Old friends and new

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.


The mighty Quinns

“Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.”

Bob Dylan, “The Mighty Quinn,” 1967


The Appalachian Trail is a physical grind, no doubt, 2,189 miles through the woods and mountains of the eastern United States. The bigger challenge, however, is the mental, finding the inner toughness to keep hiking day after day through the cold and dark and, more importantly, the rain. With 634 miles to go, I am shot, physically spent and mentally beaten up. If not for a Christmas miracle, I might be back home in Indiana, glued to a sofa.

The week of the holiday, Virginia was experiencing a historic heat wave. It hit 70 degrees on Dec. 26, and, as many people were quick to remind me, I was lucking out on weather as I pushed forward with my thru hike of the AT. I enjoy warm weather as much as the next guy, but if I had my druthers I’d take 20 degrees over rain every day. And when the choice is rain every day, as it was for six days leading up to Christmas, I’d prefer 20 degrees and a root canal. I cannot express how demoralizing it is to be sopping wet day after day after day. So I made a choice: I would take off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, holed up in a warm, dry motel room.

To win the mental showdown with this trail, you need to have things to which you can look forward, be it visits with friends, comforts of home (such as ice cream or burgers) or days off. So I had that carrot dangling in front of me. When it rains every day, though, and you’ve enjoyed your final planned visit with friends on a six-month hike, five days can feel like five weeks (and 120 miles feels like a lifetime).

Dec. 20, as I left my friends Brad, Todd and Sushant, our 24 hours of laughs sustained me on a 13.5-mile hike. Dec. 21, it rained, making a 26.5-mile day a 14-hour mental and physical grind. (My only respite came early afternoon as a beautiful big black bear shot past me through the woods. Glorious!) Dec. 22, I dodged the rain only because I got a very late start, my morning procrastination getting the better of Mother Nature, who turned off the faucet at about noon. I would be dry, but I would be out late, picking my way through jagged rocks and rock-hopping streams till about midnight on a 22-mile day. I don’t really mind hiking in the dark, but it requires incredible concentration as you stare down at the ground on every step to make sure you do not trip. A few night hikes in succession can be exhausting, as your eyes and brain are working overtime. I don’t mind arriving at shelters late, either, now that the trail is deserted and there are no other people to inconvenience.

As I stumbled into the Harpers Creek Shelter, however, I noticed I was not alone. Ordinarily, I might’ve quietly set up my tent behind the shelter to avoid bothering these people, but the forecast called for all-night rain. “Sorry to show up so late,” I quietly croaked. (I had not seen another soul all day and had spoken perhaps 10 words over the past 48 hours.) “I can set up my tent if it’s a problem.”

“Oh, no,” a friendly voice said, “we’ve got rain coming.” This family of four, awakened by a smelly stranger from the woods, quietly and without complaint rearranged all of their gear to make room for this nocturnal newcomer.


They were the Quinns: father Ted, mother Amy, 10th-grader Katie and seventh-grader Will, taking advantage of the start of school break (and a rare break in the holiday weather) to spend two nights in the great outdoors just two hours from home back in Richmond. As I quietly hung my food bag and changed into my camp clothes, Amy asked if I was hiking the AT. Yep, I said, the whole way. I apologized again for waking everyone and thanked them for making space for me. We chatted for a few minutes, then I apologized again. “I’m sorry to keep you awake any longer, but I need to write postcards to my children. You see, I send each of them one every single day I’m gone.” Katie and Will, it turned out, spend a big chunk of their summers away at Scout camp with their father, and Amy sends them each a postcard every day. “Yes!” I thought, “now I know what to tell Forrest or Marlowe in tonight’s postcard!” (When your brain is dead tired, sometimes  it’s tough to come up with fresh stories or ideas to share with the kids.)

The next morning, I got another late start on my hike. It wasn’t because I had to scale The Priest, a 3,000-foot climb over the next 3.5 miles, something I had been dreading all week. And it wasn’t because I knew it would rain during my entire 25-mile hike. No, I got a late start because I sat around talking with the Quinn family for two hours. The longer I talked, the more my depleted spirit seemed to refill. A couple of times, I apologized for talking so much — “I haven’t seen anyone in days” — but they didn’t seem to mind. They offered me breakfast; even though it was my regular breakfast on the trail (instant oatmeal and instant Starbucks), it seemed to taste so good. Since they were headed home that day, they gave me all their extra food. (After burning out on salami and cheese back in August in New Hampshire, I was stunned to find out how good it could taste again.) Ted gave me his extra AAA batteries, essential to keep my headlamp lit as I try to rush home to my children.

Katie mentioned the postcards her mom sends her during the summer. “Sometimes,” she said, “you won’t get any cards for several days, then you will get about six or seven in a day. It’s great!” I told the Quinns that many times I cannot send my postcards for a week at a time. “When I finally left the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine,” I told them, “I mailed 26 postcards in one batch.” Katie asked if I’d like them to mail my postcards to Forrest and Marlowe, so I handed her eight or 10 to send from Richmond.

As I prepared to head out to tackle The Priest, no longer afraid or demoralized, I overheard Ted tell Will, “Don’t leave anything behind. And when we are done, we are going to sweep out this shelter. We will leave it better than we found it.” Yes! I thought, what a wonderful family. I’ve seen so much litter in 1,500 miles on the trail and in shelters, I was warmed by the wonderful example Ted and Amy were making for their children.

