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.
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.”
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.