Last week, after a good day of splitting firewood with my family, we gathered around our table to talk. We looked at each other and went to the task of digging into what really happened to all of us in the green and very saturated mountains of Vermont.
All through the process of recording the journey of hope and healing, my family and I have committed to one another that nothing less than total honesty with each other and ourselves is what will guide this journey to the place that we all seek…inner peace.
There were several moments of the typical surface conversation that breaks the ice… and then the real issue at hand jumped right into my face. The truth is that I was ready to quit the trail all together. I hated the mud, I hated the rain, and I hated the incessant black flies. But, much more than those physical difficulties was weighing me down as I traveled to a familiar dark place in my heart and mind.
I have given everything possible to my family for 18 plus years, and I have (at times, and varying degrees) grown tired in the sacrifice of it all (I mean, who likes paying bills???). However, there is immense personal satisfaction in my role as a husband and father, even in the rougher days…and I love my role as a provider, leader, and encouraging friend. I have never felt cheated in giving to any of them (It is who I am at the core level).
But currently, I am in uncharted waters, and I now have a front row seat watching my two older sons ready themselves to go into bright and challenging futures, without my wife and I…and selfishly, I feel profoundly cheated. I don’t feel that I have had proper time to be involved with how they have come to who they are today. My wife has stepped up to the plate in a way that only other single mothers might be able to understand.
These strong and powerful feelings are all new territory for me now that I am not surrounded and inundated with a ravenous and never satisfied military career and lifestyle. The consistent training and mission planning for the never ending pursuit of radical and evil groups in our world was my personal identity for most of the waking hours in my days…and I lost myself in all of it.
Now, the real me and how I actually feel about a myriad of issues are flooding my inner head space. Since my retirement in February the only interaction that I have with the threat of terrorism is how it will effect my mood and thoughts after I read an article or see a news piece that updates me on the latest happenings that an extremist group has acted upon.
It used to be so effortless and easy to push aside the sad realities that have always been right under my nose. Some days ago on the AT in middle Vermont there were a host of thoughts and ideas that started racing into my mind…and I was spiraling out of control mentally and emotionally. I was employing every tactic that I have learned over the last few years in how to ground myself and not loose control, but I failed to do so.
The majority of my personal years of youth and precious time with my own sons was voluntarily sacrificed for the causes and purposes of a nation that my family and I have served. The weight and full realization of this truth hurts (right now) beyond words as I see them get ready to go. When I concentrate on these thoughts and feelings I turn very dark and very selfish. I’m not the only one that has been through this roller coaster of feeling, being so proud, and yet hurting so badly all in the same moment.
As we sat around the table having the talk, one of my young men hit me with a healthy dose of reality about how I typically react when I start to be overwhelmed with this kind of pain and lack of control that is often so very close to me in my heart and soul these days. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “Dad you turn into a total asshole…you have dropped that ball big time, and you have for a very long time”
Those hot words went right to the core of my being…because I know that it’s true. I know that he is right, and his words take me back to many years ago, as I would think and wish about having all the time with my kids that “regular people” take for granted. This is where a part of my angry and bitter self started to develop…and my family are the ones feeling the effects.
Well, here I am in the new reality of finally having time with my family…real amounts of time. The AT is a once in a lifetime chance and experience that is pushing and challenging all of us in so many differing ways. For most of us, the physical nature of the trail isn’t high on the list of challenges. The challenges that we are facing are deeply rooted in our hearts and minds, and when the conditions are right, we display the reality of these challenges on our selves with intense emotions, tones, and body language. We have displayed these things for one another to see for some time…and this kind of thing has real consequences in a team, in a family.
At the end of our talk the other day, we all decided in unanimous fashion that we are committed to each other more deeply than ever before, and that the trail has been the fashioning tool and catalyst that has been used in the heating, cleansing, shaping, and forming of a people and family that we are needing to be…for other hurting families, for each other, and for a hurting world.
The experiences that the Appalachian Trail provided has proven to me that recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a life long choice. A choice to fight what many have looked at as an impossible task. I had once thought that my heart was empty and damaged for life…and that is simply not true.
