I dropped an application to scribble articles and blog posts for a website during our thru-hike. It should pay enough to get beer and Snickers bars every week or so. One of the questions it asked was who inspired me to do a thru-hike (I should say us, because Bailey suggested it).
I’m not sure.
Many years ago I was on night shift, D-Team, patrol. The shifts ran from 1745 until 0600. Twelve hours on, twelve off. Work three, off three, until you hit one rotation where you were only off two days (a Monday and Tuesday). That way you had two weekends off a month. It was pretty sweet. The usual routine was to hit all the commercial buildings in your zone starting around 0400, and check for break-ins that might have happened while you were answering calls. Then high tail it to the station to give your sergeant the paperwork, fuel up the patrol car, unload your crap, and park.
Shift turnovers were pretty much what you see on television. A lot of casual jabs and a general discussion of what happened during the night. We called the dayshift “Biscuit Eaters”.
Phil O’Neill was a “Biscuit Eater”. He did move around to a night shift at one point, and I think he liked it better than day shift. He was former military, retired, and had been a police for several years. I was no longer a rookie, and had just gotten married. It might have been 1998.
Phil was drinking coffee in the patrol room and their roll call had started. When the turn over finished I meandered to the parking lot and started talking with some of the other officers. One of the calls I went on that night involved a homeless man living in the woods along I-20. When I mentioned it Phil corrected me.
“Urban outdoorsman,” he said. We all thought it was funny. I told him that was probably more true, because the man had a decent pack, a freestanding tent, a homemade alcohol stove, and a pretty good sleeping bag. That’s when Phil mentioned the AT. He said the guy sounded like a typical thru-hiker, and maybe he wasn’t homeless at all. We started talking about hiking, the trips I had taken before, and how now that I was married I probably would not be doing that anymore.
Why indeed. I didn’t though. I went “camping” after I got married. Not backpacking. There was not enough time. When my son, Bailey was born, I decided it was my opportunity to start doing the things I wanted to do. I had a partner. My wife refused to ride anything “dangerous” at Disney World, and here I had a miniature partner whom I could train to enjoy the Aerosmith Rock and Roller Coaster. I had somebody to go hunting with, and hiking.
A few years went by, and Bailey was finally interested in doing all those things I wanted to do. I bought him a pack, and I bought a new lightweight freestanding tent (not at all similar to the I-20 Wanderer’s). Work being what it is we only managed a few overnighters.
One morning at shift change I told Phil I was not pleased with just hanging around the state parks, I wanted to do something monumental. He told me about the AT again, and thru-hikers. He also told me how he lost a dog on a hike near the Georgia and North Carolina border. He wandered around the woods for two days trying to find his dog with no luck. He had to return home and could not wait for the beast so he left, depressed. Phil went back to the section he had been on a month later. The dog showed up, filthy and hungry. It had been hanging around one of the shelters and thru-hikers were probably feeding it. I could sympathize with Phil. I had two mongrels at the time and it probably would have been like the return of the prodigal son. Phil recommended that part of the trail, and that I cut my toothbrush in half. He also handed out other bits of wisdom, about other things, but that would be another story.
Over the years we talked about the AT and the area surrounding it. I never got around to hiking it, but I did hunt deer in the area. I left and started teaching. I kept in touch with some of the people I worked with, and saw them every now and then when we visited my wife’s parents. My son played several seasons of football, made the honor roll at his elementary school, and my wife finished her Ed.S. My mom moved, my sister moved, we moved. Time rolled right by, hand in the air, “Bye.”
A little over a month ago Phil passed away. The advent of social media allowed me to post stuff to his page, and him to post crap to mine. That’s how it’s done today. I emailed him over a year ago telling him about how I was finally going to thru-hike that dirt path. He said, “Good for you.” The one story about the AT that stuck with me was about that dog, the one that ran off, and he assumed was lost forever. It seems you can find things out there. Things that matter.
You can find all kinds of things as you walk along, even when looking down. I found shed deer antlers in the woods, and a minnie ball next to a fallen tree at Kennesaw Mountain. After Phil was laid to rest his daughter sent out one of those general “can anybody help” Facebook posts. It was about Phil’s dog, Molly. The AWOL dog had long since passed. Due to living arrangements nobody could keep Molly (apartments and condos are nice, but not large dog friendly). I showed my wife, and she agreed. So Molly moved in. She likes sleeping in a king size bed, along with our German Shepherd, and snoring too loud. She “escaped” on Halloween by slipping out of her collar. She began walking down the street of our neighborhood, at a slow pace, and looking back to make sure I was following. I finally decided to end her journey and corralled her at the end of the street. She seemed satisfied that she had wandered away, without a leash holding her back, and was content to go back home. Maybe that’s the reason? Bailey and I are wandering away, without a leash (whatever that may be), and eventually we will be content to go back home, just to prove it to ourselves. Thanks Molly. Here’s to being selectively homeless hiker trash.