The Walk That Changed My Life
As a young boy my family would head to the Smoky Mountains each summer.
While traveling to the campgrounds we would always cross the Appalachian Trail. “One day you and I will hike part of that trail”, my Dad would say. Unfortunately, we never did.
Twenty years later, my own family would go every summer to Montreat, North Carolina, crossing the same trail. “My Dad used to say that one day we would hike the AT”, I would tell my wife and daughters, “but we never did”.
In what is still the most amazing gift anyone has ever given me, my wife wrapped a gift certificate from a backpacking outfitter in Atlanta to give me for Christmas in 1992. “Now either hike it or shut up”, she said. She called my bluff and in doing so started an adventure that changed my life.
It has been exactly twenty years since I left my wife, and two daughters, aged 12 and 10, at the edge of the road and walked into the woods. Ironically, while cleaning out my garage this past week I came across the many letters between us all during that time. I read every single one of them; the memories flooding back like it was yesterday.
“He is trying to find himself”, some would tell Mary Lou. She knew it was much bigger than that for me. I wanted to know that I could survive on my own. I wanted to challenge myself to do the very thing my father and I never did. Failure was not going to be an option.
There was no cell phone or GPS to guide my way. My single promise was that once a week I would hike down into a town and call home. Mary Lou’s direction to the staff at school was no matter what time it was, the office was to find her if I called.
It was hard at first. After all, I was 38 years old and not an experienced hiker. However, I worked very hard to get ready both physically and mentally. I was prepared to succeed. My first belief in myself came as I watched young, strapping men fall by the wayside even as I kept steadily moving forward.
I learned to sleep alone, cook whatever I had in my pack and take on every challenge thrown my way. I slept soundly in my tent as unknown animals made noises and moved around me.
Long before the cell phone took over our lives, I managed to slow down and savor all that nature had so spectacularly put around me. More importantly, I learned just how much I had in common with those so very different from me.
I didn’t hike the entire Appalachian Trail. One thousand miles was enough to give me what I was looking for. I came home a changed man, hopefully a better man. It was an extraordinary gift from my wife and an amazing journey for me. Twenty years later, I still know that without a doubt that it was a walk changed my life.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]