Here’s a revised version of a short story I wrote while hiking the AT. I thought perhaps it would offer a little diversion from the usual noise of the online world.
Originally published December 2014 after I completed the 2,184 mile Appalachian Trail. Five millions steps I will remember my whole life.
I wrote this as I hiked the trail. The main character, trail name Spirit, is based on an interesting hiker we met in the Smoky Mountains. I hope you enjoy it. As always, all comments, criticisms, or thoughts are welcome. Without readers, there would be no reason to write.
Spirit of the Trail
Magic on the Appalachian Trail
By Joe “Miracle” Broadmeadow
NOBO 2014 Appalachian Trail March 26, 2014-September 3, 2014
Kieran Murphy waited a long time for this day to arrive.
His wife, suffering through endless discussions on why and how he would do this, supported him. Their daughter, grown and independent, encouraged him.
The time was now.
March 15th would be his last day on the job. Two days later, he would begin his journey; thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Two thousand one hundred eighty-five miles, following a footpath from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.
Kieran loved being a police officer. But it was time to go. Leave before he became one of those, bitter, distrustful, burned-out shells of a human. The job can eat you up inside.
Not him, he was making sure of that. One more shift, eight short hours, he was out the door, retired, and on his way.
He would spend tonight sorting his equipment, rechecking his pack, and going over the resupply drops with his wife. They would cook a big dinner; enjoy one last meal at a real table, then get to bed early.
His flight left at 8:00AM. He would be at the hostel by 2:00 and at the trailhead first thing the next morning. It was all coming together.
After roll call, he delivered the roster copies to dispatch and the Officer in Charge. Stopping to speak to the Patrol Commander, he headed out to his cruiser for one last tour of the city.
On the way to his car, several of the brass shook his hand. “Lucky bastard.” Kieran just smiled. He knew they would never leave.
Once in the car, he headed for Dunkin and the first of his many coffees. Medium regular in hand, he headed south on the Wampanoag Trail to loop through Riverside.
As he reached the Barrington Line, a call came out for a suspicious vehicle in the lot of the Mobile station at Mink Road. Kieran turned around and headed to the gas station.
He was the first unit on the scene. Getting out of the car, he walked toward the clerk standing outside the door.
“Hey,” a voice called from near the pumps, “how are you?” Kieran turned to look and felt a headache coming on. “Not enough caffeine yet,” he thought.
His head pounded as he became aware of other units arriving on the scene.
He noticed Lieutenant Williams standing next to him.
“Listen, Kieran, we got this. You go hike. We got this.”
Kieran was not one to leave early, but if the L T said go, why not?
The next day was a blur, and then he was on the plane. His daughter kept saying, “Please come back to us, please.”
He told her not to worry, a quick walk in the woods, and he would be back.
The flight seemed over even before he realized it. The excitement building, the adrenaline rushing through his veins, could it be happening?
In a flash, Kieran stood on the peak of Springer Mountain, the beginning of the Appalachian Trail.
“And so it begins,” he said aloud, “my long walk home, there and back again.”
“And where might home be?” a voice replied, startling Kieran.
“Oh, sorry,” Kieran said, “I thought I was alone up here.” He watched as the old man came out of the trail and leaned next to the stone marking the peak.
The man looked to be in his sixties, but Kieran suspected he was older. With a Hemingway beard and wild, uncontrolled head of hair, he was a cross between the writer and Albert Einstein.
He carried an old external frame pack, various pieces of equipment attached in no discernible pattern, covered with American and Canadian flags.
“My boy, on the trail, you are never alone,” the man answered. “You may walk alone, camp alone, but you won’t be alone.”
Kieran nodded, wondering how he could extract himself from this conversation and head out.
“Spirit,” the old man said as if in introduction, reaching out his hand, “my name is Spirit, and yours?”
“Spirit, that’s your name?” surprised by the old man’s firm grip.
“Trail name, don’t you have one?” The man leaned on his hiking stick, watching him.
Kieran had read about trail names, but gave little thought about it, “No, not yet. I mean, I hadn’t thought it necessary.”
“Well, it’s not a rule,” the old man smiled, “but it is a tradition out here. Why don’t we let the trail decide? It has a way of doing that.”
Kieran thought a moment, “Okay, I guess. My real name is Kieran, Kieran Murphy.”
“I knew you were Irish, good to have a companion Celt on the trail. My name, in the real world, is Alan Mackenzie. However, I prefer Spirit out here. Adds an air of mystery, don’t you think?”
