In the Real World I Hike: Transformation of purpose and self in 5 million easy steps. My first book is now available!

Imagine being alone in the wilderness, after 900 miles of hiking, in the blistering heat of summer, collapsed against a tree sobbing uncontrollably as the sudden desperate reality of your life has driven a stake through your body pinning it to the ground, immovable and searing your very soul. It was the greatest day of my life, and the day I began living after 33 years of simply being alive.

The stories in this manuscript are authentic and diverse. I narrate the experiences of my own and other long-distance hikers who have all undergone a transformation of self and purpose as a result of pushing their bodies, and minds to extreme limits on journeys in excess of 2,000 miles. These personal histories act to reinforce the themes of resilience, pilgrimage, rites of passage, transformation, addiction, redemption, liminality, reinvention of self, and resurrection that can be attained by long distance hiking and the community of good souls that parallel us on these treks. My genuine story of transformation and the radical life path redirection I experienced is intertwined with those of other thru-hikers. Unlike two of the most read books on long-distance hiking, whose accuracy has been scrutinized, these are documented and accurate in detail, place, and context.

I was inspired to write this by the unexpected passing of my trail friend and brother “Baltimore Jack.” He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) 8 consecutive times and is one of the most colorful, and possibly controversial trail legends the A.T. has ever had. I tell his story as no one else has ever done before. I knew him for nearly 20 years, and he never wrote his own biography. His is a story of death and reinvention, addiction, fellowship, and exploration. This book is raw and honest and I discuss how society’s definition and expectations of what is “real” is juxtaposed by the natures “real world” ability to help us reimagine our lives and re-center ourselves in more healthy ways.

In the Real World I Hike bridges the genres of hiking, adventure, spirituality, memoir, mindfulness, outdoor recreation, self-help, transformation, pilgrimage, rites of passage, and emotional health. You will meet Emily, whose husband died in her arms, and other hikers who- were out to prove something to themselves, saw this as a last chance opportunity to do something of greatness, or as an attempt to drive away the demons of PTSD. Readers will be an audience to a first person account of one of the most retold stories about the A.T. -The Death at the Doyle.

This is my first manuscript and I have conceptual ideas for at least two more involving the outdoors that have not yet been published to my knowledge.

My Background includes the following accomplishments:

  • 4 years in the United States Army as a member of the 3Rd Ranger Battalion
  • 18 years in commercial building trades
  • 12 (and counting) years as a high school educator
  • 1999 Solo hike of the Appalachian Trail
  • 2004 Solo climb of Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina- 22,843’
  • Summiting all 48 of NH’s 4,000’+ peaks with my daughter
  • Nearly complete hikes of the Terrifying 25 most difficult trails in NH
  • Completed a Doctorate in Education degree with successful dissertation defense in March 2020.
  • Currently planning the next adventure…….

Thank you for your consideration.

Michael “SY” Sisemore EdD

at99sy@yahoo.com

In the Real World I Hike: Excerpt 2- Baltimore Jack Tarlin

This is just a part of what I will tell about Jack and his relationship with the trail in my book. I’m holding off on pictures except for this one. It seems appropriate somehow.

Penn/Mar Park I believe. Cigarette, beer, Red Sox hat on backwards, torn t-shirt and shorts, gnarly ass feet.

There are some common themes among the hikers that I have corresponded with and read about in regard to why they wanted to hike the trail. The stories I will relate in this book include soul searching, escaping, partying, celebrating, challenges to be met, time to be filled, and others as they come to me. One of the most difficult to write about, and this is a source of great anxiety for me, will involve a hiker I met on the trail. A hiker introduced you to in the forward. This hiker would become a close friend, change the course of my life, and become a member of my family (not just trail family, but family closer than blood in many ways).

His name is L.A. Tarlin. Adam to his friends growing up in Massachusetts, L.A. to others. But to hikers, he was known around the world by his trail name-Baltimore Jack, or Jack Tarlin, Jack for short (as I will reference him in this book). Oddly enough, with as many names as he is known by, he really is not any single one of them as a matter of permanence. His name is almost insignificant in relation to the presence that he had. He was a unique human being and I am glad that I got to know him, as much as anyone could really know Jack. He was an enigma, and perhaps thousands of people knew him, or knew him in the sense that they met him a time or two, maybe spent time in a shelter together, shared a bottle, or even hiked with him for a time. But very few people knew him well, and even fewer knew him in a familial way, as a member of their family. But none of us knew all there was to know about Jack. No matter how close we were, he was never going to let anyone have all the pieces of his puzzle.

