In November of 2008 I was standing on the curb outside of a halfway house still reeling from how much I had drank in the days leading up to that fateful afternoon. I had spent too much time in the darkness wrestling with my demons and it was time for a change. I was only partially there voluntarily. I was given options and this was the one that allowed me a way forward so I took it. The next few days were not great but the following few months and subsequent years saw things improve drastically. I plugged back into a life that resembled one of normalcy and routine. I got better. I got a good job. I learned how to be a good father. I became involved in my community. Life was not perfect but it was light years beyond where it had been for the previous decade.
In 2013 things took a turn for the worst. My marriage fell apart. I owned a part in that. Without going through that long and agonizing story I can tell you that today myself, my ex wife, her husband and our kids are doing outstanding. It took time and a lot of swallowing of pride to make that relationship work so splendidly but that is what we have all done. The weeks following the separation were filled with familiar despair and disastrous decision making. It was an alcohol fueled nightmare. The years that followed were wrought with depression, isolation, lack of hope and a growing collection of dreams that seemed incomprehensibly out of reach. Fast forward to 2016. It hasn’t been a banner year. I am not going to tell you about how I won the lottery and bought all of the things I ever wanted. I didn’t get a $100k a year job. I don’t own my dream car. There are a lot of things in my life I wish were different. Adversely, there are a lot of things in my life I have grown to appreciate and recognize as blessings. The darkness within me has been contained and my demons are all locked up. I could let them out at any time but I choose daily not to do so. Now is not their time. They had their opportunities. Now is my time.
Halfway through 2016 I was sitting on another curb just after a 5k race. I met a girl. It was not that dramatic. We were introduced and there were some pleasantries then I got my banana and a bottle of water and left. Eventually we became Facebook friends and took turns liking every single thing the other posted (mostly because we are both hilarious) but also because there was something that happened that day that neither of us were even aware of. Her darkness had been bottled up as well. We recognized something in one another that was unmistakable. A friendship was born, then lunch, walks by the river, endless text messages and the long awaited first kiss. I spoke about dreams that seemed out of reach. In a passing conversation I mentioned my desire to start and complete the Appalachian Trail. Her eyes lit up a bit but what came next I was in no way prepared for. “LET’S DO IT!” ——- What do you mean let’s do it, like now, next week, next month??? In an instant, a wave of emotions and difficult understanding washed over me. Not only was I sure in that moment that I had been blessed yet again, I also understood that I was in fact the biggest obstacle in my own life. I was a dreamer without conviction. I had simply been too afraid to pull the trigger on something that was so easily began like the trail that it was difficult to wrap my mind around. Yet there she was, sitting right in front of me beaming with determination and enough belief for both of us. She was the missing piece of the puzzle that was me.
We made a plan. Not a plan for next year, NEXT MONTH. We built on the endless knowledge I had compiled and prepared to execute. Finally the day came and now I can begin to tell you about my walk to Maine. I am a father, son, brother, friend, ex husband, co-worker, in recovery……the list goes on. I am a lot of things to a lot of people. Add to that list, an Appalachian Trail section hiker. Some people will tell you that the Approach Trail mileage doesn’t count towards the cumulative mileage of the AT (Appalachian Trail). I in fact believe that it does. Some people will tell you that you are an idiot for wanting to hike the Approach Trail based on its difficulty and lack of water. While one of those things is subjective and the other is true, I don’t care. My dream began in Amicalola and it ends at Katahdin. I always envisioned that I would start in the Spring and summit Katahdin near the fall but I have come to understand that is not how this dream of mine will play out. I haven’t settled. I have merely adjusted for what the realities of my life are. I prefer balance to chaos these days. I want to make everyone happy. Now I am figuring out how to do so with my own happiness included.
I understood the warnings of hiking the Approach Trail very early on. Climbing the 679 steps with roughly a 50lb pack on my back was daunting to say the least. I had been going to the gym for the better part of the year when we began this weekend but nothing can prepare you for that level of pain or the formidable struggle involved. It took a mental fitness to keep looking forward and making the next step rather than looking back at the parking lot. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had come too far and had only just begun. The struggle was real though. Once you walk over the Falls you think for a moment, “Ok I showed them, that was hard but I did it, alright now on to the polite walk in the woods.” You would be miserably mistaken if you allow this to happen.
