As I was sidelined three days from my Appalachian Trail hike because of the #Blizzardof2016, my brother-in-law Carl suggested I should blog instead of sitting around and getting fat. I’ve carefully considered Carl’s advice — and decided to blog and sit around and get fat. (Thanks to Bob’s Dairyland for giving me the stamina to write this entry with its Holy Cow! Burger.)
A thru hike presents physical and mental hurdles; when I fell flat on both fronts in the same week, friends were there to pick me up. Being on a tight deadline to finish this hike — Forrest and Marlowe are itching for the return of their old man — I cranked up the daily mileage before Thanksgiving back in New York. I routinely hike 20-mile days and have four 30-milers and a 29.5 under my belt. My longest day was 36.5 miles in late December, and that gave me the confidence to try for 40 (actually 42.5) on New Year’s Day.
Dec. 31, I was asleep before 9 p.m. at Daleville, Va., my first New Year’s Eve since I was 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t make it past midnight. It was worth it since I was waking up at 4 to hit the trail. Why would anyone want to hike 40 miles in a day? you might ask. Many people do it as part of the four-state challenge (42.9 miles in 24 hours from the Pennsylvania border through Maryland and West Virginia into northern Virginia). Me, I wanted to give myself a challenge that would put any “bad day” or bit of adversity back in the real world into perspective. “If I can hike 40 miles in 20 hours,” I thought, “I will never have it so tough at a job in the city.” Silly me.
The new year started off great as I hit the trail at 4:45 a.m. By 9:30, I had hiked 10 miles when I met Animal, a Virginian in his late 20s who had hiked the AT as a NOBO (northbounder) in 2009. When I told him I’d come from Daleville, he said he felt guilty for sleeping in. I explained how I am not an early riser but was trying for my longest day, a 40. “Forty?!?!?” he said. “I did one 30 on my thru hike and it rocked my world.” (This guy was fit and had been college age when he’d hiked and certainly in better shape than I am today, but I wasn’t worried. How much more difficult could 42 be than 36 after all?) “You are going to do Virginia’s Triple Crown today: Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth. It’s the best part of the AT.” Excited, I left the Animal and wished him luck on his hike, a 50-mile weekend shakedown for his Pacific Crest Trail attempt this spring.
Tinker Cliffs was amazing, about a mile walk with gorgeous views atop the mountain. McAfee Knob — the most photographed spot on the AT — was incredible. It was packed, too, with hundreds outside making the pilgrimage to the top on the chilly Jan. 1. But I was getting tired and I’d come only 18 miles. A day hiker asked me how far I was headed. I told him my plan. “You picked the wrong day to go that far. This section has too much elevation.” What did this local man know? I thought. Plenty, it turned out.
When I got to Dragon’s Tooth, another spot made famous on postcards and Instagram, it was after 8 p.m. Pitch black. My AT guide showed some climbs, but I did not realize that Dragon’s Tooth was the Maine (rock scrambles and wall climbs) of Virginia. Not only was I missing out on seeing one of Virginia’s jewels, I was struggling to pull myself through a challenging — disheartening — series of ups and downs on dead-tired legs. My dream of 40 died in the Dragon’s jaws. A few hours later, I limped into a shelter after 32.5 miles and 19 hours, physically battered and mentally beaten.
The next morning, I’d arranged to meet my old friend Michael Jackson and his boys at a parking lot on the trail. I got a late start and sent him a text that I was running a half-hour late. After hiking till midnight the day before (eight hours of night hiking), I hit the trail with my eyes on my feet, a habit you pick up when you are warily watching every step in the dark. When I looked up that Saturday morning, I could find no white blazes — the AT’s road signs — on the trees. But this trail had to be the AT, I thought as I followed it straight downhill. For a mile I hiked, finding no white blazes. So I turned around and walked all the way back to the shelter. There I found the trail’s turn; it was right as I’d exited the shelter. Another hour wasted. My new year’s depression became despair. I texted Michael, explaining how I’d gotten lost and telling him how I understood if they couldn’t wait around; they had a long drive home to Indiana ahead of them. They would wait, he said. So I pushed on. But my spark was gone. A day earlier, I’d been convinced I could crush a 40-miler in my sleep. But now, tasting failure more than the Payday I was gobbling down, I was struggling to hike 10 to meet Michael’s family.
Still 2 miles from the parking lot, I passed two guys on the trail who asked, “Are you the guy hiking from Maine?” I nodded. “Your friends are down there waiting for you.” I texted that I was still 25 minutes away. A minute later, they responded, but I kept hiking. After five minutes, I checked my phone and saw that they were hiking to meet me. A minute later, I saw Michael, freshman Grant, seventh-grader Eli and third-grader Luke walking toward me. They had come a mile and a half up the trail.
