Friday, July 3, 2015

Notes From My AT Hike

Day 80 thru Day 83: Wounds

"Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses." Proverbs 27:6


Day 80: Reunion

"Please try to come out and hike with us this summer," my daughter Katie pleaded…right before dropping her, and husband Nick, at the airport to start their big adventure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. That was on April 1st. 

On June 20th, I knew things weren't going to go as planned. After several weeks of trying to land a date, time and place to meet up, we decided on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia--the halfway spot of the 2,168.2 mile Appalachian Trail. I got word from Katie the week before that they weren't going to be able to make it to Harpers Ferry by Saturday, June 20th…which meant I needed to get a rental car and drive to meet them. 

I got the garbled phone message from Katie after my plane landed in Washington, DC. I was able to make out the most important part. She and Nick and their little band of hiker friends had made it to Jennings Creek, VA and they were going to stay put until I got there. I stood at baggage claim and waited for the conveyor belt to vomit up my backpack on to the carousel and tried to find the rental car place on my phone. I finally found the Advantage Rental Car office about the same time my overstuffed Gregory backpack slid down the shoot. 

It had been almost 30 years since I was in Washington, DC last and I was a bit overwhelmed by the size. Riding in the rental car shuttle to the rental office was a blur. I was back on my phone trying to log "Jennings Creek, VA" into the GPS of my phone in hopes of getting the directions to the campground where Katie and Nick were waiting. As I stood in line at the rental office I was able to get the wifi needed to find Jennings Creek. I logged it into the Maps app and hit the "Route" button. My phone displayed the directions and all that jumped out to me was "Estimated Travel Time: 3.5 hours.

3 1/2 hours! This REALLY wasn't turning out as planned!    

My head was swimming with questions like, "Why are they SO far away from Harpers Ferry?" and "What's slowed them down?" and "Are they okay?" as I drove west and south out of DC. It took a little over 3 hours for me to find Route 614 off of I-81. It was north of Roanoke about 50 miles. Man! The kids were SO FAR away from Harpers Ferry! It was plainly obvious…they were WAY behind their original schedule. 

None of my thoughts and concerns mattered as I spotted Katie from the band of hikers loitering around the storefront at the Middle Creek Campground. She ran to me and we caught each other as I stepped out of the car. I couldn't hug her tight enough. As she wept into my shoulder she said to her friends, "See? I told you that you'd see me cry." Nick stepped out of the camp store and gave me a big hug. It was so good seeing them, blurred as my eyes were in tears.

The reunion was sweet. Katie, Nick and I sat on the camp store porch and caught up (Below). 

They told me story after story of their trail journeys. It was fun to hear and get a sense of what life had been like for the 3 months we'd been apart. There was an obvious rhythm and routine to their world: hike, get water from any-and-all water sources you cross, eat, go to the bathroom in the bushes, hike, get water, hike, eat, find a trail shelter, read the shelter log to see what the other hikers were up to, go to the bathroom in the shelter privy, hike, eat, find a campsite, set up camp, eat, tell stories, go to bed, get up, get water, eat, tear down camp and repeat

As I listened to their stories I quickly noticed another routine that had slipped into their lives: defeat. There was a lot of casual talk about NOT finishing the thru-hike from some of their "hiking family". One of their group said, "If I don't finish this year I'll just come back out next year and finish it off." A few others agreed. What concerned me the most was Katie's and Nick's silence.  

I took Katie and Nick into the nearest town and treated them to dinner: Ruby Tuesdays (Below). 

I wanted to get them a steak…to celebrate their 3rd anniversary…which was 12 days prior. Nick got the steak, but Katie couldn't pass up the huge salad bar. "We never get anything fresh on the trail," she said. After they gorged themselves we went to the Walmart and got them stocked up. I pushed the shopping cart as Katie and Nick went in opposite directions--grabbing exactly what they needed…as about as efficiently as you could imagine. Pop Tarts, packaged tuna, boxed pasta, etc. They were done in minutes. 

