It was just a dream…



It was just a dream. No, not even a dream. Just a spark of a notion. I’m not sure where it came from. I guess, in part, it was a longing born of desperation. Josiah was now in high school. Graduation, with whatever that entailed, loomed ominously on the horizon. I’d become acutely and painfully aware of the passage of time and like a lot of dads, I imagine, wanted to carpe’ the remaining diems we would share together before he launched out in pursuit of his own dreams.

The idea was insane, really. Though, as a family, we’d spent many a night on the banks of the Chattooga and Chauga rivers, the idea of strapping 30 pounds of gear on my back and taking a walk had never even entered my mind as something remotely appealing. But that niggling spark wouldn’t leave me alone. So when Dana, Jo and I happened across the old stone building in Blairsville, Georgia I was unprepared for the way the tinder would ignite as wind blew across that spark of a notion.

Swinging aside the old wooden door, (not unlike Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) my senses were awakened by air rife with the smell of leather and gear, the frenetic motion of an outfitter in peak season and the almost tangible excitement that swirled like an enchantment in the electrified atmosphere populated by that rare breed of creature, the Thru-hiker. It was magic. I was under it’s spell. I wandered, dream-like, through the old store and ended up, somehow, at the back counter. A voice, “Hey man, can I help you?” The eyes of the forty-ish, unshaven, slightly rotund guy behind the counter sparkled behind John Lennon spectacles with the light and wonder of a little boy. If there were such things as “old souls” I’d encountered a young one. I struggled to push out the words but the spark wouldn’t be ignored, “I…it’s kinda crazy but…my boy is graduating in a couple of years and I…I wanna hike the Appalachian Trail with him.” This really was crazy as I had somehow, for all of my 42 years, remained oblivious to the trails 2,175 mile existence. After a whisper of a silence he looked directly at me, smiling, seemingly at the spark within me and said something like, “That’s not crazy at all. I’ve thru-hiked it seven times myself.” I imagine my jaw became unhinged as he introduced himself as “Sunshine” (at least that’s the way I remember it). He spent the next half-hour or so encouraging me to “Just get out there and start walking.” He scribbled down several websites he thought would be of help and as I walked out the door I knew that his impish grin and infectious passion had ignited that spark into a flame. The chill October air swept across my face and I turned to see a mischievous smile plastered on Dana’s. “Guess where I just was.” I shrugged. “On the Appalachian Trail.” “Uh-uh!” Jo and I took off up the stairs, ran up the hill behind the building and saw for ourselves the white blazes marking the old footpath. We ran ahead, kicking up in our wake the red and yellow, orange and brown leaves that blanketed the trail. After traveling maybe a half mile or so we stopped to catch our breath, imbibing the brisk, earthy, intoxicating mountain air. “Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Let’s keep going.” God, I wish we had.

We didn’t leave the mortgage for the bank to contend with. We didn’t walk away from our jobs, commitments, obligations and responsibilities (though my heart screamed that was the only reasonable thing to do). We did, however, start to walk and to dream. The forest became, for me, a sanctuary; the AT an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on…especially narratives. I read of real-life characters like Earl Schaffer, AWOL, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Warren Doyle (who’s hiked it 16 times!), Granny Gatewood, Bill Bryson and Katz, Future-man and Apple-Jack. Nearly mythical creatures such as Bombadil and Baltimore Jack, a hard-nosed, hard-drinking veteran of the AT infamous in his distaste for Bill Bryson, evidenced by his t-shirt that reads “Bill Bryson is a pansy.” Honestly, how much of what is told of Jack is true and how much is legend may never be known. But we didn’t just read, we grabbed every available moment to actually walk the AT, overnighting when we could, day-hiking when we couldn’t. Every time we passed by that outfitter, which we learned was called Mountain Crossings we’d stop in and say hi to the proprietor, Winton Porter and his crew. Never again did I see “Sunshine”. I guess it never occurred to ask what had happened to him.

One day last winter, Chester (aka Scat, aka Forest Dump) and I spent a frigid night on Blood Mountain after trekking through snow drifts nearly three feet deep in places. We rose early and began our slippery, ice-covered descent into Neel’s Gap. Despite my lack of sleep I felt like a kid at Christmas. I’d watched the sun set from Blood and was about to introduce one of my best friends to Mountain Crossings, the catalyst for my obsession. Once again, as I had dozens of times since that fateful day, I swung open the old wooden door. Always we’re greeted by the smiling faces of the staff, often Winton himself. Today, however, was different.

There, standing before me was…Sunshine?! What was his name? My mouth fell open. I stammered, “It’s you!” “You did this!” Grinning, he struggled to make sense of my jabbering. “I mean, you’re the one that started all this…this hiking thing.” Funny thing is, he looked at me as if he knew me as well. With both my hands clasped around his in gratitude, I just asked, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jack.” I looked at him quizzically, “Jack?” He elaborated, “Baltimore Jack.” “Whuh?! You…you’re…THE Baltimore Jack?” “Pretty sure. Yeah.” At this point he removed a well-worn Zippo from his pocket as ID. He held it up for me to see. I was a little too dumbfounded to focus but I did read the words, “Baltimore Jack.” I hugged him. (I don’t think anyone had ever done that to him before. He handled it pretty well, considering.) I reminded him of how we’d met and thanked him for fanning that spark into flame. We talked like old friends for a half an hour or so when Dana walked up. I introduced him, to her surprise, as the guy who’d started all of this and the legendary Baltimore Jack. Her jaw dropped. “No way!” He went for his lighter again. We ended up exchanging mutual invitations, him to South Carolina (Other than Florida, the only state he’s never visited) and us to Vermont. Dana said to him, “Don’t tease me. We’ll come.” He assured her the invitation was genuine. Maybe we’ll just take him up on that one day. As we headed back down the mountain towards home, I started laughing hysterically as I recalled that on our first meeting I had reached for a copy of Bryson’s “Walk In the Woods” and Jack had taken it away from me and put it back on the shelf saying, “You don’t want that.” He really does hate that guy!

Just over 2 hours south of The Shire (The foothills of South Carolina) lies this gateway to a land of myth and magic, mystery and adventure where tales abound and many more are waiting to be written. How it is that I grew to be in my 40’s before discovering this land is a mystery in itself. Perhaps I was not so different from the Hobbit himself, grown fat and content with my pipe-weed, seed-cakes and tea. For adventures are “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.” But thankfully, not long ago, as it happens, a mysterious bearded man placed a queer mark on the door of my hobbit hole and Adventure was unleashed upon my mundane little life. I’ve yet to walk The Trail from end to end, but that niggling spark became a flame, the flame burns stronger still, and like Bilbo I’ve tasted of adventures…nasty things. Unlike Bilbo, I’ve been swept up in their enchantment and one day soon I’ll leave Springer Mountain for Neel’s Gap. I’ll swing open that old wooden door once again, step back into the woods and walk till I see Katahdin. Because, you know…it was just a dream, really. No, not even a dream. Just a spark…

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien

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