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 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.