January 18, 2014
It was an unusually mild December day, perfect weather for a walk down those lonely back roads. We weren’t hunters, and we trusted our bright colors to alert the people with rifles that we were not deer, either.
I listened as my hiking partner, Andrew Purdy (aka Yogi), detailed our mission to a curious gent in that rural part of southeast Ohio. The man sat on his porch enjoying the Indian summer day. He rarely saw hikers happen by. Yogi explained that he was on leave from the Navy and was hiking the Buckeye Trail to finish the quest for his father. Poppie had been within 133 miles of finishing all 1,444, but he passed away last summer before he could realize his dream. Poppie’s hike would continue, nonetheless—through his son.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard the story, and I would hear it again this hike. Still, each time I did, a lump formed in my throat. I was touched by a son’s commitment to accomplish his father’s dream. The folks we talked to were emotionally affected as well, especially the veterans. They perfectly understood the importance of carrying out a mission to its completion.
Underneath the bright orange cover on Yogi’s back rested Poppie’s backpack. Poppie’s gear stuffed it, and his medallion-adorned wooden hiking stick was latched firmly to its side. Yogi wore Poppie’s hat and shirt as well. A quick peripheral glance was hardly enough to convince me that I was not actually hiking with Poppie himself.
I had only known Poppie a few years, but during that time he and I had bonded like brothers. I was honored to break in one of his previously unused hiking sticks, a gift to me from his son. It reminded me that I was an important part of this mission as well.
Yogi and I walked along telling Poppie stories and wondering how this day could get any better when I spotted a $20 bill! Then another!! Then two more!!! Some hunter must have lost them. (Please, no emails; it’s already spent.) Or maybe, I surmised, it was Poppie getting us off to a great start. We would have camping and snack money. One thing about Poppie, he knew what was important. We talked for a mile or two about the money. I had found nary a buck on my entire first circuit around the BT. Hmmm. This second time around might prove quite profitable.
Further down the road, we met a man with a thick, wiry grey beard who was using the break in the weather to split wood. He chatted enthusiastically with us, and we appreciated his deep spirituality. Yogi shared with him about his dad’s unfinished journey. The farmer noted that we leave many things undone on this earth, and after a few more words and God-bless-yous were exchanged, we continued south.
Five minutes later we heard a rather noisy vehicle approach us. Our friend pulled up beside us and apologized that he had left something undone. I had a feeling when we had conversed earlier that he still had more in the basement. He handed us a tract entitled “Calvary,” then asked if we knew the Lord. We both said yes, so quickly that I’m not sure he believed us. Poppie would have liked talking to this countryside evangelist; for him, this subject had trumped even Snickers. And that is really saying something.
Part of Poppie’s mile-eating secret had been to stop every five miles for a sugar boost. It worked. When he would take off again, his friends had to scurry to keep up with him, at least until his next Snickers break. We knew that for the miles between, he would live up to his trail name: Poppie-No-Stoppie. Yogi stayed true to his dad’s hiking formula on this trip, and that gave me one more thing to be thankful for.
Yogi and I had to keep moving if we were to stick to the plan, which was to average 15 miles a day for four days. Yogi’s GPS app would show 22 miles at the end of the first day. Subtract four from that, however: two miles for a coffee-and-snacks detour to Old Washington—a planned divergence—and two more miles for missing a turn blaze. Luckily Jim, another hiking buddy and friend of Poppie’s, arrived in the area on schedule late in the afternoon. Jim found us and hauled us back to the forsaken blaze. Otherwise it would have been a 24-mile day.
After Jim dropped us off at the blaze, Yogi and I walked our last mile to Marina Point Campground on Senecaville Lake. We were amazed to see a herd of bison as we passed the White Oak Exotic Game Preserve. Yogi exchanged some Native American phrases with them that he had learned from his mother. At camp, Yogi dropped the heavy pack and began to nurse his blisters. Jim took me back to my car at Salt Fork Lake. We would both be using our vehicles this hike, dayhiking between them and retrieving them at the end of the day, in order to support Yogi’s backpacking trip as needed.
Campers and trailers occupied many of the sites in Marina Point, but it seemed most were abandoned this time of year. Our site was peaceful, conveniently located right next to the registration building. We periodically stoked our small fire with pine needles and cones for a fresh burst of light and intoxicating pine smell. We talked about Poppie, mostly good memories, but also about some of the times that we had clashed a bit. Poppie would have appreciated the fact that we didn’t sugarcoat our conversations. He never did.
The weather changed as we slept that night and forced us to begin day two in our rain gear. As we walked, the drizzle quickly evolved into a downpour, then began blowing sideways. Despite my best attempts to stay dry, the moisture from my dripping pant legs stealthily wicked up under my poncho. At least it wasn’t cold yet. That, we knew, would come later that night.
The trail entered the woods for the first time, and it was obvious to us that the streams were swelling. We had heard that there were flash flood warnings out for the area. The situation looked gloomy until we exited the woods a few miles later into Buffalo Hills Campground. When we spotted an operating camp store serving hot food, the picture brightened considerably. As we sat eating pizza and cheesy potato soup, a patron, probably a deer hunter, commented, “I thought you hikers just ate seeds and nuts,” to which I responded, “Not the hikers I hike with.”
We continued on with full bellies, knowing positively that seeds and nuts would not have done the job. The skies lightened a bit, and the rain returned to a drizzle. We got in some good mileage and reached Jim’s truck near the 12-mile mark. After some serious tailgate discussion, we decided to leave it and go on. Neither Jim nor I wanted to stop hiking. Besides, Yogi’s wife was planning to drive from Grove City to meet us and maybe hike a short distance that evening near Wolf Run. She could shuttle Jim back to retrieve the truck later.
The plan changed about an hour before dark and at least three miles beyond the truck. Since Yogi’s wife had been delayed, Jim decided to walk back to his vehicle. Yogi and I didn’t want him out there alone with nightfall approaching, but we were not able to dissuade him. We both whispered a word of prayer for his safety.
A couple of hours later Yogi and I stood in complete darkness on a lonely back road, waiting for either Jim or Candice to arrive. We knew Candice’s situation, but we hadn’t heard from Jim. The temp was plummeting, and my soaked feet were getting cold. All Yogi could feel was the pain from his blisters. He was unable to check them because his socks were stuck to the oozing fluid.
That was when Yogi decided to end part one of the trek. He felt bad about ending it early, but it made sense. We had the total miles reduced to 99. Freezing rain followed by heavy snow was on the bill for overnight and into the next day. He could return home with his wife that night. When Candice arrived, she heartily agreed. “The trail is not going anywhere,” she informed us. Gee, why hadn’t we thought of that. Then Jim pulled up. He had missed a blaze in the waning light and wandered a mile off the trail. Fortunately, a sympathetic farmer had given him a wild tractor ride to the truck. Sometimes God works through a John Deere.
Candice had brought bags of White Castles and fries. Since we were all anxious to beat the bad weather, food was dealt out and we said our goodbyes to Jim. I slid into the car and Candice and Yogi drove me back to my vehicle, still parked at Marina Point. Yogi and I agreed to return for two or three days in February, during his next leave, and then try to finish any leftover miles in April.
I told Yogi how much I had enjoyed this part of the hike, and that I looked forward to part two. It was kind of like Poppie was still hiking—through his son. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, we didn’t call him Poppie-No-Stoppie for nothing.