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.

My best day on the trail

I’ve had many wonderful days during my eight weeks and 486 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Some highlights: meeting Sparky 30 minutes into my hike and climbing the 5,200-foot jewel of the AT, Mount Katahdin; meeting trail angels Scout and Birdman and hanging out with fellow hikers Sticks and Brandon for the final time in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness; completing the Wilderness, unexpectedly reuniting with Sparky (who I’d last seen a week before when a knee injury ended his hike) and getting clean clothes and a shower after 10 days without; my first zero (a day off), in Monson, seeing old Katahdin friends Syd the Kid and Fry and meeting Gingerbeardman and Marching Band; unexpectedly running into Magoo and Gigi in Caratunk (I’d hiked several days with Magoo in the Wilderness and was there the day an injury KO’d Gigi, but by Caratunk she was back on the trail); getting close enough to videotape a moose; hanging out with the USS Bennington (northbounders Cambo, Hughie, Rabbit and Yoohoo) in Rangeley; the town of Gorham, N.H., where I stayed at a wonderful hostel (White Mountains, where Marni and her staff were so welcoming), was shown incredible kindness by librarian Donna, who drove me all over town to help me find Epson salts for my destroyed feet, ate McDonald’s (after six weeks, it tasted like heaven!) and ran into Dreamcatcher, whom I’d met a month before on the bus from Bangor; the boulder playground of Mahoosuc Notch; hiking with Dreamcatcher in the White Mountains and staying at the huts; four days camping in Vermont with two of my best friends in the world, Brad and Todd, who drove up to see me from Maryland; meeting the Ice Cream Man and Moxie in Lyme, N.H.; my 17-mile day — my longest so far — into Hanover, N.H., after my return to the trail.

IMG_lake       IMG_plants

There have been so many wonderful, unforgettable days on the trail. Nothing, however, comes close to yesterday, Oct. 13. For starters, it was the second gorgeous day in a row. Who knew that after 30-degree days in New Hampshire the week before that I’d have to sweat through 70- and 60-degree afternoons in Vermont? The colors were spectacular, too. This was all that I had dreamed when I had pictured the phrase “fall hiking in New England.”

IMG_leaves     IMG_springer

It was also a short day, just 6.5 miles and a bus ride — no hitching required — into the bustling (by trail standards) city of Rutland, Vt., population 63,000. Before the bus, I had time to stop in for a beer and two Cokes at the Inn at the Long Trail and say goodbye to Turbo, a section hiker with whom I had been chatting for three or four days about hiking, baseball and Chase Utley. (When Turbo finishes this 100-mile section of his hike tomorrow, he will be at more than 1,100 miles.) Earlier in the day, I had met a couple and their nephew from Pennsylvania at Thundering Falls. “There’s another guy just ahead of you,” they said. “Yeah, that’s Turbo,” I said. They saw my Cubs hat and started talking about Chase Utley. “Why does everybody out here talk about Chase Utley?” I joked. I told them that Turbo was a Phillies fan from Allentown, Pa., and they blurted, “That’s where we’re from!” Before I left them, they made me promise to check with Turbo if he worked at Air Products, so two hours later at the bar, I said, “You don’t work at Air Products, do you, Turbo?” No, not anymore. He retired from Air Products after 35 years a few weeks before this hike. The nephew’s father worked there, too, and probably knew Turbo, but we never exchanged real names, so we’ll never know. Small world, though.

I caught the bus, which dropped me at McDonald’s, where I devoured about 3,000 calories and chugged three more Cokes. (I’m starting to worry that I’m getting a Coke habit on the trail. It tastes so good after a week drinking only water from springs.) I grabbed a coffee and walked through town with hours before game time. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention why it was so important to be in this town on this day: the Chicago Cubs — my Chicago Cubs — had a chance to eliminate their biggest rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals — the big brother, 100-win St. Louis Cardinals — in the first postseason showdown in the teams’ long histories.

I came out to the trail to learn about myself: What would it take to find happiness again after my failed marriage? What do I want to do with myself for the rest of my life? Who am I really? (You lose your sense of self after decades making compromises in relationships.) Do I like who I am, and can I change if I do not? Lots of questions, and on this journey I am slowly learning answers. But there is one thing I’ve always known about myself: I am a rabid Cubs fan.

