For this post I am skipping ahead to the story of my last day in Peru… the last day I would spend with my friend Christina… the day we explored the caves and tunnels of the ancient Incan site known as the X-Zone.
When I got the news that Christina died in Peru on November 5, 2016 my heart broke. I’ve been trying to sort through the pieces ever since.
I linger among my memories of Christina, trying to write them down so that I can keep the cruel sands of time from sweeping them away. I don’t want to forget. I don’t want the sound of her laughter to fade from my ears. I want to remember, and I want you to know how amazing she was… I keep thinking that if I find the right words I’ll be able to show you the Christina that I knew, but my words keep failing me.
Christina was a free spirit. She refused to let life box her in, so I shouldn’t be surprised that her spirit refuses to be caged in by my clumsy words now that she’s gone. If she were here she’d encourage me to take the time and space I needed to grieve, but she would also gleefully dance in and around my ‘word cage,’ laughing and sticking her tongue out at me while she doused it with glitter, rainbows, and ponies. Eventually I would have realized the futility of my efforts. Then I would have turned to her with eyes wide, feigning as much uncertainty (and innocence) as I could muster, and say, “I think I might not be able to capture your spirit in words.” I can imagine how she would roll her eyes at me, gesture that it was about time that I figured that one out, and say, “Ya, think!”
I realize that my words will never be right. I’ll never be able to describe Christina’s incredible spirit to you, but I hope that you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of it here and there as it dances around my broken words. The story of our adventures at the X-Zone is the only story I seem to be able to tell right now, and it feels strangely fitting for it to come before its time.
In 1948, a combat veteran named Earl Schaffer set out to “walk off the war” and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (from Georgia to Maine), becoming the first thru-hiker on record. Since then, hundreds of combat veterans (recently aided by the Warrior Hike “Walk off the War” Program) have hit the trail as they try to decompress from their wartime experiences and come to terms with civilian life. For many, one of the things they struggle with is post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which effects at least 7.7 million American Adults, 31% of Vietnam Vets, and 20% of Vets from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On October 4, 2013, I celebrated the completion of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike with my fellow thru-hikers and trail family. Zach “Shady” Adamson, a fellow thru-hiker and a United States Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom War Veteran was one of the friends celebrating with me. It had become apparent to me as we hiked together that Shady had left the war, but that the war hadn’t left him. Like many combat veterans I’ve known, Shady didn’t sleep well, had vivid flashbacks (more back story here), and seemed to be suffering from PTSD. I saw that he was struggling, and I tried to help but I didn’t really know how. I hoped that maybe my dad, a Vietnam combat vet, would know how to help, but I didn’t get the chance to introduce them to each other. That afternoon as we parted ways at the summit of Katahdin none of those struggles were evident. He was on top of the world, full of hugs and smiles, and celebrating just as much (if not more) than the rest of us.
On January 9, 2014, just 3 months after completing his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and less than a year after completing his military service, Zach “Shady” Adamson committed suicide (his obituary). The hearts of all of the people that he had even known collectively broke. We learned in the harshest possible way that sometimes it takes more than walking 2200 miles to “walk off the war.” As I struggled to wrap my head around Shady’s suicide, I learned that 22 veterans a day commit suicide and “the number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011.” Holy sh**!
On March 21, 2014, what would have been Shady’s 25th birthday, there was no mention of the War in Afghanistan in the news. The media silence about the war that started in 2001 may, in part, be because of the changing demographics of our military force, the nature of modern warfare, and the nature of it’s casualities. “As of December 2008, more than 4,200 troops have been killed and over 30,800 have returned from a combat zone with visible wounds” and “an estimated 25-40 percent have less visible wounds—psychological and neurological injuries associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).” What was perhaps the most disturbing thing that I learned about our modern wars is that “since 2009, more soldiers have died from suicide than combat.”
A silent war, with invisible wounds, and a higher death-toll from suicide than from combat… I just couldn’t make sense of it all. As I tried and failed to put my thoughts in order, I started doing something that I hadn’t done since high school. I started writing poetry and came up with these verses before finally putting my laptop away for the night:
There are heroes that walk among us
Carrying burdens we cannot see
Silently we thank them
Using words they cannot hear
They’ve seen the horrors for us
They shield us from the pain
They are our strength, our soldiers
They will never be the same.
There are heroes that walk among us
They look like you and me
But inside they’re empty, hollow
Shells of who they used to be.
Silently we love them
Deafened by their pain
In silence they can’t hear us
And peace they cannot claim
The silence it surrounds them
Yet silent we remain.
But our silence is betrayal
Our silence is our shame.
There are heroes that walk among us
carrying burdens we cannot see.
Let’s break the cage of silence
And talk about PTSD.
It is a silent killer
Our heroes are its prey
It seeks the strong amongst us
And whittles them away.
It hits our soldiers hardest
Though others aren’t immune
Survival shouldn’t be a crime
It shouldn’t be their doom.
