I’m Honoring My Late Father with My 2022 Thru-Hike—But I’m Quite Sure He Knows This
Who gave you the hiking bug? Most of you reading this were, at some point in your life, brought to the mountains and shown a new world. Maybe you were introduced by a family member or a friend or a partner. I was a scrawny blonde five-year-old introduced by my dad. He’s one of the reasons I’m hiking the AT this year.
A man who loved the mountains.
My father was generally an introvert, except when it came to certain topics. The subject of mountains, and everything about them, would bring out his voice, his feelings, his very soul. Upon reaching a beautiful vista he’d exude a sense of overwhelming awe. This never diminished for as long as I knew him.
Incredibly proud of the Morrison clan’s heritage, he often wore Scottish hats, often a Glengarry. On the trail, when he was particularly inspired by his surroundings, he’d break into a few lines of “Loch Lomond:”
Ye’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
His life ended there many years ago.
At home, my father did not seek to engage me in long conversations. But in the mountains, he’d open up, the joy of the open spaces unearthing his heartfelt thoughts. A man of age 40 when I was born, he never held back in telling me bluntly that he’d likely die early. Heart attacks had claimed his father and grandfather before the age of fifty. He’d suffer his own first heart attack, a mild one, at 53. And he’d tell me openly that he didn’t want to wither away in a nursing home – he’d rather die on a mountain when his time came.
So with this backdrop, I was not shocked, as a fresh college graduate in 1987, to hear that my father had died suddenly. Or that it happened in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which he loved so deeply. He’d been hiking Franconia Ridge with friends and had developed chest pains. After reaching Greenleaf Hut, he went into cardiac arrest and passed away before help arrived.
My AT epiphany – not solely my own?
In an earlier post, I shared how the 2020 pandemic onset pushed me to low-elevation springtime hiking. It was on one of these hikes that I had my epiphany to target 2022 for my AT thru-hike. But I left out some details of that day, and this is where my AT story intersects with my dad.
On that bright May 2020 day, I was descending Mount Sunapee to finish up a day hike. I took on numerous day hikes in the early pandemic timeframe; it had become my routine. I wasn’t remotely considering anything more ambitious. But as I rested at a trail junction with a ridge path that headed to the next mountain, the thought hit me strongly that now was the time to plan my Appalachian Trail hike. I remember taking a few steps down the unknown trail, peering around the first bend. I even imagined white blazes on the trees.
The idea percolated excitedly in my head during the rest of my descent that day. By the time I’d completed the hour-plus car ride home, I’d already run through this mental gauntlet:
- Could I actually hike the entire Appalachian Trail?
- I think I can do it – I’m in good physical shape now. But that might not be the case in a few years.
- I will plan to thru-hike the AT in 2022. Let’s get started!
Later that evening at home, my sister would send me a stunning text message: “Hi – did you realize that today would have been Dad’s birthday?” I hadn’t, but I smiled at the thought that my dad was giving out gifts that day. Thanks, Dad.
Exactly one year later – the birds remind me.
Fast forward to 2021, and I’m in the midst of my second AT prep hike. Two weeks earlier I awoke in my hammock to the wonderful music of the woodland birds in the Berkshires. One of the most captivating of those serenades is that of the veery. A spiraling, ethereal song that I’d describe as a futuristic pan flute solo, it’s magical to hear in the forest. But the bird tends to be difficult to see, and upon hearing the call on the trail I decided to stop and locate the singer. After about five nearly motionless minutes, I’d captured both the song and the bird sighting on my phone.
Back at home, I opened up my old National Audobon Society Field Guide to record the date and location of my veery sighting. As I scrawled “5/23/2021” in the margin, I realized sheepishly that this special moment had also occurred on my Dad’s birthday. I certainly hadn’t forgotten that “AT Epiphany” day exactly one year earlier, but there was one more reminder if I had. I looked down at the opposing page in my field guide, and next to the Gray-cheeked Thrush entry was written “Mt Sunapee, NH 5/23/2020”. Thanks again, Dad.
So I’m taking the “High Road” in his honor.
So now, just weeks from the start of my AT flip-flop hike, I know I’ll be hiking for him and with him. You see, although my father loved the mountains, he never got a chance to hike the Appalachian Trail. We never even climbed Maine’s Mt Katahdin. And – although he spoke of it often – he also never got to see his ancestors’ home in Scotland. In May 2018, I ventured to Scotland’s Isle of Lewis to view what he never got a chance to. I certainly felt he accompanied me on my windy walk to the ruins of Dun Eistean, the historic stronghold of the Morrison clan.
In the same way, I feel that he’ll accompany me on my upcoming AT journey. And although I recognize that trail names are typically donned by your fellow thru-hikers, I’ll start as “High Road” in honor of my dad’s favorite trail song. If the trail provides me with a new one, I’ll accept it willingly.
The journey forward will not (really) be solo.
I don’t know if my emotions will overwhelm me at certain points in this long journey. I recall that when I set foot on the Morrison castle site in Scotland I started to sob uncontrollably. Tears of joy for being a proxy there for my dad. Will that happen on Carter Dome, my father’s final New Hampshire 4000-footer? On Mt Katahdin, a mountain he dreamed about climbing? At Springer Mountain, the ultimate finish of my flip-flop?
Traversing the AT on Franconia Ridge, I’ll be retracing his final earthly steps and passing a mere mile from the site of his death. But unless I’m in need of shelter or water, I don’t foresee taking that side trip. Because much like my dad’s prim cemetery plot that I rarely visit, I know he’s not there. He’ll be on the mountain trails with me, expressing wonder at each new view. I’m excited to start our journey!
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