June 28, 2013
In a few short years he became a legend on the Buckeye Trail. In those few short years he also became a dear friend–actually more like a brother–to me, and I’m sure some other fellow hikers and people Poppie met along the trail feel the same. On June 25th, 2013, he left us for a new trail.
“Gone Hiking” were the final words Poppie (aka Bruce Purdy) left on his blackboard when he retired from teaching three years ago. He was serious about those words. I met him only two days later on a backpacking trip on the BT near Peebles, Ohio. That hike was the first of many with Poppie. We were both covering the trail a piece at a time, whenever we had the chance.
Like many hikers, he talked of making an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, but gradually cooked up a plan to start over on the Buckeye Trail and thru-hike it. At that time only a handful of people had accomplished that feat. Thru-hiking the BT would be a major success and a dream come true.
It wasn’t meant to be.
Poppie had the will and the heart, but not the feet and the legs he needed to complete the entire 1,444 miles. He came within 130 miles of his goal, then did volunteer work while waiting for the multiple surgeries on his feet to heal. If he could finish, it wouldn’t be a true thru-hike because of the long lay-off, but a notable achievement nonetheless. Friends planned to join him on his final miles and celebrate with him at the end.
We really wanted to see Poppie finish. He would make such a fuss over others when they did. When I completed my hike of the BT, he presented me with a framed collage of pictures of our hikes, and even a Poppie-designed hiking magazine cover–with my photo on it. I’m sure many hours of work went into his gifts. He then hiked the last three miles with me, the biggest gift of all, even though he knew he would barely be able to walk for the entire week afterward. He baked special cakes decorated with a map of the trail for others who finished. To Poppie it was all about us.
Before Poppie started his thru-hike, he organized shorter hikes and advertised them online. I joined him on one in northwestern Ohio near St. Marys. He chewed up the 18 miles the first day despite the steady 30-mile per hour winds. So much so that I dubbed him Poppie-No-Stoppie. I’m honored that the name stuck. I had whined about the wind all day and complained that we should have been going clockwise, which would have been with the wind. Since the wind was predicted to continue the next day, Poppie grudgingly changed his hiking plan made weeks ago. We set up the day’s 20-mile hike to run clockwise. The wind was still steady at about 25 mph. After a mile a sad truth emerged: the wind had shifted directions and we were once again stuck with a day of battling against it. That’s the day he dubbed me ClockWise.
Things started looking up this past winter. Poppie felt better and ready to try to finish his own hike. I made plans to join him. Then one morning in May I received a call that he was being wheeled down the hall in Mount Carmel East for the removal of a brain tumor. I got there before he left pre-op. I don’t say “I love you” much to my hiking comrades, but it wasn’t hard to express that to my brother Poppie, especially knowing that it might be the last words I spoke to him.
Our last time together was a few weeks later at a nursing home. Was it for rehab or comfort care? Would he get better or not? Even though the tumor had been a very aggressive cancer, I still held out hope for his recovery. The doctors told the family they did not. Right up to the end I expressed my optimism to Captain Blue, Pioneer Spirit, and Jim Gilkey, three other mutual hiking buddies. They felt likewise. Poppie was one tough old bird.
Well, the truth is I do still have hope. Hope that his family finds comfort from God and each other. Hope that his friends and family can honor Poppie by “completing” his hike for him and celebrate for him at the end. I also hope he doesn’t get too far ahead of me on the trail he is on now. Poppie-No-Stoppie can sure chew up the miles.