It was great to see them. They drove three or four hours out of their way on their return from Christmas in North Carolina. Michael had asked if he could bring me anything. “A bottle of cold Coke,” I replied, and he handed me my addiction at the car. I chugged it in about a minute. I apologized several times for making them wait, their visit so appreciated. They were in no rush, Michael said, but I knew the boys all would return to school Monday in Indiana and there was plenty to do at home. We drove into Blacksburg, a college town I’d longed to visit, and they bought me lunch. We hung out for only about two hours, but it was a lifesaver from home, from a simpler time before a grenade had been dropped on my life.
I hadn’t seen the boys in a year and a half or two years, and could not believe how they’d grown and grown up. Later, as I hiked off with cake from Michael’s sister (and her sweet note written on the Ziploc bag I discovered that night at dinner), trail mix, batteries, hand warmers and other thoughtful gifts, I was stunned that it had been so long since we had all been together. It was not Michael’s fault, of course. He’s the type of friend who invites everyone over for the Super Bowl and cookouts on Memorial Day. He hosts the parties when good friends move away. “How could it have been so long since I’d seen the boys?” I wondered back in the woods. I had been in school the past three or four years getting my master’s as I juggled work and family, I rationalized as I hiked; life had been busy. But that excuse felt hollow. Michael had been through a similar situation a few years before as he earned his MBA, yet his parties and efforts at friendship never wavered. The problem was me, caught up in my own life, too busy for life’s important things.
Before my thru hike started in July, I read a book about the psychological challenges that awaited on the trail. The author urged readers to list the things they sought from this life-altering experience. I made my list — I carry it with me every day — and cited my goals of being a better father, being a better person, overcoming my fears in life. I forgot one important goal: be a better friend. It took me just two hours hanging with the four Jackson boys to learn how meaningful that is.
Those terrific Tar Heels
Michael is the biggest North Carolina Tar Heels fan I know. A close second is a hiker I met in Maine on Aug. 4. That day on my third week in the trail, I stopped to rest at a shelter fronting one of the state’s signature ponds. A hiking club had adopted this shelter, and every two weeks the group delivered bottles of wine, homemade brownies, trail mix and nuts for the hikers. As I sat and rested my back and shoulders, eating the free pistachios, a hiker stumbled in from the hot sun. He looked beaten, physically and mentally exhausted. His face looked haunted, like a man who could not take another step. It’s a look I’ve seen many times since; I’ve caught that expression in the mirror about once a week for the past two months. It’s desperation, someone who has given up.
“I’m exhausted,” he said, “and starving.” I pointed out the trail magic. He nearly jumped off the bench. His name was Barefish and he gorged on trail mix as if he had not eaten in a week. We sat and talked for an hour that hot day in Maine, sharing our reasons for hiking and talking about our fathers. As we discussed the magic we had found on the trail, I could see the color returning to his face. I swear I could see Barefish’s spirit returning to him. “I cannot get over the kindness of people I’ve met,” he said as I nodded in agreement. “I’ve got to find a way to pay it back.” I told him how I could not wait to bring my children back out to the trail to give out trail magic in the spring or summer.
“When you get down to Virginia,” he said, “give me a call. You can stay with me and my wife. Call me anywhere between Bland and Mount Rogers.” You’ve got a deal, I said, as he headed north and I walked away south.
Dec. 26, I called Barefish from my motel in Buchanan, Va. “You probably don’t remember me, Barefish,” I said on his voice mail, “but this is Huckleberry Finch. I met you nearly five months ago in Maine.” He called back within the hour. He did remember that nice, little visit 1,000 miles ago, and we arranged to meet in two weeks.
After leaving Michael and the Jackson boys on Jan. 2, I had struggled to regain my spark. My 40-mile failure seemed to weigh down my already-too-heavy backpack like the world’s worst hangover. But now I had another friendly face to look forward to Jan. 10.
Barefish picked me up that Sunday afternoon on a cold, wet day. He had driven an hour to retrieve me. As we talked, it was like I was with an old friend, chatting about the trail, its people, shelters, towns, challenges and fun. He took me by the grocery store and McDonald’s and even stopped to let me grab a ticket for the $1 billion Powerball.
Barefish (John) and his wife, Carolyn (Carolyn), treated me like an old friend or family. Carolyn did not seem to mind as John and I swapped stories about the trail and talked college basketball for hours. (Anyone who talks so highly of Bloomington, Indiana’s Scott and Sean May is great in my book.) We knew a few of the same people and discussed our various injuries. The shish kabobs were delicious and the company was delightful. John made me a tasty breakfast in the morning, and they made me feel as if I could stay all week without imposing.
When John drove me back to the trail, he said that I had made his and Carolyn’s weekend. I know he was being nice in saying that, but they had made my month. Just as I felt that the Aug. 4 trail magic and my talk with John had helped refill his flagging spirit on the Appalachian Trail, John and Carolyn had filled me back up. When I hit the trail with my new hiking pole — John gave me his lone pole when I told him I had snapped my last one the day before — my legs were back! My spark had returned! I’ve seen it a hundred times, but it still amazes and humbles me. Whatever you need to get by when hope seems lost, the trail provides. And the best part of the trail is its people.
Thanks to friends old and new — like Michael, John and Carolyn — I’m still hiking, still headed to Springer Mountain, Ga.