We were expertly instructed to take the green emblazoned trail to the Hike Inn as it had a resupply of water that was lacking on the parallel trail. If I ever see that man again who gave me this advice I will hug him for a long time, right up to the point where it would be uncomfortable for both of us. The hike is daunting. It wears on you. It tests who you are not just as a hiker but as a person. You might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, well I can just scratch that plan I had to try because this guy is not painting me a very great picture”. Please don’t do yourself the disservice of not suiting up and showing up to this amazing experience. Because it was just that. Yeah, my legs hurt in ways I can’t give description to. My feet ached. My shoulders were spent from the weight of the pack. My lower back seemed like it wanted to detach from my body and beat me senseless. My heart and soul though……..were magnified. I was doing it. I was in a place I had only dreamed about. I was no longer just talking about somedays and maybes. I was no longer an imaginary character in the amazing stories that played out in my head. I was living.
Interspersed with the difficulty were moments of complete splendor on the Approach trail. I was seeing Georgia, the state of my birth in a way that I had never seen before. I remembered to pause from time to time and just drink it all in. The vegetation, the captivating views, the people we would pass and how friendly and happy they all were. It was all that I hoped it would be. Jessica was always just a few steps behind me and she was everything I had hoped for as well. Both in life and on this crazy journey. An enormous part of my enjoyment was drawn from the experience she was having as well. We were a team. We fueled one another. She would tell me to take pictures of things as I was just standing there staring at them. I told her that I would never forget them but she wanted to share our experience with the world. I was ok with that, because I love the world and if my shared experience can make it a better place even in just the smallest of ways then that is what I want to do.
The Len Foote Hike Inn is amazing. Not because they had water and I was out but because of the pursuit that they are trying to accomplish. Honestly I think it is overpriced. That is neither here nor there though. The people were all amazing. The offering is genius. Part of me is extraordinarily jealous that I had not come up with the concept first and wasn’t reaping the many awesome rewards. I would love to live on top of a mountain playing host as weary and excited hikers streamed through the doors daily to partake in superior hospitality. Maybe I will just write them a letter every day until they agree to bring me on staff. More to come on that. Stay tuned. After a very strenuous day we were putting our packs back on after enjoying some coffee and sweet tea and a visit to an actual bathroom. One of the guys that works the front desk came out and had some concern on his face. He knew because I had told him that we were attempting to make it to Springer from there that same night. He knew what I couldn’t have at the time that it was not possible. He had sized me / us up and where he was coming from was not in any way judgmental or negative.
Rather, I could tell as I walked away that he only wanted what was best for us. He looked over the map I had and explained in detail where we should stop and how far it would be etc… He will also be getting an uncomfortable hug later. I have never been so happy to see a campsite as I was to see Black Gap shelter. We set up our tent just in time for the sun to go down.
I was barely able to stand at that point because Nimblewill Gap following the hike down from Len Foote was a BEAST. We rested over night knowing that we would have to get up early because our shuttle was meeting us at the base of Springer Mtn. at 9:30am. We had miles to go on sore legs and now we had a time constraint. I saw a proverb in the dining hall at Hike Inn that said, “I have nowhere to go and all day to get there”. I loved it instantly. That was not the case for us however. We did not have all day. We set out in the dark no questions asked of one another. I don’t know what I don’t know about the rest of the Appalachian Trail but I do know that hiking to the summit of Springer and watching the sun come up over the Blue Ridge Mountains while everyone else was still in their tents was the most beautiful thing I have seen in many many years. Everything that hurt suddenly went away. A wave of satisfaction and validation washed over me like a wave. I was doing exactly what my heart and soul yearned to do and I was doing it with exactly the person I wanted to be with. Everything was right in my world.
I am going to end this entry by offering up a few things to you. If you have a dream and you see it a certain way, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. It’s your dream, Do It! Own It! Take advice when it comes to matters like the AT that you are a novice about. I don’t care how many books or blogs or movies you have watched and read. The trail is hard but worth it. It won’t define who you are. No one and nothing can do that for you. It will magnify the great things within you though. Take a moment to appreciate those things as you recognize them on the trail, whatever that looks like for you. Remember to stop walking long enough to appreciate the beauty that is around you. Lastly, stop hoping for this that or the other thing. Life is only given to us a day at a time. Go out and make things happen that enrich who you are. Stop waiting and get up and start walking in a direction that pleases you. Take a chance. You’re worth it.
Christian is starting a new blog (http://smokeyandthebanditwalktomaine.blogspot.com/) that you can find here.