My turn to celebrate. After three long months, I spent the weekend with my Dream, courtesy of several Pennsylvania Trail Angels.
On Saturday, July 3, I drove five hours from central Connecticut to the small town of Schuylkill Haven, PA. Several weeks earlier, one of RickRock's fraternity brothers and fellow hiker, Brian Shoemaker, and his wife Connie invited me to a "over half way" party to celebrate the accomplishments of RickRock and Dream. The party was to be held at the home of Connie's sister and brother-in-law, Bonnie and Walt Meck, who live only a few miles from the AT.
Prior to the trip, Connie emailed directions to her sister's home. She mentioned that there was a large field next to the house and those who wanted to pitch their tents could do so there. I envisioned an old farm house and pasture, perhaps because I had just returned from a family reunion in the Dakotas. The directions led up a circular driveway to a large, beautiful house that could easily have been featured in a magazine. The "field" alongside resembled green velvet. That was just the first of the day's surprises.
Connie met me in the driveway, brought me into the kitchen and introduced me to everyone. Only thirty minutes earlier, Brian had picked up RickRock and Dream from a place on the trail about an hour's drive away. Connie said that they arrived hot and sweaty and smelling like something that should be left outside. She added that one of them was in the shower that very moment, but it wasn't Dream.
From behind me, I heard my husband's voice. I turned quickly. I didn't care how hot and dirty and sweaty he was. I wanted to give him a big hug and an even bigger kiss. But for a fraction of a second, his eyes reflected the shock he must have seen in mine. He had lost 38 pounds in three months. The full face I'd come to know was now angular, with prominent cheek and jaw bones. His hair, usually so closely trimmed and neatly combed, had grown long enough to curl at the nape. The little bit of belly he always carried had disappeared, leaving a washboard stomach and prominent ribs. His smile was tentative, as though trying to guess my thoughts.
I was in his arms in a heartbeat! I'd been carrying a backpack of anxiety and suddenly it was gone. Each of us had so much to say, so many questions to ask, but we were standing in the kitchen of people we'd met only moments before. The situation should have felt awkward at best, but that wasn't the case at all. I felt as though we were among family.
A few moments later I met RickRock, a handsome young man with a thick chestnut beard, a slow and easy walk, and eyes filled with the same determination I've come to recognize in Dream's.
After a hot shower and shave, Dream joined us. We sat on stools at one of the kitchen islands and nibbled on chips and salsa while we took turns telling stories and listening to those of everyone else. Walt and Bonnie's teenage daughter Katie had just returned from a missionary trip to South America. Their twelve-year-old twin sons were formulating their strategy for a groundhog attack. Bonnie and Connie's mother, Nana, a widow for thirteen years, was now a newlywed. Her husband Herb, a former widower, beamed as he talked about the day a shortage of tables at a local cafÈ led him to share a table with Nana. Walt and I discovered we share an interest in the Civil War and family histories. Connie and I talked about writing; she works for the local newspaper and covers the arts scene. I told her about the Bushnell, the performing arts center in Hartford where I work.
But the main conversation focused on the hike. Dream told me about the morning he witnessed the death of a tree. He remembered every detail. Only ten o'clock and the air already felt heavy. The heat made sweat drip in his eyes; the humidity made his clothes cling. Just outside Duncannon, Pennsylvania, half a mile from the Thelma Marks shelter, he heard a sudden crack-then a snap. He turned to the right, just in time to see a huge tree fall, crashing through the branches of other trees before it slammed against the ground. The air vibrated. In finishing the story, he told me he could now say with certainty that when a tree falls in the woods, it does indeed make a sound. I reminded him that he was there to hear it.
Both Dream and RickRock talked about the fun of crossing highway overpasses and waving to truckers who honk their horns. They talked about food, including the use of olive oil instead of butter, and the all-purpose jar of Mrs. Dash. They also told me about the "hiker boxes." These are containers hikers can use to donate or take food as needed. The boxes are placed next to many of the shelters and hostels. Dream talked about how all the young men on the AT let their beards grow, while the men his age all shave. For many of them, not shaving would mean a white beard. He reminded me to send a disposable razor with every other mail drop.
Before coming to the house, I had checked-in at the River Inn, a motel about ten minutes from the Mech's home. I had not taken the time to unpack. So, Dream and I returned to the inn for several hours before rejoining the others for dinner. That's when I took a closer look at the big scrape on his arm. He had once told me that hikers don't count a fall as a fall unless it draws blood. From the looks of his arm, I knew he'd had a fall that counted. And then there were all the little red marks from the ticks he'd removed. Gone went all my thoughts, fleeting though they were to begin with, about taking up hiking.
I had brought a stack of e-mail with me, notes both heart-felt and funny, from family and from people we've never met, all filled with encouragement and good wishes for Dick and RickRock as they continue their quest. We took turns reading them aloud. When he began this journey, neither of us had any idea that we would wind up making friends with so many strangers.
On Sunday, we joined everyone for an evening cookout, including Nana's creation of patriotic star-shaped shortcake piled with blueberries, strawberries, and whipped cream. She could give Martha Stewart lessons. The Mech's home is situated at the top of a hill. Below is the golf course where the 4th of July fireworks display was being held. As darkness fell, we all grabbed chairs and blankets, settled ourselves on that green velvet field, and enjoyed the fireworks.
Before I left Connecticut, I received a call from a reporter for the Journal Inquirer, one of our area newspapers. She wanted to write a story about Dick and asked if I could arrange a telephone interview. I scheduled the interview for Monday morning at 8 o'clock; Dick called from our hotel room. The interview went very well. The article appeared in the Saturday edition.
Once again, we joined everyone at the Mech's home for yet another feast. This time Brian made his famous pancakes, a thin but rich Scandinavian crepe. I didn't want to eat too much because I had a five-hour drive ahead of me. Dream and RickRock had to eat a lot because they had a seven-hour hike ahead of them. The weather forecast was for temperatures to top 100 degrees. My invisible backpack of anxieties returned, heavier than ever, especially because I knew that much of the upcoming terrain on the AT would be through a dry, rock-filled riverbed, flat but without the shade of a single tree. The Pennsylvania portion of the AT is notorious for its rocks. The more I thought about the hardships my husband still had to face, the more upset I got.
Finally, it was time for me to say good-bye. I had hoped that the eye makeup I had applied that morning would discourage me from crying, but when Dream walked me out to the car, I realized the futility of my plan.
I did eventually get home. And Dream and RickRock did get back to the trail. They should reach Delaware Water Gap by July 13. RickRock's parents plan to meet them there. As for me, I'm counting the days till our duo reaches Connecticut.