It was a quarter after ten. Caroline was already out like a light though I was anything but, tossing and turning by the dim glow of the TV. Not even ESPN could lull me to sleep, my mind racing with a mix of anxiety and guilt. I was anxious because I wasn’t really excited about doing it alone. That certainly hadn’t been the plan. But four hours earlier, my friend had unexpectedly bailed, and it was too late for me to turn back.
The guilt was because I didn’t feel good about leaving her, a thought that accompanied me as I shuffled my bare feet across the cold hardwood planks to the kitchen and checked the list again. Yep. Four different contact numbers and as much detail as I could possibly provide. I crawled back into bed and held her tighter than normal. Not too tight, of course. Not at 20 weeks.
My tossing and turning would continue, and at four in the morning, she stirred for the first time all night. “Do you have to go?” she asked while tracing a line on my hand with her index finger that stopped at my wedding band.
In one sense, I didn’t have to. But in another I absolutely did. “Honey, it’ll be fine. I’ll be back tomorrow night.”
“In time for a movie?” she asked.
“In time for a movie,” I answered.
After nearly two hours in the car, I was finally getting close. The guilt was gone, but the anxiety remained, a fact that was reluctantly acknowledged by the pit in my stomach. Relax, I said to my own image looking back at me from the rearview. You’ve done this a million times before.
True. But never alone. At least never alone for that far. What if something happened?
Rationally, there was nothing to worry about. I was totally prepared, my plan extremely detailed. Not to mention that I knew for an absolute fact that I’d have cell coverage most of the way, a thought which comforted me as I navigated the windy mountain road.
It was colder than I had expected. Windier, too. So I went back to the car and retrieved my fleece. Then, with but a single step I began, and the instant I did my anxiety vanished.
The leap is almost always the biggest hurdle. I was at home out there. Always have been. The stick felt good in my hands. My legs felt strong. Even the cold wind that chapped my face felt good.
Some people don’t get it, which is fine. But when I crested the fist big ascent, I got it. It’s about temporarily trading a comfortable but complicated life for a simple but arduous one. It’s about getting outside of the superficial definitions and finding the absolute value. And on this particular day, it was about a little boy who’s yet to draw his first breath — the one my beautiful wife is carrying on her hike which still has 20 weeks yet to go.
I looked at the serene village shrouded in a mysterious fog some 3,000 feet below me and wondered what he’d be like. Wondered if he’d one day walk this trail with me.
A buddy and I made a commitment a few years back — to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in annual sections. And though we made that commitment to each other, we really made it to ourselves. It’s hard to explain, but my friend gets it. You might, too. But if you don’t, I promise you would if you hiked alongside of us.
After last year’s trip, we’d done all but 14.8 miles of Tennessee. Only the part from state route 421 to Damascus, VA remained. And my friend had knocked out that portion over the holidays, but I was too covered up to join him. Our annual trip is right around the corner — in April — and I really wanted to finish the 14.8 miles before then.
Some would call it silly. Maybe even stupid. But I made a commitment and those 14.8 miles were part of it. That commitment is not a guarantee that I’ll succeed in hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, mind you. But it is a guarantee that I’ll try my very best. Which is why I did it. To honor the commitment. Not just that one, but all commitments. Like the one I made to my children, including the boy who’s still in the womb. Like the one I made to the beautiful woman who’s carrying him.
Everything went according to plan. Better even. I finished hiking at 3:30, earlier than I had expected. It had taken me just 5-1/2 hours, an average of 2.7 miles per hour including my breaks, 3.3 miles per every hour I was hiking.
Once in Damascus, I waited patiently at the red caboose for a man I had never met, but had spoken to several times on the phone. An older fella named Clarence. He had agreed to pick me up and take me back to my car for 30 bucks. His wife, Kaye, was with him. In fact, she was driving. They own a few properties which they rent out to folks. Mainly hikers, I would imagine. Ones in need of a break from the trail. Ones in need of a break from life.
“So did you enjoy your hike?” Clarence asked as I climbed into the backseat.
“Yes, sir. I sure did.”
“It’s a good metaphor for a lot of things. Hiking that is,” he clarified. “Don’t you think?”
“I do. A very good metaphor. That’s what I always tell my wife.”
“Does she believe you?”
“I think so,” I answered as I looked out the window at the mountains I had just traversed.
“Y’all have kids?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve got four. And a fifth on the way. My wife’s 20 weeks pregnant.”
Kaye’s eyes beamed with maternal love as she looked at me through the rearview. “Oh, how wonderful,” she said. “I bet you’re really excited to get back to see them, aren’t you?”
“Yes, m’am. I sure am.”
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at my car. Kaye didn’t mind the sweat that covered my body one single bit when we exchanged the hug she’d specifically requested. A real hug. Like the kind my grandmother used to give me.
I returned home just as the triplets were going to bed. Once they were down, I sat with Alli and Caroline on the basement couch and watched The Tooth Fairy.
Caroline seemed surprised that I had driven over 270 miles and executed a 15-mile hike yet still made it home in time to watch that movie. But she shouldn’t have been.
I had told her at four o’clock that very morning I’d be doing just that.
And I’m pretty good about commitments.