Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Appalachian fail

EAST CANAAN, CONN. - June 1 - I have no recollection of either of my grandfathers. They both died before my third birthday. I've never really known what it's like to share a hug with an old man.

It didn't seem like we were going to meet anyone on this day. We'd been hiking for over five hours on the Appalachian Trail in western Massachusetts and hadn't seen any sign of human life since walking for the first few minutes on the path with a guy who called himself Sasquatch. After he vanished into the woods, Denny and I were left with nothing but beautiful nature and a terrain that made no sense to walk on with a sprained knee and swollen ankle. But we walked anyway.

We've told a handful of people that we would likely follow the Appalachian Trail to make our way south. Like many other elements of our trip, we have no idea what to expect in advance, so there's really no point in attempting to answer questions prior to figuring them out as we go. Yet we continue to do so anyway. Bad habit I guess.

The trail offered complete solitude. It was American nature at its finest. It was a refreshing opposite of the life-in-the-fast-lane culture. It was challenging. And it wasn't for us. Not on this trip, at least.

There was nowhere to get guaranteed clean water without a filter. We hadn't thought about that. We would have no way to charge our equipment, so maintaining the blog was out of the question. We hadn't considered that. The trail was so rough and hilly that we were only averaging a mile an hour with our heavy packs. We underestimated that. And we weren't meeting anyone. We didn't want that.

We don't want to escape society. We want to jump off the deep end and dive right into it. After several beautiful, difficult hours on the trail, we arrived to the first road we had seen in quite a while. It was all gravel and didn't look like a well-traveled route, but it was a sign of life nonetheless. We sat on road-side stones to form a game plan of rehydrating and searching for sleeping quarters. To our surprise, a car cut through the trees on the skinny road and slowly approached us. I waved it down despite having no premeditated intentions.

'You boys alright?' asked a friendly-looking older couple as their four-year-old Maltese, Benji, barked at the smelly, sweaty rookie hikers.

'I think so,' I said. 'We're just trying to figure out how to find some drinking water. Are we close to any town?'

The woman smiled. 'Follow us just down this road over the hill. We're at 115. You can't miss it. We'll get you some water.'

As we approached the well-hidden home, the sign reading, 'SLOW - Grandparents at play' made me smile. Another sign hung on their house. 'Welcome,' it read, and that's exactly how Don and Irene made us feel.

'You boys looked pretty pathetic,' Irene joked. We explained we didn't know what we were getting into since we've been handling the logistics of our trip day-by-day, trying to see America without too many preconceived notions. They laughed and offered us food and drinks. 

'Take a seat,' they urged. We watched the news for the first time since leaving home, catching up on the democratic campaign and sharing our outlook on the country with our new friends.

'I feel sorry for you boys for the world you're inheriting,' Irene said. This comment really stuck out since her demeanor otherwise was nothing but joyful and optimistic.

They'd been married 55 years and had lived in the cozy home for around 30. 'I'd feel a lot better if we could do something for you,' I said. 'Are there any projects you've been meaning to get done? Please, put us to work!'

Instead, Irene handed me a pack and told me to ice my fat ankle. 'You missed all the work. We got it all done yesterday,' she said with a grin. Another failed attempt to have a tangible effect on anyone. Denny and I shared the guest bedroom that night, falling asleep while analyzing the need to strengthen our approach. We need to spend less than 10 hours a day walking to ensure we have time and energy to stroll through neighborhoods, knock on doors -taking people by surprise rather than inquiring if there's anything we can do. We need to spend less time on our website telling about our days and more time living out our mission. And we need to stay the hell away from the Appalachian Trail.


I'm oblivious to the details, but it was made clear that Don's health is not at its best. As he drove us toward Stockbridge the next morning, I sat in the back, wishing I could give him some of my youth, some of this energy I don't know what to do with. He seemed to have life figured out. He could do more good with my mind and body than I.

