On this day four years ago, I finished the longest journey of my hiking life. A 14,300 mile, almost eighteen month odyssey called the 12 Long Walks. I had planned to end my trip at the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus of Springer mountain. However, upon reaching my goal on December 28, I decided to walk back some 30 miles to Neels Gap the following day. It turned out to be the most important decision of the entire 545 day trek.
Life is like a book.
It’s filled with multiple chapters of varying content, length and substance.
Its pages invariably contain a large cast of characters, but only ever the one author.
Sometimes the most difficult part of writing one’s life story, is knowing when to finish one chapter and begin another. Whether it be a job that no longer provides satisfaction, a relationship that has run its course or an eighteen month hiking trip through the wilderness of North America, such decisions are invariably far easier in theory than in practice.
During the final two weeks of the Appalachian Trail, the last of the 12 Long Walks, I had almost convinced myself that upon reaching the finish, I would turn around and walk back again. Not the whole dozen mind you, just the AT. I’m not that crazy.
Physically I was still in good shape and mentally I was as fresh as ever. Why not head back? I was doing what I loved and the idea of going north on the AT through the middle of winter was a challenge that appealed to me.
I reached Springer Mountain at 5pm on December 28, 2012. I had the summit to myself. My goal of completing the 12 walks before year’s end had been accomplished. I reflected on what had been an extraordinary journey and felt happy and at peace. But not elated. There was still a part of me that didn’t want it to be over.
I decided to sleep on it.
The following morning I awoke and headed back to Neels Gap. I was convinced that the closure I sought would come to me in those 30 miles.
As I flowed along the trail, my mind wandered back and forth between between past events, present realities and future possibilities. It was around midday when I distinctly remembered a conversation I had some six weeks earlier. Whilst hiking through Pennsylvania, my friend, Greg “Malto” Gressel, had asked me “during the 12 walks, how often have you had moments of doubt when you weren’t sure about whether or not you wanted to continue?”
Without hesitation I replied, “never.”
He repeated the question, either thinking that I hadn’t quite heard him or alternatively not believing that someone could hike for more than 14,000 miles without having a single moment of doubt. I repeated my answer, and then added, “I’ve been heading out into the woods my whole life. It’s what I love to do. The miles, locations, seasons; they’re just details. It’s all home to me.”
Back to December 29th. I was still happy, still at home, still doing what I loved. But remembering that conversation with Malto, made me realize that something fundamental had changed. For the first time in a year and a half I was having doubts. My intuition was whispering “time to begin another chapter; time to move on.” I finally listened. The decision was made. I had hiked enough.
I smiled the smile of a relieved man. I would soon arrive in Neels Gap. A few beers, a big feed, a hot shower and a semi-comfortable mattress awaited me. Perhaps I would linger there for a day or two; take stock, organize transport, who knows, maybe even go for a wee day hike.
As I began the final descent from Blood Mountain, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Temps were in the mid-teens (F) and dropping fast, the wind was howling and the exposed rocky slabs on the aforementioned peak resembled an ice skating rink.
I chuckled. Mother Nature was giving me a send-off to remember. Fair enough.
The sun had set and the final two miles of my journey would be made in darkness. Somewhat appropriate considering how much night hiking I had done over the past couple of months.
As I began to descend, I suddenly heard a distressed voice emanating from the darkness. I shone my head lamp in the direction of the noise, and lo and behold, there was a lost day hiker. The gentleman’s name was Mark. He had become disorientated in the snow (the AT’s famous white blazes aren’t so easy to spot in winter!), had no flashlight, little in the way of gear and was becoming justifiably concerned as to his welfare.
I looked at him in amazement and said with a wry grin, “Mate, this is your lucky day.”
Over the next hour and a half I shepherded Mark down the mountain, cracking jokes whilst constantly assuring him that all would be ok. We finally arrived at Neels Gap around 7.30 pm, just in time for dinner at the Walasi Yi Hostel. Mark was a very relieved man. He called his wife to assure her that all was fine and that he would soon be driving home to Atlanta. She had known something was wrong and had been praying for him. Hearing the emotion in his voice, I started to well up a bit myself.
Over the course of my life I’ve always placed a big emphasis on following my gut. Even when common sense might be telling me otherwise. Logically speaking, there was no reason for me to turn around and walk back to Neels Gap. I’d just hiked over 14,000 freakin’ miles! I’d done what I’d set out to do. But something inside told me I needed to keep walking. If only for one more day. And because of listening to that internal voice, I helped to save a man’s life. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a more meaningful finish to a hiking journey. And for that reason, December 29, 2012, will always hold a special place in my heart.