Uh-oh. Another corny joke was on its way: “How can you tell a train has been through town?” I’d heard Jim tell this one before somewhere along the Buckeye Trail, but I couldn’t remember the punchline. My wife Bonnie and I both love solving silly riddles, but we finally gave up and asked Jim for help. “You can see its tracks,” he said with a big grin. Yeah right, Jim.
I have one for Buckeye Trailers: “How can you tell Jim Gilkey has been through here?” If you know much at all about Jim, you’ll know the answer: By his tracks!
In his simple, humble, old-school way, this man is clearly leaving his mark all around the state. For example, on a multitude of miles, you can see where his Pulaski has helped sculpt trails during work parties. It’s volunteers like Jim who help make this treasured hiking trail of Ohio what it is today. Scores of people have been touched by his homespun humor and helping hand.
On the 28th day of December, 2013, he left his tracks on a stretch of the Bedford section, heading northeast toward the BT terminus at Lake Erie. I consider it an honor that my tracks followed his on this special ten-mile journey. This would finish Jim’s six-year-plus quest to hike the entire 1,444 miles of the Buckeye Trail. The journey had been made longer by his selfless rehikes to help others complete the trail. If you’d studied the signs that day, you would have discovered that others were along to share his moment as well—others who had been touched by his life in various ways.
You’d have seen Diane’s prints, faint not only because of her small frame, but also from the fact that her shoes were worn smooth by hiking hundreds of miles alongside Jim. In fact, she has less than 200 miles to go until she finishes the BT. She, like Jim and others there that day, have braved surgery and pain to make their way this far around the loop.
The familiar tracks of Chris, John, and Bob S. would have been seen. The guys were there despite their own past physical issues. Chris and John are the men Jim credits with starting him on this journey. They were present at the first BT hike Jim went on “just to check it out,” and they have teamed up on many miles since. Bob S. has joined Jim numerous times as well. These men knew what the day meant to Jim; all three have completed the loop themselves.
You would have seen the unusually deep and large tracks left by boots that carried the tall frame of Matt, a native of Painesville. Matt has conquered much of the loop himself. He was there because he had seen the hike advertised on buckeyetrail.org and wondered if this was the same Jim whom he’d run into on the Wilderness Loop of the trail last fall when Jim and I were finishing Jim’s Road Fork section. If so, this would be a perfect opportunity for a hike with Jim.
After a four-month hiatus, the tracks of Bob M. would have been visible this day. He met Jim when he was a trail angel on one of Jim’s previous hikes in the Bedford section. Since he is the section supervisor assigned the task of keeping this section of the trail maintained, you’ll likely see his footprints over and over in the future. We witnessed one of his first official acts when he peeled a large, yellow “JUNK CARS” sign from a light pole because it covered a blue turn blaze. FYI—Bob put the sign back on the pole in a place that wouldn’t lead people astray.
On the last mile, non-hiker shoes began leaving prints in the mud and ice on the Headlands Beach State Park parking lot. Those shoes belonged to Jim’s sister Marilyn, his niece Molly, and Molly’s husband Destry. Thin stroller tracks could be seen as well. However, 15-month-old Corrinne couldn’t contain her excitement. For the last hundred yards, her tiny prints marked the path of a wobbly, but determined, new BT hiker.
My personal favorite tracks were left by Bonnie. She was hesitant to get any mud on her new hiking boots, a Christmas present from her dad. That’s why they detoured off the muddy trail and up into the leaves so many times. (She insists that was to keep from falling in the mud.) They eventually did get as muddy as anyone else’s, but I promised that when we got home I would have them looking like new again, except for maybe a christening scuff or two. Bonnie was determined to celebrate this day with Jim because she has heard my many stories about our adventures together and knows what a good friend he has been to me.
We finished late in the afternoon. Jim touched the terminus blazes painted on a tree and continued across the sand to the edge of Lake Erie. Fortunately he forgot his speedos, so he had to forgo a dip in the freezing water. He did, however, dip the tip of his hiking stick in. The hungry group, joined by Marilyn’s husband John, then made tracks to Hometown Buffet to celebrate Jim’s accomplishment.
Jim has a new dream now, one to lead a one-weekend-a-month circuit hike all the way around the trail. He plans to start sometime in 2014. He wants to accommodate people who hope to walk the entire BT, as well as those who just want to “check it out.”
“How do you know Jim’s been through here?” Well, as many fellow hikers, family, and friends know, Jim has left his tracks—on their hearts. I am one hiker who is a better person because of it—corny jokes and all—and I don’t believe I am alone in that sentiment.