How it Took Me Over 40 Years to Start the AT

I’ve had this dream a long time, over 40 years in fact.  I first learned about the Appalachian Trail because I hadn’t learned enough in school.  During summer vacation between the third and fourth grades my parents gently broke the news to me that I’d be seeing a tutor to make up for some poor grades.  I was surprised, not that I had poor grades, but that I had any grades at all.  No one explained the whole “you are graded” concept to me.  I thought it was just a place to hang out and hear stories, draw pictures, and play games involving letters and numbers.  What does this have to do with the AT?  One day my tutor had me read an article about the Appalachian Trail and an idea formed that never really left my mind.  I’d really like to find that article today.  I think it was a National Geographic World Magazine (for kids) circa 1977.  So, this is a nearly lifelong dream; call that reason number one.

Life Happens, in a Good Way

I never forgot about the AT but I did develop other loves and interests.  The common thread was that nearly everything I gravitated to was an outdoor activity.  Duluth, Minn., is an outdoor playground along the shore of Lake Superior.  I hiked, camped, canoed, skied, fished, and biked my way through life but one interest began to dominate: aviation.   I became inspired, or obsessed, by anything that flew and with the help of a few key mentors I focused my life toward the goal of flying.  That meant getting a college degree, so I could become an officer, so in turn become a pilot, and live what I hoped would be an exciting and challenging life.  Somehow that all happened and I completed Air Force pilot training, and made a career.  Along the way I married Brenda, the girl of my dreams, and we raised two boys into young men.  We were an active outdoor family, always traveled and camped, including some epic backpacking and hiking in the Sierra, Yosemite NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Grand Canyon NP, the Smokies, and Big Bend NP.  There wasn’t any time to thru-hike during these years but it was always in the back of my mind that I would when I retired. By 2010 I was on my last assignment in Pensacola Fla., and began to make plans.  Reason two: I’m at transition in life.

Life Happens, in a Bad Way

On Easter morning in 2011 Brenda woke me up to these words, “I have a lump.”  Tests led to a diagnosis, and the diagnosis led to treatments.  She completed multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation.  For a brief period in 2013 we thought we were in the clear. I did retire but remained in the same job, flying for the Air Force, but as a civilian pilot now.  We took a trip to northern Georgia and visited Amicalola Falls SP and Springer.  While there we took these pictures, and sitting on the rock designating the Southern Terminus of the AT I wrote:

“I’m only here for a visit but someday I’ll be back to start a long adventure.”

I’ll be back.

 

It seemed so close.  We had beaten cancer.  Brenda was behind me 100 percent to thru-hike the following year.  It was a return to happy times and optimism.  Just a few weeks later we found out her cancer had returned and spread.  Four years later she was gone.  Her fight was heroic and she never gave up.  I don’t want to relive it here but we were very open about the experience and together documented it on our CaringBridge site.  If you want to learn about a strong woman facing an impossible situation with incredible bravery and grace you can do that here.

Brenda and me at Amicalola Falls SP.

Devastated, but Life Must Go On

Big dreams die hard.  Brenda died six months ago to the day I’m typing this.  Since then I’ve downsized and moved back home to Duluth to be closer to our sons, family, and the place I truly love.  We talked about this, what I would do “after” many times over the years.  I’m not over it, I’m not just moving on.  There hasn’t been a day I don’t think about her.  But while it is getting easier I still have a long way to go.  I need a break from the intensive caregiving she required, and I was honored to provide, over the past extremely difficult years.  I need to heal and reflect.  I need to find out what is next for me.  I’ve walked an average of five miles a day every day since she passed.  When I’m outside and moving I feel the most normal.  That’s reason number three. I need time and space to heal, reflect, and hope.

I have many other reasons, goals, and expectations for my hike but these three are the foundation.  Fulfill a lifelong dream, mark a transition, and reflect on the past while contemplating the future.  The others will reveal themselves over time.  Thank you for reading and I sincerely invite you to follow along.

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Comments 35

  • Sierra Whisky : Feb 27th

    Hello Pete
    I’m sorry to read of your loss but I look forward to following along with you on what, I’m sure, will be a wonderful adventure.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you I’m excited to start the adventure

      Reply
  • Lenora : Feb 27th

    Hi Pete! I look forward to reading about your experiences on the AT, and wish you the best of luck on this next journey.

    Reply
  • Nike : Feb 27th

    Pete,

    I’m so happy you’re going to do this. You’re exactly where you need to be on your journey and I hope this brings you all the space for reflection, healing, and most of all hope. Remember that there is no “right” way to work through grief and loss and be gentle with yourself. Can’t to read your updates!

