Within days of starting my north-bound hike, I realized that the hiking schedule I had laid out for myself was overly ambitious and completely unrealistic. Bad weather, injuries, over-estimated abilities, under-estimated terrain, and a deep affinity for town food and hot showers slowed me down. The AT was a more daunting feat than I had anticipated. Yet I was determined. I kept telling myself that no matter how bad my day might be going it or what obstacles I might encounter, they didn’t compare to whatever Tom was probably facing.
The fact is, the AT was my escape, my beautiful distraction. From deployments past, I knew I fared much better mentally if I could immerse myself into something all-consuming. An AT thru-hike definitely fit that bill. It gave Tom peace-of-mind to know I wasn’t at home worrying about him. Instead, I was attempting something adventuresome and daring, and it made him immensely proud.
Before he left, I gave him a wall map of the Appalachian Trail, which he hung beside his desk down range. Every few days I emailed him a photo along with a note of my location and accumulative mileage. He would print out the photo, tack it to a wall and connect a string between the photo and its corresponding spot on the map. My progress became part of his morning briefings to the Brigade staff. I might be the one hiking, but my hike had become something that extended far beyond myself.
As with any thru-hiker, I had good days and bad days. One moment I might be laughing and singing, completely relishing the experience. The next I might be sobbing uncontrollably on the side of the trail either from injury, exhaustion, frustration or perhaps all of the above. I watched countless sunrises and sunsets. I stood atop mountains and looked to the east, wondering what Tom might be doing at that moment. I longed for him to be there beside me, to see what I was seeing.
When we spoke on the phone, I would describe where I was, and he would look it up on Google Earth. Technology is a miraculous thing. Occasionally if I was having a severe trail meltdown, I might manage to send him a message, and he would call to give me a pep-talk. Those conversations followed a similar script. I’d answer in an emotionally fragile state. Upon hearing the excitement in his voice at hearing mine, I would immediately fall to pieces. For the next two to three minutes he would sit patiently — trying not to laugh — as high-pitched screeching sobs flowed thousands of miles through the airwaves.
Once I got the cry out, we would both have a good laugh. Crisis averted, my hike would continue. In all honesty, if he had been at home rather in Afghanistan, I’m not sure I would have had the same drive to continue. As it were, if I quit, I would have an empty house to go home to, and there would be no more photos for his bragging wall.
As spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, I continued my march northward to Katahdin, to Tom. In my mind they had become one. They were my proverbial carrots. If I could just get to one of them, then I knew I could get to the other. Tom’s redeployment date was pushed forward, and we came to realize I would not finish my thru-hike before he got home. I wanted so badly to be there when he returned, but Tom insisted I stay and finish.
All the time alone in the woods had given me ample opportunity to imagine our reunion. I had played out dozens of scenarios in my mind. Some were elaborate and far-fetched (He could get helicoptered to the top of Katahdin in full dress uniform with flowers, balloons and a TV crew, right?). Some were simple and romantic. Some were devastatingly tragic.