All day we had been hearing of Graybeard. For one, he was from Jersey and we were from Jersey, which is enough to connect people who were currently in Georgia. It was also enough to get a few New Jersey Turnpike jokes from the passing hikers who playfully asked, “what exit?” To this I say, no exit, I didn’t even live near the Turnpike! Don’t hate on Jersey.
But our common home state wasn’t the only reason people were talking up Graybeard. My mom and I were hiking, closing in on Neels Gap, when we looked up and knew we must have been in his presence. Up ahead on the trail, hiking towards us, was an older man, carrying his pack with effort but also with an ease of spirit; he sported a large gray beard. Sometimes trail names are very literal.
He looked like he was hurrying down the trail, but we couldn’t help but ask if he was the famous Graybeard. He stopped and looked at us, his eyes seemed to be lit by some internal light, and he nodded his head to confirm our suspicion. We talked for a short time, but we learned a lot, and we are forever inspired.
Graybeard is in his 80s. I can’t remember the exact number, but… he’s in his 80s. And he’s thru-hiking the AT. Clearly he is a fascinating guy, but there’s more to him than his age and his desire to hike. For nearly 30 years now Graybeard has been passionate about the AT. He’s led backpacking trips and worked with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but he’s never been able to do that one big trip–a thru hike. In 2011 he faced a tragedy: his wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer and was soon taken from him. In an effort to rejuvenate him, one of his daughters suggested that he finally take that thru-hike, and so he did.
His hike is a hike of healing; perhaps its a hike to reconnect as well. After such a tragic loss maybe he is hiking for comfort or direction. The only one that can say what he is really hiking for is Graybeard, and even he may not be able to verbalize it. Although not everyone has lost a spouse, or even a loved one, many hikers can associate with the idea that a hike is more than a hike. We may not be able to exactly define what it means to us, but it means more than just boots on a dirt trail. Or perhaps it is just boots on a trail–simplicity in such a chaotic life. Either way, Graybeard’s story resonates in the minds of hikers and reminds us that we hike with a purpose, whether we know it or not.
So thank you for your inspiration Graybeard, I wish you the best on the trail.
If you’d like to check in with Greybeard check out his online journal here!
What trail stories do you have to share?