Kieran hoisted his pack and adjusted his walking poles. “I think I’ll head out. Are you on a day hike?”
“No,” the old man replied, “I am walking home just like you. Mind if I tag along?”
Kieran could see no reason to refuse the request, so he resigned himself to having an unplanned companion. By the looks of him, he didn’t think Spirit would make a mile.
“I don’t want to slow you down, though. First few days on the trail, I plan to take it slow. Build up my trail legs.”
“Not to worry, I’ll scout ahead and find the good spots to camp. Been on the trail a few times now, so I know it well.”
Kieran headed out, followed by the old man. Within the first half-hour, the “old” man had put several hundred yards between himself and Kieran. As he struggled up even the smallest rise, he would come upon the old guy sitting on a rock or log waiting for him.
Not a sign of fatigue or weariness.
It would take time before he got his trail legs.
Over the next few days, as Kieran discovered just how strenuous hiking the AT could be, he came to appreciate the man’s familiarity with the trail.
He knew all the water sources, flat camping areas, and good shelters.
When Kieran would struggle with the effort, Spirit would offer encouragement, “Not to worry, it never gets easy, but it gets easier. You are doing well. Take it slow; the miles will come when they will. Let the trail teach you. Stay with me, son, and you’ll make it.”
As their daily mileage increased, Kieran became more comfortable and confident.
A month into the trail, hiking through the Smoky Mountains, they stopped to admire a striking view. Standing on the slab of rock, looking down into the valley and surrounding hillsides, Kieran took out his camera and shot pictures.
As he looked down to put his camera away, he stumbled and fell toward the edge of the slide. Spirit reached out and caught him by the side strap of his backpack.
“Hang on there, kid. No taking shortcuts off the trail.”
“Jesus, that was close. Thanks, you gave me a second chance,” trying to hide the fear in his eyes.
“Jesus has nothing to do with this. Why do people invoke such nonsense? Clumsiness and inattention, on your part, and quick reaction by me saved the day.” Beaming, “Hmm, second chance, I like that. I think we have found you a trail name, Second chance. What do you think?”
“I suppose it will do, not magical, but let’s hope I don’t need a third or fourth chance,” Kieran replied.
“Like I said, my boy, stay with me, and you’ll make it,” turning to the trail and disappearing into the woods.
The speed Spirit could hike amazed Kieran. The old man would vanish into the woods. Sometimes, Kieran would come upon him sitting on a rock as if he had been there for hours. Other times, he would not see him all day until he got to a shelter or campsite.
The old man was in his environment on the trail.
Hiking the trail is a life-changing experience; it gives one time to think a great deal. You realize what matters in this world. Walking along, Kieran came to appreciate all he had in his life, and he resolved to show it more to those most responsible.
He regretted the time away from family and friends, despite their unwavering encouragement. Time was the limiting factor in life. Once gone, never reclaimed.
He would waste no more time.
They made good progress on the trail. Hiking in Virginia, they came to McAfee’s Knob, one of the most photographed spots on the trail.
Sitting on the edge of the knob, Kieran had Spirit take his picture. “You want me to take one of you?” taking his camera from the old man.
“No thanks, I prefer to just keep images in my mind.”
“But how about sending something to a friend or your family?” Kieran asked.
“They know what I look like, and they know why I spend my time out here. No need for anything else.”
Kieran thought about the man’s reply, then moved on. As he started toward the trail, he stumbled and went down. Spirit was there again, grabbing his arm, preventing the fall.
“You’ve got to stop trying to toss yourself off mountains, my boy.”
“I thought I was… I thought it was over.” His heart racing, the acrid taste of adrenaline in his mouth, Keiran tried to calm himself.
“Look, Second Chance, there are parts of this trail where you’ll only have your determination to continue. We’ll get through this; I promise you’ll make it.” Smiling, he headed back down the trail.
Kieran sat on the rock, overlooking the three thousand feet fall he had avoided, thanks to Spirit. How am I ever gonna make it another fifteen hundred miles?”
Every night, in camp, Spirit would take out a worn leather notebook and write. Some nights for a few moments, other times for an hour or more.
“What are you working on, the great American novel?” Kieran asked.
“No,” Spirit answered, putting the book down for a moment, “I write about the people on the trail and the things we experience.”
“I suppose you write about saving my life two or three times over?” Kieran smiled.
Spirit looked at him, pausing a moment, “Who’s to say you’re not saving my life? We all get something from each other, some good and some bad.”
