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.