Back at the campground it was drizzling. I took turns shuttling Katie, Nick and their friends the (almost) 2 miles down to the campsite at the AT trail crossing. We set up our tents and I wished everyone a good night. I was bushed and stressing over the hike we were going to make the next day. Katie and Nick had already warned me, "It's going to be a rough onetomorrow. It's supposed to be one of the hardest parts of the trail in Virginia." Great. I laid on top of my sleeping bag and worried myself to sleep, regretting not getting into shape for this hike…and fretting over what I was going to say to Katie and Nick the next day. I felt very, very convicted to talk with them…but I didn't want to wound them. 

Laying in my tent in that forest…my biggest concern was the trees. I was afraid Katie and Nick were lost. I was afraid they couldn't see the "forest through the trees"…and that their dream was slipping away--that they weren't going to finish in time if they kept their current pace…and friends.        

Day 81: Hike Naked Day

I slept surprisingly well that night. Thank you, Ambien! The campsite was abuzz with excitement and everyone was talking about "Miss Janet" the trail angel. After I had dozed off, the rest of the camp stayed up talking until 2AM (Another Caution Flag!) and got a chance meeting with the famous Miss Janet. I learned that Miss Janet follows "The Bubble" (the large group of thru-hikers that set out from Georgia to Maine each year) in her van--offering help, rides and advice along the way (Below). 

She's a bit of a legend and everyone was acting as if they'd bumped into the president that night. 

Katie and Nick got breakfast (french toast and eggs) at the campground before we set off. I didn't want to hurl a big breakfast on the trail, so I nibbled on a Clif Bar. I checked my rental car with the camp manager who agreed to watch over the car while I hiked, then we set off and hiked the 2 miles down to where the AT picked back up. I apologized to Katie and Nick for what was about to happen; my inability to hike like them…and my need for numerous rests. They both assured me things were going to be fine.

They were great. My legs weren't. 

I couldn't get over how much my body had atrophied since my hernia surgery…and my hiatus from working out. Still, it was fun to be hiking again…and I DID notice that living in the Colorado altitude really helped with my oxygen intake. Both Nick and Katie had warned me that it was "Hike Naked Day" on the trail--an annual event each year where AT hikers hike bare-butt naked to celebrate summer solstice. Sheesh! I almost didn't believe them…until I saw this hairy, little hiker coming up the path wearing only his day pack, shoes and a stupid grin. "It's Hike Naked Day," he said…as we all averted our eyes to the tree tops. Nick's great. There's a reason his trail name is "Breeze" because he's so easy going and friendly--like a cool breeze. Nick and the hairy naked hiker talked for a bit while Katie and I looked ONLY at each other. When Nick told the hairy naked hiker that we hadn't seen any other naked people, the hiker said, "Wow. That's embarrassing. I don't want to be the only one." I couldn't take it any longer and said, "What?! That's what's embarrassing to you? That you're alone in this?! Not that you're bare-butt NAKED?!" He laughed, said good bye and went on his way. After he was out of earshot, Nick told us his trail name. I re-named him. I dubbed him "Acorn on a Fur Coat". 

The hike was exhausting and I knew I was slowing Nick and Katie down. I REALLY knew it when their hiking buddy "Savage" caught up with us (Below). 

Savage was thru-hiking with his best friend "Homegrown". Katie and Nick had already told me that Savage had run through his hiking funds and was going to have to bail on the trip. His only hope for continuing was selling his truck, but it was obvious to me that he was done…the talk of selling his truck and continuing was just that: talk. He was a good hiking companion, funny and easy-going with a quiet, southern sort-of charm. Nick led the way and Savage brought up the rear…and Katie and I stayed in the middle. 

We hiked until we came to the shelter--passing a rotted raccoon carcass along the way. At the shelter Nick, Katie and Savage took turns reading through the shelter log…gleaning info on the hikers that were ahead of them. Again, it was slowly becoming more obvious to me…the people that Katie and Nick started off hiking with were now 2 and 3 weeks ahead of them and it worried me that neither of them seemed concerned.

The shelter was packed with hikers, so we backtracked a few hundred yards…past the dead raccoon…to a nice, flat, shaded spot and set up camp for the night. After our tents were in place (with Savage in his hammock/tent hanging over the stream) we sat and talked. I couldn't help it…I had to say something, so I asked Nick to get his trail guide out. He downloaded the entire AT guide on his phone for quick reference. 

