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An Open Letter to Sally
You may not remember me. We only met once way back in October, 2007. An overflow crowd of hikers had stopped at the Hightop Hut in Shenandoah National Park for the night. I was the old, skinny, bearded guy doing my fifth section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Like so many encounters on the trail, our paths crossed only briefly – less than 18 hours from “Hi” to “Bye.” Yet that fleeting experience produced a lasting memory.
Hiking the AT is, for the most part, a tedious slog up and down hills between curtains of trees that obscure any view. It’s the aberrations from the norm that tend to grab one’s attention and stick in the mind: a stranger’s spontaneous act of generosity; a sudden, up-close, heart-palpitating bear encounter; completing an arduous stretch of trail made even more difficult by inclement weather; a break in the foliage that reveals a spectacular vista; the late arrival of a fellow hiker after resigning oneself to another solitary night; rodent antics that make Mickey Mouse look boring; and a random conversation that has an enduring impact -- such as the one we had when you asked me: “Why do you keep coming back?”
When I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, I anticipated my satisfaction would come from alone-time in the woods, wildlife sightings, scenic views, and overcoming the physical and mental challenges. Indeed, I found those things in abundance and thoroughly enjoyed myself (when I wasn’t wet, cold, exhausted, in pain, bored, or lonely). But more than once I found myself thinking “If I didn’t know I was on the AT, I wouldn’t know I was on the AT.” Long stretches looked and felt the same as other trails I have hiked. Overall, the Appalachian Trail ranked better than some, not as good as others.
So why, despite its seeming mediocrity, did I feel an irresistible urge to return and hike another section?
I finally came to realize that, more than anything else, I was looking forward to the people I would get to meet. Not just hikers, but trail angels, trail maintainers, hostel operators, merchants, and other assorted members of the AT community.
Consider the eclectic mix of hikers who were at the Hightop Hut on the day we met: You and your brother, Jamieson – novice thirty-something backpackers on your first (a four day) AT trip. Bernard – a middle-aged French citizen who flies over from Paris each year to hike a section of the trail. Lauren, Jen, and Leslie – recent college graduates who had met that summer while working seasonal jobs for the National Park Service and discovered they shared a yearning to hike the Appalachian Trail. They had arranged to meet after their employment ended and hike a 250 mile section together. The fifteen or so members of the Haverford College Outdoor Club who had driven from Pennsylvania to spend a long weekend on the trail. And me – a retired senior three weeks into a five week solo hike. It turned out to be a flavorful blend of diverse individuals and the chemistry transformed an otherwise routine stop into a most memorable one.
The Appalachian Trail attracts people of varied backgrounds, circumstances, physical condition, personalities, ages, beliefs, attitudes, and motivations. Even when they have little in common except the AT, that mutual interest is usually enough to create an instant sense of community. It’s a community overwhelmingly made of up good and affable people. Almost all are interesting and some are fascinating.
Take Murphy, for example. I first met Murphy in Duncannon, Pennsylvania while eating dinner at that legendary stop for AT hikers, the Doyle Hotel. The century old structure showed every year of its age but, compared to life on the trail, offered luxury accommodations -- hot food, cold beer, inside plumbing, chairs with backs, beds with linens, and private rooms. Its owners were welcoming and the patrons were sociable.
One of those patrons was Murphy, a southbound thru-hiker who had started three months before and over 1,000 miles away in Maine. At first glance, Murphy was a clone of many other thru-hikers I have met – skinny, bearded, half my age, nice, gregarious. But then I noticed his prostheses. Both of Murphy’s legs ended at his ankles. He had prosthetic feet which were attached to his body by sockets that encapsulated his shins.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not as difficult as some make it out to be, but neither is it easy. The northern half – the part Murphy had already completed – contains the most rugged terrain, including Baxter Peak (Katahdin) and the Mahoosuc Range in Maine, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and the Pennsylvania rocks.
Murphy had started with a collection of spare parts for his prostheses but had used them all up less than 50 miles into his hike, forcing a three day break at White House Landing while replacements were shipped in. He had fallen in every one of the eight states he had traveled through so far.
In northern Pennsylvania, one of his prosthetic feet had broken several miles past a road crossing. Murphy had the parts necessary to fix it but not the tools. After caching his backpack, he hobbled back to the road, removed his damaged prosthetic limb, and tried to flag down a passing motorist by waving it in the air.
Car after car zipped by without even slowing down. Eventually, an elderly woman stopped. Murphy explained his dilemma but she did not have any tools in her car. “I passed a road construction crew a couple miles back,” she said. “I’ll go see if they can help.”
She turned her car around and drove away, leaving Murphy to wait on the side of the road. A short time later, one of the road crew’s trucks pulled up. “A lady told us there was a guy down the road with a broken leg and he needed a pair of pliers to fix it,” the driver explained. “That didn’t make any sense but we figured we’d better check it out.”
The road crew had the necessary tools and, after repairing Murphy’s foot, he was able to continue on his way.
Sally, people like you and Murphy and Sprocket (who took me on a white water rafting trip when I stayed at Standing Bear Farm) and so many others have touched me in a way I never imagined. I normally go walking in the woods to get away from people for a while. But I come to the Appalachian Trail to meet strangers.
I hope your first AT trip was not your last and that the people you meet on the trail enrich your life as much as those I have met have enriched mine.
Dave “Just Dave” Guenther