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.