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.