I’ve often joked that I had to pick this year, the one year out of 107 that the Cubs will win the World Series, to hike the Appalachian Trail. And it’s been interesting to experience how you can follow baseball from the woods, with little to no cellphone reception. Back in July, I caught a few innings of a game on my phone in one of the most remote areas of the 100-Mile Wilderness, and hearing those familiar voices of the Cubs’ radio crew was soothing on a day I did not see another human during a 13-hour hike. I’ve checked in via texts with friends and loved ones from mountaintops to let them know I’m alive and well. “p.s.,” I would add, “Do you have the Cubs score?” I was in Rangeley when the Cubs swept four games from the San Francisco Giants in early August, stretching Chicago’s wild-card lead. I made it to Hanover, N.H., to watch the one-game wild-card playoff against the Pirates in a bar full of Cubs fans. I learned that Cubs rookie pitcher Kyle Hendricks was a local, a former Dartmouth star who had pitched just down the street from where we sat. A trail angel from Norwich, Vt., let me and three other hikers stay in his basement; I agreed to stay for free in this man’s house only after he proved to me that he had TBS, which showed the Cubs-Cardinals Game 1. (We Cubs fans are a twisted lot.) I monitored one playoff game on an app from a shelter a few days later, then hung on every text update Monday night from my friend Jeff in Pennsylvania.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is part physical: I’m in pain every day, especially my knees. To complete 2,180 miles, though, is much more mental. Can you keep going when everyone you know is hundreds of miles ahead? Is it really worth all this trouble to complete the entire trail? Is it going to rain every day? As long as the Cubs keep winning, though, I have a huge distraction. When your mind starts wandering, thinking about the comforts of home and the pain in your joints and showers and good food and … you are in trouble.


So I checked into a landmark on the trail: the Hiker Hostel at the Yellow Deli. A religious sect called the Twelve Tribes runs this hostel and a handful of others along the trail. Members give up their possessions to join this communal living society. I’d heard about this place 300 miles ago, and all hikers have opinions about these people: a cult, friendly, creepy, generous, wackos, a breath of fresh air. I had looked forward to stopping here for months to check it out myself. I worried that they would be put off if I checked in, did laundry, had a shower and rushed off to see my Cubs game. I asked if they had a TV. “We don’t,” a man named Aesh said, “but there are plenty of bars where you can watch your game.” (Count me among the fans of these people and this place, and make sure you try the Deli Rosa at their 24-hour deli if you ever find yourself in Rutland.)

They lock the doors at 10:30 each night at the hostel, but today’s game started at 4:30 so I had plenty of time to see the Cubs. I found an empty bar down the street, and the bartender put the game on the big screen. I made a quick call home to remind my son, Forrest, that the game was on and spoke with my daughter, Marlowe, for a few minutes. (Nothing on earth beats hearing your child’s voice when you have been away for two weeks.) The Downtown Tavern was the perfect place. For the next four hours, there were no more than two other customers, and Jennifer, the bartender, and Rich and the Yankees-Red Sox season ticket holder (I forgot his name, but do you really need a name when you are the world’s only season ticket holder of both the Yankees and Red Sox, mortal baseball enemies?) didn’t seem to mind that I paced and cringed and groaned all through the game. The Cubs rallied to win, and I shared a wonderful evening with three other friendly faces in a Vermont town, and friends and family far away through a flurry of stressed-out and later ecstatic texts on my phone. It was the perfect day.

I know it’s only a game, not life and death. But when you are 850 miles from home, alone in the woods for days at a time, you don’t feel alone when you know your son and daughter, your brother, sisters, nephews, friends are watching the same game, experiencing the same joy. You feel like they are there. It’s a small world, we say it all the time, but even in a small world, it’s great to know you are not alone.

AT by the numbers


How old Richard Bacon would have been today. Happy birthday, Old Man! This hike’s for you — and yes, it’s for me, too. (John Lennon, by the way, would have been 75 today. Two more special men you would be hard-pressed to find.)



Miles left to hike (mileage changes year to year).


States completed (Maine and New Hampshire).


States left to go (Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia.)


Times I’ve been inspired on the Appalachian Trail.