“Before I leave,” I said, “would you mind if I took a picture of your family?” I would not forget these people even without a photo, but I wanted one just the same. Before I snapped the pic, Amy saw my cream and crimson rubber band necklace that Marlowe made for me before I returned to the trail Oct. 1. “Did your daughter make that for you?” she asked. Yes, I said proudly, in my Indiana University colors!

After meeting the Quinns, I was recharged. Two 25-mile days into Buena Vista (and my shuttle to Buchanan) were a breeze. Dread had turned into spread, as in how a smile took over my face. If that had been my last encounter with the Quinn family, it would have left a lasting impression on my hike, my life. But it was not. On Christmas Eve, clean and warm and happily full of junk food in my motel room, I called to give my love to the kids. Before my ex-wife, Shanna, put them on the phone, though, she said, “They got a card from some friends of yours, people you met on the trail.” I had no idea what she was talking about. “Here, let me read it to you.” She read the card that arrived that morning, sent overnight from Virginia in a package filled with my postcards. It was from the Quinns. It told Forrest and Marlowe how they had met me in the woods, how I’d arrived after midnight because I was hiking so long and hard to get home to them. It told of how I thought of them all the time and how I was so proud of them. It even mentioned how I wore Marlowe’s homemade IU necklace every day on the trail and what it meant to me. It brought me to tears so far from home.

When I had described to the Quinns how special the Appalachian Trail has been, Ted said he had been trying to talk Will into joining him for an eight- or 10-day section in a few months during spring break. Will was noncommittal. I know you don’t know me that well, Will, and my lack of regular showers might hurt my credibility (in the real world, I do shower regularly 🙂 ), but if you asked me, here’s what I would say:

Jump at this chance to spend a week with your father far from the distractions of TV, video games, computers, phones and life. My father has been gone three years. I miss him dearly. We spent many great times together; we appreciated each other and savored most every moment. I would give the world to spend another eight to 10 minutes with my dad. Eight to 10 days, that would be pure heaven. And like my father, yours is one heckuva good man.

Come all without, come all within, I’ve not seen nothing like the mighty Quinns.





Yes, Virginia, there are Santa Clauses

“No man is a failure who has friends.”

— Clarence Odbody, angel second class, sharing one of life’s universal truths with George Bailey (“It’s a Wonderful Life”)


My goal this past week had been simple: get to a motel room in Buchanan, Va., by Friday evening in time to catch the annual airing of my favorite movie on TV. But the prospect of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for perhaps the 50th time is not what got me through these long, lonely, rainy — does it ever stop pouring in Virginia, even in late December?!?!? — days on the Appalachian Trail on my first Christmas alone.

It wasn’t the kindness of so many I’ve met on this monthslong odyssey, either. This time of year, trail angels and fellow hikers have headed for the creature comforts of indoors — not the creature encounters like that beautiful black bear I ran into days ago in the Shenandoahs — and memories of kindness and new friendships are not quite enough to keep me moving south. My promise to my daughter, Marlowe, to be home by my birthday, Feb. 8, wasn’t the reason I slipped and slid through the mud to get to Wattstull Inn last night. If I wanted, I could be home tomorrow, keeping my word and ending this 2,189-mile journey of discovery.

No, one thing has kept this old man with bad knees — many days on the trail, 48 feels like the new 68 — pushing on toward Springer Mountain, Ga.: Santa Claus. Or rather, Santa Clauses.

I haven’t written about it before, but my incredible support structure back home has fueled this oh-so-long walk in the woods. I wouldn’t be here without the love and backing of my friends and family, and without them, I would be truly lost.

My sister Bobbi and her family made it clear that they would pick me up from the AT anytime, anywhere if it got too hairy. They’ve invited this temporarily homeless/unemployed little brother to stay awhile when I return, something other friends have offered and a gesture that means the world to me. And Bobbi and Carl’s occasional babysitting of Marlowe so big brother Forrest could watch Yogi and his basketball Hoosiers play (even without the old man sitting next to him) filled me with joy.

My brother, Scott, and his family are helping fund this trip, and by that I mean that Scott is my ticket guy. He helps sell my Indiana University football and basketball tickets that unfortunately I’ve been unable use this season, delivering vital income to keep me pushing forward. Scott is also my go-to guy for lodgings, who makes reservations for me when I cannot and am lucky enough just to get out a stray text from places such as Maine’s remote 100-Mile Wilderness.

My sister Steph and her family lifted me up when I felt so down on a quick trip to Texas during my break — ouch! I can still feel that pain from those busted ribs; thank you very much, you slick and mercilous White Mountains — from the trail in September. Steph also sent me such a tasty food shipment (I hadn’t splurged on freeze-dried meals because of the prohibitive cost, but it has been such a pleasant break from the same old trail food), a package so large and generous that I was able to break it up into three food drops that will help keep this old guy from wasting completely away.

My ex-wife, Shanna, has kept Forrest and Marlowe safe and happy in their old man’s necessary absence. And each month, Shanna has mailed my prescription medication to hostels and trail angels and motels along the trail.


