Day 61: Shock and Comfort
The Text No One Wants
“Love you. Please contact me asap. Sad news. I’m going to tell you via text because I don’t want you to think it’s the kids or anything. I’m so sorry to tell you that your brother died in his sleep last night.”
When I reached the top of the 3,700-foot climb up Bluff Mountain from the James River and turned on my phone, this text from Northstar popped up. I had put my phone in airplane mode when I started hiking because I had forgotten to charge it overnight.
I’d climbed well, despite a migraine and realizing half-way up that I’d forgotten Gus’ dog chow and water, which put us both on reduced rations for the day. Suddenly, none of that mattered.
My brother was only 66. He had three great kids, seven grandkids, and had been married to his college sweetheart for 44 years. A few years ago, he’d left a corporate job to start his own successful consulting business. His firm was just taking off.
Five days ago, we’d planned to meet up near Roanoke, but the combination of his family and work obligations and my long day along the closed Blue Ridge Parkway put a stop to that. No matter, we’d catch up at his place in Indianapolis on our drive back to Arizona in the fall. We had plenty of time.
Except that we didn’t.
Hiking in a Daze
I only vaguely remember my hike after that. Aside from a nasty pond Gus found by a shelter and returned from caked in reeking mud I smelled all afternoon, it all went by in a blur. I saw some ridgetop views, lovely green groves, mountain streams, a dozen deer, and some lovely flowers, but I forgot to photograph most of it.
Was this one of the “good days” on the AT that youthful hiker was enthused about yesterday?
In the early afternoon, I hiked up to the 800-mile marker. Two hikers my age sat there, digging a late lunch out of their bear cannisters. Three international hikers walked in just behind me (South Africa, Switzerland, and Quebec). We took the obligatory selfies by the pinecones that spelled out 800 and exchanged our trail names.
The two older hikers were named Jethro and Shazam. Shazam’s name got a laugh and the obvious follow-up question. No, he wasn’t named for the superhero or the musical act. He’d given up eating meat some years ago for health reasons and took the name Belteshazzar in honor of a Biblical character who’d done the same thing. Belteshazzar turned out to be too much of a mouthful for most hikers, who shortened it to Shazam.
If you want to kill a conversation in the modern world, just mention the Bible. After a second of awkward silence, I asked Shazam, “So…Daniel wasn’t an option?” Belteshazzar was the prophet Daniel’s Babylonian name (think Daniel and the Lion’s Den). Shazam and Jethro caught my eye and gave a little nod indicating that we each knew which team we played for.
Are You Having a Good Day?
Then one of the three internationals asked me if I was having a good day and I robotically started to answer, “Yes, it’s a …” and then stopped myself. “No.” I said, “This not a good day. It’s an awful day. I just found out my brother died unexpectedly early this morning.”
Everyone offered their condolences and sympathetically asked the right kinds of heartfelt questions. It felt cathartic to talk to someone about it, though it hardly removed the pain. After a few minutes, the internationals walked on, and I followed them out a bit later.
After a short walk from the 800-mile spot, I arrived early at my pickup point, which turned out to be a sketchy gravel road by a wobbly wooden suspension foot bridge over the Pedlar River. I enticed Gus into the swimmable river with a game of fetch, hoping to remove a few layers of the smelly mud and some of the ticks he’d undoubtedly picked up today.
Then I leashed him up and took him back up to the road to dry off while we waited for Northstar. There was too much mud along the riverbank to let him roam unleashed.
Providence or Serendipity?
As we waited, the sky clouded over and began to drizzle. I got up to dig out my rain gear and saw Jethro and Shazam coming down the trail on their way north. Jethro saw me and came right over, saying he couldn’t get me out of his mind. His brother had died under similar circumstances a few years ago. Then he asked if I’d be willing to let them pray for me. Mind? I’d be honored and grateful.
We stood together, exchanged our “real” names, choked out prayers for Tim’s family and mine, and added a few drops of our own to the rain. Thankful for our “chance” meeting, we parted ways feeling comforted and encouraged.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me.
So, yes, youthful hiker, I had a bad day on the AT. But parts of it were very good.
- Start: James River Footbridge (Mile 787.3)
- End: Reservoir Road (Mile 802.3)
- Weather: Hazy, pleasant
- Earworm: Proud Mary
- Meditation: Ps. 23:4
- Plant of the Day: View-blocking trees on Big Rocky Row
- Best Thing: Jethro & Shazam
- Worst Thing: Loss of my only brother
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