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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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