Carl and Lynn Sygiel have gone above and beyond the definition of “friends” during my time away. Carl found me a place to stay in Boston on my way to Maine, reaching out to his sister Carolyn, who warmly opened her home to me, as she had a decade before on a previous trip through Beantown. (If anyone tells you there is a better, more generous family in America than the Sygiels of Massachusetts, don’t you believe it.) Carl also filled in for me at Assembly Hall, taking Forrest to see IU play and delivering Marlowe to her aunt and uncle’s house. Carl offered me the use of a family car, too, when I was stranded in his home state, sick in my motel room in the Berkshires.

Old friends and family have made most of the donations to the Alzheimer’s Association, a cause so close to my heart. (If you were thinking about donating, it’s not too late, though I have only 806 more miles to go. If you’d like to help fight this insidious disease, go to  http://act.alz.org/goto/huckfinch.) Friends such as Janet S. and Dan have helped spread the word for months on social media, and Dan’s donation — the one that pushed me to my fundraising goal — was so generous and shocking it nearly brought this hardened hiker to tears in the twilight of the New York woods. So many texts and tweets and Instagram messages from friends and family have filled me up when I’ve been beaten down. Santa Clauses all.

After breaking five ribs in August and feeling broken in spirit as I prepared to head home to Indiana to finish my divorce, my friends Brad and Todd picked me up at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. For four days, they treated me like a king, filling me full of good food and drink as they seemed to be trying to help me gain back all of the 40 pounds I’d lost hiking my first 375 miles. My money was no good; all it cost me was excruciating pain. (The worst thing for broken ribs, it turns out, is laughter, and the Windsor brothers had me in stitches for days.) If they’d only come down the street to meet me, I’d have remembered it always, but these guys are from Maryland. They had driven 17 hours round trip to hang with their smelly hiker friend.


One of my low points on the trail came in October, when I missed Forrest’s 11th birthday — the first Oct. 28 I’d been away from home — as well as my first Halloween away from my boy and his sister, Marlowe. Again, old friends came to my rescue. Nels, a buddy from back in the day — OK, even further back, the 1980s — and his wife, Janet, two friends I’d not seen in a decade, invited me to stop by for a visit since I was “in the area.” Nels drove 2.5 hours from Rhode Island to pick me up in the Berkshires, and again, my friends refused to let me pay for a thing. After many much-needed laughs, an updated blog as well as my friends’ warmth and incredible hospitality, Nels drove me back to the trail. To visit with an old college friend, Nels had driven 10 hours (two five-hour round trips) in less than 48 hours on a busy Mass Turnpike. Unforgettable.


Have I mentioned yet what great friends I have? When I neared Pennsylvania — infamous for its treacherous terrain, nicknamed Rocksylvania by disgruntled hikers — another old friend came back into my life. Jeff, a fraternity brother of mine and Nels’ a lifetime ago, drove 2.5 hours each way from his Philadelphia-area home to spend a Sunday with me near Bear Mountain in New York. He wasn’t done, however. A week later, Jeff and his son, J.R., met me in New Jersey for a 14.5-mile hike on the AT, the sighting of a mama bear and her three cubs giving us enough of a jolt of adrenaline to finish a monster hike for two guys without their trail legs. A week later, Jeff picked me up in Pennsylvania and brought me home for Thanksgiving with him  and his girlfriend, Heather. Finally, one more week later, Jeff and J.R. (trail name JR Mountaineer) met me at Pinewood Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania and hiked another 10 miles with me past the official halfway point of the AT. All told, Jeff made five five-hour round trips in his car — picking me up and dropping me back off at Thanksgiving accounting for two of those round trips — as I worked my way south through three states in three weeks. And what did he get out of it, other than hanging out with an old friend and helping JR Mountaineer get closer to his Boy Scout backpacking merit badge? Simply amazing.

Pennsylvania, a state I had dreaded for months on my hike, became one of my highlights. That was helped, too, by another visit from Brad for an evening at the historic Doyle Hotel in Duncannon.


But Brad (right) and his brother, Todd were not done with me. Along with our other friend Sushant, they drove down to meet me last weekend in Virginia. Worried about my winter gear with the dangerous Smoky Mountains ahead in a few weeks, I asked my friends to get me some key supplies — key supplies and some battery-operated Christmas lights for those empty shelters in the woods — which I would pay for when I saw them in Waynesboro, Va. Brad, Todd and Sushant delivered Saturday when they arrived all right, but they would accept no payment for these crucial supplies. What I’d asked of my friends — more than $100 worth of important gear — was delivered wrapped in Christmas paper and had become holiday gifts. But that wasn’t all, they treated their stinky friend to great food and drinks and a nice hotel, refusing to let me pay my fair share. Incredible.

I can’t begin to explain how important all of these amazing and selfless shows of love have meant to me as the Appalachian Trail has emptied out this time of year. I no longer have fellow hikers such as XL and Mousehunter to help me through long, hard days on the trail. XL is back in North Carolina and Mousehunter is back in the Cincinnati suburbs, good guys who’ve finished their hikes, friends whom I miss.

It’s true I’m alone this Christmas, eating junk food in a rainy Buchanan, Va. But I feel as blessed as I’ve ever been. This Christmas, I feel like George Bailey, “the richest man in town.” And I have my family and friends — Santa Clauses in all shapes and sizes — to thank for it.




