The urge to go outside comes suddenly–to be amongst the trees and smell the clear cool night air, to be away from the people and the heaviness–alone with the stars. It is past four in the morning and I am standing in the middle of four tall pecan trees. I stand looking up at the sky for long minutes. A certain numb peace descends on me. A hearse backs up to the house and brings me back to reality. I am not on the trail. I am not in the mountains. I have never backpacked. It is March 22nd, 1995. I am sixteen years old. My father is dead and I am broken.
The history of the American Conservation movement is filled with people who have used the wilderness to push back the madness of their minds in order to retain some semblance of sanity. Horace Kephart retreated to what would become Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Earl Shaffer hiked to recover from the horros of World War II. It is my hope that these six million steps can act like six million stiches to a wound that has for too long not healed. That when this is over I will not wake up at night feeling like a black hole has opened inside of me consuming everything I think and feel. That I will finally stop being angry at a world that makes little to no sense in the pattern of its suffering.
On March 23rd 2011 I am dropped off at Amicalola Falls to face every demon, doubt and insecurity I have. They hang like leering gargoyles from the valley walls. If someone asks why I’m here I tell them I didn’t have anything better to do. My lease was up. My finances were in order and I could take six months to walk to Maine. There’s some truth to this but the date proves the lie. I have lived longer with the memory of my father than I lived with him. I hope this trail can be a salvation.
For the most part I leave this buried deep and only think of it occasionally. In my pocket I carry a small jewelry bag. In it are small tokens from every person I care about: a twenty sided dice for my brother who plays Dungeons and Dragons; a delicate medallion my mother received as a gift from a suitor in her younger years; a baseball pin from my stepfather; a golf tee for my grandmother–she didn’t play golf but she always had a little peg jumping game on her coffee table that used them. I will carry this small weight for every one of them, a small sacrifice of love for each one. In that bag is a Proctor and Gamble tie tack with the words “25 years” engraved on it. It is my father’s. I carry it too and it weighs as much as the memory of that night sixteen years ago.
Outside of that bag I leave everything else behind and become Biscuit. I meet friends named things like Fiber and Navigator and Velvet and Guinness. I wear my body down to the point where my only concerns are food, water, shelter and the love of the people around me. The little bag with the tokens is buried away. The last secret piece of who am I off the trail. I check for it often to make sure I haven’t lost it but for the most part I don’t dwell on it. Out there you’re too busy being tired or hungry or thirsty to worry about a little jewelry bag.
The miles tick away and I crawl up the trail and fall into the life of a thru hiker. I hike alone. I hike with people. A terrible wind storm bellows up and almost knocks over me and a guy named Frodo climbing Max Patch. At the top of Roan Mountain I share one of those great pessimistic moments with a guy named Dave. He’ll still be Dave when I see him again in New Hampshire. We spend the night in the Apple House Shelter on the other side of the mountain. A half a mile up trail is a road crossing with a hostel. I plan on resupplying there and head on to Damascus, VA. Virginia is within reach.
And then its not. The next day I leave and get about fifty yards down trail when my left knee lights up in pain. I almost drop to the ground. The thought crosses my mind instantly that this is it. The hike is over. So I test the pain out. When I go up hill the knee doesn’t hurt. When I go down hill it does. If I don’t bend my knee it doesn’t hurt at all. So I do that and stiff leg it to the road. My resupply is now going to be an indefinite stay.
I’m walking down the asphalt road when the coincidence hits my mind in a flash. I cannot get off this trail because of my left leg. I will not allow that to happen. Looking down at my boots hitting the asphalt I tear up at the thought. It started on his left foot. A bump rising up until he couldn’t tie his shoe. When it got that bad he got it looked at. At first they said it was a cyst. The doctors went in and cut it up and took it out. Later they realized it was cancer and cut off his left leg and three years later he died wheezing and riddled with tumors and that’s when I went outside on that night sixteen years ago. So I cannot get off this trail because my left knee is messed up.