Katahdin. The first time I climbed Mt. Katahdin was in 1991 (the year many of my thru-hiking peers were born) and it was a little bit surreal. We hiked out of 100 mile wilderness and were told that there had been a coup in Russia, and that Hurricane Bob was on track to hit New England that night. We didn’t believe the rumors at first, a coup in Russia? They must have been kidding. A hurricane hitting Maine? I didn’t even know that that was possible. Sure enough, the news was all true and we were the only people in the campground that night. My dad battened down the tent trailer and we spent a nerve wracking night listening to the ping of bungee cords as the high winds tried to undo all of my dad’s hard work. The next morning we set off to climb the rivers that all of the trails had turned into overnight. One thing was for sure, climbing Mt. Katahdin is always a memorable experience and I’ll never forget my first ascent of that mountain. Coming out of the 100 mile wilderness this time I was also met with bizarre news: the US Government had shutdown. At first I didn’t believe it, the US government shut down… What did that even mean? Many of my friends had left messages wondering if the shutdown was going to effect my hike. Luckily, Mt. Katahdin is in Baxter State Park in Maine, so the feds weren’t involved and the shutdown wasn’t going to get in the way of my final summit attempt.
In the northern part of the 100 mile wilderness we got our first glimpses of Mt. Katahdin in the distance. It was hard to believe that the end of this incredible journey was in sight. I’m pretty sure that I would have delayed and stayed in the 100 mile wilderness until all of my food ran out to make the trip last longer if it weren’t for the pesky weather forecast that I saw before entering the wilderness. We were incredibly lucky to be getting gorgeous fall weather with temperatures in the 70s during the days and 40s at night, but all of that was going to change. The forecasts were predicting rain, combined with colder temperatures, for the coming weekend (highs in the 40s, rain showers, and gusty winds). If I had a choice, I definitely didn’t want to climb Mt. Katahdin in nasty weather, so I planned my ascent for Friday October 4 (the day before the weather was supposed to turn bad).
The night before I summitted Mt. Katahdin felt a little bit like Christmas Eve, a little bit like the night before my Ph.D. thesis defense, and a little bit like the last time I walked through my first house before handing the keys over to the new owners. Like Christmas Eve, the air was full of excitement and expectations. I was finally sleeping at the base of Mt. Katahdin and the weather forecast for the next day was perfect! Sunny and in the 60s, who could ask for better weather in October in Maine? Like the eve of my thesis defense, I knew that I had already done all of the hard work and, if anything, I was over prepared for the final test ahead of me, yet I was still full of trepidation. For me, hiking the AT was really about the journey. Getting to the summit of Katahdin was just the crowning moment: symbolic of the tremendous work, experience, and joy that went into getting there. Yet even though I’d hiked over 2100 miles and countless mountains to get there, I couldn’t help but worry that something (like breaking a leg) might happen in the final five miles and prevent me from reaching the summit the next day. Like leaving a home, I was mourning the passing of an era, and was both looking forward to, and slightly nervous about, the uncertainty of my next steps. I set up camp for one last time. I went down and got my drinking water from the beautiful burbling brook one last time. I filled my alcohol stove and lit it one last time. I ate one last Mountain House meal. Suddenly all of the mundane tasks that I had done every day for the last five months became loaded with meaning because I was doing them for the last time on this trip. At hiker midnight (7 pm) I crawled into my cozy sleeping bag for one last time. I was going to miss this crazy adventure and this crazy life.
As I lay there I chatted with Eli and Rachel (two thru-hikers that had started at Springer Mountain the day before I did, and that I’d known since Damascus, VA). We talked about our excitement, our trepidation, and how much we were going to miss this life. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow thru-hikers. Even though we hadn’t hiked that many miles together, we’d spent the entire trip within days of each other, and we were all going through the same crazy mix of emotions sitting there on Katahdin eve. The friendships and camaraderie were yet another thing that we were both grateful for, and mourning the loss of. Rachel and Eli would be climbing Mt Katahdin for the first time, and were excited about the unknown beauty of the mountain in addition to being excited about the culmination of their adventure. Rachel figured that she would be overwhelmed with emotion and cry at the summit. Eli was convinced that he would not. I’d hiked Mt. Katahdin at least three times before and didn’t think that climbing Katahdin itself would be that big of a deal for me, but I was still excited about the culmination of my epic adventure and I was fairly sure that I wasn’t going to cry at the summit; I hate crying.