There must be a better way

On Aug. 6, I hiked late into the night during a rainstorm in Maine. As my glasses fogged over, I stumbled past the camping site I had been seeking atop Sugarloaf Mountain. I decided to hike until I found a nice stealth camping site close to the famous ski resort so I could check out the view in the morning. I hiked another hour or two until I found a suitable spot to set up my tent among the rocks and roots of the Pine Tree State. (Given a vote, I would’ve named this gorgeous state “The Root Canal.”)

The next morning as I was taking down my tent, a section hiker named Otter stopped to talk. He was much friendlier than a typical thru hiker and wasn’t in a hurry, and I soon realized why. This fourth-grade teacher was out on the AT for only 200 miles and would finish the trail by 2019. His hike was a 10-year plan. “I started as a thru hiker,” he told me, “then I realized I was skipping all the views. When you are hiking 2,000 miles, you focus on finishing, not the journey.”

Otter’s words have stuck with me ever since. That night as I hiked past Sugarloaf, I decided it would have to be one of the views I would miss on the Appalachian Trail. The number of views I have skipped has reached the hundreds in the four months since.

It has taken me 1,200 miles, but I now think that a thru hike is not the best way to experience the Appalachian Trail. If you want a physical and psychological challenge, sure, a thru hike is for you. If you can’t spare two weeks’ vacation every year, then a 10-year hike probably won’t work, either. But if you are like me and enjoy stumbling on America’s overlooked jewels, you should break up this hike. I have missed too many places I would have loved to see in my urgency to finish by early February. (Sorry, Marlowe, Dad’s dream of a January finish is melting away, even in this unseasonably warm Appalachian winter. Yes, it really did hit 70 degrees Saturday — Dec. 12 — in Virginia.)

I have missed Civil War touchstones Gettysburg and Antietam because I could not spare the half days required to visit these sites so close to the trail. I hiked right past Annapolis Rock, oblivious to this stop on one of my many night hikes on a 20-plus-mile December day with only nine hours of daylight. I have blown past several “views” recommended in my AT guide daily as I try to grind out the miles. It’s something a guy who loves meandering car vacations for their lack of urgency and the discovery of classic American kitsch never could have imagined.

Sometimes, even when we’re in a hurry, we still get lucky. I heard about Front Royal, Va., from day hiker Mark and hostel caretaker Glenn on Saturday. I heard about the good food and the cool new hostel. I decided to spend a night and fill up on greasy cheeseburgers. Then my knees decided I had better spend another day and rest up for the climbs in Shenandoah National Park. Thank you, you knobby old knees.

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The Mountain Home Hostel and Cabbin was a revelation. For $20, you get a shower,  clean bed, shuttle to town, and breakfast in the former slave quarters next to a soon-to-be bed and breakfast in an 1847 house. Lisa and Scott, who hiked the AT in 2012 with his son, have created a homey respite from the woods that is so much more cozy than a generic $100 chain hotel room along the trail. Two nights here is the best $40 I’ve spent in a long time. And that town 3 miles away? Front Royal has everything a hungry hiker could want: several restaurants, lots of ice cream, a movie theater and a compelling history.


This history major is embarrassed to admit that he had never heard of Belle Boyd, the notorious Confederate spy during the “war of Northern aggression.” Jim (above), my charming tour guide at the Warren Heritage Society, shared Boyd’s straight-from-a-soap-opera tale of the Martinsburg, Va. (now W.Va.), teen who shot and killed a Union soldier during an incident involving her mother. After she was exonerated in the killing — she was found to be defending her mom’s honor — young Belle was sent to Fort Royal to keep her out of trouble. Under the care of her uncle, who ran a hotel in town, the 17-year-old Belle began to spy for the Confederacy. When the Union shifted many of its troops from town, “the Siren of the Shenandoah” rode past the American troops to pass along word to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He used that information to win the battle of Fort Royal on May 23, 1862.

Despite six arrests for spying, she escaped to England, where she became an actress who starred in autobiographical plays about her role in the war. She married three times — all “Yankees” — wrote a book about her activities during the Civil War and died in what is now the Wisconsin Dells during a trip to perform on stage. In the painting below, Belle stands between images of her two favorite Confederates: Stonewall Jackson (table) and CSA President Jefferson Davis (wall). On the floor of the artwork is her discarded letter to Abraham Lincoln demanding the American president free her husband, Union Lt. Sam Hardinge, who had allowed her to escape to England after his troops had captured her.


Rushing through a thru hike can force you to fly past such places. In Maryland, I gave myself just five minutes to pause at the battle site of Fox’s Gap. Five minutes to process a pivotal encounter that left Union and Confederate generals dead. What if this battle had taken place two-tenths of a mile off the Appalachian Trail? Would I have taken the time? Lucky for me, I didn’t have to find out.


Some places cannot be rushed. Would I like to be done hiking tomorrow? Sure, but this man intrigued by abolitionist John Brown has waited decades to visit Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Nothing could have forced me to hike through here at night. Walking where Brown and his raiders helped spark the Civil War gave me chills. The feeling I experienced stepping inside Brown’s fort (below), where he was captured by American Col. Robert E. Lee in 1858, will stay with me always. How many other unforgettable moments did I miss while rushing to complete my AT thru hike?




No time to waste

It’s been awhile since my previous post, 16 days. In that span, I have taken two days off (“zeroes,” we smelly hikers call them): Nov. 23 in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., to watch my Indiana Hoosiers’ basketball opener at the Maui Invitational (I had no access to a computer that day), and Thanksgiving in West Chester, Pa., where I chose to take a day off to hang out with friends Jeff and Heather, gorge on turkey and catch up on football with a day of NFL on TV.