Laying in a bunk at Mountain Harbor I take out the jewelry bag and put it on my knee. It’s superstitious nonsense but it makes me feel better. I am far from home and for the first time it is a physical, rather than emotional or mental, breakdown that might take me off the trail. Any desire to quit leaves the moment its forced on you. I reach out to my friends and family and spend the next three days talking to them, e-mailing and texting. I drift in limbo not off trail but not in the same world as the hikers that cycle through the hostel. The friends I’ve made get farther ahead. Hikers I’ve never met come in and leave.
On the third day I buy a knee brace and hike again. The pain isn’t enough. I down Ibuprofen and make it halfway to Kincora and sleep in my tent in a thunderstorm and I’m rejuvenated and glad to be back on the trail and out of limbo. My left knee did not take me off the trail as it took my dad off. It still hurts all the way to Maine but everyone has something like that to deal with. You carry your pack and you carry your bum knee or the blisters on your feet or your sprained ankle. I didn’t carry things particularly well but you don’t have to. You just have to keep walking with them.
So I made it to Virginia and walked into Damascus on Mother’s Day. Hiked out alone the Wednesday before Trail Days and made up the days at Mountain Harbor by not going back. I met new people and I caught up to old friends. Some of us hiked on and some of us didn’t.
For the most part the little jewelry bag stayed right where it was. After Mountain Harbor it became something more important. It became the reason I hiked. I decided the point of me being out there was to carry that bag from Georgia all the way to Maine. I didn’t have to carry my pack all the way but I did have to carry it all the way. I nearly lost it in Pearisburg when I changed hotel rooms and there were a few times I’d panic and realize I’d moved it from my pants to my pack but it stayed with me the entire way. A little weight so small I couldn’t even feel it. Sometimes it grew heavy.
I’d been hiking with Guiness ever since Daleville and recently we’d been joined by a guy named Sock Monkey. Since we were in Shenandoah National Park the walking was fine with a broad and mostly flat trail. The Shenandoah was my kind of hiking, a gently rolling trail punctuated by blueberry milkshakes. We’d stopped for a break at an overlook packed with the weekend DC crowd and smelling and looking like proper hikers we attracted more than a few questions. This man and his son came up to us. The boy had it in his mind to hike to the top of Old Rag which was an obscure peak off the main ridge and not easily accessible by Skyline Drive. All three of us took turns looking at the map and trying to help the guy out but it seemed like the kid would have to settle for more popular trails that day.
We started off again and I bolted ahead not even sure why I was going so fast. I quickly left my hiking companions behind which was rare. My name was Biscuit. It definitely wasn’t Bisquick. But now I was almost running down the trail and pushing myself harder than I ever had before. I was leaping downhill and really playing luck with the way my feet were landing. It’s funny how your conscious mind takes a bit to catch up with the rest of you but mine finally did. That boy and his father were going on a hike for Father’s Day. I would never get to go on a hike with my father. When he died I was a computer nerd and the most physical activity I did was throw a baseball around the yard. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told him one day I was going to up and walk to Maine but it wouldn’t have been his first guess as to what I would do when I was thirty-two.
In that moment the darkness from all those years ago broke. There were demons on the trail and I flew. Each overlook and picnic area brought kids and their fathers. I broke down so severely all I could do was pull my hat down nearly over my eyes and walk. It was like I’d touched some emotional third rail in my mind. I experienced his loss more in ten miles than I had in the previous ten years. The idea that we never hiked together and never would thundered through my head. My thoughts lost focus and I stopped trying to maintain any sort of facade. I hiked openly weeping and when I heard someone coming up ahead I gathered myself and kept my head low until they’d gone on. Then I would lose control again as soon as they passed.
My one strength on the trail was an ability to keep a pace. I could start at the bottom of a mountain and grind it down in a slow metronomical way. On that day I lost all control emotionally and physically as I bounded down the trail. This catharcis only stopped when I reached the Skyland Resort. I beat Guinness and Sock Monkey by nearly an hour, unheard of for me. It was a tortuous pace.
