“When Odysseus sailed to sea/ He left behind Penelope/ She waited years, patiently/ For him to come back from his Odyssey/ But I would rather have you sittin’ here next to me/ Lookin’ at the map and tellin’ us where we oughta’ be”
From the song, “Along for the Ride,” by the Okee Dokee Brothers
Of the hiking-related books I’ve read since my saga with breast cancer began in March 2015, the oddest has to be Edward B. Garvey’s Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime (Appalachian Books, 1971). When Garvey did his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1970, he was fifty-eight years old and had abruptly finished a long-term career at the National Science Foundation. Garvey, a former Boy Scout and member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, took his early retirement as an opportunity to hike the entire AT.
Garvey’s book is written primarily to aid other AT hikers. It therefore offers the typical sections on appropriate equipment (chapters include “Food,” “The Pack,” “Shoes and Clothing,” “Not Necessary But Nice”) as well as Garvey’s observations on shelters, water sources, trail markers, etc. It is clear, however, from the outset of the book that Garvey is a chipper, friendly sort of narrator. This is no “Lone Expedition.”* Instead, Garvey sets out on the AT with a travel buddy, and his daily diary-like descriptions of hiking the AT include numerous references to taking time off the trail in order to meet up with friends for coffee, a meal, sometimes even a sleep-over. In short, this has to be one of the most social accounts of hiking the AT I’ve ever read.
Even now, when I think of Garvey’s experience on the AT, I shake my head in wonder and amusement. His experience seems vastly different from what I consider a proper approach to long-distance hiking. Where, for example, is the solitude and stoic endurance of inevitable discomfort coupled with deep reflection on the grandeur of nature and the human condition?
But here’s the thing: at a certain point this summer (specifically during week one of what I call the “bad chemo”), I realized I could not continue to function without help. I had to become a little more like Garvey if I was going to continue to move even inch by inch. And so, despite my hardy dislike for feeling dependent on anyone, I asked for help. The help poured in, but it felt odd letting so many more people into what was such a deeply personal pilgrimage. Of course, from the start, I could never characterize myself as the “lone” anything. My “community” (which includes many of you, your professors, your co-workers, your friends) was there from almost the beginning. And I can’t begin to find adequate ways to express how thankful I’ve been for the palpable and myriad forms of support I’ve had.
Plus, I’d also like to point out that, like Garvey, I also set out with my own trail buddy. The epic journey stories, such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid, featuring the solo heroic man have never felt quite right to me. I would rather have someone sitting next to me helping navigate the difficult course ahead. When I consider the person who’s been in that position for the past thirteen (or twenty-three) years (depending on how we’re counting), that’s always a time I am sharply reminded of God’s amazing grace despite the present trial.
While I have been fortunate to have so many people willing to help out, I also still prefer to be more independent than less. Four weeks after surgery, and heading into six-ish weeks of radiation, I’m now in much more of a position to function fairly normally—if such a thing really exists in the post-cancer-diagnosis life. It has been a gift, however, to see how my weakness has been met by the variety of strengths in the community surrounding me.
*This was the trail moniker Earl Shaffer adopted when he completed the first thru-hike of the AT in 1948.