In those two weeks, I’ve bumped up my mileage with several 20-mile days as I push on toward Springer Mountain, Ga. This morning, I hit the 1,000-mile mark, and by next week, I plan to reach the halfway point of my hike.

If I can average about 130 miles a week, I will reach my goal of a January finish. To do that, I will have fewer opportunities to blog. That doesn’t mean I won’t have fresh updates from the trail, however. Follow me on Instagram (@mrelvez) and Twitter (@SteveBacon1) for several updates per week.

Before I get back to hiking, though, I wanted to share a few stories that inspired me. They happened a few weeks back in one of my favorite states. Ah, New York (and New Jersey), I have come to love you.

In New York and Jersey, the trails are great. The people, well, they are even better. Nov. 14, I met Augie, who offered me a beer and a nice conversation in the woods. The next day, a New York Blackhawks fan bought me a bomber of pumpkin beer after I spotted his NHL champion banner at the liquor store. An hour later, the manager at the barbecue joint bought me a beer after our animated talk between beer snobs. The next day, Roshanna, a trail angel in her 80s, wouldn’t take no for an answer and drove me back to the trail and sent me off with her Toblerone chocolate bar. A day later, Dave and Alex stopped me in the woods after dark and gave me a Long Trail beer as we shared stories from the trail. They told me about a trail angel named Jim Murray in Unionville, N.Y., who built a heated cabin, shower and privy for hikers on his farm.

Two nights later, as I hiked to Murray’s cabin, I stepped out of a rainstorm for dinner at Horler’s convenience store in Unionville. The woman working could not have been kinder as I dripped all over the store’s floor. We talked about Murray’s cabin, and she knew it well, having visited it several times. I thanked her and headed out into the soggy night for what I thought was another hour for a 2.5-mile hike. Three hours later, spun around and lost in the rain and dark, I approached a house I thought might be Murray’s.

“Excuse me,” I said to the four people at the doorway, “is this the Murray house?” “It’s me,” a woman said. I just stared blankly, blinded by my smudged glasses and fatigue. “It’s me! The woman from the store.” Of all the houses at which I could’ve stopped in the night, I lucked into the one place in New Jersey where I knew someone. (When hiking in New York and New Jersey, you never know in which state you are. At least, I could never figure it out.) Her husband — and I was so shot mentally that I forgot both of their names — drove me three miles to the Murray farm, where I warmed up and dried out. The next morning, I hiked north for nine-tenths of a mile to the road where I got lost — I had to pass every white blaze — then turned back around and returned to my southbound adventure.

My best encounter in New York/New Jersey — and arguably the entire trail — came in the town on Pawling, N.Y. It’s a great town for a history buff like me: legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow lived there, and Gen. George Washington’s troops wintered there during the Revolutionary War. After checking out these sites and buying New York postcards for the kids, I headed to the supermarket to re-supply for the trail. I wasn’t sure where to find the store, so I stopped in for a quick beer and directions.

As I nursed my beer, a woman flirted with the bartender. He mentioned he was from the Midwest. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Indiana.” Where? “Plymouth,” he said. So, of course, I brought up Orlando Magic coach Scott Skiles, Plymouth’s favorite son. It turned out that the woman at the bar was Kayle’s girlfriend, and the three of us talked for hours. Kayle finished his shift and waited around for me. He offered to run me by the store and said I could shower at his house. (On the trail, a shower is like hitting the lottery: It’s rare, and it can make your day.) When I went to pay, I found out that Kayle had bought my beers. I guess I wasn’t headed back to the trail this day.


We got back to Kayle’s house, where I met the world’s biggest Scott Skiles fan, Kayle’s father, Larry. They have lived together for about the past decade — most of it in Bloomington, Ind., one of my favorite places on earth — and their relationship was wonderful to behold. Kayle is a guitar player who toured the world with Hilary Duff for years, and Larry is his biggest fan. We hung out for hours listening to music, then left to meet Steph, Kayle’s girlfriend, at a concert. Again, they covered me. And that night, they put me up in the guest bedroom. I could’ve been a serial killer for all they knew, though I’m proud to say I’m not.

As Larry and I drank and listened to the band at the club, Kayle worked the room like the rock star he once was. Not once did Kayle act embarrassed by Larry, quite a feat when I put myself in Kayle’s shoes (a guy in his 30s hanging out with a father in his 70s in a bar surrounded by friends and others who look up to him). Larry can be goofy, like my old man was, and I cringe at the memories of sometimes getting uptight around my father when my friends were around and he was putting on a show. There is no one, with the possible exception of my children, Forrest and Marlowe, whom I’ve loved more than my dad, and that’s why I’m haunted by the times I couldn’t relax and accept him for what he was: a helluva good man with a quirky sense of humor. In fact, I’d give anything to hear one of his bad puns right now.

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful things on the Appalachian Trail: majestic mountains, gorgeous waterfalls, moose and bears. But none has been as special as that bond shared by Kayle and his dad, Larry. I’m proud to say they are fellow Hoosiers.


AT by the numbers

My plan had been to write a real blog entry yesterday from Fort Montgomery, N.Y. … until my college friend Jeff drove 175 miles — each way — from Westchester, Pa., to spend the day with this smelly old hiker. So I took the day off. (OK, it was a near-zero after hiking 8.5 miles — 6.5 on trail, 2 on road — to get here.) So instead I thought I would give a quick numerical update of my trip so far:


Miles I have hiked.


