Trip Reflection by Mike Gowen

I loaded up in the morning hours of May 31st. Got a late start, not highly unusual for me. I was on my way to an adventure that, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought enough about. That is actually how I wanted it. A year before I received an email from Dr. Jacqui Lowman (Dr. J). She had a dream of hiking (in her case recruiting teams to carry her on the hike) the Appalachian Trail (AT). After numerous conversations & correspondences, a plan to help her achieve that goal had come to fruition. Five amazing human beings and I were about to undertake a not-so-simple “walk in the woods.” I also need to include Saint (Truffles). Truffles is Dr. J’s service dog. She is pretty amazing and having an animal companion on the trip saved me from missing my four leggeds too terribly.

I arrived in Waynesboro, VA, in the early morning hours of June 1st, slept in the bed of my truck for a few hours and woke up to start this adventure. Prior to the trip, I knew Nicola (Rocky) who is a dedicated and enthusiastic student in our program. We’ve become friends through numerous rock climbing trips to southern Illinois. The rest of our group I would meet that morning including Dr. J. There was Brian (Leg Man) who was Nicola’s friend from New Jersey. I’m pretty sure she promised him ice cream or something. Sierra (Zen) was an Adventure Therapy/Education major from Unity College in Maine who had met Dr. J when she spoke at Unity the previous fall and signed on to be her intern and a member of this trip. Hopper (Hopper) was the glue, grease and duct tape of our team. She had met Dr. J at the ALDHA Gathering the previous October, been a major part of preparations for Dr. J’s hikes and already done a week on the trail with a group from Clemson who carried Dr. J. Did I mention that she has probably 10s of thousands of trail miles under her belt? I also can’t leave out Steve (Fescue) who would be our driver, water boy and the comedian of our trip. So Fescue, Hopper and I were off to retrieve Dr. J and Truffles. We arrived at her hotel, loaded up and headed back to the campground. How in the hell will we carry all of this on our backs? We shook down all of our gear. Because two on the trip wouldn’t be able to carry a pack (Dr. J would be in a pack & one person would be carrying the JacPac) shake down was a little more complicated than what I’m accustomed to. With that finished it was time to do a trial run of switching in and out of the JacPac while keeping ourselves and Dr. J safe. It took all of us to do this smoothly (which we didn’t do that first day). It caused a bit of anxiety for me. We were responsible for her safety and after this practice we wouldn’t be on a flat, grassy surface. “Oh shit!” were the words that ran through my mind when I first carried her. I knew this would be physically challenging (not that knowing that motivated me to do any training), but the responsibility for her safety on the trail entered the front of my mind. Well, we sort of got the hang of it and we were off. Our hike would start at Rockfish Gap where the AT enters Shenandoah National Park. Did I tell you how beautiful the state of Virginia is? Well, it is stunning.

We were off. I went first. That first uphill crushed me. My legs burned. My lungs heaved. Ten minutes? Ten days? “Oh shit!” again. So let me explain. Four of us would take 10 minute turns carrying Dr. J., all working together to make the switches from person to person safe. The switches didn’t always take place on flat, smooth surfaces. So we were off. I can’t be certain, but I think the rest of the group might have questioned their sanity as well on that first day. The thing about this trip that would stand out for the rest of the time is how incredibly inspiring human beings and wilderness can be. I witnessed amazing resilience during times of physical exhaustion, compassion and empathy when nerves were frayed, and the immense wonder and beauty of the natural world. We made about 5.5 miles that first day. We did it. No one died. We were dog tired. As an agnostic, I feel that this adventure has come to represent my church. The temple is wilderness. The fellowship comes from sharing the wilderness and adventure with folks who push past what is thought to be “normal” and explore this wilderness. This journey would become a spiritual one for me.

Getting into the routine didn’t take terribly long. We fell into the certain duties that suited us and helped with any of the others. So up early, breakfast, walk Truffles, morning duties, load up and hike. We started to get the rhythm of the trail. I didn’t say it got easier. I said we started to get the rhythm. We worked hard, but we had the fellowship of one another and the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. Add to that the inspirational folks who are on the trail and you have an experience of a lifetime. We met thru hikers, section hikers, family picnickers, etc. The way it went was fairly similar. They would see us coming, smile, exchange pleasantries and then get wide-eyed and light up when they realized what the heck we were doing. Some would make comments “ nice view,” “that’s quite a pack,” etc. Many were extremely curious, but mostly hesitant to ask very many questions. You could tell they were trying to figure out how this crew fit together, what exactly we were doing and why the heck anyone would want to do it. Being able to share Dr. J’s story and journey with others was my favorite part. We were normal, average (only speaking for myself here) people doing something truly amazing. That was Dr. J’s ultimate vision: to bring a group of human beings together through this adventure to grow and thrive in ways they might not have thought possible. That certainly occurred.

