I recently celebrated the third anniversary of the greatest adventure of my life—a continuous solo hike of the 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, stretching between Georgia and Maine. I'm still amazed it happened.
Since the trek, many friends have asked what possessed me to do such a thing. After all, I was older than the folks who generally make the voyage, and I had never been on one overnight hike. I knew nothing about the equipment, skills or stamina the journey would demand, but I did know that I had to do it.
See, my father dropped dead a week after his birthday—poof, gone, just like that. There was no warning and no goodbye. I was only a kid, so it hit me hard. I felt guilt for saying the terrible things I did the last time I saw him. I felt anger, too, because he died before I got a chance to take those words back. Most of all, though, I felt dread. Everyone said I was just like him, with the same body type, same fingers and toes, same sense of humor. Hell, I even had the exact same name. I was convinced that I was going to die just like he did—suddenly, prematurely and at exactly the same age.
As I got older, this dread grew until it turned to terror. There didn't seem to be anything I could do to stop it. I dwelled on it. But then the one thing I could do came to me: I could face it and do my best to defy it.
So a few months before that horrific day was set to arrive, the day I would turn the age of my father when he died, I told my wife and son that I'd decided to hike the Trail. "All of it?" they both asked. They thought I was nuts, but they knew better than to try and talk me out of it. So on March 5, 2010, a week after my birthday, a friend dropped me off at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.
I started walking. I didn't die that day. I didn't die the next day. I just kept walking.
Weeks later, I finally allowed myself to believe the quest just might be possible. I began to feel a sense of relief and freedom I hadn't felt for more than 40 years. Spending so much time alone, I started talking to myself—and anyone else who'd listen. That's when my father showed up. We started walking and talking together. We got to know each other in ways we never did when he was alive; he became my constant companion. I couldn't have made the trip without him.
When I pulled within a few days of my final destination in northern Maine, I suddenly realized I could finish my trek on the anniversary of my father's death. I didn't plan that rendezvous beforehand, never even thought about it. It just worked out.
That morning, when I climbed to the top of Mount Katahdin, the official end of the Appalachian Trail, I realized just how important the moment was. I didn't have to dread this date anymore, didn't have to stare at some fixed future point as the necessary end of my life. Instead, I could celebrate it as one of the best days of my life, right along with my dad.