“If you aren’t at Katahdin, you ain’t nothing,” a hiker told me. But I found that it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. It was the journey that took me to grand mountains and to deep despair. And it was the journey that brought tears as I witnessed great vistas knowing how small I am in this world but so great in God’s eye. The tears flooded my heart at night knowing that Aaron wasn’t here to walk with me.
I dealt with the void left from my son by filling it with hope. My hope is that Aaron is protected and he is perfected. The trail gave me the space to have a talk with the one I was most angry with – God. What I found was God’s world began to reveal itself after everything I owned was on my back and my only concern was the next white blaze.
I now know where God was that fateful day when a woman driving a minivan pulled into the path of my son’s motorcycle. God didn’t abandon Aaron on that Sunday morning in July, 2014. He lifted my son out of the carnage of that tangled mess of steel and took him home. My boy is home. Aaron and I were going to hike part of the trail together; that was the plan. God had a different plan. I didn’t know why my son was killed, so in March of 2015 I stepped out in faith on Springer Mountain.
Alone and lost in my thoughts, my mind often drifted home. The trail is suited for reflection. It is worn by the footsteps of so many hikers that it sometimes resembles a gully, lined with rocks, roots, and mud. The solitude and repetition had a way of putting me into a hypnotic trance of sorts that allowed for meditation.
If I was going to let the trail teach me, I needed to deal with that control thing of mine that kept getting in the way. I started the trail with the self-given name of “Wizard.” Well, I’m no Wizard so I let the trail pick my name for me. While sitting around a campfire at Pond Flats, Tennessee, I mentioned how I was in and out of campsites without anyone seeing me. “You’re like a phantom, man,” Tunes declared. Flap Jack and Finch smiled. “Hey, Phantom, that’s who you are.”
As Phantom I wore an old hat that was perfect for the trail. It kept the sun out of my face and most of the rain. But along the way my hat no longer seemed to fit. It was too hot when the sun was out and too heavy in the rain. As my hair got longer it began to fit tight at the brim, so I pushed it up on my forehead to make it work. I had changed, but my hat stayed the same. I dressed it up with some turkey feathers to make it look good but it still didn’t fit.
After I got to the top of the rock scramble at Lehigh Gap in Pennsylvania, I looked over the edge. I took off my old hat and imagined tossing it into the air like a Frisbee. I envisioned it getting caught in an updraft, floating harmlessly away, and settling on a tree limb waiting for a hiker with the perfect head. But it was my hat. I picked it up, figured some way to make it fit, and slogged on.
I felt alone as I climbed the last mountain in Vermont even with Tiger Bob less than five yards behind me. It was the one-year-anniversary of Aaron’s death. At a power line clearing we dropped our packs in full view of the trail. As I looked back, I could see Mount Killington’s ski runs on the horizon. It was special – Aaron was a ski lift mechanic. I felt his presence while the weight of grief bore into me.
It was special…until I bent down to get my tent poles. Losing my poles was a game changer. After eighteen-hundred miles I couldn’t figure how my pole bag could somehow get out of an eight-inch-deep pocket. It was past five-thirty. What was I going to do? I yelled to Tiger not to expect me until after dark. Somewhere between me and Mount Killington lay my poles and I needed them.
Armed with only my cellphone, I ran into the woods. Twenty yards into the woods I saw something that stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. Shoulder-high on a nub of a sapling hung my tent poles. How did they get here? We saw no one on the trail. No one passed by Bob or me. If my tent poles did fall out, how did Bob not see them lying on the trail? I held them close then I lifted them to the sky. “Oh God, oh Aaron, thank you, thank you!”
I felt the presence of God that day. I never before had an encounter where I was confronted with the inexplicable. Grabbing my poles and raising them to God, I repeated, “Thank you, thank you.” Then I said more. For the first time in a year I said, “Thank you God, for taking care of my son, thank you.”
I looked to the trail and saw Sonic, a young female hiker, standing in the middle of the power line clearing. Her eyes were closed and her face was pointed to the heavens. I could hear music playing from her IPod.
“Sonic, Sonic!” I exclaimed, “Let me tell you what just happened!” and explained about the anniversary date and how I got my poles back. “I felt the presence of God.”