    Kim “Nike” Rigby

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you Nike, you are a example for me.

      Reply
  • Julie Rich : Feb 27th

    I can’t think of a better way to cherish Brenda’s memory. You amaze me, Pete! I am eager to follow your act 2.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thanks Julie!

      Reply
  • Laura Lyness : Feb 27th

    I am so excited for you and I can’t wait to follow your journey!

    Reply
  • michael sparks : Feb 27th

    I truly can relate as I lost my 20 year old daughter almost 10 years ago and I’m still learning to deal with the loss. I hope the time, beauty and serenity of the trail will give you some peace as you make your way through the loss of your wife. I’m leaving on my AT hike April 10, maybe we will run into each other along the trail. Take care.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you and I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll look for you, I start on March 14th but it is a long journey our paths could very well pass.

      Reply
  • Ian White : Feb 27th

    Hello Pete. Thanks for sharing. Sorry about your loss and I hope you can find more peace hiking the AT. 🙂

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thanks Ian, peace is out there.

      Reply
  • Debbie Sanspree : Feb 27th

    Brought tears to my eyes!!!! Such a wonderful story. Looking forward to more.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thanks Debbie, I hope I have a lot of good experiences to pass.

      Reply
  • Sarah Fredell : Feb 27th

    Thanks for letting us follow you on this incredible journey. The AT changes everyone who hikes it in many ways. I hope we can meet up with you and Dixie on your way through Virginia.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      I’d love that. I’m really looking forward to seeing old and new friends along the way.

      Reply
  • Mike Hagen : Feb 27th

    Can’t wait to live vicariously with you PETE on this journey. Maybe folks can meet you along the trail and spend a couple days walking along? Mike

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Absolutely, I’d love to meet you and others out there, bring dog treats!

      Reply
  • Bruce Sheffield : Feb 27th

    Beautiful story. Looking forward to hearing the Adventures that are ahead for you. Thanks for sharing your story. Enjoy all those beautiful sunrises and sunsets along your way. Take care.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      I will, thank you!

      Reply
  • Mike Rafferty : Feb 27th

    Pete, I think about you every day. You are a great person, spouse, father and officer. Good bless you and good luck! I hope this brings you closer to Brenda than ever and you recieve clarity in your journey.

    Mike Rafferty

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you brother!

      Reply
  • Monkey : Feb 28th

    Pete, I can’t wait to follow your journey. One day, I will thru hike but for now I section hike and I am super excited for you! Loved reading your story and wish you well on your journey.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you

      Reply
  • Victor : Mar 1st

    Thank you for sharing. I hope we cross paths on our journeys.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you, I hope we meet, I leave on 14 March

      Reply
  • Donna Campbell : Mar 1st

    First, my condolences to you for the loss of your wife. There is no pain like the loss of a love. It is always with us.
    Second, I’m excited for your hike! I’m hoping all goes well for you and that you endure to the end of this incredible journey; your dream of a lifetime.
    God bless and Godspeed.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 1st

      Thank you so much!

      Reply
  • Dennis Arthur : Mar 4th

    Wishing you peace on your journey northward. There’s a great book entitled “Hiking Through” by Paul V. Stutzman who Thru-hiked the AT after losing his wife to cancer. An easy read and one well worth it if you have time. Happy trails!

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 6th

      Thanks Dennis. I read the book a few years ago and enjoyed it. A lot of parallels to my situation. We would all agree nature is a great healer.

      Reply
  • Eric Bartel : Mar 4th

    Looking forward to hearing your adventures and thoughts.

    Reply
  • David Emmel : Mar 4th

    Best of luck Pete. I look forward to following you. If it works would love to join you for a bit as you pass through New York.

    Reply
    • Pete Bromen : Mar 6th

      That would be great

      Reply
  • Jim Stewart : Mar 10th

    So sorry for your loss. I will be starting the trail on April the 5th. Maybe our paths will cross. I am 61 and have lost a brother, mother and most recently a sister. Thankfully I still have a wife of 41 years that supports me on this hike. Good luck and may God bless.

    Reply
  • Gail : Apr 7th

    Hi Pete, your story is beautiful. I lost my husband to cancer. I learned that time does not make it easier, but with time we get better at handling it. I, too have always dreamed of hiking the trail. My friends are NOBO, Trish and rob from Tampa. I hope your paths cross! Take care of yourself and nurture your spirit!
    Godspeed 🌻

    Reply

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