Walking for Devon, in Memory of a Life Cut Short
I’ve been dreaming of this hike for nearly two years. My first long-distance hike was an ill-advised speed hike of Vermont’s Long Trail. It was my third-ever backpacking trip and I was pathetically underprepared for what I was about to put myself through. We managed to cover 160 miles through the Green Mountains, only a little over half of the total length of the trail.
But in that time I was lucky enough to hike on the Appalachian Trail for around 70 miles and meet these amazing people hiking from Georgia to Maine, 500 miles from the end of their journey. I immediately fell in love with the culture. My hike resulted in strained tendons in both knees, two months of difficulty walking up and down steps, a renewed enthusiasm for life, and a burning desire to get back out on the Appalachian Trail at the next possible moment.
A month after getting off of the trail I was preparing for my next big journey—returning to school following a two-year intermission. I had dropped out of college when I was 21 after a long struggle with depression and three years of slogging through an engineering degree I didn’t want anymore. After some reconsideration, I was returning to school to pursue a degree in outdoor recreation, exchanging my life at a computer screen for one in the woods.
It was the week before classes started. My phone rang.
“Did you hear about Devon?”
I immediately knew what happened. My world felt like it was crashing down around me.
I had just seen him a month ago, just after getting off the Long Trail.
Devon was my best friend. We met our junior year of high school. He was my first love, my adventure buddy, my confidant, my prom date for both junior and senior prom. He always cheered me up with his goofy laugh and his antics. He could light up a room. Everyone he met was greeted with a bear hug.
We affectionately called him a lumberjack —Devon could grow a beard at 16, loved flannel and enjoyed being outside more than anything. He taught me all kinds of useful skills that he learned from Boy Scouts: building fires, throwing axes, and splitting logs among other things. Our senior year he earned his Eagle Scout award.
He complemented me well—me, often reserved, bookish, a marching band geek and him, a social butterfly with the uncanny ability to get along with anyone. He pushed my comfort zone and showed me new ways of experiencing the world, whether that meant stargazing from his roof at 2 in the morning, going to my first music festival, or sneaking down to Philadelphia to spend a day walking around the city.
Even after we broke up at the end of high school we remained close although we were far apart. He stayed at home and attended community college on and off, unsure of how to reach his goal of being a park ranger. But I would always make sure to see him whenever I went home, especially the summer after my freshman year of college. He taught me how to drive, shared with me his love of music, and was always happy to listen when I needed a friend.
When we were 19, he started messing around with pills. I never really gave it too much thought—he knew what he was doing, right? But no one knows what they’re getting into when they begin to mess with opioids. He had demons he wrestled with and had found relief in a drug-induced haze. I watched as his life slowly began to spiral. He dropped out of school. He had run-ins with the law for possession. He made new friends who stole from him. Then his driver’s license was suspended after he was in an accident while under the influence. He couldn’t hold a job once he couldn’t drive. One thing after another, and it seemed that he was stuck in a black pit that he couldn’t get out of.
Finally he called me up one day and let me know that he had just gotten out of rehab for heroin. I felt helpless.
I still made an effort to see him whenever I could, but was like he was a different person. That’s the worst thing about opioid addiction. The Devon I knew was somewhere in there, but he was hiding behind a opioid-induced fog. He always swore to me that he wasn’t using anymore, but I knew he was lying.
The last time we were together that fog lifted a little, and it was like being with the real Devon once again. We laughed, and sang at the tops of our lungs, and danced until we were out of breath. We talked about life and backpacking and the Appalachian Trail, and listened to Pretty Lights until late into the night. I told him that my dream was to hike that trail, and he told me he would come do some of it with me.
A month later he was gone, at just 23 years old. And I decided that I was going to hike the trail for him.
On May 4 I will graduate with my degree in recreation, park and tourism management from Penn State University, and on May 7 I will begin my flip-flop in Hot Springs, NC.
I’m walking in celebration of a life cut short. I’m walking to raise $10,000 for opioid prevention to help educate people about positive ways to cope with stress and mental health challenges. I’m walking because I’m still coping with losing someone so close to me, and because I’m tired of the stigma that comes with talking openly about opioid addiction. I’m walking 2,192 miles for Devon.
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Christina, your story really hits home for me. I lost my older brother to a heroin overdose in 2014 after his long struggle with drugs. He taught me so many things about life and ever since, I have been trying to live mine in honor of him. I’ve been wanting to hike the trail in his honor for awhile now and plan on doing so in 2021 and to continue to raise awareness for addiction until then. You are an inspiration and I’m looking forward to following along on your journey!
Thank you for hiking to raise awareness for this. My youngest brother was also lost to an overdose at the age of 23 and not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could change it. He talked about hiking the AT too, and it is most definitely on my bucket list. Best of luck!
Good luck with your hike and honoring your friend.
Cristina I am so sorry for the loss of your dear friend and love Devon. I pray that you AT hike will be life changing and cathartic. I am 52 with 27 years of police work and ache to do the hike thru. I’ve lost a brother to a probable suicide and work brothers from the same. Street people that I helped.. Some made it off the streets others died of heroin. I so understand your passion for the thru hike on th AT. But for me I have a cable for a quad tendon and lower back issues I’d be lucky to make it a week. I’m inspired by your journey and reasons and pray for a positive experience for you.