support the local economy, getting a real taste for the area (in more ways than one).

For Dave, the best hiking experience is solo. “I need to be alone. It’s Romans 1:20. I am closer to God’s invisible qualities in the woods. Much more easily than I can be in church on Sunday morning.”

For, Mike, it’s theological, communal, a way to develop friendships. “I’ll lay out a day hike of three or four ACRES preserves. It’s a way to connect with people.”

“Hiking puts us in a different atmosphere,” he explains. “As a pastor, I’m on a different level with guys from my church. In the woods, I’m on equal footing. We’re just friends out there. We can relate in a whole other way, and that carries over off the trail.”

That conversation, that connection, is a journey in itself. “We can’t get to the Appalachian Trail or even the Knobstone every day. There are only so many state parks around for a guy that grew up in the hills of Ohio — and ACRES is much more conducive to the solo hiker” says Dave, who knows that not all hiking is stress-free. He took to group hiking after suffering a heart attack.

“There’s the time I fell. It was raining and we were on a canyon cliff. I’m standing on the narrow shelf around the mountain, taking video of the view. Mike’s hiking out to the edge of this plateau, and suddenly I slip.” Mike turns around and yells something inaudible. I shout back,

“I’m okay!”

“No!” comes Mike ’s reply, “Where are the keys to your car?”