But that isn't how it works. The reality is that I'm using my energy right now to try to experience all life has to offer. What I will do with my findings remains to be seen. Some call it a complete waste. Some call it admirable. I personally don't know what to think at this point. But by sharing a day with Don and Irene, I feel like maybe I'm inching closer to something good. Hearing their stories of meaningful moments from the past and witnessing their current days of being happy grandparents at play helps me understand priorities. Irene and I discussed that it's easy to be a dreamer when you're young, and after many years of life, she knows what's important.

'You just can't lose the focus in the middle,' she said.

When Don and Irene dropped us off on Route 7 yesterday, I wanted nothing more than to immediately pay their goodwill forward, and to continue down the road meeting new people - all ages, all classes, all ideologies - and share life with them. How we can have as much of an effect on people as they're having on us is our new Appalachian Trail - a new challenge we're not certain we know how to handle, but one we refuse to fail, even if we need some support along the way.


Irene and I exchanged kisses on the cheek. It made me miss my wonderful grandmas back in the Midwest. Then Don and I hugged goodbye. It made me wish I remembered my grandpas.

As the couple drove north toward home, Denny and I hiked south through the Berkshires. Only a few minutes passed by before the sky began to sprinkle. Then it turned to heavy rain. Eventually we had to take cover as hail beat down. We waited it out under a tiny park-information overhang with nothing else to do but reflect on the day. We didn't have anywhere particular to be. But we did have people to meet.


Anonymous said...

Hang in there guys and keep it up and ignore the negative comments. It seems to me they are picking on one small segment of your mission statement, the part about you performing random acts of kindness for others. But in re-reading the reasons for why you are doing this I think you have been extremely successful so far -

"We want to get to know our country, its people, and ourselves with the hope of inspiring others with our stories. We are tired of so much negative news in our world and want to do something uniquely positive to counter it. We hope to create a movement of peace and make America a bit better of a place. We believe kindness is contagious and don't want to live in a society in which people are skeptical of strangers. We want to live in No Stranger Land."

The vast majority of us who read your blog every day are on your side. So just keep doing what you are doing.

Also, a side note to Nanci:
I have read your first comment to the boys several times and I think it is one of the most touching and hearfelt things I have ever read. You definitely have a talent for writing. And also thanks for your continued support for what they are doing.

Brian's Dad

Ce said...

hellllllo pretties. Just caught up on everything and wow I'm jealous I wish I would have ditched the Mexico trip and just tagged along, well okay Ill take that back. Anywayss, keep up the good work I'm so proud of you two! Matt and I keep telling at least 3 people a day about your adventure and everyone thinks it's amazing. Be safe :)- Ce

Oh BT, I went to Wrigley yesterday, and just the smell of the hot dogs made me wanna vomit after our trip back home that included winding down the windows every two minutes. byeeeee!~

Freak's Mom said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences along the way. I look forward to following your adventure all summer.

I love what you are doing!!!

Meaghan said...

Hey guys! Glad you made it out of the woods. I was pretty concerned when I really got to know how little you knew of hiking.

Remember that sometimes you can change someone's life just by meeting them and telling them what you're doing. I have been in quite a funk since my friend was murdered a few weeks ago, and had lost nearly all faith in humanity. Meeting you guys and helping you on your mission helped me remember how beautiful the human race is. Ignore all the negative comments and know, that if you have done nothing else on this trip, you've healed my broken heart.

Shame on all of those who wish to chastise others. People make impacts in very different ways.

Thanks again guys, and I'm very glad you're back in society.

-Meag from Massachusetts

Nanci in Rye, NH said...

Denny and Brian -
After reading Meaghan's post I no longer feel the need to justify what you're doing. That says it all and more.

And to Brian's dad:
Everything I say comes straight from my heart. Thank you for the acknowledgement - it means a lot to me. You have a son to be so proud of. And please tell the Clarks the same goes for Denny. You are lucky people.

Grandma Clark said...

