Almost two months had ticked by since we’d watched my son and his three buddies disappear over the first lip of the trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia—the official start of the Appalachian Trail—the first steps that would pile one upon the other, until they tallied 2,189.2 miles.
The meticulous multiple-paged agenda my son put together for us—its neat rows marking distances from Springer to his next stop with notes about mailed food drops and ETAs—sat on the credenza in our apartment. Under it, a four-foot long laminated map of the trail acted as a table runner. Neon sticker dots sat silent in a plastic holder, waiting to be placed next to each stop over the next six-plus months.
We were as new and green as the spring leaves he’d be passing in the Shenandoah Valley. The agenda would become our anchor, but there were things even it didn’t know. Like that mail drops would need to be light, as weight is the ultimate arbiter of what goes into the backpack and anything too heavy is left in hiker boxes for those who come behind. The agenda couldn’t predict the lush addictiveness of double zeros (whole days off) and their lesser siblings, nearos (half days off). The agenda knew nothing of the allure (or cost) of a hot meal after two weeks of protein bars, Fritos and beef jerky. Or a room with a bed and accompanying shower. Even in a flea bitten hotel—a purchased delight.
These things he’d learn, as would we. In the meantime the agenda was all we had to give comfort on those nights when ‘missing’ and ‘not knowing’ ball up in your throat and refuse to be swallowed.
If your child goes away to college or to camp, even if he’s gone a really long time, you don’t lose touch. Cell phones, the internet—there’s an instant connection available, all the time. But if he goes into the wilderness, communication is at the mercy of fickle cell towers in areas remote and unknown. The postal service offers the one steady option.
Which is why we decided to meet up with him for a few brief hours on Mother’s Day, at a place so deep in western Virginia it didn’t even appear on a map. Trying to coordinate with a thru hiker is tricky business. Unlike older hikers (read: mature adults with something to prove) younger thru hikers leave the stress of adhering to schedules at home along with their loved ones. I’m told the trail coaxes them to rethink initial goals and cajoles them into allowing the adventure to unfold, rather than imposing their own preconceptions on it.
An older hiker at the austere motel where we stayed in the closest town to our destination gave us directions to what would prove to be nothing more than an intersection. “When you see a gravel road turn out onto the route, you’re there.”
Laden with Cokes (“ice cold, please”), sandwiches, a bucket of fried chicken, an extra value bag of salt and vinegar chips, a six-pack of cheap beer—and a wing and a prayer—we laid rubber to find our son and hug him for the first time in 47 days. There at mile marker 16, a gravel road peeked out from under a canopy of hardwoods. Adjacent to it: a patch of grass and a scrawny version of our son’s friend Pete, waving his arms and smiling widely.
As we unloaded the trunk of goodies, as if on cue, another inordinately thin person took shape between the trees. Nate?
At least 30 pounds lighter, he was recognizable only by his trademark smile. I grabbed him. And felt the ribs under his sweat-soaked shirt. While the mother in me wanted to hug him for hours, my nose refused. His atrocious body smell caused my husband to take several large steps back. We sat on the hot grass for several hours, mesmerized, as a National Geographic story unfolded before us.
We’d meet up with him two more times before he finished the trail one month later than the agenda assured us. By then, the map on the credenza was covered in orange, pink and green dots along with the dog-eared agenda, scrawled over with notes—a mother’s diary of her son’s 204 days in the woods.