I have a full heart, and have been shown that the rest of my days are not going to be defined by a time in my life that was marked with hardships and sorrows. I am going far not fast with the ones that matter…the ones I truly love more than ever before
Ever been on a road trip, and found yourself lost? You turn off the music, stop the conversation you are in, and concentrate on figuring out where you are, and how to get back to where you were heading. We need the time and space to sort somethings out. Broadcasting our intent has added an unexpected layer of complexity to this process.
We want to be transparent, but we have no desire to look like vascilating fools. We want to share, and will in time.
This messy, up and down, here then there, is an important part of this process, maybe the most important. It’s here, in this space, where we are becoming who we are really meant to be. For a family, that has only bean able to control how they would react and respond to commands and orders from the military with no regard to our needs or desires, we are learning how to identify and communicate those needs and desires. PTS and is secondary effects are very real. We have to be careful that no matter what we are doing, we examine the motives behind our decisions. Are we running from something? Are we making decisions out of fear? Are we trying to put a bandaid on a festering wound? Where are we emotionally, mentally, and most important, spiritually? As we explore all of this, we need space.
When it’s time, we will share… Until then, Happy Trails!
It has been a month since Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. A month since we have been consistently on the trail. Our attempts to get going again have not gone as we had planned. So much has happened over the past week and a half. Little did we know that the momentary interruption that seemed like goals left unfinished and broken dreams, would actually provide us the space to really think, not just about the hard stuff we’ve been working through, or where we were going to set up camp at the end of the day, but about the bigger and grander picture. The journey is only really beginning! Though we have thoughts and ideas rattling around in our heads, what we are certain of is that no matter where we are it will be different than we expected or planned, but we will be together.
We are all learning to dream, set goals, and take the steps to accomplish them, holding them all very lightly! We are learning the art of contentment and of letting go. We are living the saying, “when one door closes, another one opens.” Our “thru hike” of the AT has not gone one bit how we planned it. We never knew that we would meet such amazing people and have moments that simply took our breath away because of their kindness and generosity. We also could never have forecasted snow storms, injuries, or meetings. These highs, these lows, the process… it is all about learning to be content, and taking full advantage of the moment before us.
As a military wife, it sure would have been better if I had learned some of these lessons before. Often, my mind and my heart were very rigid. Even if my physical body looked as though it was going with the flow, my thoughts and feelings were often in a state of disappointment and anger over the never ending changes of life. My life is in an even greater state of change than ever before, but my heart is grounded. It is grounded in the fact that I know that God has a plan for each of us. This plan is far grander than I can imagine, and it isn’t all about me. He is using these trials as a part of the refining process in each of our lives.
Even today, we had to make changes to our schedule… we thought we were going to leave on Wednesday, but we realized that there was simply too much to do here before we could head out. We have decided to put our house on the market to sell. This has not been an easy decision, but it is one that we are all excited about. So, we have a little bit of work to do before that can happen. We are going to work hard as a family this week to get all of the little projects done, and we hope to head out on Saturday and climb Katahdin on Sunday.
Here is to completing one journey, and starting another!
We slept so well in the little field in which we had set up camp. We woke up to an incredibly beautiful morning. The skies were clear. The sun is rising really early in the morning now.
By 9 am, we had hiked two miles. It is kind of hard to mentally accept the fact that there is no way to hike at the same speed we had been hiking in the south. The trail is extremely rocky. The fact that these trails have not yet seen the traffic that the tasks in the south have seen, the dust, rather the moss has yet to be knocked off the rocks. We have to be far more careful here. Ryan, Taylor, and Riley all fell at least once. I slipped several times but was able to catch myself.
We made our way up to Moose Mountain Shelter, by 10:30. We chose to stop and eat lunch there, since there was space to spread out there. The black flies are out in full force now. Mosquitos as well. Bug spray and bug nets are no longer an option, rather a necessity.
The views in our home state of New Hampshire are so beautiful. It is interesting how much the trail’s landscape changes from state to state.
Here, in New Hampshire, steep cliffs and wide views are not uncommon.
