It’s August 20, 2019. After nearly 170 miles of backpacking in California’s high Sierra mountains, I finally see the tip of Mount Whitney above the lower peaks in the distance, thinking I will be on the edge of that 14,505 ft. mountain in a few days. Feeling accomplished and invigorated by the physical and mental challenge amidst the most astounding landscape, I say to myself, “Logan, Mount Whitney is for you – only the highest peak in the continental U.S. will do!” By this time, I had the experience of summiting ten 14,000 ft.-plus peaks in Colorado over the past two summers, plus backpacking numerous miles and steep passes along the John Muir Trail over the last 18 days.
I got this. No problem. Exhilaration sets in of how far I have come mentally and physically at the ripe age of 57. Like a runner’s high, I feel on top of the world and I am literally close to it.
A moment later on the trail, my body hits the dirt with a dead thump. Not paying attention to the rough terrain, my left foot gets caught under a rock, as if it stuck its foot out to trip me on purpose. Down I go, face first, into the dry mountain dust under the cloudless turquoise sky.
I scream in pain and fear that something horrible happened to me. I can’t feel my left foot. It becomes increasingly heavy in my hiking boot, feeling like a 50-pound weight is added to the soul. I can’t even lift my foot, thinking it will explode in my boot.
Looking up at Mount Whitney, all hopes are dashed of summiting the peak. Will I even be able to stand up and walk, much less carry a heavy backpack out of the deep back country where the closest civilization is more than 30 miles away?
The journey of a life time to honor Logan comes to a screeching halt because of my exhausted clumsiness. Perhaps, I am too old for this kind of stuff. I should have trained more. I failed miserably.
Three years earlier…July 22, 2016
My 19-year-old son Logan is killed in a truck crash a half-mile away from home in Midlothian, Virginia. Crushing grief nearly debilitates me. I have little to no interest in life. Angry at God, I want to find Logan and have a few choice words with my maker…like, why did you allow my son to die? The only peace is knowing there is an end to the pain of living.
For the rest of the everyday world, life goes on as if nothing happened. My life has to go somewhere too. The grief journey is upon me in a trailess thicket of confusion and pain.
I obsess over freeing Logan’s ashes in a grand way that symbolizes his grit and determination to be the best athlete he could be…or at his lower points…to simply live due to his mental health struggles. Usually, it was the putting one foot in front of the other that turned Logan around. He found purpose in running long and fast. He pushed himself as far as he could to experience the results, whether it was a short distance or an ultra marathon. The brief elation of meeting or exceeding his goals brought hope and fueled his dreams. Logan was the definition of determination.
I’ll take my grief journey literally and physically, like he would, and head for the most fantastic hills America has to offer…the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevadas. I heard so much about this spectacular place from my brother Danny who spent two months in this wilderness in the 1970’s. He called it his “vision quest” which led him to make his home in the west where the mountains centered his head and soul.
I will backpack the trail alone, involving over 200 miles, and climbs totaling nearly 46,000 feet in elevation. Just me, the rocks and Logan’s dust. I’m not too worried about the dangers. I have nothing to lose because I lost everything.
I research the possibilities and come to my senses that I am not physically nor mentally ready for a quest like this. Recently diagnosed with cervical disc disease, how could I carry a heavy backpack when I struggle to handle my five-pound laptop bag.
The altitude alone, ranging from 4,000 to 14,500 feet, would be unbearable and I am in horrible shape for such a trip. The highlight of my physical regimen is granny-jogging a few miles occasionally on the tree-lined, flat paved trails in my Midlothian, VA neighborhood (altitude 161 feet). I am physically soft and emotionally broken. My soul shattered beyond repair, or so it seems at this time.
Like Logan, I’ll set a goal.
That’s when the journey to the John Muir Trail began. It started in my head..in my darkest of times. I had a long way to go to take even the first step.