Times I’ve been frightened (one fall, when I feared a concussion but broke five ribs; two encounters with drifters who appeared mentally unstable).


Memories of a lifetime.


Things I miss more than anything else back in the real world. (Forrest and Marlowe, Dad can’t wait to hug and kiss you!)

A Streetcar Named Inspire

I’ve been thinking about changing my trail name. Huckleberry Finch has great meaning for me, but there just might be a more appropriate moniker: Blanche DuBois.

You see, on the Appalachian Trail, you always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Sitting on the couch for five weeks in Indiana with five broken ribs, I had no idea how difficult it would be to return to the trail. When I left New Hampshire in late August, I would wake to refreshing morning temperatures in the 50s. Last week when I returned to the AT, it hit the low 30s most days, and I was shocked by how tough it was to peel myself out of that cozy down sleeping bag. Before I exited the trail, I was routinely hiking 12- to 14-mile days in the rugged mountains of southern Maine and New Hampshire. Friday morning — Day 1 of my return — I struggled to 8.5 miles over relatively mild Mount Kinsman. It took all day, and I felt pain in every inch of my body the entire next day as I plodded just 4.9 miles without seeing a soul during my hike. Day 3, I went only 3.5 miles and was fighting the urge to get off the trail for good. “Why am I doing this?” I kept thinking. “It’s so cold. I’m out of shape. And every hiker I know is a month ahead of me … and I’m lonely.”

And then it happened.

Hey, remember me?

Sunday night, I cleared Mount Moosilauke, my final hurdle in the White Mountains. No more 4,000-foot peaks for 100 miles until Killington in Vermont, and this 8.5 miles felt as if I’d earned it. I felt good, even if I would be spending another night without human contact. As I arranged my things and prepared to make dinner in the shelter, a man approached out of the darkness. We chatted. “Hey,” I thought, “I know this dude!” “Did you work at the Madison Spring Hut?” I asked. He smiled and said he had. His name was Lorne, and days before they had closed the hut for the winter.

I had met Lorne on Aug. 22 during my first work-for-stay at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. (Through hikers “work” for about 30 minutes in exchange for dinner and breakfast leftovers and a night camping on the floor instead of outside.) “Met” is not the right word, though. I had asked him a single question, something like “Can I fill my water here?” “Yes,” he said. The reason I remembered him, however, is his distinctive deep voice. It’s difficult to explain, but he has a slight accent that I’d never heard and it made an impression. Though I barely spoke with him in August, he had said quite a lot. You see, the hut employees are jacks (and jills)-of-all-trades: cooks, servers and performers. They introduce themselves to the guests, sharing small details such as hometowns and where they went to college. One of Lorne’s co-workers was a Hoosier who, like me, had graduated from Indiana University. Melissa, who had completed the trail earlier in the summer, is from Mishawaka and had spent time in Indianapolis, so I spent most of my time chatting with her.

IMG_Hut              IMG_Lorne

Each morning, the hut workers perform a skit during breakfast. On Aug. 23, they went with an old standby: Jurassic Park. Lorne (above left) played John Hammond, the octogenarian owner of the dinosaur preserve. Each skit has two important elements: remind guests to leave no trace on the mountain trails and remember to tip the hut workers.

When I met Lorne in the shelter, we talked about the huts, the people on the trail and his winter job as one of the caretakers for Zealand Falls Hut. (If you are hiking the Whites this winter, stop by and see this fine man.) He mentioned a hiker named Justin with whom he’d had a great time a few weeks before. “Justin For Fun?” I asked, referencing a hiker I’d met three days earlier at a hostel in North Woodstock. “Yes!” he said with a grin. “I gave him that trail name!” Lorne gave me something, too. He shared an amazing tomato — you have to be out in the woods for several days to appreciate how good fresh produce can taste — and half his block of cheese. He also made a lonely guy feel connected to the world when he really needed it.

Too good to be true?

Monday was an even better day. With the big mountains behind me, I hiked 15.7 miles. That total fell just short of my best on the trail back in August, but that is not what made Monday so memorable. A chance meeting with a stranger made my day.