Miles left to go.


Percent of the trail I have finished.


Days I have been on the trail. (In my first 41 days, I hiked 375 miles, including 32 miles with broken ribs. I got off the trail Aug. 26 at Franconia Notch. After five weeks of zero physical activity as my five ribs healed, I returned to Franconia Notch on Oct. 1 and have hiked 410 since.)


Miles I have averaged in those 86 days. (This includes every zero day I have taken, including the five straight while sick in the Berkshires.)

April 17

The date I will finish if I average 9.13 miles the rest of the way.

Jan. 31

My target date for finishing. (Something’s gotta give.)


Postcards I have sent to my children. (For those scoring at home, that’s 109 postcards to Forrest and 109 to Marlowe. Each has received an average of 1.27 a day.)


Times I was accosted for snoring. As a guy who snores, I am super self-conscious about being rude to others. So during the busy season on the trail (July and August), I spent most nights in my tent, even though most hikers bring earplugs if they plan to sleep in shelters. (Translation: Lots of hikers snore.) Now that there are so few hikers out for more than just day hikes, I sleep in shelters. A few nights ago, an unhappy hiker growled, “We need to do something about your snoring.” I felt like a jerk and told this fellow southbound hiker that it was too late for me to pitch my tent that night but I would the next time I saw him. (And the odds are I could be seeing him for months since we are both headed the same way.) I was sincere and felt like an inconsiderate jerk. That night, I awoke to the sound of a hurricane blowing from this guy’s bunk. His snoring — “This one goes to eleven!” as Nigel Tufnel so perfectly put it in “Spinal Tap” — peeled the paint off the shelter walls from 1 till 3 in the morning. He that is without sin among you — yeah, I’m talking to you, Mountain Man — let him cast the first stone.

Trapped in the Berkshires

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Seven days ago, I was on top of the world. I was in Rhode Island visiting old friends, the latest twist of this amazing journey. What a treat spending two days with Nels and Janet, learning they were even cooler than I’d remembered. (And when you haven’t seen someone for a decade, this is rare indeed.)

I was in great spirits. I’d hit my groove, and the states were starting to fall pretty quickly. In the six days before I took my planned two-day break from the trail, I had hiked the final 12 miles of Vermont and the first 80 of Massachusetts. That included my first 20-mile day on the AT, a 25.1-mile sprint through a nice, flat section of The Bay State. When I would get back on the trail Halloween, my plan was simple: finish  Massachusetts in the afternoon, blitz through Connecticut in two-and-a-half days, then rush through New York and New Jersey in a blur. Soon I’d be averaging 20-plus-mile days and I would be cruising home to my children and indoor plumbing.

One thing the trail teaches, though, is that things don’t always go according to plan. As Nels drove me back to Great Barrington, I felt like crud. I had chills and lacked energy, and my stomach sounded like the percussion section of an out-of-tune orchestra. I had Nels drop me off at the Travelodge instead of the trail; my favorite day of the year, Halloween, would be spent in bed instead of Connecticut. I buried myself under the covers in front of the TV as dozens of teenagers were likewise buried during hours of cheesy horror films. I longed for my kids. It was easily the worst Halloween of my life.


The next morning, I felt worse. I had spent many hours in the bathroom, and whatever I ate went right through me. So I walked the five-mile round trip to the hospital emergency room and found that the only time I struggled to use the restroom was on command from the doctors. Still haven’t heard back what’s wrong, and it might be a week before I do. And so a man on a mission but also a budget keeps hearing that familiar ringing in his hears: ka-ching! ka-ching! ka-ching! A frugal hiker can spend less on lodging in 500 miles than I’ve shelled out this week going  nowhere at the cheapest motel in town.

Let me say one thing about the Berkshires: I absolutely hate this place. I am sick and tired of Massachusetts. I have been trapped in hell for five full days. I cannot wait to put this awful region behind me. There are few parts of the country I have enjoyed less.

Let me say one more thing about the Berkshires: There is nothing wrong with this area. In fact, this little area in the mountains of western Massachusetts is teeming with culture. Herman Melville wrote his classic “Moby-Dick” at his farm, Arrowhead, with its view of Mount Greylock in Pittsfield. Another American literary master, Edith Wharton, called the Berkshires home. You can visit that house, The Mount, in nearby Lenox. And since things — good and bad — seem to come in threes, let’s not forget the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

After being trapped in my dingy motel for four full days, I dragged myself out Wednesday morning and caught the bus to the Rockwell museum. Don’t let my expression in the photo below fool you; it was amazing. (I just still felt that ill.) With Rockwell part of the American fabric, I never stopped long enough to admire his work. If I’d had more energy, I might have stayed longer. As it was, I only glanced inside his art studio (bottom photo) before heading back to my motel. But what I saw inspired and delighted me. Ol’ Norm really tapped into the humanity of everyday life.



The Wharton and Melville houses are closed to the public in November. Otherwise, my lost week in the Berkshires might not have been so bad. But I learned an important lesson this week just the same. I could’ve been in Key West … or Austin, Texas … or Bloomington, Indiana … or Zion National Park … or any other of my favorite places in the world. When you are ill and alone — and especially when it’s Halloween and you are far from your children — it doesn’t matter where you are. Even the Berkshires seem like hell on earth.