That is part of what makes writing about him frustrating and challenging. I am not qualified as a writer to tell his story by myself. He is without question the most complicated, intelligent, and conflicted man I have ever met. There have been many articles written about him, and others that are no doubt forthcoming, but few have been written by someone who was both close to him as a hiker, and who is themselves a hiker. I’m attempting to compile his stories to do just that. He has not just one story, but a Dostoyevsky sized novel’s worth of stories. Most true, some embellished, some possibly total fiction. The man was larger than life in many ways, deeply troubled and struggled with alcohol abuse, intensely in love with the trail and his trail family; and has 8 consecutive complete hikes (7 thru-hikes, and one two-year complete section hike) of the Appalachian Trail from 1995-2003. I’m not sure I agree with my own statement about him struggling with alcohol abuse. I don’t think he struggled with it, he embraced it. It was a part of him, and he owned it and never tried to hide it like most alcoholics. I was there when he decided he needed to give up one of his vices, he chose smoking. He could have quit drinking, but he did not want to, and if you knew Jack, he did what he wanted to do at all times. The downside of not smoking, was he replaced it with more eating. Which is odd, because I rarely saw him eat! I think he was a closet eater, chowing down on leftovers after everyone else had gone to bed or something. He would cook massive dinners at our home, and hardly eat anything. But got bigger each time we saw him.

After he retired from thru-hiking Jack then went on to work his way up and down the trail helping and working at hostels and outfitters until his death in Franklin, TN. On the 4th of May 2016. At the age of 58, he left us way too soon. This passing was devastating to the trail community, so many hikers had met Baltimore Jack and he had a profound influential relationship with an uncountable number of people in so many ways. Word of his death spread up and down the trail and to all corners of the hiking world in a matter of minutes. I feel like quoting Star Wars, but fear Jack’s spirit would taunt me for such a comparison.

None the less, I will tell Jack’s story as it pertains to what I know, and what has been shared with me. If I am inaccurate about a specific event or situation, it is not out of malice nor deception, it is my own memories inaccuracy, or due to the many variations of the stories that he himself told and were related by others. This is not to be taken as the complete and accurate biography of Baltimore Jack, I think that is an impossible task, by Jack’s own design. He wasn’t international, but he was a man of mystery.

It was fate that I met Jack on the trail. I firmly believe that I was destined to encounter this character, as providence was my guide in this journey. I had been reading his journal entries for many weeks and had heard a little about this “blue blazer” and wild man of the AT. This is a day that I recall precisely. I was hiking alone for much of the day and it was quite hot and dry out, the leaves were starting to change, and it was looking like summer was well on the way.

As I began to climb a very steep long straight section of trail I looked up and saw an odd sight. It was a hiker, but not a “normal” looking hiker. This hiker had a stumbling unbalanced gait that contrasted with the intense efficiency that a thru-hiker typically develops over time. He had both knees wrapped with ACE bandages, his boots were unlaced and floppy looking, and his enormous backpack was cocked hard to one side rather than well balanced in the center of his back, and he had torn black nylon shorts on. I had to pause to make sure I was really seeing this caricature of a hiker as we were well away from a trail head where the day jockeys would get on and off the trail. About that same moment, he stumbled and in defiance of the laws of physics and momentum, did a full-bodied front flip and face planted on the rocks!

A loud voice in my head said, “That’s Baltimore Jack!” I rushed up to where he was sitting, tangled up in a heap with his obscenely large and gnarly looking backpack (His pack size would become as legendary as the man himself). He was holding his broken glasses in his hand and had blood pouring out of a gash on his forehead. He looked up and said in his distinctive voice, “got any tape?” I said sure I do, and you have got to be Baltimore Jack. “How did you know?” Just a hunch I responded. With a huff, he retorted in pure Jack fashion “Well sir, it appears as if your intuition proves to be correct, now how about that tape!” This encounter would eventually prove to be the most transformative meeting of my life, up to that point anyway. It became a catalyst for so much life change, that I still am in awe over it. Jack would become one of my best friends, he would provide me with a home in Hanover, NH, introduce me to someone that I am still with nearly 20 years later, and set in motion a cascade of events and life decisions that ultimately, I believe helped me to discover and fulfill my destiny as a human.

