The Longest Mile

Their stories are filled with the stuff of dramatic films; mine explosions, moonshine, large families, youthful adventures and unfortunately young deaths.

The ultimate goal, for many of us, is to live a life without regrets. Too often, we look back and say things like "I wish I would've taken a year after college to travel Europe", or "I wish I would've had the courage to leave that job and pursue my dream". In some cases, maybe we should've held onto that day job. We all have them, whether we want to admit it or not, we've done or said something we wish we could take back. In my case, I wish I would've taken more time and effort to truly get to know my grandparents.

My parents moved away from Pittsburgh just before I was born, mostly to avoid lives spent working in steel mills. I'm thankful they did, but one of the results of the move was that I would only see my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on major holidays once or twice a year. The things I hear from my parents point to inspiring stories and incredible lives lived by their elders. For example, my grandmother lived through the depression with immigrant parents that didn't speak English, raised two daughters by herself and worked two jobs while taking care of her developmentally disabled sister, all with crippling rheumatoid arthritis that bent her fingers into terribly deformed, nearly unusable shapes. She was apparently a very talented artist before her hands betrayed her, but even in old age her handwriting was incredibly elegant, her baked goods second to none. She was most famous, however, for having the police respond to her home after an attack on a neighbor with a gas-powered line trimmer because he was mowing too close to her yard. An interesting life makes for an interesting person, and she was definitely no exception in that department. These are all just stories though, and ones that will probably be lost forever among my generation. I made a halfhearted attempt to stay in touch with her before she passed away that was limited to the usual conversations. "How's school?" "It's fine, how's the weather up there?" Etcetera.

It's a common story, but one that I'm attempting to somewhat make up for while I can. While all my grandparents have long since passed away, my wife is lucky enough to have known even her great-grandparents very well. Her mother's parents (affectionately referred to as "Nana" and "Pop" by the rest of the family) live just down the road from us, and I've had the pleasure of getting to know them quite well over the fifteen years we've been together, so much so that I can easily say that I know them far better than any of my own relatives. Their lives are no exception to the rule that hardship creates remarkable human beings, having been born and raised in the coal mining towns of Southern Ohio during the depression. Their stories are filled with the stuff of dramatic films; mine explosions, moonshine, large families, youthful adventures and unfortunately young deaths. Theirs is a generation that found reward in hard work, God, and family.

My anxiety built as I tried to think of where I went wrong. Maybe that last left should’ve been a right? Spending the night in the woods wasn’t part of the plan.

One of the unfortunate results of a life spent hard at work, however, is a lack of frivolous things like recreation and free time. In Pop's words, "The problem with being too busy with work is that you can lose track of everything going on around you." He hadn't even heard of the Appalachian Trail until the 1990's after he finally retired, his life was busy spent providing for his family and attempting to ensure that poverty wasn't part of their life experience. I'm honored to have been accepted as part of this family, and no one loves to hear my stories of time spent on the trail more than Pop. I'm sure to take many pictures, because I know when I get home, the first thing Pop will ask for is a slide show with accompanying commentary on my many misadventures. He loves hearing my stories as much as I love hearing his, and I know he would love nothing more than to be able to experience them alongside me. I wish he could join me as well, but at eighty-two years of age and with good health that comes and goes, post-quadruple-bypass, his days of long-distance hiking and sleeping outside for weeks on end are most likely behind him. Just as I live through his life experiences, he lives through mine.

As I said, though, I'm attempting to right some of the wrongs of my past, so I devised a plan to get Pop on the trail he so longed to see. Living in North Georgia, Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, is only a matter of a short drive away. We could drive up to the parking lot, take the one-mile hike to the summit, and he could see firsthand one of the most important places in the United States long-trail system. He could sign the log book, see the first official white blaze of the A.T., and even check out the shelter where countless hikers spend their first anxious night on the trail. We packed our lunches and hit the road, at last I was taking the initiative to make my plan a reality. As always though, the plan and the reality are two very different things.

"Pop" - c.1956, Japan

In this age of budget cuts for our outdoor resources, finding the Springer Mountain parking lot among an unsigned web of forest roads is a bit more difficult than it should be. After a solid month of rain, the added challenge of traversing muddy wilderness roads that end in impassable river crossings only added to the difficulty. We finally found our way to the parking lot after an hour-long detour around the mountain, and wasted no time getting on the trail. We spent the day at the summit taking in what we could of the Appalachian Trail experience, even watching a pair of Southbound thru-hikers finish the trail amongst celebratory family and friends. Pop signed the log book to make it official before we apprehensively made our way back to the truck, hoping to have better luck finding our way home. After another hour of erroneous navigation, lost again and losing faith that we would ever find another paved road, Pop voiced his concern that daylight was quickly fading. My anxiety built as I tried to think of where I went wrong. Maybe that last left should've been a right? Spending the night in the woods wasn't part of the plan. Thankfully we received directions from a local resident who was busy helping a group of disoriented Army Rangers find their way, and escaped the woods just before darkness set in. I continually apologized for my bumbling navigation, and promised that any future trips would include nothing but paved roads and GPS directions. I worried, though, that in my hurry to create a memorable experience, I had instead spent a day distressing my wife's grandfather.

The next day, I received a text from my wife's mother. Pop had spent the morning telling everyone how much fun he had, and what a great adventure it was getting lost in the woods. I went through the pictures I hastily snapped throughout our day together and found one of Pop signing the trail register. Zooming in on his writing revealed the quote: "First time on the Appalachian Trail, great walk. Be back soon, maybe in another lifetime."