So, I decided early on not to keep a journal. My rationale was that I didn’t want to get caught up in the minutia (daily mileage, specific info., etc.). I wanted the whole trip to become one experience as a whole instead of daily experiences. It would also allow the special moments to stand out instead of becoming the same as the other notes I jotted down daily. I think it worked. I’ll share with you some of the special memories that stand out and then I’ll share my “take aways” from this journey.

First of all, the special memories are of the inspiring humans on our team. They chose to help another person achieve something through selfless dedication. That to me is as inspiring as anything on this planet. Zen, Leg Man and Rocky are all in their early twenties. All are just beginning their life journeys. They took 12 days out of their summer vacation to sweat, suffer and succeed to help another human. These selfless compassionate “kids” left me with renewed hope for humankind. Zen is as thoughtful as the day is long. He often reminded me that I move at a fast pace and miss a lot of little wonders in my haste. Rocky showed a quiet strength and resilience, laughing off some of the most grueling 10 minute segments of the whole hike. Leg Man overcame early physical injuries to show that perseverance can overcome even the most difficult of situations. Hopper was the tough, but funny and lovable person who got things done. She was the trail expert. At times I thought she might have known more than anyone about the trail. Fescue was the humor for me. He was wryly funny and kept me laughing most of the time. Dr. J is a lady who has faced many obstacles in her life, physical and otherwise, but dared to dream dreams that no one would have dreamed for her. She has achieved things in her own way and on her own terms. She shares the insights she has earned the hard way so that others might dream a dream that only they believe in and can accomplish. Hearing those insights in my right ear was as sweet as any song. It was indeed the spoken song of limitless possibilities. I should also add that we shared some common musical interests (John Hartford, the Grateful Dead and several others). We would come to share more songs. (I had her singing Todd Snider’s Beer Run on the second day!) We might not have hit any notes, but the notes sure hit me as the miles and minutes passed.

Then there were the folks with whom we crossed paths (err…trails). There were three middle aged not-in-the-best-of-shape men who were in their seventh year of section hiking. You could tell the depth of their friendship. You could see the difficulty the physical endeavor had for them. But most of all you could see their commitment to living: living, not just being alive. I’m sure they made it to Big Meadows and had the fried chicken. The two ladies whom we saw several days in a row. They were from Iowa. They didn’t look like hikers. Oh how they hiked though. They kept going and going: truly inspiring because of the glow they had about them. They had embraced the suck with a joy that was contagious. The sisterhood we met on the last day. Three generations of women who had been sharing the trail with one another and their daughters for the last ten years. The gentleman from Memphis whose enthusiasm for what we were doing and his curiosity for how we were doing it still makes me smile. I hope to see his video interview of us someday. There were many others with whom we shared lunchtime or water or a short conversation. They had found the magic and mystery of wild places and the fellowship of the people who explore them. They always made me smile and gave me hope in what sometimes seems like a hopeless world. Inspiration is everywhere if you look at it right.

The Appalachian Mountains, Shenandoah National Park and the state of Virginia were an inspiration all its own. From the views around every corner of the grandfather mountains of Appalachia to the tunnels of fragrant Mountain Laurel to the intricate beauty of the tiniest of wildflowers, I realized why I seek these places. It is to feel small, to become egoless, to rejoice in the mystery and to know that not knowing where it all comes from is enough. It is okay to not have answers. Actually, a lot of times I find myself wishing a lot fewer people had a lot fewer answers than they think they do. When you stand at the summit of Black Rock on Sunday morning, when you see the sunset over the mountains from Loft Mountain, when you camp in a cloud it is okay to not know exactly how you ended up in this spot with these people and just be thankful. I left this trip with more gratitude and inspiration than I could have ever imagined. I will do this again. I hope some of you will join us next time.

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” -Rachel Carson

“Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and peace will be with you always.” Anonymous

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