I came upon an old man on the Trail and, as I approached him on a cold, windswept ridge, I noted that he was standing in place and trying to do something with his pack strap while his pack was still on.
I slowed down and observed that he was very old–much older than me, it appeared. He had liver spots on his skin, his face was wrinkled, drawn, and gaunt, and he could have been in his eighties, though I certainly couldn’t know. I felt concerned for him as he was well away from help and the weather was more than a little threatening that day, especially where we were. But, the advice most often given on the Trail is for everyone to ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ (HYOH is the acronym, and yes, there are t-shirts and bumper stickers.) This means two things to me: do your own thing and don’t too quickly hitch your wagon to someone else’s pace, plans, etc. and conversely be respectful of everyone else’s way of doing the AT. Therefore, I didn’t want to question his situation and so I simply said hello and asked if I could help with anything since he was still working his strap issue.
He looked at me and said ‘yes, thank you’ and I helped him adjust a loose piece of blue foam that he was trying to work back in place under one of his backpack straps. Up close now, I could see that his hands were gnarled and arthritic, that his nose was dripping continually, that his hair and long beard were unkempt, and I felt, guiltily, a slight repulsion. However, upon looking into his eyes, I saw that he had kind eyes and he seemed quite together and unworried, despite the cold wind beating at us on the narrow ridge. So, I lightened up a little bit and then offered him my gloves. It wasn’t a gratuitous offer; I really wanted him to have the gloves since my hands hardly ever get cold and frankly, the gloves weren’t very expensive gloves. They were simple gray wool gloves but perfect for the conditions we were in. He refused however, though very politely. I then insisted that I’d see him somewhere up the Trail and get the gloves back eventually, trying to bury the issue as a gift and resurrect it as a loan so he could save face if that’s what was needed to close the deal. But again, ‘oh no, no thank you though’ said quite amiably as if he were an English Gentleman of old saying ‘Why don’t be silly, my good man–I wouldn’t hear of it!’
As I continued, I thought about how heroic his journey felt to me. At his age, and with his infirmities, he was way out here, hundreds of miles into the Trail with a heavy pack, and was clearly intending to through-hike the whole Appalachian Trail. And, during our earlier conversation, I had gathered that he was not a person of great means and had had his share of ill luck in life. And so I was reminded of the protagonist in Hemingway’s epic ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.
(An old Cuban fisherman, down on his fishing luck and derided by his village for it, finally captures the fish of a lifetime–a giant Marlin–and undertakes to tow it back to his village in his little boat. The villagers will be astounded at his accomplishment, he will make a great deal of money selling the fish, and he will salvage his reputation in the eyes of his fellow fishermen, the village, and himself. But sharks appear, and worry the great Marlin down to the bone on his long return journey and, though he battles the sharks relentlessly, he returns to his little beach at last with only the head and skeleton of the great fish intact. In deep despair, and exhausted, he falls asleep in his meager fishing shack and dreams of his youth. Meanwhile, villagers discover the carcass and realize, with admiration and pride, the gravity of the struggle that the old man must have endured and that it was the biggest Marlin any of them had ever seen.)
And so was this old man’s journey on the Trail a similar effort at restoration of stature late in life? The sharks on the Trail can be numerous and they can attack the impetus for success daily, even hourly. I saw this man only one more time, at a hostel, and he was significantly bruised above his right eye and forehead–clearly the result of a fall–and it looked very bad as bruising in older people can. Yet, he was calmly making oatmeal in the kitchen of the hostel, though sandwiches and other ‘real food’ options were available for sale at the hostel store. He was delighted to talk with me again, having remembered our earlier encounter. I talked with him longer this time and again assessed that his mental condition seemed fine.
I would love to learn that this guy makes it all the way to Mt. Katahdin, the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. But even if he doesn’t, I hope he takes pride in having pushed his little boat out to sea and hooked onto a great struggle; he is fighting the sharks with dignity and aplomb.