Soon, they reached into Pennsylvania. Everyone who has hiked the trail will tell you it is a love-hate relationship with Pennsylvania.
The southern part of the state, up to Duncannon, is beautiful, rolling hills. Oft times hiking through cornfields and wildflowers.
After Duncannon, the rocks turn it into one of the seven circles of Hell. Big rocks, little rocks, sharp rocks, slippery rocks, rocks that move, rocks that slide. Northern Pennsylvania is where hiking shoes go to die.
Climbing over one of the pointless ups and downs, or PUDS as the hikers call them, Kieran reached up to pull himself over a large boulder. He felt something move.
Pulling his hand back and screaming, he tried to peer over the rock’s edge.
Spirit peered down from a rock cliff a few yards ahead. “Try a different route around that rock. I think the Timber Rattlesnake prefers to be left alone.”
“Rattlesnake?” Kieran replied, “Jesus Christ, I grabbed a rattlesnake?” making his way around the boulder, clearing it by 30 yards.
“I would suggest you look first before you reach blindly above you. It may not kill you, but it won’t help you either.” Spirit answered, laughing.
“How the hell am I going to do this without dying?” Kieran said.
“One step at a time, son. One step at a time. Follow my path, I have done this before, and I haven’t lost anyone, yet.”
Walking into Palmerton, Pennsylvania, Kieran looked forward to a real meal and a beer. “Where do you want to eat first?” he asked.
“I’ll just stay at the next trailhead,” Spirit replied. “I prefer to stay on the trail when I’m out here. It’s where I am most content.”
Kieran hesitated a moment, “You sure, I think I need a real meal.”
“Go, no one’s stopping you. When you are ready, come back here and meet me. I have some repairs to do on my equipment. I’ll take my zero-day out here. Go.”
Kieran shrugged his shoulders, turned, and headed toward the town. As he got to the road, he tried his hand at hitching a ride. The first car stopped for him.
“Need a ride to town?” the driver asked.
“That’d be great,” Kieran said.
“How long you been on the trail?”
“About, ah, two months. Kinda hard to remember,” Kieran laughed in reply.
“I know what you mean. Hiked it back in the ’60s when I got back from ‘Nam. Different trail then,” steering the car back onto the road. “Helped me get my head on straight. You got a place to stay?”
“Nah, thought I’d go to the hostel,” Kieran said.
“We got a room at our place; my wife loves to feed hikers. Waddya’ say?”
“Trail magic, I love trail magic. Thanks, I’ll take you up on it.”
The trail magic rest accomplished its purpose. Kieran headed back onto the trail. Spirit sat on a rock about a hundred yards in.
“Been waiting long?” Kieran laughed.
“Nope, I knew you’d make it back. Ready to finish this thing?”
“We have some ways to go yet, don’t we?” Kieran replied.
“We do but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, can’t you?” picking up his pack and walking stick. “Why don’t you take the lead for a bit? Think you’re up to it?”
“Follow the white blazes, right?” Kieran said, heading up the trail.
“All there is to it.” Spirit smiled.
The climb out of Palmerton, while not the most difficult on the trail, is still challenging. Kieran struggled to lift himself, and the weight of the pack, over the many scrambles up the steep climb.
Pausing after hard climbs over large boulders, he tried to sit on a flat rock facing outward. Placing his pack on the rock, he pulled his water bottle from the side of the pack. Losing his grip, the pack rolled over, picked up speed, and tumbled several hundred yards down the rockslide, stopping just before the edge.
“Son-of-a-bitch. Now what?” Kieran said.
Spirit sat on the rock next to him. “Well, it seems you have two choices. Quit, or climb down over there, get your gear, and keep going. Your call.”
Kieran looked at the pack and the steep rocky way down to it. “I don’t know. Looks dangerous.”
Spirit leaned back, closed his eyes, and remained quiet.
Glancing at the old man, Kieran took another appraisal of the route down and descended. It was a combination of lowering himself, sliding on the loose gravel, and clinging for dear life, but he made it to the pack.
Looking up, he could not see the old man. He must have continued on. He thought.
Grabbing his pack, he examined it, looking for any damage or missing gear. The backpack was in good shape. Pulling the pack back on, he climbed again.
“Try this way,” a voice came from behind him, startling him.
“What the…?” Kieran said, finding Spirit standing behind and below him.
“Nice form on the way down, but I suggest you follow my lead. I have done this before, remember.”
Kieran adjusted the straps, cinched the weight-bearing belt, and fell in behind Spirit.