I was in a zone, moving pretty quickly on the flat terrain and almost didn’t see the man until I was nearly past him. “Sorry,” I said with a start. “I didn’t see you.” He was Travis Brunt, a small-business owner from Plymouth, N.H., who was out for a practice hike. He is considering hiking the Appalachian Trail next year and wanted to talk.

I shared my story of the trail: the divorce, the daily postcards to my kids and how I’m hiking in memory of my father, who had Alzheimer’s. “Do you take cash donations?” he asked. “No, sorry,” I said. “Do you need anything? My truck is a half-mile back (he pointed the direction opposite to where he was hiking); I could drive you to town for supplies.” No, I said. I’ve got everything I need, but thank you so much.

We talked for at least 30 minutes. I told him good resources to study up on the trail, books and blogs and gear tips. Before we said goodbye, we exchanged information. He promised to read my blog. He was excited and could not wait to try the trail. When I left, I had a bounce in my step. Meeting great people propels you on your hike, like extra endorphins. One thing bothered me, though: Why hadn’t I taken that cash donation? I was trying to show him I wasn’t a con man by turning him down, but I could’ve mailed in his money when I arrived in Hanover, N.H., in a few days. I felt like a knucklehead who had missed a chance to help my cause, the Alzheimer’s Association. Travis was too good to be true. He was never going to read my blog and donate when he got back to town. Life is entirely too busy.

The next day, I found a cell signal on a mountaintop. I texted family and friends to let them know I was well. I checked my email. There in my inbox was an email that said I had hit the halfway point of my Alzheimer’s fundraiser. Halfway to my goal? How could that be? I would need a $200 donation to achieve that. For hours, I thought of whom that generous donor could be. That night, when I found some Wi-Fi, I was able to discover which of my relatives or close friends had made my day with their incredible generosity … Travis Brunt. A stranger I had met on the trail. Too good — and true.

The Ice Cream Man

I’d heard about the Ice Cream Man months ago, but that was before I had to leave the trail and fell more than a month behind most other southbounders (SOBOs). Ice cream? Ain’t nobody got time for that when you are trying to get to Georgia just as fast as you can. When I passed the sign, I glanced at the house at the end of the trail but did not stop when I saw no lights on. It was getting dark, and I needed to make another mile to Trapper John Shelter, where I might see Avi and Babbul, two guys in their 20s from Israel I had met earlier in the day. On problem, though: I could not find the trail on the other side of the road, so I headed back to the Ice Cream Man’s house.


Back at the empty house, I found instructions by the door inviting hikers to free ice cream on the back porch. The sign said hikers were free to sleep on the front or back porch or pitch a tent in the yard. For 50 cents, you could buy a cold Coca-Cola. (A Coke is worth more than gold on the trail!) I signed the hiker log — where I saw entries from Avi and Babbul and XL, a SOBO I had met in North Manchester — and walked toward the ice cream. All I found in the freezer was an empty ice cream box, so I returned to the front porch to set up my sleeping bag for the night.

As I came around the house with my headlamp on, a car pulled into the driveway.”Great,” I thought, “I’m going to get shot when these people get out of their car.” When I met the man and woman approaching the house, they were bearing only smiles, not guns. “Are you the Ice Cream Man,” I nervously asked. “I’m his brother,” he said. The young woman with him mouthed, “He is the Ice Cream Man.”

They invited me inside and introduced themselves: Bill Ackerly, the Ice Cream Man, and Moxie, a 2014 SOBO through hiker. Moxie had met Bill the year before on her hike and drove down from Maine on her weekend to visit this dear friend. They had just come from dinner, and Bill invited me to stay by his fire and join them as they listened to a radio special on presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Before the show started, I told Moxie that Bill was out of ice cream and I had left the empty box in the freezer. She thanked me, Bill got me my ice cream and refilled the freezer, then he started a fire, turned on the radio and brought us each a piece of apple pie.


After we listened for 40 minutes in Bill’s warm home, he thanked us for indulging him. He — who opens his home to strangers and waits patiently on them, no matter how smelly — thanked us?!?! As we sat by the fire, I told them my story of the trail and about my blog and talked of how inspiring my encounters with trail angels like Bill and other hikers had been. Bill loved my name and brought me a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which he had nearby.