We woke at dawn the next morning and, as promised, the skies were clear. It was a gorgeous day, though still a bit chilly, as we set out. Eli, Rachel, and I decided to hike together. My friend Hotshot had headed out about half an hour before we did, and Twigs, Homeward Bound, Shady, Green Blaze, and Wyoming were all awake and packing up. I was glad that I was going to be able to summit with an amazing group of old (by trail standards) and new friends. The fall foliage was at it’s peak and we were rewarded with spectacular views after just a short amount of hiking. Though the trail was initially smooth and easy, it quickly turned steep and rocky as we climbed up the ridge towards the headwall (the gateway), the tablelands (the plateau right below the summit), and ultimately the summit itself. As we got above treeline the winds picked up, and in the early morning shade it felt chillingly cold. The stretch of trail approaching the tablelands provided us with a challenge and was probably the steepest and most exposed trail we’d encountered on the entire AT. It was an exhilarating climb up to the gateway and the tablelands, and from the tablelands, you got a spectacular view of the lakes and foliage below and of Mt. Katahdin looming up above us. Even though I’d climbed Katahdin before, it felt entirely different this time. This mountain was impressive and has a majesty that I doubt could be diminished even if you climbed it 1000 times. I walked ahead of Eli and Rachel a little bit, wanting some time alone to take it all in.
As I walked across the tablelands towards the summit of Mt. Katahdin I was overcome by emotion and tears dampened the corner of my eyes. I gave up on trying to squeeze back them back, and just let them come. Why on earth was I crying? I wasn’t even at the summit yet! But I was there, so close that I could touch it, that I could crawl to it if I sprained my ankle or broke my leg… so close that I no longer had to protect myself from the fear that I might not make it. I was going to make it. Though I’d never really doubted that I’d make it to Katahdin, I’d never really allowed myself to believe it either. As that wall came crashing down and I finally allowed myself to believe, to know, that I was going to reach the summit, the tears came. There had been so many things going against me from the start, so many people that had told me that I wasn’t going to make it, but here I was, finally within reach of the summit of Katahdin. I was going to make it. I thought about my asthma and how when I left Boston I’d had trouble just climbing my stairs, how I’d had to sit on the floor of the bathtub because I couldn’t stand to take my showers, how I couldn’t even walk across Boston Common, yet here I was, 2000 miles later, conquering mountains. I thought about the labral tear in my hip and the constant pain it caused me at the beginning of the trip, and about the orthopedists saying that they didn’t think I would make it. I thought about how I got a late start (May), and how I had to have faith that even though I couldn’t hike far or fast at the beginning of the trip, that I would speed up and that I would beat the clock, catch up to the rest of the thru-hikers, and summit before Katahdin closed. Now that I knew that I was *really* going to make it, I could also admit that I was not just doing this hike for myself, but also for all of the people that I love/d that couldn’t/can’t do it. I cried and grieved for the dreams and the people that I’d lost, and I cried for the dreams and the people that I have. I cried with the sheer intensity and immensity of it all.
After a few minutes I turned around and saw that Rachel was crying as she hiked up the trail too. We gave each other permission to cry, and we stood there hugging and crying on the tablelands. We were here, we were on Katahdin, we’d made it, and we’d proved all of the naysayers wrong. All of the thru-hikers that start in May (the other thru-hikers call us Mayflies, May because we start in May, and flies because we fly up the trail the so fast) know that they are in a race against the clock because Baxter State Park closes on October 15. Day hikers up and down the trail seem to know about the deadline for Katahdin and feel the need to inform us that we can’t possible get to there in time given where and when they see us. It is incredibly annoying and, even when you know that they are wrong and that you can make it, it still hurts and can be demoralizing. It is especially hard since we get these kinds of comments not just from a couple of people, but from lots and lots of people. I didn’t count the number of people that told me that I was late, that I was going to have to pick up the pace, or that I just plain wasn’t going to make it, but the number was probably between 50 and 100. Even though the number of people saying that decreased as I headed into New England, even in New Hampshire I was still running into naysayers. I tried to downplay their doubts and reassure myself that they were wrong, but sometimes it did get to me. I think that after we summit, the mayflies all have a part of ourselves that screams, “I told you so!,” and celebrates the fact that we proved all of the idiot naysayers wrong. (Congrats to the Mayflies that summitted with me: Hotshot, Eli, and Rachel and to those that summitted that same week, especially Chuckwagon, Indy, the Voice, Rabbit, and Sir Stooge).
By the time I got across the tablelands and up to the summit my tears were all gone, and I was ready to celebrate the amazing accomplishment of being there, at the summit, with my friends. I got to the summit just in time to join in on a group summit photo with Hotshot, Twigs, Homeward Bound, Greenblaze, Shady, Wyoming, and Bojangles. After the group photo Eli and Rachel joined us and we all sat in the sun on the summit relaxing and taking turns posing with the sign. Everyone was smiling and laughing and enjoying the incredible weather, the incredible views, and the culmination of an incredible journey. It was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many people brimming over with such positive emotions. We’d made it. We were on top of Katahdin. We were thru-hikers. The day hikers cheered for us, and we cheered for each other. This had been a dream for all of us, and this is what happens when dreams come true: a moment of true bliss, frozen in time, captured in our photographs and in our minds, on the top of a mountain and on top of the world.