I would spend a great deal of time with Jack over the next three years. Each winter he would live and work in Hanover to earn money to go off and hike in the spring. That was his societal goal in life, to earn money to hike. That’s it. He needed enough money to go for a walk. We would spend many hours at our place on Mink Brook (where I lived for two years) in Hanover, the local coffee house, library, and bars conversing about all manner of things. It was a five-minute walk to the center of town from our place. The trail goes through the town on the road we walked, so every time we went to town, we walked the AT both directions.

His story is a complicated one, so as I stated earlier, I will do my best. He started out life as Leonard Adam Tarlin. Yes, I said it. Leonard, you hoodwinked us your entire, but far too brief life by giving innocent sounding “accidental” hints in your stories, that your name was Lawrence. His former friends, family, fellow students, and professional colleagues called him Adam. Adam was his pre-hike name. Mike was mine. He transformed into Jack, I transformed into SY.

As I recollect, Jack and his father had been planning, at least tentatively, a thru-hike of the AT. His father passed away prior to the realization of this father-son hike becoming a reality. Later in his life, but still as a young man, Jack decided to take an extended leave from his job and began hiking in 1995. He made it well into the hike before a fall broke or cracked several ribs and he was unable to continue. As told by him on the occasions when he was asked about it, coughing up black blood while leaning up against a tree made things difficult. He left the trail to recover and returned to his job.

The following year his employer granted him enough time off to complete the journey and he said he found the exact spot he left the trail and was able to pick right up and complete the journey. Reflecting on his hike, Jack felt as if he missed out on part of the experience and wanted to do what he set out to do initially. A complete single year thru-hike. He asked his employer to have the time off again, they said “absolutely not. So I quit!” Classic Jack. Thus, the course of his life was set in motion. His life would be one of hiking, and searching, for something that may have ultimately eluded him. Or, he may have found it and held on to it the entire time.

It would be easy to interpret his actions as merely an intense interest in hiking, a desire to be with and in nature, following his passions, or even complete irresponsibility. But this would be a simplistic misunderstanding of Jack Tarlin. His trail name Baltimore Jack comes from the Springsteen (his favorite musician) song. He had a wife and kid in Boston, went for a walk and never went back. Jack was not cut out for the world that Adam was born into. The structure of society was not one that Jack could successfully navigate and maintain any level of self-fulfillment or joy. He had had a strained relationship with his family, not uncommon with hikers and our kind, and I think he generally had a difficult time coping with having responsibility for others and following the expected traditional life paths. He could barely take care of himself according to traditional rubrics. You will find a lot of us like that on the trail, and in the trail towns with similar stories. What society calls the real world is an illusion and a mirage. Most people never really get to a point where the bucket of contentedness and self-fulfillment is topped off. Ironically, the bucket that we spend so much time filling for others has a hole in the bottom and is never ultimately satisfied. They, society, always want more than we could ever give. A succubus draining us of our essential purpose-to enjoy life and all it has to offer.

I feel very strongly that the AT offered Jack something powerfully satisfying that was absent from Adam’s life. Acceptance, and a feeling of belonging to a tribe of people who accepted him and one he could call family, tramily in trail speak.

While he could speak with authority on nearly any subject and had a qualified opinion on everything social or political; he was always reluctant to speak about himself unless he trusted you and felt that he knew you well enough, but even then, it was difficult to completely trust what he said about himself. He was and is a mystery. He was one of the smartest people you could hope to meet, but with little drive to do anything with that smartness. One of his favorite tv shows was Jeopardy, and on one of the last nights of his life, got all but three responses correct. His depth of knowledge in history, literature, politics, and of course the trail was limitless, and he never shied away from a vigorous debate.

Jack could hammer away with an idea or opinion, refusing to let go, much like a starving dog with a bone, until someone either walked away in frustrated rage or swearing to never speak to him again. More often than not, they would be sharing a pint or five at the local pub shortly after as if nothing had happened. Jack could be equally endearing, obnoxious, loveable, and objectionably prickish in equally brief moments of time. There was nothing superficial about Jack Tarlin. What you saw, was NOT what you got with Jack, he was far too complex for that. He had many faces and very few people saw all of them. In some ways he was entirely self-absorbed, and in others he was the most generous and compassionate person I have had the pleasure of knowing. His gentle kindness was always present around babies, young children, and cats.

