The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we waited in front of the motel for a taxi we had pre-arranged to take us back to the trail. As we were waiting for it to arrive, I noticed a pick-up truck, with hiking gear in its bed, leaving the motel parking lot. It was too late to flag the driver down and ask for a ride, but it was not the last time that we would see the man behind the wheel. In fact, over the next few days and again two years later, Ponder was to become one of the most enigmatic hikers I would encounter on the AT. Douglas hailed from Michigan and had been hiking the trail for a few weeks every year for some time. He latched onto Alton and me during the first part of our hike that day and remained with us throughout much of the section.
Douglas was just a genuinely nice fellow. He seemed to prefer his real name over his trail name even though “Ponder,” in large white letters, appeared across the front of the navy cap he wore. It was one of those bulky baseball caps that looked like it had been purchased at a convenience store. Since Douglas would occasionally just stop and stare into the distance, and since he asked some quite thought provoking questions, it became apparent how he had gotten his AT trail name. Ponder also exhibited a tad of eccentricity which began with his buttoned-up cotton shirt. He shied away from shelters, preferring to pitch his one-man tent nearby.
So for this first day on the trail in New Jersey our duo had become a trio. Like most of our other hikes, this one had been carefully pre-planned to include a stay at the Mohican Outdoor Center at the conclusion of our first day on the trail. Even though it was a mere 10 plus miles to the lodge, we determined that a bunk and a bathroom were preferential to a few more miles and a tent. After all, we had already decided to hike 18 the next day to arrive just in time for supper at a steakhouse at Culver’s Gap. Ponder happily agreed with our plan and walked on with us for the next four days.
Since Douglas had driven from Michigan, he was actually shuttling his truck as he hiked. At Unionville, NY (where the trail briefly leaves the Garden State before returning), Ponder called a taxi to take him back to his truck at the Water Gap. A few days later, however, after Alton had left to return to the south for a family commitment, I ran into Ponder again. I had hiked solo from HWY 17 near Greenwood Lake, NY to the Fingerboard Shelter for the night. Walking toward the shelter just before dusk, I spied Ponder’s tent pitched behind the shelter. After calling his name, he quickly emerged, smile on his face, happy to again be reunited with his friend of a week.
The last time I saw Ponder that year was at the Bear Mountain Zoo. He again planned to move his truck up the trail, so we bid our goodbyes as I headed over the Hudson. He had carefully explained to Alton and me earlier in the hike what sections he had completed and how he planned to finish the trail in the next couple of years. What we didn’t know then was that his plans would change.
Two years later in the late spring of 2007, Alton and I found ourselves up in the Green Mountains, working on completing the Vermont section of the AT. After our fourth day of hiking, we ventured in to Manchester Center for a night at Sutton’s Place, an old home whose owner rents rooms to hikers. After settling in and enjoying my first shower in four days, I suggested to Alton that we walk back to the center of town for dinner. As we strolled down the sidewalk in front of the home, we both noticed a strikingly familiar gentleman walking toward us. He wore a cotton, buttoned shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a billed cap. Hesitating at first, Alton asked, “Do you know a hiker named Ponder?” “I am Ponder,” Douglas replied. And almost immediately he recognized us as his two former hiking buddies from Georgia. A smile crossed his face as he agreed to accompany us to dinner.
We quickly learned of Ponder’s last two years on the trail, especially of the difficulty he had had in the Whites. He explained that he had already finished NH and Maine and that he was within a few days of completely finishing the AT in sections. It was good to reunite with Ponder. Alton and I both knew that he would again become our travelling companion as we journeyed through Vermont. He did, but I know we enjoyed his company, and likewise, I think he enjoyed ours.
The last night Ponder spent on the trail was at the Governor Clement Shelter. We all set up our tents and the shelter was filled as well. Douglas seemed a little sad. I imagined that he was probably contemplating all the other nights he had camped, while on his quest to complete all of the Appalachian Trail. There were others in and around the shelter that night including Billy Romp and his two sons. None of those present, however, were thru-hikers. As the evening waned and the conversations continued, Ponder just turned in, not choosing to banter with the others.
The following day dawned wet and cold. We donned rain gear as we headed for US 4, where Ponder was to complete his AT section hike. For much of the morning we all hiked together, but then Douglas slowed, quite possibly intentionally, not wanting the adventure to come to an end. When I reached the intersection of the highway, I waited for what must have been at least an hour for Ponder to arrive. Camera in hand, I began snapping pictures as he approached. Hand outstretched, Ponder touched his last white blaze. As the rain and sweat glistened on his face, I seem to remember a countenance of both excitement and relief.
At that moment I had no plans to ever fully complete the AT, so I don’t know if I really appreciated Ponder’s accomplishment. Whether attempting a thru-hike of 5 or 6 months or section hiking over what could turn out to be 15 or 20 years, walking every step of the Appalachian Trail requires determination and perseverance. For Ponder, a goal had been achieved. For all of us who hope to reach Katahdin in 2013, there lies the task at hand….a 2180 mile walk to the last white blaze, a sign, and the end of the Appalachian Trail.