Moxie talked of her hike a year ago, describing how she had been equally inspired by the people of the trail. Moxie is from Virginia and returned to Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness this summer to work as a ridge runner, a ranger who is there to help if hikers are in danger, maintains the trail and cleans up after those selfish souls who can’t be bothered with packing out their own trash. I asked Moxie if she had heard of the amazing trail magic in the southern part of the Wilderness. “Oh, you mean Scout –” she started. “And Birdman!” I interrupted. “Wait a second,” she said. “You’ve got a blog and you wrote about them, right?” She told me that she had read my blog and that I had talked about my father in it. I had heard from a hiker — Many Faces, an Oberlin College student from South Korea — on a blog comment this summer that Scout and Birdman had printed out the blog entry and were sharing it with hikers that stopped by. And now I was meeting someone who had read the blog; this had somehow made it feel more real. Scout and Birdman’s generosity had kept me going through the rough days of August, and I will remember them always. It felt so good to know that they had appreciated my small gesture, too.

That night, I slept on Bill’s porch. In the morning, as I prepared to leave, he brought me a glass of orange juice. “Anything else I can get you?” he asked. I asked if he could spare a coffee, and he came back out to warm it for me a little while later. Before I left, I asked if Bill knew how many people had stopped by for his generosity. Moxie showed me Bill’s system in the log book, revealing that I was his 1,937th visitor this year. Bill has been taking care of hikers for more than 10 years, so he has spent more on ice cream than some Dairy Queens. He invited me to come back, and I told him I would love to bring my kids sometime. “You can play croquet in the back,” Moxie said, pointing to Bill’s course in the backyard. It stood right next to the port-o-let Bill installed to accommodate his thousands of hiking friends.

Nom de plume

You know, the more I think about it, I believe I will keep my trail name. Huckleberry Finch honors my father’s memory and keeps him in my heart. But the inspiring kindness of strangers on and along the trail has also earned a special place in my heart, and it will stay with me always.

Whenever I’d watched Vivien Leigh — Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine Blanche in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire” — speak of how she had “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” it always evoked pity for this woman. Now, after seven weeks on the Appalachian Trail, I feel only pity for those who have not been lucky enough to depend on strangers’ kindness. As Bill Ackerly so perfectly put it: “The trail brings out the best in you (hikers), and it brings out the best in us (trail angels).”

Everyone needs to experience this trail for at least a few days. Because experiencing the best in people is more breathtaking than anything you will find in nature on the Appalachian Trail or anywhere else for that matter.

On the disabled list

It’s been awhile, but I’m finally back. Online that is, not the trail. Not yet anyway. Tomorrow, I return to work at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire.

All along, I had planned to take a 10-day break in late August. Two good friends drove here from Maryland and picked me up at the notch, and we camped four nights in Vermont. After the fun would come business: flying home to Indiana to take a state-mandated divorce class. Indiana would not be completely bleak as I would get to spend a week with my children and see other family and old friends. I was beat and looking forward to a little break.

Then I slipped. And my little break became five little breaks … on the left side of my ribcage. Luckily, I was hiking with a friend that week in the White Mountains and that friend, Dreamcatcher, was able to check me for a concussion (it was negative) and help push this banged-up old guy another 33 miles to Franconia Notch. My quick 10 days became five long weeks.

This morning, I flew back to Portland, Maine, and caught a shuttle 95 miles to North Woodstock, N.H. Golden Waldo, my driver’s trail name from his 1990 hike, is another of the many trail angels you will find along the Appalachian Trail. Ever since he hiked, he has been hooked on the White Mountains. He spends half his time in New Hampshire and Maine shuttling hikers up and down a 500-mile stretch of the trail for gas money and expenses. In late October, he heads home to Louisiana to cheer on his Saints. Great to meet you, Waldo (even better because he’s a Cubs fan, who at 82 deserves some good karma for his team this fall for all he does for us hikers).

In the morning, I catch a ride back to Franconia Notch. It feels like it has been forever since I was there in August. It was kind of eerie to see the play “Same Time, Next Year” advertised in town since it feels like it’s been a year since I was here. I already miss my kids terribly and the weather is beginning to turn cold, but I have some unfinished work to do out here.

Until my next entry (hopefully in a week from Vermont), happy trails!