Our departure from Harpers Ferry ignited a certain level of gloom that had been following our group since the Shenandoahs, a slight depression that had slowly grown as we began leave the big mountains and made our way in to the Mid-Atlantic flatlands. I saw that, out of all of us, it affected Buckets the most. We’d stop at a view, which were becoming more and more rare, and a strange look of sadness would come over his face as he watched the countryside gently roll off in either direction all the way to the horizon, constantly crisscrossed by a net of power lines and highways. We had started this Trail to see the mountains and, up until this point, we’d been scrambling over one after another. During breaks and at night before falling asleep, the four of us would recollect the great adventures we had fought through just weeks or months ago, talking as if years had past. We recalled the wandering mountains of Georgia and the flooded and frozen Great Smokies of North Carolina. We retold the stories of how the wretched, frozen fog on top of Roan Mountain in Tennessee had almost been the end of us or how we had slipped and slid our way down the rain-soaked Priest and then up the windswept southern side of Three Ridges Mountain in Virginia. The four of us had overcome, and in a sense conquered, the mighty and tall Southern Appalachians. We’re mountain climbers who whose need for wilderness and big climbs define us as thru-hikers. Now, as we stumbled across the flat, rocky terrain West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, weaving in-between houses, along railroad tracks, and across countless highways, we felt somehow unfulfilled as the miles went by.
Leaving Harpers Ferry was also a realization point for not only myself but for the group as a whole. It was quickly becoming apparent that my right knee was deteriorating with each passing day and that I would eventually have to take a substantial amount of time off the Trail. The many miles of denying there was a problem and the even more miles of hoping it would get better began to finally take their toll and as I awoke on the morning of April 30th, I could just barely move. I tried to tough it out but just eight miles in I found myself not being able to go any further. Jake told Veggie and Buckets to go on ahead while we would rest up at a nearby hostel and hopefully the next day I’d be better. An hour and a half later, as Jake and I were lying in our bunks and my knee was wrapped with an Ace wrap and ice, Buckets came bustling through the door saying, “I’ve walked a thousand miles with you guys. I ain’t splittin’ us up just ‘cus one soldier’s down.” We all laughed and I was glad to have both of them there but I knew that night was a last ditch effort to salvage my knee and thus salvage the trip as we had planned it. I spent the night worried, not only for myself but for my brother, for my newfound friends, and for the uncertainty that lay ahead.
The next morning my fears were realized when I stood up, hardly balanced and in a tremendous amount of pain. I gritted my teeth and bit my lip a million times that day as I took each step with deliberate tenderness and wincing pain. As night began to fall and we made our way to the shelter, I knew it was the end of the line for me. That night the air was hot and the roar of a nearby highway kept us all awake. I started playing guitar and the three of us sang every song we knew. By ten o’clock, which was way past our normal bedtime, I was playing “Rocky Raccoon” and Buckets was belting out the lyrics word for word. As his Jersey accent echoed off the rocks and the wooden walls of the small shelter we had to ourselves, he sang out “Rocky you met your match/And Rocky said, Doc it’s only a scratch/And I’ll be better doc as soon as I am able.” As strange as it sounds, I knew, at that moment, I’d try my best to be back. I hadn’t quit in Georgia like so many others had. I hadn’t given up when the razor sharp winds atop the high ridges of North Carolina and Tennessee cut in to my shivering self. I made the decision right there, in the darkness of a Pennsylvania shelter, that I would not give up, not yet.
So the next morning, as the invisible pins and needles began to stab underneath my kneecap, both Jake and Buckets helped me with every step as we made the three miles to Caledonia State Park, near Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. Jake and Buckets instantly got on the phone and Buckets arranged for a park ranger to pick me up at a nearby road. They went on ahead as a guy named Dwight picked me up and took me to the park office. Their secretary, Debbie, put me to work inventorying t-shirts, paying me in peanut butter crackers and homemade lasagna. A few hours later, Bucket’s father picked me up after driving three and a half hours across the nothingness that is western Pennsylvania. Neither one of us had ever met one another and to him I was a stranger, yet he showed me such incredible kindness when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. That evening we met back up with Jake and Buckets, went out to dinner, and said goodbye. For over two months the three of us hadn’t been more than a half mile from one another and now I was departing, unsure when or if I would return.
As Mr. Gersie, Mikey Bucket’s father, drove through the night, the woodlands gave way to the Philadelphia suburbs after a while we were in the heart of a city that went on and on for miles and miles. I saw the steps Rocky that ran up outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, crossed the Schuylkill River, and drove alongside the Delaware. I saw the Walt Whitman and Betsy Ross bridges as well as Broad Street where the Phillies and the Eagles play. That morning I had woken up on the Appalachian Trail and here I was cruising through one of the largest cities in America.
For two days I stayed with Mr. Gersie at the George School, a Quaker school just outside of Philadelphia and during that time I could not believe the astonishing amount of compassion and benevolence the entire community showed me. They fed me, gave me crutches, and showed genuine interest and concern for my experiences on the Appalachian Trail. In addition, I could not imagine a more beautiful place to begin my recuperation. Their campus is strewn with stunning buildings, large, well-groomed fields, and massive oak trees where the squirrels and birds play. I can’t express just how thankful I am for Mr. Gersie and the George School for the incredible hospitality they showed a demoralized and injured stranger who had found himself all alone many miles from home.
After going to the doctor and talking to my parents, we decided that I should take the train to Durham, where they live, so that I can take as much time as I need to completely heal up. This morning I began physical therapy at Duke University and was told that I would not be at my pre-injury level for at least four to eight weeks. I guess all I can do at this point to work as hard as I can in order to cut that time down. Nothing would make me happier than to rejoin Jake and Buckets and to finish the Trail with them, even if it wouldn’t be as a thru-hike. I am, however, unsure about that possibility. What I am sure of is that I have not quit yet and I view this time away from the A.T. as simply part of my journey.
Jake and I set out on our thru-hike to go on an adventure. We thought that by going out in to the wild lands of this country, we would somehow experience the thrill of exploration and discovery. I look back now and realize that true adventure does not simply lie within the mountains or the deep valleys where we found ourselves. Rather, genuine adventure is found when everything goes wrong and you stray from whatever plan or expectations you had. It occurs in times of sickness, injury, freezing rain, and knee-deep snow. Times when your very survival depends upon what solutions you can find from within yourself. You discover what your limits are and are constantly testing them, taking them further and further. This purest form of adventure is dangerous, reckless, and wild, however it is the only way to find the true strengths and weaknesses within us all.
Since I am unsure about the possibility of when I will return to the Trail, I did not know what I would use this blog for in the future. So, at the suggestion of a few friends, I’ll be using this website to update Jake and Bucket’s progress, my progress with physical therapy, and to fill in the countless gaps in the story that I have yet to write down. Thank you all for your incredible kindness, support, and compassion that you have shown my brother and I as we made our way across America. Jake and Mikey Buckets are still out there hiking, getting nearer and nearer to New Jersey, and I’m sure they would greatly appreciate any encouragement you could send to them. Our story is far from over and, in many ways, has just barely begun. Once again, thank you all for everything and please check in every now and then for updates on our progress.