The Final Leg
When I was still in school, Dad took me to see the giant coal shovels operating in eastern Ohio. They had names like Silver Spade, GEM (Giant Earth Mover or Giant Excavating Machine) of Egypt, and Mountaineer, all of them now extinct. The AEP (American Electric Power) has reclaimed 60,000 acres that were strip-mined by these and other shovels into an outdoor recreation area known as ReCreation Land. They planted over 63 million trees, created hundreds of lakes and ponds, and created trails for horseback riding and biking.
Most of our last 30 miles wound through the eastern edge of this land. The first day we covered 12.6 long miles of easy rises and falls. We saw one hunter on the trail. That made only four people we had passed in 125 miles. We ended the day at Camp H, aka Wood Grove. We camped free, compliments of AEP; all of their outdoor activities are free to the public. Even though it was well into fall, the water pumps were still operative. And we especially appreciated the trash cans and bathrooms.
We managed to pitch our tents under two giant cypress trees before the rain started. A group of hunters were returning from the surrounding woods. They were Mennonites from the Sugarcreek area and were staying in a nearby trailer. After we chatted a bit with a couple of them, they asked if we had read Hiking Through, a book written by a friend of theirs, Paul Stutzman. I told them I had and that I had enjoyed his account of hiking the AT very much.
As Jim, George, and I sat by the fire that night, we tossed around the idea that the next day we pass on through the next camp, located six miles away, and continue twelve more miles to the finish in Belle Valley. That would cut a day off the trip and get us home a day earlier. We could even leave most of our supplies with a campground host we knew in the next camp, then come back and get them after we finished.
Then one of us said, “We haven’t rushed it yet, why start now. “ It was true. I think I can say for all of us that we had done well enjoying the journey. We decided to stick to the original plan: do the six miles Thursday and twelve on Friday, with no slackpacking. Many people travel lighter when they get the chance, and I’m fine with that, but since we had hauled everything this far around the loop–except the water and food we had stashed—why not carry our entire packs to the finish?
Even when it began to drizzle, we remained around the blazing fire and talked about our journey. We had shared many miles together, and that would soon end. We could practically smell the finish line. If only the post lady we’d seen on our second day could see us now!
The rain finally drove us into our tents. I lay comfortable on the bed of needles and my NeoAir mattress, enjoying the sound of rain over my head. I compared my hiking efforts to Paul Stutzman’s. He left his job and found healing on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail after losing his wife to cancer. I understand how taking on a challenge of a healing journey and relying on faith in God can change one’s life. On my original circuit hike around the entire Buckeye Trail, from the spring of 2009 to the summer of 2012, I worked through the grief of losing my brother and my son to suicide. Part of my healing came from the hike, part from the book Hiking Without Dave that I wrote about my experiences, and part from the speaking that I am doing to share my journey.
The last couple of days were cold and rainy, but I was conditioned by then. We stayed at Camp K, aka Bicentennial Camp, the final night, then walked into Belle Valley Friday afternoon. Several people stopped their cars and asked us how far we had hiked. One old guy thought it was great that three old guys were out backpacking. A man at the gas station was kind enough to take a picture of the three old guys. Not a lot of fanfare, but a great feeling of achievement.
This was not a mammoth thru-hike of the entire 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail, but it was a tenth of it. I’m planning to do another tenth this fall from where we left off. Maybe I’ll do this yearly till I make it all the way around again—if this old guy can keep carrying the pack for nine more years.