“Well, let me tell you this,” she replied. “I stopped here to pray because I felt the presence of angels.”
I fell backward.
“Andy, I have a plan,” God was telling me. “You and Aaron are a part of it. Even your tent poles are part of my plan. Today you just need to know that I am taking care of you. Just walk, but walk in faith.”
God took care of me that day and I knew he was taking care of Aaron.
I could have ended my hike right there but I was on a pilgrimage. I didn’t know what was next, but I knew it would be special. Whenever I thought about quitting, two pictures came to mind. I saw my grandson Jayden looking up at me asking, “You quit?” And then I pictured the understated sign on top of Katahdin. We all knew what it looked like after seeing hundreds of pictures of triumphant thru-hikers, so I picked up my tent poles and walked across the White Mountains and into the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine.
I walked slowly on my last day in the Wilderness and took in every tree, every rock and every plant. I wanted to remember everything. The Wilderness had lived up to its reputation: the weather, the climbs, and the trail. Every turn took on a different feel as I hiked into decaying forest, new growth, mature groves, flat bogs, and rocky crags. New Hampshire has the White Mountains, but Maine has the Wilderness. And Maine has Katahdin.
We had few fires in the wilderness. There is something magical about a fire at a campsite. I felt it in the Smokies on a cold, rainy night when Trailblazer lit a fire in the shelter and Six Strings played his ukulele. And I felt it on our last night in Maine. After 2,193 miles, I built my first fire. As Wizard, I walked alone. As Phantom, I needed the warmth of the fire and the people who sat around it. We talked into the night about the trail, but mostly we talked about the next day.
Everyone wanted to be up early. I couldn’t sleep – it felt like the night before Christmas. My last meal in the morning was a packet of Knorr noodles. I ate some variation of these noodles almost every night in the wild and never tired of them. Everything in the woods tasted better, but I was glad to see the last noodle disappear. With a belly full of Knorr’s, I walked down the approach trail. “It’s not how you start,” I reminded myself, “it’s how you finish.”
The first mile-and-a-half was a gradual climb next to one last waterfall. As I walked around the rocks and over the roots, the trail turned upward. After getting to the top of the boulders, I paused to look back but could only see the low-hanging fog hovering over the countryside. This same fog was a familiar friend that followed me for much of my A.T. hike.
The trail leveled off, but I still had two miles to go. The ground was marked “fragile.” Tuffs of grass grew between the rocks and an impromptu spring ran down them. I tried as best as I could to keep my feet dry as I straddled the puddles and brushed against the roped off trail.
“Five more minutes, Phantom,” Happy Warrior said as he passed me going back down the mountain. Several others accompanied him as they bounded down the trail. I never saw them again.
And there it was – MOUNT KATAHDIN Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail – painted on a wooden A-frame sign. It stopped me in my tracks. Like seeing your tree decorated on Christmas morning – you know what it looks like, you may have seen it for weeks, but on this day, it’s different. On this day, it’s Christmas. Ascot and Sarsaparilla were busy taking pictures, “Phantom, you made it.”
I choked up. I went to one knee and thanked God. Around my neck I wore my and my wife’s wooden crosses given to us when we hiked together in Grayson Highlands, Virginia. I clutched them and Aaron’s Keystone lift maintenance hat. From out of my pocket, I took a pill bottle that held a few ashes, remnants of my son’s lifeless body. There on this special mountain I let him go and wept. It was Sunday, August 30, 2015: the day Aaron would have turned thirty-two.
Instead of hiking part of the trail with me, Aaron was there the whole way. He was there in the thunder at Tray Gap and in the Hiker’s Parade at Trail Days in Damascus. He was there when I jumped into the James River, and when I downed a half-gallon of Neapolitan at Pine Grove Furnace. He was there on the streets of Duncannon where he grew up and on the top of Killington Ski Mountain, eerily similar to where he worked. And he is still in the wind at Katahdin.
After hiking back down the trail, I stuck my thumb out and a car turned around. The driver told me that God told him to pick me up. I asked him to take me into Millinocket but he took me all the way to Bangor where I got on a plane to fly home. The trail was still providing.
Back with family, Lori hugged me and Jayden looked up at me with all the wilderment of a ten-year-old.
“I knew you would finish,” he said.