After 15 months in the addiction recovery program at the Panama City Rescue Mission, Jim Downs will leave at 7 a.m., Feb. 1, 2017, to embark on an eight-month hike from the front door of the Panama City Rescue Mission to Canada via The Appalachian Trail.
Big Jim’s Walk will be filmed for a documentary by Leesa Robinson Productions out of Biloxi, Miss. The documentary will follow Jim’s hike along the Appalachian Trail and also document the journey that led him to this point. “I want someone who is in the final phase of their recovery program to watch this movie and be empowered to not go back to the old life when they leave the recovery program,” Jim said. “That they step out on faith and let God guide them to a new life. There is life after addiction. There is life after recovery.”
Jim plans to walk from Panama City to the beginning point of the south end of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia and then trek the complete 2,200-mile distance ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine. He is planning on hiking about 15 miles per day and resupplying at supply stops about every 2 or 3 days. He will sleep in a tent, living in the elements Monday through Saturday. “On Saturdays, I will be hiking into a town where I will check into a hotel for Saturday and Sunday night,” Jim said. “I want to go to a different church every Sunday. As long as they believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, I want to experience differences in worship; Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and it can just keep going on and on.”
The hike will be physically challenging, but Jim says he may take it even further if the conditions are right. “The Appalachian Trail ends by reaching the summit of Mt. Katahdin,” Jim said. “I hope to go on from there, following the International Appalachian Trail another couple hundred miles to Canada. And if the weather is being kind and it is possible, I will stay on the International Appalachian Trail through Canada into Newfoundland and finish at Belle Island. But this is only if the weather and time are in my favor. But, I would like to do the entire trail from the Gulf of Mexico to above Newfoundland. That would be very awesome.”
Lots of variables along the way will be factored into Jim’s plans as they come up, and he says he knows he’ll have to be flexible. “I need to take into account the unknowing,” he added. “I am planning on standing on the top of Mt. Katahdin in September. If I can do that and the weather plays nice, I could realistically be in Newfoundland in October and finish the walk. But it all depends on the unseen variables. Zero degree days, medical days, slow days, short days. Or, on the positive, feeling good enough to crank out 25 miles a few times a week for a day’s hike to be able to get ahead of schedule.”
However, Jim’s objective is not to treat the hike like a race. “I am in no hurry,” he said. “I want to see all that God has created. I want to slow down and realize just how small I really am.”
Jim will be alone most of the time on the trail. The documentary film crew will not be with him during most of his journey. “I will be doing about 70 percent of all the filming,” he said. “I will have to be carrying the extra added weight in my pack. I will be setting up shots, then walking the shots, then having to go back and pick up the equipment.” The camera crew will join him at different points on the trail and in different towns to film, and the director will send Jim specific assignments. “Like, I may have to go speak at a mission, or give my testimony at a church, or speak at an AA meeting, or go to a prison and speak,” he said. “But, they will also be sending me on quests that will test my strength, my faith and my sobriety. I won’t know what they are until they want me to know. I will receive them either by email or text, or by note when I check into a hotel for a rest day.”
Jim also plans to do some sight-seeing in Atlanta, Virginia, Washington D.C., and New York. “My sister and her family live in Virginia, so I will be coming off the trail for a few days to visit with them,” he said. “Then, my sister will hit the trail with me for a few days. That will probably be the highlight of this journey for me; being on the trail with my sister who has seen me in my addiction my entire life and be sober together. I’m excited.”
This hike will be a spiritual journey for Jim, bringing him close to God. “I’m out here to find myself, who I am, what I stand for. What kind of grit does Big Jim have?” he said. “I pray that, through me, a message of hope of life after addiction — that there is life after recovery — will resonate to anyone who is affected by addiction and give them the power to reach up to God and let him take over and start the healing process.”
Jim says this walk isn’t about himself so much but more about reaching others. When he lost his best friend, Alex, to a drug overdose, it changed his perspective and opened his eyes to the true realities of drug addiction. “When Alex died, God showed me the end result of addiction,” Jim said. “Alex gave me a gift by his death. Alex lit a fire in me to reach out to others with addiction issues. I don’t want anyone to needlessly lose their life because of addiction.”
Jim explains the reason for this huge endeavor as something he knows in his heart that God wants him to do. “God told me to go for a walk,” he said. “The next thing I know He’s got me walking across America and they’re making a movie about it. I am a couple years away from 50, I’m 100 lbs overweight. Walking to Canada was the furthest from my mind, I promise you. But, what I think God wants me to do is spend a lot of time with him while I’m on the trail. Find out who Jim is. Introduce myself to myself for the first time in my life sober. I think God will use me as an example to others that he is real, that he loves and cares for everyone no matter what someone’s past may be, that he has the power to heal anyone from anything at any time. It’s a message of hope. If the opportunity presents itself on the trail, I will witness and testify to anyone that will listen to me about how once I accepted Christ into my life as my Lord and Savior, He changed me and the life I live.”
Until he leaves on Feb. 1, Jim will be training for his Appalachian Trail hike by walking 13- to 15-mile stretches throughout Bay County and documenting spots he stops along the way, referring these stops as his High Five Spots. One of his first High Five Spots was at the Panama City Rescue Mission’s Bargain Center on Hwy 77 in Lynn Haven.
“Right now, my best is 13 miles in 4 hours. But that was without my pack,” Jim said. “I have a gift registry on my Facebook page that links to REI. This is the best outfitter in America. I received a blessing. Someone got on there and bought the backpack I wanted. This is an incredible piece of equipment and the most important. I will be living out of this backpack for approximately eight months. I will be carrying my house and all my belongings with me in this thing. I have it packed down with 40 lbs of weight and am now walking around Panama City doing my practice hikes with this incredible backpack. Trust me, you can’t miss me. It’s bright green and I’m a big guy with a cowboy hat on. I’m kind of hard to miss.”
We, at the Panama City Rescue Mission will be following Big Jim’s Walk and praying for him and his success.
“The world tried to put an exclamation point at the end of my life, but God stepped in and erased that exclamation point and replaced it with a comma,” Jim said. “My life ain’t over yet. IT’S JUST BEGUN!!!”
Check out the first installment for the documentary as Big Jim explains why he is compelled to take this journey. If you would like to follow Big Jim’s Walk, you can keep track of his progress on the following sites: