Happy trail

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

If the dream toward which one advances happens to be hiking the entire 2,167-mile-long Appalachian Trail, he may also meet with sleeping-bag-hogging skunks; scary, knife-wielding fellow hikers; and maybe even God — or whatever force it is that narrowly deflects lightning bolts and charging mother bears from the paths of unwary hikers.

Jeff Alt met with all of those experiences, plus many others, during his 147-day trek from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mount Katahdin, Maine.

And guess what? He even achieved Thoreau’s “success unexpected.”

Alt planned and executed his hike with the goal of raising $10,000 for the Sunshine Home, a residential household for the developmentally disabled and mentally retarded located in northwest Ohio. Sunshine has been home to Jeff’s brother, Aaron, for more than 10 years. Born with cerebral palsy and mental retardation, Aaron is confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak. His only means of communication are his smile and a simple “yes/no” switch.

But Aaron loves the outdoors just as much as his brother.

“When you take Aaron outside, he lights up. He gets this huge grin, and you can tell he’s just in total relaxation,” Alt said in a recent phone interview. “When I first decided I wanted to hike the AT, raising money didn’t cross my mind — but my brother always did. It just seemed natural to dedicate the hike to him.”

With that decision came the idea to raise funds for the Sunshine Home. “I not only wanted to dedicate my journey to Aaron out of love, but I also wanted to give back to [Sunshine] for all that it has done for our family and Aaron,” Alt explains.

By the time Jeff took the last of the estimated five million steps required to complete the Appalachian Trail, he had raised more than $16,000 for his brother’s nonprofit group home. And his hike inspired an annual fund-raiser that has generated more than $40,000 in the two-and-a-half years since Alt reached the end of his long walk. Now Jeff is donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of his book about the experience, A Walk for Sunshine (Dreams Shared Publications, 2000), to the home.

Success unexpected, indeed.

Charity, however, rarely travels in just one direction. If Alt helped the residents of the Sunshine Home obtain communications devices and other invaluable equipment, they helped him fulfill his dream. Of the approximately 2,500 people who attempt to “thru-hike” the AT annually, a scant 200 to 300 actually make the entire trip. What makes those few press on despite the blistered feet, loneliness, fear, exhaustion, and constant warfare against granola-bar-snatching mice? The reasons some hikers go on and other don’t are as varied as the reasons they start. For Jeff, it was the image of all those people — but especially his brother — cheering him on.

“When I was hiking, I would think about people who were important in my life, and I would wonder what they were doing at that very moment. Then I would wonder what they would say or think if they were with me right then. I thought about Aaron a lot and how much he would love to be there,” Alt relates.

“Aaron’s spirit was with me every step of the way. When the weather was nasty and cold, or the terrain was extremely difficult, or my motivation was waning, I would think of Aaron back home, rooting me along,” Alt writes toward the end of his book.

The AT is a rugged and at times extremely demanding trail. It winds through 13 states, visits the territory of mouse, moose, bear and coyote, and traverses countless mountains, streams and fallen logs. Hiking it from beginning to end is today’s spiritual equivalent of building a cabin by hand at the edge of Walden Pond. Unlike Thoreau, however, Alt acknowledges — and even celebrates — that the journey cannot be made without the emotional and logistical support of others.

Maybe you’ve casually fantasized about walking the AT yourself — chucking your job, your home, your life, donning a pair of boots and a backpack and hitting the trail. What could be simpler? You can just imagine the peace of the woods. Your growing peace of mind. The sunsets, the sunrises. The freedom from worrying about bills and traffic and how you smell.

Well, Alt’s trail stories will terminate your pretty fantasies. Note this: Your feet will hurt. A lot. Your ankles will swell. You will worry about running across suspected bombers. (The FBI’s search for America’s most-wanted man, Eric Rudolph, was in full swing when Jeff trekked through our stretch of the AT.) You will be hungry — all the time. Back home, people will keep sending you bills, whether you’re there to pay them or not. And even after you’ve showered and run your clothes through the hot cycle three times, friends will still shrink away from your trail musk.

By the way, Alt hardly went ill-prepared — he spent five months prepping for his trip, which included packing supply boxes to be mailed to various off-trail points along the way, researching and acquiring the right gear and walking hour after hour on his gym’s treadmill while bearing 50 pounds of sand on his back. Alt enlisted his sister to handle his mail while he was gone, and his parents agreed to send the supply boxes. Friends agreed to help him maintain a Web site and distribute a newsletter. A cell-phone company donated a phone with unlimited free access. He even dehydrated his own fruits and vegetables. Then he spent an equal amount of time and energy fund-raising.

Even with all his diligent research and preparation, though, Alt still set off on the wrong foot — literally. Just a few miles into the epic trip, his feet were blistered and raw. When he took off his boots (“rated by several sources as the boot of choice for the Appalachian Trail,” Alt writes), he discovered that he’d placed the right arch support in his left boot and the left arch support in the right. On his very first day, Jeff had acquired his trail name: Wrongfoot.

A hiker’s nom-de-trail sticks with him for his entire journey, defining and shaping him — just as the hike itself continues to define and shape the hiker long after he summits the last peak. Even after Jeff finally washed the stench from his clothes and body (a task he said took nearly three weeks), even after he’d once again grown accustomed to all the traffic and noise and motion of modern life that most of us don’t even notice, part of the experience stays with him.

It’s the same part Thoreau discovered in his forest solitude, and that many of us desperately try to find through worship, meditation or just by talking with good friends. It’s the joy that lurks, waiting to be discovered, in every moment of every day — the joy of simply being, of hiking your own hike.

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