July 4th has always had special meaning for my family. As a child I remember my dad grilling on Independence Day. After I started running, I regularly competed in the Peachtree Roadrace 10K in Atlanta. When my kids were teenagers, our family, along with Don, Lisa, and Brent, would spend a few days at the beach. My brother always enjoyed setting off fireworks as darkness approached. Three years ago Don and Lisa joined Linda and me at our downtown condo to watch fireworks over the river. Two years ago we did the same; however, the occasion warranted little excitement since Don had received his ALS diagnosis only a few weeks earlier. I think we all knew it could be our last Fourth of July celebration. At this time last year, Don had lost use of his arms and legs, and he could barely speak. It was a somber Fourth.
So as I hiked today, moving from New York into Connecticut, I thought often of my brother. Having my good friend, John, along to share the hike was truly special. John’s travel day reads like an odyssey of its own. After a cancelled flight in Atlanta, a change of itinerary to land in Newark rather than LaGuardia, a cab ride through Times Square, a mad dash to catch a Metro North train, and a taxi ride from Pawling, he arrived at the Wingdale motel after 11:00. So when we walked up the highway for an early morning breakfast, it was on very little sleep. Still we knocked out 18.8 miles in just over ten hours which included an additional 1.2 mile round trip road walk for lunch.
For the most part, John’s first day on the AT proved rather uneventful. Other than a few minimal climbs, the boggy areas with an abundance of black mud dominated the hike. We saw a few day hikers but no thru hikers all day. I suppose most are at the nearby July 4th hiker bash. An accomplished ultra-marathoner, John easily adapted to the rigors of the trail. I suspect there were times he would have liked to run rather than walk, if not for the pack. Today, however, was as much about good conversation as it was miles. Among the topics we talked about were Big Dog, Iron Bank Coffee, and the Run Across Georgia. And of course we talked about the running buddies. I told John I had heard from Jimmy, Kevin, Reynold, and Cecil, all good running companions over the last several years.
With good conversation and a friend with whom to share the hike, for at least today, I didn’t even seem to mind the humidity and mosquitoes. John discovered his greatest appreciation for the trail near the end of the day, when we reached the Ten Mile River. After crossing the Ned Anderson Memorial Bridge, John decided that a swim was in order. I chose not to join him, but I must confess, it looked refreshing. After the swim we hiked on to Bull Bridge Rd., where I had arranged for a taxi to take us to Cornwall Bridge, CT. I had given John the option of a shelter after his first day on the trail, but he said he’d prefer my “find a nearby bed” method.
We changed out plans during the ride, however, since there was no place to eat near the motel in Cornwall Bridge. Instead we retraced out route to Kent, where we found a hiker friendly B and B. After getting to Kent we had a meal at an Italian place before calling the inn for our complimentary shuttle. Exhausted from the late night and hiking day, I fell asleep shortly after getting to my room. When I awakened about an hour later the real surprise occurred. Standing next to my bed was Jimmy Brooks, another running buddy from home. John had managed to keep Jimmy’s arrival a secret throughout the day.
So as I end this Fourth of July I feel truly blessed. So many people care about this hike. From strangers I’ve never met who have taken the time to write, to two good buddies whose friendship I’ve cherished as we have put in the miles over the years, folks are concerned about me. At one point today, John said I needed to replace the word “misery” with “magnificent.” He’s right. This is in all respects a magnificent trail and I’m being given the magnificent opportunity to hike it. And more importantly I get to share it with two special friends when tomorrow John and Jimmy join me for a jaunt on the Appalachian Trail.