The trail is a lot of things but at its heart it is an exercise in giving up control. It will be wet, rocky, hot, or cold. The challenges vary but it is constant in its indifference. Your choice is limited to hiking or not hiking, staying on or going home. Whether you did twenty miles or five in a day was not something you always had a firm grasp on. Not only did you not control the weather or the terrain, at times you didn’t even control your body or your mind. It took me until Vermont until I truly figured that out and once I did it was just a matter of choosing to stay on. My breakdown in the Shennies foreshadowed that lesson. A harbinger of what was required to finish as I physically and emotionally limped to the sign on Katahdin.
Looking back on that day I realized that I’d kept his death at arm’s length for a long time. The tighter you grip something like losing your father at sixteen the more it fights you and it’s fight you’ll always lose. I lost it in the Shenandoah’s on Father’s Day. But once you stop fighting you become freer.
But the trail wasn’t over. It wasn’t even half over at that point and I was still fighting. I fought the trail, I fought myself and I fought the madness in my mind. I fell off the trail in Pennsylvania. I’d crawl down ten miles to the next road crossing and then hitchhike into a town, spend a few nights and do it again. I ended up in Boiling Springs with the flatest easiest section of the entire trail in front of me. I couldn’t even face that for three days. I finally made it into Duncannon and out the other side only stopping for a bite to eat. I was discouraged by how tired I was, by how few miles I was walking, by how far ahead my friends were. I thought seriously about getting off. Once again I gave up expectations. I gave up control. I jumped ahead to my friends.
Somewhere in there although I didn’t know it at the time was, if not the cure, then the bit of hope I had needed for sixteen years. I fell off the trail again in New York City. I just didn’t want to hike which seems like the silliest thing in the world now but it was a monumental burden then. Finally I skipped ahead again.
I was in North Adams, MA when I finally gave up. I didn’t give up on the trail. I gave up on my expectations of myself. Backpacking is predominantly about carrying things. While my pack was light what I’d been carrying in my head was much heavier. It was weighing me down so much I could hardly walk. I carried expectations of myself. I carried that night sixteen years ago which most of the time weighed nothing but sometimes it would balloon up in me and overwhelm everything. I had to let it go, all of it: the expectation of doing twenty miles the next day, the darkness that would open up in my dreams, everything that weighed me down and kept me mired in either the past or the future.
Once that happened I flew. I caught back up with some good people, the best I knew on the trail. Together the five of us finished together all on top of Katahdin. It was the greatest two months I had out there. Whichever way the trail blew I followed and the trail blew through some of the toughest mountains in the east during those months. Physically and mentally it was the toughest hiking but after I caught back up in Vermont I didn’t try to control the trail and the trail rewarded me in spades.
On top of Katahdin I took the stereotypical picture standing on top of the sign. Then the five of us got a picture together. It was thick with tourists and other thrus that day in October. I walked off by myself and took out two Little Debbie Star Crunches. They’re a little rice, caramel and chocolate snack. When my dad was really sick with chemo and cancer he took some drugs that required you to eat with them. This is what he kept in the house to eat then. I sat down by myself looking out onto the perfect blue sky and rolling forests of Maine. I ate one of them. I thought of him and wished he knew I was up here on top of the world. Then I stood up, walked through a score of day hikers and hurled the other one off the mountain. Later I went over to the sign and opened my jewelry bag and emptied every one of the tokens I’d carried for my loved ones out onto a rock at its base.
My hike was over. I went outside sixteen years ago in the middle of the night to get away from the crowd of people in my house, to get away from the memory of his last breaths, to escape all that had happened. Life had set me on subtle course to Katahdin that night. I could put down the anger and the loss and stop fighting. The struggle was over. The sixteen year old me could finally come back inside. The six million stiches held, if only briefly.
In the register at the Birches campground you’ll still find my entry from October 7th, 2011. I woke up before anyone else that day, wrote out my thoughts and started climbing. For the first time I told my fellow hikers why I started on March 23rd. The last thing I wrote before I climbed Katahdin and signed my name was “I miss you dad.”