My parents told me that my little brother had died on the third day I was in Maine. I was on the slopes of Bemis Mountain. It had been a drizzly morning at the shelter, and I’d slept in, enjoying the patter on my tent. By the time I hit the trail the day was sunny and clear, and when I stopped on an open granite slope to check my messages there was one from Dad asking me to call home. His voice had a fragile edge to it, and there was also a text from Sunshine saying simply, “I love you.” I sat down on a small boulder beside the trail to call. Mom and Dad talked to me for a while—they wanted to know that I was on a safe section of trail and that I had people around me. I thought of possible events that could occasion a serious talk like this, and I watched the ants scurry around my feet carrying crumbs. Then they told me that my little brother Zach, ten years younger than me, had bought a motorcycle that week and taken it out on a windy road outside of Birmingham. He’d died on it the first day he owned it.
When I got off the phone with Mom and Dad I sat on the mountain crying for a long time and saying, “Oh, God. Oh, no.” I felt a reluctance to leave there—I wanted to stay in that spot all day, but I knew I had to start making my way towards home. I got up and walked ten more miles, weeping periodically, sometimes embraced by friends on the trail who saw me and knew me. That night I stopped at Little Swift River Pond and watched a moose wade through the shallows, noisily slurping lily pads. It felt restful to look into the eyes of another creature, to see its wild, placid gaze fixed on me. The next day my old friend from the trail Last Chance picked me up in Rangeley, Maine and took me to the airport.
My little brother was a gift to our family. He was the baby, a late surprise, and so we had a tendency to spoil him with our love and attention. At the age of seven he developed type1diabetes, and that made us all hold his life even more tenderly. At twenty years old he was doing well in college, honing his gifts as a graphic artist and drawer and beginning to step out on his own as an adult. Three days before his death he wrote me a message on facebook, anticipating my entry into Maine, that said: “Proud of you big bro.”
Zach loved adventure, and that love bound us through the years. We mountain biked together, jumped off rocks into rivers, and he was following this latest journey of mine with avid interest and support. Adventure was part of what he was after on that windy road riding a sporty motorcycle. I wish I could have given him a stern lecture before he bought that bike and went on that ride, but he probably knew that’s what would have been coming; so he never told me about it.
Zach also loved humor—he loved to laugh. From a baby he had a wonderful, full belly laugh, and it was our joy to try to bring it out. Because of Zach, tickling became one of my primary love languages—Sunshine is now suffering the consequences of that. He was much less serious than the rest of our family (save, perhaps, my older brother Ben), and he helped us to be lighter and sillier. There are countless other gifts that Zach’s life brought to our family and to me personally, and I will be counting those gifts for the rest of my days.
Returning to my family’s house in Birmingham was a mix of tender mercies and bitter grief. I wept with Mom, Dad, and Ben, and I was proud to stand with them as we held Zach’s memorial service and remembered him among family and friends. As two weeks off the trail drew to a close I was faced with the decision of whether to return to Maine and finish the journey or not. I couldn’t quite imagine going back and picking up where I’d left off. This particular journey and my entire life had changed in ways I could not comprehend yet—Zach’s death was still not real to me, and I often caught myself thinking and feeling as though he were still somewhere out there in the world, a phone call away. What made the difference for me was the support of my family and friends. It was hearing my father and brother say they wanted me to return and finish the hike. This has always been a walk of purpose, and with the death of my brother I felt I’d lost that purpose. The happy, exhilarating conclusion that I’d been planning was no longer possible, not the way I’d imagined it anyway. But my family’s hopes gave me new purpose. I could hike for them, and for Zach. His words to me before his death, “proud of you brother” echo in the back of my mind and help me go on.
I’ve been back on the trail for five days now. Last Chance picked me up at the airport and was able to join me for the first few miles back on the AT. The frostbite he acquired in the Smokies back in March is recovering remarkably well, and he has regained much range of motion in his fingers. We hiked one night and a day together, exploring the caves by Piazza Rock, and then we parted ways on top of Saddleback Mountain. We waved to each other from distant peaks as I continued north and he returned home.
The AT has felt like much the best place for me to be in these days of grief. The woods and lakes of this country are comforting to me. I watch the birch leaves shimmer in the wind, I listen to loons call across the pond at night, and I feel calm and peace coming to me from the world. I stopped at Orbeton Brook for a while the other day to swim and skip stones. That was one of the things Zach and I did together, and when I got an exceptionally good skip with my last stone I smiled and talked to him: “That one’s for you, Z. I hope you liked it.”
Sunshine met me in Caratunk this morning. She’ll hike with me two more days to Monson, and then we’ll enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the final leg of the Appalachian Trail. We’ll climb Katahdin sometime in September, Lord willing, and then we’ll return home to begin preparing for our wedding and our life together. I’m so thankful to have her by my side.
When we summit that “greatest mountain” I’ll be carrying my little brother with me. I will also have in my heart my family and the friends and loved ones who have helped me make this journey. It’s not the way I had imagined finishing, but I know it will be good. I will be unpacking this moment in my life for a long time to come, but for now it helps just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, pressing on towards the tall mountain and looking back to see my lovely girl behind me.
Go with God, little brother, until I see you again and can give you a big hug and a good tickling.
* I am very grateful for the friends new and old who have reached out and offered their sympathy and support during this time. Thank you so much.