11 amazing years

Eleven years ago, several significant news events were occurring in the world: George W. Bush was re-elected president, a young man named Barack Obama won a Senate seat in Illinois, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, a little Internet thing called Thefacebook was launched. In sports, the Boston Red Sox ended their 86-year World Series drought, and the Indiana Pacers’ dreams of an NBA title quickly fell apart after a brawl with fans in Detroit.

I was aware of all these events, although I was preoccupied with a much more weighty development in my life: the birth of our 11-pound son, Forrest Bradley Bacon. I had never been more thrilled and terrified and touched by an event, and I wouldn’t be again until Forrest’s little sis, Marlowe, arrived 2 1/2 years later. The feeling I recall most, however, was impatience. We arrived early that Thursday morning to have the boy induced because he was in no hurry to meet us. (And he calls me a dawdler!) After giving the little guy almost two extra weeks in the womb, we had had enough. But morning turned to noon to afternoon to evening, and still there was no sign of Forrest.

Finally, the doctor asked, “Would you like us to go get him?” After 10 hours of waiting, we said sure. We had no idea, however, that Dr. Wright meant now. Ten hours of waiting, then boom!: rushed into the delivery room at warp speed, then presented with our son 10 minutes later to gasps from all the medical staff. “What’s wrong?” a terrified Shanna asked. “Why is everyone reacting that way?” No one had ever seen a bruiser as big as our 11.3-pound beauty. For days afterward, Forrest was the star of the show in the warming area with the other newborns. People would stop and gawk at this Gulliver surrounded by all the other Lilliputians.

The Chicago Cubs were supposed to end their seemingly eternal World Series drought in 2004 after falling five outs short of reaching baseball’s Fall Classic the year before, or so we Cubs fans thought. If they had, Forrest might’ve been named Dusty in honor of the Cubs manager. That’s assuming, of course, I could’ve sold that name to his mother, who previously had shot down Marlon, Elvis, Cash, Strummer and several other of my creative, clever tributes to my pop culture heroes. But after months of wrangling, we settled on the safe route, naming him after his grandfather, Shanna’s dad. (After all, two years later the Cubs fired Dusty Baker, and we’ve never once considered the same fate for big Forrest.) I always figured that we would honor my father, Richard, by giving Forrest that middle name, but I’m sure my dad was even more touched when we gave our little man my younger brother’s name. Bradley, the most generous person I’ve known, died two years before at the age of 33.

I took a month of family leave from the newspaper after the baby’s birth, and it was incredibly tiring, stressful — and wonderful. I can still feel Forrest’s little heart beating next to mine as I carried him through the supermarket in his Baby Bjorn on one of our first trips outside the house. I will never forget how wonderful it felt just walking through the frozen food section, covering his little sausage legs as I protected him from the cold. Such a simple yet life-transforming pleasure. Indianapolis residents will never forget that night for another reason: On Nov. 18, 2004, years of building an NBA contender ended in a flash when the Pacers’ players fought with Detroit Pistons fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills. That’s all Indianapolis seemed to talk about for weeks, though I saw the replay and quickly got back to more important things.

When our son was born, I never knew that my heart could be filled with so much love. It wasn’t a fleeting feeling, either. Eleven years later, there is nothing more enjoyable than reading or playing with the kids, or watching them in sports or talent shows or showing off their work at school. There is no place I’d rather be than wherever Forrest and Marlowe are.


But I cannot be with them this year. I’m on the Appalachian Trail, trying to put my life back together after Shanna’s and my divorce. In 11 years, I had never missed one of my children’s birthdays. Until Wednesday, that is. I talked with both kids on the phone from a cheap motel in Great Barrington, Mass., but it’s just not the same. And I’ve never missed my favorite holiday, Halloween, despite working nights every year but last fall. Until Saturday. It kills me to be away from my kids, whom I love more each and every day, despite that not feeling possible back on Oct. 28, 2004, when this grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. So I walk and I write, dreaming of the day I will be back with them. And I know that I’m out here on the trail as much for Forrest and Marlowe as I am for myself. Kids need a father, but they need one who is whole. Each day out here, meeting incredible strangers and fellow hikers helps me refill that heart just a bit more.


Forrest and Marlowe, I tell you this every day in the postcards I send home, but I can never say it enough: A father could not love his children more than I do, could not be more proud of them. You are incredible, and I can’t wait to be with you again.



I dig Spam — a lot!

I have long admired Spam. Not the taste of Spam but rather its place in pop culture, its slice (or gelatinous chunk) of kitschy cool Americana.

My fascination with this canned non-ham probably began in college. My good friend spam_hatBrett Bass had the ugliest, cheesiest — yet coolest — Spam baseball cap that he wore everywhere for years. When he graduated, Brett “willed” the hat to me in one of our annual fraternity traditions. I can recall the sheer joy of receiving this treasured memento as if it were yesterday. Each time I wore this elegant trucker cap, I thought of my dear departed (to dental school) friend. Two years later, when I graduated, I left this beautiful cap along with my priceless Engelbert Humperdinck Greatest Hits cassette to some other lucky souls.