I told them both that I wanted to hike with them for another day or two, but I needed to plan that out. As Nick looked over where we were on the trail…where they were going the next day…and where I could get off the trail to catch a ride back to my rental car…it became clear: I couldn't go on with them. We had only hiked about 6 miles that day, but it was rough. The trail ahead was even harder…going deeper into the woods…and we wouldn't come across a road for another 24 miles. That sealed the deal. I had to get up the next day and re-trace my route back to the car.

Then, I asked Nick to calculate how many more miles they had left: 1,418 miles. Then, I asked them when they needed to finish by: September 25th…which was 96 days away. Then, I asked Nick to divide 96 into 1,418. It came out: 14.7…almost 15 miles. "There," I said. "That's the number you're dealing with. 15 miles a day." It was glaringly apparent…they needed to average no less than 15 miles a day…every day…in every terrain…including the daunting Green and White Mountains that await them in New England. And if they didn't…they wouldn't make it to the end…Mt. Katahdin…before it closed for the season. 

I felt like Debbie Downer, but someone needed to speak the truth to Katie and Nick…and it wasn't going to be anyone in their group. They were all out there on the trail for their own reasons and none of them involved finishing a thru-hike. One of their crew told me the night before, "I'm out here running away from Sallie! I'm hiding from Sallie." When I asked him if Sallie was his girlfriend, he chuckled, "No! Sallie Mae! I graduated from school last year and now all my loans are due. They can't find me out here." My heart sank. I knew all-too-well that you can't run from Sallie Mae. She'll never leave you alone…and if you ignore her…she only gets bigger with interest…and meaner. 

Dinner that night was somber. I brought some of those Mountain House meals…hoping to give the kids a good trail meal, but Chili Mac and Cheese and Southern Corn Chili were overshadowed by the reality that was now in front of them. Savage grew quiet and averted his eyes from me whenever I spoke. The night was briefly lifted when fellow hiker "Maybelline" joined us. When Savage asked if she had hiked naked that day she said, "Yeah, but when I was up there, about 300 yards back (pointing to the trail) and saw his red shirt (pointing to me) I put my clothes back on." "Thank you," I said with relief. 

None of us had hiked naked that day. The only thing that was naked was the truth: Katie and Nick were falling behind and about to forfeit their dream.                   

Day 82 & 83: Hard Truth

At breakfast I was struck by how much Katie reminded me of her mother--her beautiful eyes and smile…her sweet, gentle nature…and her humor. Both Katie and Amy are hilarious with a quick wit and a self-deprecating playfulness. I watched her quietly as I ate my Clif Bar…already dreading telling her good bye…and telling both of them my thoughts and concerns. 

I wanted to stay. I wanted to spend the next two days just sitting at that campsite enjoying time with Nick and Katie, but I couldn't. I didn't want to be part of the problem…they were already at risk and I knew if I held them back more…it could be the nail in the coffin. So, after finishing up breakfast I packed everything up and readied myself to leave. I was already choking on my tears. Once again, Maybelline saved the day. She had spent the night at the shelter, but came back to join Katie, Nick and Savage for that day's hike. 

I used Maybelline's entry as my exit. I hoisted my backpack on and cinched it up. "I want to walk with you down there a ways," Katie said, already in tears. "Do you want it just the two of you?" Nick asked. "No," I told him. "I want you to come too." We walked in silence about 200 yards from Savage and Maybelline. Then, I told them, "This is really hard for me to say, but I have to say it…" and I launched into all my concerns. I asked them if they STILL had the goal of finishing this hike…of thru-hiking the AT. They both said yes…and I looked them square in the eyes and said, "Then you need to get your act together. You need to get about hiking again…and you need to lose your friends because they're stealing this from you." I went on, "None of them have the goal of finishing…and they're slowly grinding to a halt…and dragging you with them. If you continue at their pace…you're NOT going to finish. It's that simple. 15 miles a day…or it's over." Katie was sobbing and Nick just stood, rail straight, emotionless. I couldn't tell if he was mad, hurt, shamed or what. "Now…I've got to get back to that rental car and back home. And you two need to get back to hiking," I choked out. 

