Oaks and Death

The Keffer Oak, estimated to be three hundred years old, is the second largest oak on the Appalachian Trail. The Dover Oak, in New York is slightly larger. I mention these landmarks precisely because they are far more significant than mere landmarks. They are actual ancient living beings! These trees have been alive since before George Washington was a gleam in his mother’s eye. I have stood witness to these trees on my long hikes on the Appalachian Trail. I saw both the Keffer and Dover Oaks in 2011 and saw the Keffer again in 2014. I’d like to see them a few times more before I pass on, which brings me to my subject: Death.

Under Keffer 2011

Baltimore Jack died this week, an eight time thru hiker and trail angel. I only ever met him briefly, but the man had a reputation and an influence on the Appalachian Trail. The trail community lost Curtis from Standing Bear Farm months ago. A morbid search of trail community postings reveal, in any year, deaths in the extended family of the trail community. I met Buffalo Bobby in Andover, Maine in 2011. A vibrant, spiritual man in his early sixties, he would die within weeks, twenty miles short of Katahdin on his third thru hike. AT Journeys honored him with a half page memorial. Around Christmas that year, a 2011 thru hiker, a beloved friend of many hikers I know, John f’n Wayne died in a climbing accident in the prime of his life. What is important to note here, is how each of these losses did not pass without notice and genuine mournful expression in some rhizome of the trail community. There’s real love among hikers, a web of affections that provides a depth and meaning to mortal experience.

Triton at Keffer 14

An oak in my back yard was struck down by high winds recently. When we bought the house I imagined that oak living for three hundred years like the Keffer and Dover Oaks. Maybe it was seventy years old. The house was built just after World War Two. I felt sad for days afterward. I thought about the thousands of downed trees I saw on the Appalachian Trail. I understand and abide the way of nature. New things are already growing where the old passed away. Nature seems utterly indifferent to what seems fair to people. Oaks seem indifferent to everything except the light, even the cruelty of the saw. So thick and with branches in twisted lobes like neurons of a great brain, such a great sprawl of wood and vegetation responds to light in almost unnoticed slow motion. I watched my oak too long. When it died, I remembered that even great things die. And life goes on.

Hikers think of the Appalachian Trail so much in topographical and geological terms for practical reasons. Every day hiking the trail necessitates a sweaty meditation in footing, distance, gain, and elevation. Long distance hikers measure their life in gaps and summits. The Keffer and Dover oaks will not last forever, and these fellow mortals provide another scale by which to perceive mortality. I can not fully tell you the comfort I feel thinking how the Keffer and Dover oaks will probably outlast me– and that the mountains most certainly will.

Keffer Oak 2014

Still, we humans must express our existential angst and mourn the deceased. A bit north of the Keffer Oak is Sarver Hollow shelter, which many pass up because it sits far off trail and down hill. There is a plaque on that beautiful shelter, dedicated in 2001 with a memorial for Scott Marshall Riddick, a special education teacher and dedicated trail volunteer who died of a heart attack in his thirties. There is a lesser known quote of the writer Jack Kerouac on the plaque: “While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.” I enjoyed two prefect weather nights with good company in two different years at that shelter. I often think of the Kerouac quote.

Riddick Memorial

So what can I tell you? Don’t die today if you can help it. Pour out a libation for your dead. Go take a hike. Take a few pictures. You can post them on a blog.

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Comments 3

  • Don McHale : May 16th

    Very well prose.

  • Derry Riddick : Dec 15th

    Dear Joe,
    Thanks for the sweet tribute to my son, Scott, who died of a heart attack 18 years ago. He would have been 52 years old Saturday, and this time of the year is especially hard for us. He so loved the Appalachian Trail and I know his spirit happily resides (with Kerouac’s) in that Sarver Hollow shelter. So kind of you to mention his name.
    Derry Riddick

    • Joe Schmidt : Dec 15th

      Derry, thank you for the kind words. My thoughts and prayers and with your family today.


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