My love affair with Spam did not end with graduation, however. A few years ago, I finally realized a half-life dream — speaking of which, what is the half-life of Spam: decades? centuries? — of visiting the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. (I love to travel by car, and the Spam Museum is one of America’s quirky roadside attractions that had eluded me for years.)  For the record, this museum is right up there with Mitchell, S.D.’s Corn Palace for sites too cool to be true.


But eating Spam? No thanks. Before I came on the Appalachian Trail, I had eaten Spam just once in the past 40 years. That one exception to a Spam-free adulthood came in a Wisconsin campground hours after my friends and I had hit our credit limits at the Spam Museum gift shop. And it was delicious that night, but my friend Brad, the Bobby Flay of Campground Cuisine, can make anything taste great.

So when I got on the AT in July, I decided that I would not be eating two staples of the hiker diet: Ramen noodles and Spam. No matter what you add to it — and I’ve seen too many ingredient combinations to list here — Ramen noodles just does not seem filling enough. And Spam, I ate too much of that as a kid. (My old man often patronized businesses in which he owned stock; Blimpie comes to mind. I can only guess that he must’ve held Hormel stock back when I was 6 to 8 years old.)

Ramen has been easy to avoid. I eat mac and cheese two to three times a week and could probably do so for the next 50 years. I also make a meal of instant mashed potatoes about once a week, and Knorr pasta and rice sides make a tasty dinner when you add tuna, salami or summer sausage. Spam, however, has been unavoidable. For lunches, I eat peanut butter and tuna salad bagels quite often. I used to live on salami, pepperoni and summer sausage, too. After a few months, though, I can only stomach salami and summer sausage mixed in with pasta or rice at dinner. Pepperoni, I can stand that only on pizza anymore. And the thought of tortillas, something on which I thought I could live, makes me want to hurl.


So where does a hungry hiker go when in search of protein and calories? Spam. I had my first Spam bagel a few weeks back. It was glorious. It’s terrific with cheese, or without. It’s amazing in mac and cheese, and Spam turns broccoli and cheese pasta into tantalizing trail food. Please forgive me, Spam, for underestimating you in all your glory. Spam, I can’t quit you … for 1,600 more miles at least.

Town diet

After four or five days in the woods, nothing beats a stop in town. Showers and laundry and library computers are great, but nothing beats the food options. A lifetime eating at McDonald’s burned me out on that food for life — until I hit the trail. Now, I stop at every McDonald’s I see, routinely engulfing 2,500 to 3,000 calories in a sitting. I try to avoid too much red meat back in the real world, but on the trail I crave hamburgers. When people leave the trail, they often cite the same thing they miss most: eating like a 16-year-old. We burn so many calories each day that we don’t have to worry about our waistlines, too. Thoughts of today’s lunch (below) will keep me hiking for another four or five days … until I pig out in the next town.


A proud old man

Friday morning in the woods of Vermont, I had a rare few minutes of strong cellphone signal. I checked in with family and friends back home, letting them know I was well. I sent a picture or two. I checked email. I got updates on my favorite sports teams. And then I received a text that changed my day, my week … everything.

“Straight A’s for Marlowe!! Forrest had one B+, rest A’s! I’m so happy and proud of both! :)”

The chill in the air was gone. The pain in my knees vanished. The monotony of staring at leaves, picking my way warily through rocks and roots, climbing never-ending hills was replaced in a flash. What was that sensation I was feeling? Bliss.

In June, Shanna and I told the kids we were getting divorced. It was the worst day of my life. The conversation was so devastating — I still have nightmares about it — that I did not have the heart to tell Forrest and Marlowe: “Oh, yeah, by the way … the old man is leaving for six months to hike the Appalachian Trail.” I shared that little news the next day at the pool. I promised I would be careful (then I broke five ribs); I said I would be sure to write (in 60 days on the trail, each has received between 75 and 80 postcards); and I assured them that I would think of them every day (they are in my thoughts most every minute). To their credit, my amazing children accepted it on the spot. “Cool.”

I came out to the woods to figure out the rest of my life. I wanted to kick adversity’s butt because I was tired of it kicking mine. Most of all, I wanted to come back a better father. I thought then that these were noble goals, and I still do. I was gambling on myself with this odyssey. The problem with gambling, however, is that the house usually wins. What if I screwed up my children while trying to fix myself? Postcards are great, but kids need a father.

Friday’s text message makes me sleep easier. I miss those two incredible individuals more than I could say in 100 blogs. I’d give anything to watch one of Forrest’s football games, to annoy Marlowe with a song. (“Dad. Dad! Daaaaaaa-ad!! Please stop singing!”) Seeing them work so hard from afar lets me focus on cold, snow, ice, ticks — as a young man, I never was a chick magnet, so I hope to avoid being a tick magnet, too — New Jersey’s bears, Rocksylvania’s rattlesnakes and copperheads, and other real and imagined perils on the trail.  If Forrest can juggle Cub Scouts, Student Advisory Committee, football, violin, yearbook and choir and find a little time for fun with his friends, then I can walk another 1,600-plus miles.

Some might say, “It’s only an elementary school report card; it’s not Harvard Law School.” When you tear up the lives of those you care most about, when you move 1,000 miles away in their time of need, and your 10-year-old and 8-year-old refuse to play the victim and instead focus on the job at hand, it’s inspiring. You tell your children they can accomplish anything with hard work, then you see them do it when life throws them a rough spot. It makes you realize how powerful that message really is.