Taking Grief to the Trail
I was 15 or 16 when I decided I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. Well, decided might be the wrong word: I was highly interested in the idea (or rather, my romanticized idea of what 2,200 miles of hiking looked like) and thought, Yeah, I’m going to do that one day.
Over the next decade, I stepped foot on the AT exactly one time. (When I was 19, my then-boyfriend and I exhausted all other date ideas – small towns, am I right – and walked about half a mile of the AT – in jeans and western boots! – on a whim.) I graduated high school, went to community college, moved to Boston for college college, moved back home during the pandemic, got into grad school, and by this time last year, was getting ready to move again.
Though he never said so, my dad was sad that I was moving far away again. I know this because he started spending more time than usual with me, which included finding places for us to hike every weekend. One Saturday last May, Dad suggested the AT. He had never even laid eyes on it. I hadn’t in nearly five years – I was 24 by then – and I was so excited to show him.
We drove to the nearest trailhead, parked, and started walking, no map, no agenda, and no idea which direction we were headed (south, a couple of more serious hikers informed us, although it didn’t really matter. We were just there to see what the AT was all about). After a mile or so, we crossed paths with a couple of northbound thru-hikers and talked to them for the better part of an hour. I don’t remember their names or even most of what was said, but I do remember their faces, the way they laughed and smiled as they recalled all the injuries, fears, and unexpected occurrences of their past two months on the trail. Something about their radiance and confidence really struck me. Dad was inspired too; I could tell. We parted from the hikers and kept walking, an enchanted new energy in our steps.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, Dad and I had already started talking about thru-hiking ourselves. I don’t know if you could even call it a “decision” – Dad was years away from retirement and I would be in Nashville for at least three years for my master’s program, so the possibility of seriously planning a thru-hike together seemed a long way out of reach. But over the next few months, we talked about it often. Most of the time, Dad was the one who brought it up.
Our conversations went something like this:
Him: “I’d like to hike that whole trail, wouldn’t you?”
Me: “Yeah, I’d like to do it too.”
There was no commitment, but the desire was still there. Growing. Taking up a lot of space in my mind. If you’d asked me my one life goal, biggest dream, or the one thing I wanted to do before I died, I would have answered with thru-hiking the AT. Sometimes I’d half-joke with Dad that I was going to have to do it soon before it drove me crazy, maybe even right after grad school, with or without him.
“Don’t even think about it,” he’d say. “You’re not going without me.”
Guess we jinxed ourselves.
Time measured in grief is senseless and infinite: there’s no definite beginning and definitely no end. Dad passed away in November when the leaves were peaking – I turned my clock back the morning I got the call – and now my clock is sprung forward again, and the sugar maple in the front yard is showing its bright red buds. A whole season of dark and dormancy has passed, and I can’t tell you how I’ve passed it. The seconds run into hours run into weeks of…well, what have I been doing, exactly? Reeling and roaming and trying to figure out what’s next, what really matters, and how to memorialize the way-too-short time I had with Dad. Grief is the endless, exhausting work of wrapping your head around the unbelievable fact of someone’s sudden not-existing.
And that, I suppose, is how the minutes turn to months.
Here are the questions that keep pushing through the fog of my brain. What does it mean to honor a lost loved one, and how can it be done in a way most authentic to your relationship with them? What does it mean to keep them alive in your memory? (I hate this phrase and never want to hear it again, yet I still don’t have a good-enough answer to stop thinking about it.) I’ve discovered that a funeral, a headstone, and sitting in Dad’s favorite spot on the couch isn’t enough. Even the heartfelt obituary I wrote feels like flat, empty words on a page.
Maybe this is just a part of grief, feeling like the deceased deserve more than you can give them.
And maybe this won’t be enough either, but it’s worth a shot, doing alone the big crazy thing I thought Dad and I would one day do together.
Well, not quite alone.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
What Do You Think?