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The Question I Answered in 62 Miles

I’d been thinking about it the entire hike. My son’s question, that is. Daddy, why do you walk up and down the mountains? There it was, day four, and I still didn’t know the answer.

It was around mile 15 when I started to get a bit loopy. Fatigue’ll do that to you. I stared at the leaves that covered trail and wondered which would be carried away by the tips of my trekking poles and which would be left behind.

Just two miles to go and we’d finally be caught up from the slow start that wasn’t our fault. The first day was a cold, drizzly one, the rain turning to sleet by bedtime. Eight o’clock. Backpacker’s midnight.

Ten hours later, we woke to a blustery morning in the mid 20s, the ground covered with a thin layer of snow. As we climbed, so too did the layer, up to four inches by the time we crested Albert Mountain. The fire tower loomed high above us, but climbing its metal staircase would have been fruitless. For the view that day was the same no matter where you stood. Even if it was inside a ping pong ball.

The next morning greeted us with the same blanket of snow and cold temperatures, but also with the promise of blue skies — the first ones we’d seen all trip. Early that day, northbound hikers informed us that it had never snowed in Georgia. The ground was as dry as a bone. Which meant we were no longer beholden to the shelters, but instead could pitch our tent anywhere our legs managed to take us. And our legs would take us 17 miles.

Sleep in my Big Agnes two-man came easily that night, and like most mornings on the Trail, I woke up sore. Especially my left ankle. But I wasn’t worried. It was the type of soreness that would walk itself out.

I was wrong. We’d not even gone a single mile when I dug through my pack in search of advil and my ankle brace. I bring that brace each trip. But this was the first time I’d ever needed it. Without it, I never would have made it.

But suddenly I was on the verge of doing just that. Making it. Only two more miles before we’d cap off back-to-back 17-mile days. Only two more miles til we’d erase the slow start and be back on schedule.

I don’t really like to listen to music when I’m on the Trail, but I still bring my iPod anyway. Because whenever I’m so worn down that I can barely take another step, the Trail becomes my life. And I don’t know about yours, but my life has a soundtrack. And whenever I feel like I can’t go on is exactly when I need to listen to it.

Because you can always go on. Even if it’s just to hear the next song.

The Killers.

Elvis Costello.

The Avett Brothers.

Jimi.

The music put me in a trance which furthered my newfound leaf obsession. They were pretty, I decided. But sad, too. Maybe because they’d fallen. And were defenseless from being snatched up by my poles. Would the ones that were left behind mourn the loss of the ones that were taken?

I never aimed for any particular leaf, but instead let my natural gait decide the fate of the Trail’s coverings. If I had wanted to take any particular one, however, I could have easily made it happen. It was my choice, really.

Me. A leaf God.

It reminded me of the time in second grade when James and I took all the ants we could find and put them inside a toy rocket that we launched 100 feet into the air. Most of the ants died when the rocket crashed into the mulch with a thud and I wondered if the other ants were devastated, and if so, if there were ant TV stations that were broadcasting the news of the senseless and tragic debacle.

James never knew, but I cried later that day at home. I’d killed all those ants. Who the hell was I to do that?

Huh, David Bowie, I thought. Didn’t remember putting him on the playlist. Yet, still, he’s definitely part of my life’s soundtrack. I used to hate him when I was younger. While the world listened to Let’s Dance, I was into Ratt and Motley Crue. My older sister Holliday loved David Bowie, though. And in those days, I loved to torment Holliday. So I told her once how much I thought he sucked.

“He’s got more talent in his little finger than the members of Ratt and Motely Crue combined,” she said.

Holliday died last October. She was 49. And this leaf cried for the one that was picked up and taken away. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a surprise. I saw her in September for what I knew would be the last time ever. I told her I loved her, but I never said goodbye.

Why didn’t I?

No sooner had the question crossed my mind when David Bowie gave me his take:

There’s no sign of life.
It’s just the power to charm.
I’m lying in the rain.
And I never wave bye-bye.
But I try.
I try.

I can’t remember the last time I sobbed like that. I stopped and wrapped my left arm around the trunk of a sympathetic pine to steady myself as the tears rained upon the leaves that were suddenly safe. At least for a little while.

Last October, I thought. That’s the last time I cried like this.

We hiked the full 17 miles that day and made quick work of the remaining six the next morning, getting out of the woods by 11. The final tally was 62 miles in 95 hours. I’d overcome the weather and a bum ankle and met our aggressive goal.

But I hadn’t figured out the answer to Jack’s question.

Why do I walk up and down those mountains?

The first thing I did when I got into my car was to flip down the visor and look in the mirror. The face that looked back was one I’d not seen in four days. I love that feeling. Don’t you? When you see yourself for the first time in a really long time? It’s like remembering who you are.

And suddenly, I’d stumbled upon the answer to Jack’s question.

I wondered if he’d get it.

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