I gave my wife a big hug and took one last look at her — my soul mate and my best friend — then turned my back and started walking north into the woods. That was about three years ago last week.
Everything that would sustain me for the next six months were in a backpack. I had some clothes, a couple books, food, a tent, a water filter and a sleeping bag. It all weighed about 45 pounds.
In hindsight, that alone should have tipped me off. It should have told me something. It should have slapped me in the face like a freezing cold shower in the dead of winter or rattled my teeth like I had been hit in the mouth with a baseball thrown by the “Big Unit,” Randy Johnson. However, somehow I missed it; I wasn’t listening. And worse, I am not sure I am listening now.
The next time Christina and I move it will take an 18-wheeler to accommodate all our possessions and a crew of strong men to haul it all.
I am back working long days and generating stress like a locomotive generates smoke, exhaling it from its smokestack as the grinding diesel engines power it down the track. Talk about dumb.
My mind was clear that morning starting out. I wasn’t concerned. I had no idea what I was doing, where I was really going or what I would need. It was a zone, surely. I didn’t know what I should fear either, so I began to focus on putting my right foot in front of my left foot — something I was to do about five million times as I hiked north. Right, left, right, left, “hello blaze,” right, left.
My shoes were comfortable. My gait was unhurried. My focus was on the 6 feet of earth in front of me and the sound of my shoes landing on dry leaves and dusty soil and the rhythm of my pack rubbing against my back with each step.
Two ex-roommates of mine have died this year — one from high school and one from college.
We have two grandchildren now and a third on the way. Our daughter is out there in Oakland rescuing people — something she has done since she was old enough to walk and talk. It is who she is. My little boy spends his time studying the great books — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, learning two dead languages, and simply learning. Be still my beating heart. He has evolved into a human being of honor, compassion, and dignity, just like his older brother and sister.
“Welcome to our little club of under-achievers,” an old friend — a retired Army General — once, told me, referencing himself and all of our peers — children of physicians. Dark shadows, grand shadows that tended to block the sunlight and obscure our paths. “Yea, I know. I know.”
I used to worry so much about what my children would ultimately “do.” My parents, oh, my parents bless them, instilled that into us so well — at least mother did.
“You know a bad grade will follow you the rest of your life,” mom would tell us. I got it ma. I get it. And, I’m still correcting the grammar of that person in front of me in the checkout line too mom. I can’t help it, I swear I can’t. It makes my ears burn, but thanks mom. I can diagram a sentence with the best of them, and my speech is generally grammatically correct.
Time distills many things, and my stress about my children’s careers has largely abated. “Who” they become and how they treat others seems so much more important to me now.
The mid-morning sun was soft and beckoned one forward. It warmed my ears. It made me smile with each step.
All I had to do was look for those little painted stripes on the trees or on boulders about every hundred yards or so — the blazes — and I would be OK. I was by myself, but as I walked other hikers passed. The trees were still bare from winter, but you could see the buds on the limbs starting to emerge.
“You are walking for all of us,” a friend once told me. It is one of those trail lessons that I have been so slow to understand. People still — three years later — reach out to me about that hike. I may be taking liberties, but I want to say that my trail lesson is that we all have many more values in common than we have differences and, importantly, that we are all hiking for each other in our own way. Each of us needs to make our hikes count.
Today, during church, I filled many pages of my reporter’s notebook. The troubling events of the day were part of the sermon — the terrible shootings in New Zealand, the killing in downtown Alpharetta, and other instances of violence, hate and despair. And as I sat in my pew listening, I found myself thinking about my hike and my lessons from the Trail.
Those lessons were simple and seemed to be slapping me in the face — finally — like that freezing shower in the dead of winter or Big Unit’s fastball shattering my cheek.
On the Trail, my first lesson learned was not to judge other hikers. That lesson I received the very first hour on the trail. I was walking with another hiker, who I didn’t know from Adam, when a third hiker passed us in a great hurry. I made a snide comment about him. When I turned to look at my companion, our eyes met and he looked at me in a way that I will never forget as long as I live — and said not a word. But his eyes literally shouted and raged “Do not judge.” It was silent and breathtaking to me, as if someone had punched me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me.
As I sat in church this morning, I had the same experience — the realization that much of the violence could only occur when one person judges another instead of respecting the other person and their beliefs.
In Damascus Virginia, I stayed at Woodchuck Hostel and spent a little time with the owner, a former thru-hiker. The first thing he told me was that “the Trail is the great equalizer,” and that the moment a hiker sets foot on the AT, who you were or what you had or didn’t have no longer was relevant. Out there on the Trail, “you are all the same.” That is, “respect” for each other was the only acceptable standard.
“Withholding judgment and respecting others must be absent for violence and hate to exist or spread,” I thought as I listened to the sermon this morning.
The third lesson I took from the Trail that resonated so loudly this morning in church was the one I treasure most. All thru-hikers know it. All understand it. All lived by it. “The Trail will provide.” Out there, we took care of each other — no matter what, always. No matter what happened, another hiker or non-hiker will step up, and you will be rescued or helped from whatever situation you are in — every time.
Out there, for six months on a hike of over 2,000 miles, one arrives at a magical point when you lose all fear because you gain all confidence and faith in humanity and in each other. It is a feeling and an understanding that is priceless. Call it faith. Call it whatever you want. But it is real and we must never loose our faith in each other.
Withholding judgment, respecting each other and having pure faith in the goodness of others is how a child thinks and sees the world — at least until they become an adult. That is how we need to try to live and treat each other — like a child treats another child.