Now I know where he gets his name, Kieran thought, he is like a ghost appearing out of nothing.
The two hiked in silence for twelve more miles, stopping for water and a snack. As they approached a small rise in the trail, Kieran said, “You want to continue to the next shelter, or find a spot to camp?”
Spirit stopped, took out his map, and studied it for a moment. “The water sources around here are not too reliable. The next shelter has a good spring. Let’s shoot for that. The weather looks good, only another four miles.” Placing the map back, he drank from his water bottle, “You up for that?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Kieran was lost in thought over the next hour and a half until they reached the blue-blazed side trail to the shelter. Checking his own map, he groaned. “Man, it’s almost a half-mile to the shelter off the main trail.” Peering down the side trail, “Looks like it’s down all the way, which means climbing back up in the morning.”
“Part of the joy, my boy. We have little choice. We are both low on water, and the next reliable source is six more miles. I have been to this shelter, it’s almost brand new. A better caliber of mice live in the new ones,” smiling at his own humor. “Onward my boy, or downward as it were.”
After setting up their sleeping bags, Kieran walked to the spring and filled both water bags. Returning gave him a good look at the shelter. It was only a year old. The distance from the main trail left it lightly used. There was a covered front platform with a picnic table, plenty of space to cook, and there were few signs of mice.
“It is a nice one,” he said.
Spirit smiled, “Often, it pays to take a little detour. The rest here will be a good one. I would imagine down here, surrounded by these ridges, it would block out most of the moonlight. Should be a nice, dark, restful sleep.”
Finished with their favorite dinner, Mac & Cheese, both crawled in their sleeping bags as the last of the light disappeared over the hills, plunging them into almost total blackness.
Off in the distance, an unfamiliar bird sang, the sound barely audible. Melodic and soothing, Kieran drifted off.
“What?” Kieran lifted himself on his elbows, turning toward the sound of Spirit’s voice.
“That is the sound of the Whippoorwill. The sound is its name, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill.” The voice of his invisible hiking compatriot continued.
“It is nice.” Pulling the bag tighter around himself and burying his head in his makeshift pillow.
“Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill.” The song now coming from atop the shelter.
“How long with this go on?” Kieran asked. His voice muffled by the sleeping bag pulled over his head.
“Until he is satisfied he has warned off any other males from his territory… “
“Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill.”
“Or until sunrise. Whichever comes first.”
“Are you freaking kidding me?”
“Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill.”
“No, I am not.”
“Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill.”
Enduring the song for most of the night, Kieran managed a few hours’ sleep. “Please tell me the Whippoorwill is an uncommon species of bird,” Kieran said, packing his backpack.
Spirit smiled. “Let’s just say they are not the most common,” handing Kieran the shelter logbook. “Did you sign it?”
The logbooks are in almost every shelter along the trail. They serve as an informal method of keeping track of those that stayed at the shelter and to see the progress of others you have met on the trail.
Kieran opened the book and flipped through the pages. He saw several hikers he had met on the trail listed, Hydro, Mary Poppins, Two-sticks, Racewalker, Miracle, Redbeard, Reboot, and a few others. Not all the names were familiar, but it was nice to see many were still on the trail.
Turning to the last page, looking for a blank one to add his name, he burst out laughing.
Spirit looked at him. “Something funny?”
“You know how people sometimes put quotes or messages next to their names?”
“Look at this one,” handing him the book.
In beautiful, cursive handwriting, someone had written,
Will someone please kill the Whippoorwill!
“A true AT hiker if ever I knew one,” Spirit said, tossing the book onto the sleeping platform and hoisting his back.
Over the next few weeks, Kieran saw less and less of Spirit during the day. Coming upon the old man sitting on a log, Kieran asked, “Is there something wrong?”
“On the contrary, my boy, something is right. You have learned along the way here. Do the rest of this on your own.”
“But aren’t you going to finish? Aren’t you going to Katahdin?”
“Listen, Second Chance, I’ve been to Katahdin many times. The end of the trail is not what matters to me; it is what I do on the way. The people I meet, the lives I encounter. It is why I am out here.”
Kieran took off his pack and sat next to the old man. “So, you think I can handle this?”
Spirit looked at Kieran. “I never doubted you’d get there. I knew from the start. I can always tell when I meet them. Those that will make it, and those that will not. Sometimes, it takes a few falls before you realize it has always been your choice to finish or quit.”
Spirit stood up, using Kieran’s shoulder to brace himself, leaving his hand on Kieran’s shoulder for a moment. “Go finish this. Your wife and your daughter need you to come home.”