I am so proud of both of you boys. Hang in there I know you can do it. I love seeing your videos on your trip. I have been watching every day. Have a good time.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, an unforeseen by-product of the blog has been the enthusiastic discourse taking place on the message boards. While it is easy to ignore the negativity I feel it would be a disservice to your goals to not acknowledge the cynicism that people see in your mission. As a friend of Brian’s, I’m not hesitant to point out what others, and in some cases myself, perceive as a na├»vely broad agenda.

What I’m wondering, and I’m sure a lot of other readers are as well, is if and how you expect to transcend what are, in essence, cursory thoughts about kindness and human interaction. Your ruminations help bridge that gap for me, but I have to agree with some of the other anonymous posts that merely posing the questions isn’t enough.

Maybe the conversations and concerns of your readers can help the evolution of your journey as much as the strangers you meet along the way.

-Mike W

Anonymous said...

"Cursory thoughts on human interaction"- I actually disagree with the condition of the argument. From a particular perspective, one I think the trekkers share, is that we, as Americans, continue to isolate ourselves from one another. We do this through technology, our Sunday mornings, our fenced up Suburbs, and our gathering places that lack communal tables. Seeing and pursuing honest out of the blue interaction - is a bit more doing a cursory investigation of how Americans interact - I applaud these kids for doing so, and documenting the adventure for others to consider.

BEN said...

Haha, I feel like I need to have a solid argument to post a comment lately, but unfortunately I fully support this adventure and knowing both of you, believe that even the kind interactions that you're experiencing are enough to make these acts of kindness a reality.

I suppose I can see someone wanting to dig a little deeper into the project, but some of the negative comments just seem like a bored and desperate attempt to flame a project they know little about.

I think it's obvious that the people behind you far out number those who want to criticize a good thing, so I'm sure you'll take that and continue to be encouraged by all of our support!

Emily said...

As always beautiful photos & stories, and I enjoyed the video of the trail set to music...made me feel like I was along for the walk!

Anonymous said...

Isn't one of the problems in America today the fact we tend to automatically disregard or ignore anyone who has a difference with us?

What kind of message does it send when we merely say 'ignore the negative'? Shouldn't we be encouraging an open, honest dialogue that covers both sides of the argument?

While I don't entirely buy the notion there isn't a bigger plan here (I'm fairly certain Brian is eyeing a book deal) I'm willing to go along for the ride just the same.

Could their time and effort be better spent doing other things? Sure. But apparently they are touching lives and impacting people along the way. That has to count for something.

With all that said, I definitely look forward to seeing this project get back toward its original intent and away from the 'look at us' vibe the early posts have given off. (Yes, I understand this project is VERY fluid)

I'm really looking forward to their experiences in the south. ;-)

d.morrissey said...

Hey, this is cool! I have been following your travels since day one when I read about it in the local paper here in Davenport IA. You seem to be meeting a lot of really cool and interesting people. Just proves that everybody has a story. Wish I'd have had the guts to do something like this way back when. I will be following this all summer. Thanks!

PS: Who was that singing on the video of the trail? Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys! Just wanted to let you know that we (The guy in the red jeep that pick you up and his wife who was driving in an other car to the AT Parking space) hope your adventer is everything you hope it will be, I have no doubt that it will be. We'll be by now and again to check up on you. Happy Trails

JEB and Deb (the pokie pear) AT Section hikers 06, 07, 08

JHarris said...

Hey guys,
Brian I'm not sure it I know you or not, but Denny!!....Brother.....I was telling my mom just yesterday, I guess I wouldn't expect anything less from you bud. I'm so glad, and weird as it sounds, I am feeling so proud that you are putting yourself out there and making a difference. I'm not going to try to give you advice or anything like that because we both know I'm not what you would call "wise". I would say though, read and take into consideration the negative blogs, no great idea has gone un-critiqued. Let the "few thoughtful anonymous" keep you honest and focused. I know you won't get discouraged and I know you will do great things whatever they may be. Take care of each other :)
Be safe and happy.
Love you!