We continued to hike throughout the afternoon. Throughout the afternoon, attitudes began to change. We had conversations with each of our kids, and though they couldn’t really explain the complexities of their emotions, it seemed as though we were teetering on a breakdown. Ryan made the decision to declare the end of our hike. No one objected.
We made our way to a small parking area that intersected with the road that led to Lyme, NH. We started down the road, beginning our three mile walk away from the trail. It was a very quiet walk, as we were all contemplating the meaning of what was unfolding. We were extremely grateful when the local Chief of Police picked us up and drove is to the Country Store in Lyme. When we arrived there, we called Ryan’s parents and asked them to come to pick us up. It seemed like we were doing the right thing, but the mood remained quite somber.
We had spent nearly a year planning this journey, and here we were faced with the fact that the journey had come to a close.
The emotional swing from morning to afternoon was inexplicable. The only consolation that could be found is that it seemed like we were not writing in a bad day.
Jeff and Carol finally arrived around 9:30pm. We are tired and hungry. No one really talked all that much. The conversations would begin the next morning.
If in fact, this was to be our last day in the trail… It would have at least been a beautiful day.
Before we started this journey, we asked our friends what they thought they would have the hardest time with if they were heading out on the trail. Most of the responses were in relationship to hygiene. Many people asked about using the bathroom. I thought it was particularly interesting when I found a 140 page book on the topic of how to poop in the woods. I thought, really? It can’t be that incredibly difficult. Well, let me tell you, it isn’t that easy either.
Have you ever gone to the gym and worked out so hard that you had a hard time sitting down on the toilet? Ok, then. Now imagine that after hiking 14 miles up and down the mountain, the time arrives where your body is telling you it is time… to poop!
There are two main obstacles that I face when it comes to using the bathroom… in the woods.
Pain. Not only do I have to find a place at least 200 feet off of the trail, away from a water source, and from other campsites. Sometimes, this requires scaling down a hill, or climbing up another hill. If the urge comes while I am on the side of a mountain… finding that place can be even harder, requiring my tired legs to work more. Then I have to dig a hole, and squat! Ugh, pain in my knees, pain in my feet, pain in my quads… pain!
Privacy. At the beginning of our hike, the trees were leafless. Nature was not my friend in creating a curtain to hide my bare bum. Now that there are plenty of leaves, I have to be concerned with leaf identification… imagine getting poison ivy, oak or sumac because you squatted right over them! The days of lazily sitting on a toilet reading a magazine are just not a reality out here.
My solution has been to use the privy every time we are near one.
What is a privy you might ask? Well, simply put it is an outhouse like building usually near the shelters along the trail. Some of them are fully enclosed structures, some of them are three sided, with the fourth side (the opening) facing the woods. The best part of the privy is that you don’t have to squat all the way down, bury anything, or worry about being seen by any of your fellow hikers. That is unless you find yourself at Moose Mountain Shelter in NH… then well, maybe the birds above can’t see you below, but that is about the only privacy you will have.
One day, after we had been on the trail for several weeks, I told Ryan that I had to make a confession. Nervously, he asked what I had to confess. I told him that I hadn’t pooped in the woods yet. Not quite understanding what I was meaning, with great concern for my health, he let me know that this was not good for my health. He thought that I meant I hadn’t had a bowel movement for weeks. I let him know that I was scared that I would be seen squatting, so I had simply relied on using the privies.
SO, here’s the deal. One day, we decided to camp at a tent site that had no privy. When nature calls you answer, so I grabbed the little trowel and some toilet paper, and went on the hunt for a place to go. I walked down an old trail, then walked several yards into the woods. Dug a little hole in the ground called a “cat hole”, and I went to squatting. The sun had gone down, there was barely any light left. I had my headlamp, but had turned it off, as to not draw attention to myself (not sure who I thought would see me). Then out of no where, two people came down this trail… that went to NOWHERE… and as I am mid-business, had two peoples headlamps pointed straight at me! The exact fear that had kept me from pooping in the woods was now being fully realized!!! Nope, I didn’t get over it. I still rely on the privies. I just might not live through another experience like that one!