I hugged them…I told them I loved them…gave Katie one, last kiss on the cheek…and walked away. It's one of the hardest things I've done in my life. Everything in me was telling me to go back…tell them everything was going to be fine…and spend the rest of the day lounging around the campfire laughing and telling stories. But I knew I couldn't. As I hiked up the mountain I could still see Katie and Nick together where I left them…Katie, enveloped in Nick's embrace as he consoled her. Once again. I was grateful they had each other.

But did I help them or wound them beyond repair?

I trudged my way back over the path we had hiked the day before…up the hill…down the hill…past our first campsite (where two of Katie and Nick's friends STILL were)…and back to the car. I was wiped out. I bought a bottle of water…rested a bit, then got the car and headed back to Washington, DC. I called the airline and got an earlier flight (the earliest was 1:30PM the next day)…dropped off the car…took the shuttle back to Reagan International and looked for a locker to put my hiking backpack…and my book backpack. I wanted to unload these burdens and ride the Metro into DC and see some sights. One problem. Airports don't have lockers anymore--post 9/11

So I had a great social experiment. Me and my two backpacks took the Metro to Lafayette Park and I walked around the White House looking (and smelling) like a homeless man. I walked around the sightseers and protestors at the White House…around the Ellipse…and over to the Washington Monument…all while getting cautionary glances and sidestepped by everyone I passed (Below). 

I dropped my pack and sat under a shade tree near the Washington Monument and watched a co-ed softball game. I rested there wondering if the teams were made up of summer interns or lawyers or lobbyists. Whatever they were…you can always spot the weekend warriors re-living their glory days and the wannabes who never were. 

I made my way back to the Metro Station and stood on the platform awaiting my train back to the airport. I felt a tap on the shoulder and turned around to see another dirty, disheveled man with a hiking backpack and a book backpack slung over his arm. "Man! I thought I was the only one with backpacks!" he laughed. "No. I've got some too," I replied, smiling…at him and the other commuters who watched us out of the corner of their eyes. "You on a journey too?" Backpack Homeless Guy asked me. "Yeah…I'm on a journey," I said. "Me too," Backpack Homeless Guy belted out. "I left Chicago four years ago…and I'm still journey-ingWhere you from?" "Boulder," I told him…as a professional-looking woman in her 30s slowly inched her way from us. Backpack Homeless Guy chuckled, "Boulder?! Man, this ain't Pearl Street! Where you headin'?" I hesitated for a second, trying to figure out if I was about to have a train/airport mate for the rest of the night. "I'm riding back to the airport to catch my flight back to Boulder," I finally told him. "Oh," Backpack Homeless Guy mumbled…his countenance completely changed. "Then, you want to catch the Yellow Line. You standing at the Blue Line. Yellow will get you back quicker." And with that…he disappeared into the throng of commuters. 

The rest of the night was a series of moving from seat to seat…trying to get comfortable and sleep. I didn't. I eventually took the cue from several of the seasoned travelers who had made makeshift bunks against the windows overlooking the tarmac on the air grates. But it's hard to sleep when the recorded PA announcer squawks every 10 minutes, "Please don't leave your baggage alone…" and so on. Most of the time I was lost in my head…wondering and worrying about Katie and Nick. I had called Amy on the drive back to DC and told her about my trip…and she was quick to jump into that pool of worry with me. I kept asking myself (and Amy) if I did the right thing.

I pity the woman who sat beside me on the flight back to Denver. I took a homeless bath in the airport bathroom around 3AM and put on some clean clothes I had in Ziploc bags…but you can only do so much to cover up 3 1/2 days of stench. I dozed off and on the entire way back..wallowing in worry and concern. For months I had planned this trip…expecting it to be this wonderful, magical time of joining my kids on their big adventure…but the reality was much different. And all I could think about was…did I do the right thing in speaking hard truth to Katie and Nick…and more to the point…did I break them with this hard truth.

I like being alone, but I don't like being lonely. It was a very lonely trip from Bryant Ridge Shelter in the woods of Virginia back to home…until Amy came home. When she got home I felt less lonely…but it didn't curb either of our worry.         


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