Slinging on his backpack, he headed south on the trail, disappearing into the trees.
Kieran crossed over the border from New Hampshire to Maine, arriving soon at the Mahoosuc Notch. AT hikers recall the notch one of two ways, the hardest mile or the most fun, depending on their idea of fun, or level of fear.
Climbing over the boulders, descending the steep declines, squeezing through narrow passages by the end of the notch, Kieran still was not sure.
Those who hike the AT, consider New Hampshire and Maine the most challenging section on the trail. The final portion, known as the 100-mile wilderness, ends just before Katahdin.
Kieran looked forward to hiking this. It would be the culmination of his dreams. As he entered the wilderness, the fatigue and cumulative effect of the long journey sank in.
He struggled to do 10 miles a day, this after routinely hiking 18 to 20. He fought doubts; His daily routine became more and more difficult. Yet, he struggled on.
10 days into the wilderness, he caught an inspiring vision, his first view of Katahdin, a lone giant rising in the distance out the green Maine woods.
At that moment, he knew. All doubt erased. He knew he would stand on that peak.
Four days later, he crossed the Tableland on the Hunt trail about a mile before the summit. He could see the small figures of people standing on the peak.
He could see the famous sign marking the end of the Appalachian Trail.
He was just about there.
He heard his daughter’s voice. “Come on, Dad, you promised you’d come back…”
I must be hallucinating, he thought. Dehydrated or something. He sat on a rock, pulled out his water bottle, closed his eyes, and drank, feeling the water relieve his fatigue.
The light blinded him as he opened his eyes. He could not focus. Trying to stand, his legs wouldn’t move.
He felt a hand take him in a warm caress. Voices, loud voices, frantic movement, just shadows in his clouded vision.
Then, he saw his wife’s face. She was crying and smiling.
What is going on…?
“Shot? What do you mean I was shot?” he heard himself say. Nothing made sense.
“I was on Katahdin; I was almost to the top….”
Yet, here he was, in a hospital, hooked up to a thousand wires and lines.
“Shot, how is this possible?”
His wife and daughter were on either side, nurses swirling around him. He could make out uniform officers standing just outside the door peering in as the nurses tried to push them away.
A doctor came in and explained he had been in a coma. He had suffered a head wound, and they had induced a coma to help control the swelling. They had reversed the coma hoping for just this result.
They expected a full recovery.
“But I was hiking. I was there. I saw things on the trail. It was real,” Kieran said to his wife.
“We read to you, your daughter, me, and a bunch of officers from many departments. We read stories of hiking to you. We wanted to help you come back, to give you a reason to come back,” breaking into a gentle sob.
The weeks passed, and the doctors decided Kieran could go home. As he sat on the end of the bed, waiting for the attendant with the wheelchair, his wife and daughter walked in with one nurse.
“Ready to go?”
“What do you think?” Kieran replied, jumping off the bed.
“Whoa there, big fella. Wait for the wheelchair,” the nurse scolded, smiling at his determination.
The attendant arrived, loaded Kieran into the chair, and headed to the elevator. They came off the elevator, greeted by several uniform officers applauding. Kieran smiled, his wife and daughter had tears in their eyes.
“Your escort awaits, Sergeant,” Captain William Barlow announced.
The attendant started toward the exit, passing by a large glass display case., Kieran noticed something. “Hang on a minute, what’s that?” pointing to the display.
“It’s a bunch of stuff from a hospital benefactor. He was a world traveler.” The attendant answered. “The wing of the hospital you stayed in is named for him, Alan MacKensie.”
Kieran looked at the attendant, then back at the leather-bound notebook.
“I saw that book. He had it on the trail. Alan MacKensie was his name.” Kieran said to his wife. “But it wasn’t real, was it. I must have imagined it.”
The nurse came running over to him, handing Kieran a small envelope. “This came this morning. I almost forgot to give it to you.”
Kieran took it, looking at the symbol of the Appalachian Trail, conjoined letters A T, embossed on the envelope.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” his wife asked.
“When I get home, I just want to get out of here,” placing the envelope in his pocket.
“Dad, open it,” his daughter said.
Kieran smiled and took the envelope out. Tearing open the flap, he pulled out a small note card. The same A T letters adorned the front of the note.
As he opened the card, tears welled up in his eyes.
“What’s it say, Dad?” His daughter put her arm around his shoulder, leaning in to read the note.
I told you. I knew you would make it…