Jack’s daughter was just a baby herself when he and his wife split up.  She would quickly remarry, and her new husband would become the father that Jack’s daughter would recognize and lay claim to. I will not speak too much about that part of his life, it is not a part of his history that I am qualified to tell, and he would not want us to put that attention on them. However, I think being responsible for a child and being a full-time life partner was very intimidating and more than he could handle emotionally. He always said that that kind of life just wasn’t something he could relate to. Trying to live up to the expectations of someone else’s standards of success and the expectations of so many others is difficult, and it does not leave room for your own sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Again, I am inferring a bit here, but it seems reasonable that Adam always felt as if he was going to be a disappointment to those he cared most about in that world. I think he secretly feared losing them or having them taken from him as his parents were at such an early age. The trail offered him a way to reinvent himself, and a place that he could start over with a brand-new life where no one was going to judge him, nor would they have any expectations of him beyond that of a “hiker.” He did not walk out on his wife and child to be clear. He spoke of it on a Pox and Puss podcast given in 2013 that “she left me for a thousand good reasons.” They divorced, and he was no longer a meaningful part of their lives after from that time onward, and we’ll leave it at that. By letting them go, they could not be taken from him.

We both shared a love for books on polar explorations. Some of our most admired included Douglas Mawson, Roald Amundsen, and of course Shackleton. Jack’s journey could be viewed as a contemporary metaphoric representation of the lengths that the explorers of the white lands would go to prove themselves. Enduring hardships, the creation of everlasting loyal friendships with their colleagues, the torturous pursuits of human endurance, and moments of profound and fleeting glory that always left them longing for one more expedition. Jack had many hikes, but it was one long single journey to find his place in the world, people he could call his “family”, and one thing I believe he never fully attained or recognized, a sense of self acknowledged fulfillment.

Each year the trail pulled him back, and he would spend the final weeks of winter in a freezing cold barn in Hanover, NH preparing for his annual spring departure. He regularly began hiking on or around April 1. Every year it was like the first time for Jack, springtime meant hiking and like a little kid at Christmas, he couldn’t wait for it to arrive. His excitement was that of a child on Christmas morning, it was pure and genuine. On more than one occasion I would help out with his assembly line of mail drop bourbon preparation. He would save up 22 empty plastic bottles of fruit punch and fill them with his go-to brand, and then duct tape them up so as not to spill in the mail. Every mail drop had some food, ace bandages, maps, stuff, and a bottle of bourbon. This trademark behavior would ultimately be part of his lifelong burden. It would, in part, play a role in what would ultimately kill him. But it was a part of the identity that he created of himself on the trail. Bourbon was part of who Baltimore Jack was. The owner of the place we stayed on Mink Brook in Hanover was named David, and he would mail Jack’s packages, usually on time. Sometimes David would break into one of those maildrops and pilfer a bottle. This would leave Jack high and dry until he mailed the next one. Jack would throw a fit when this happened. David and Jack were like an old married couple, constantly bickering with each other and they both gave as good as they got. You will find few stories about Jack online that do not include booze at some point. But riding that dragon takes a hard toll on a person.

Each year, Jack saw the trail as a brand-new experience, no matter how many thousands of miles he hiked. It was a constant source of discovery. He was often asked why he chose to hike the same trail over and over and over again. His responses were on point, but I think he left some things out that he either could not bring himself to say or was unconsciously keeping suppressed.

Jack had an intense, pure love for the physical trail itself. He could describe it in explicit detail, but also as it appeared, felt, smelled, and looked at different times of the year, in different weather. He would list places that he wanted to see in the snow, or in late spring when things were in bloom, or side trails that he still had not yet explored, and the people that he had yet to meet. His desire to meet a whole new crop of hikers every year, even after his thru-hiking days were over, provided Jack with more hikers to add to his family. I offered to buy him maps and guide books for the PCT, but he would not have it. Recalling the hostel keeper in Georgia I mentioned earlier; I think that he had a monumental hole in his heart, that he tried to fill up every year but did not ever quite get there. A tragically Sisyphean like challenge that he methodically strove to complete; but may not have ever achieved fully, what he so earnestly sought. But maybe he did, who the hell knows? Even those of us who knew him best are left guessing because the fucker never wrote a journal or memoir of his experiences. For crying out loud Jack! Seriously, he wrote tens of thousands of posts on blogs and social media, he critiqued and pontificated about everything, but barely a word about his own life.

Regardless, he would explain that every day and step on the trail were a new experience for him, and I think that the act of leaving each spring fulfilled his desire to resist the societal pressure to establish a permanent sense of establishment and conformity to those norms. The act of leaving was an act of rebellion, of cathartic healing, and a self-fulfilling and further demonstration of who he had chosen to become. He was and always will be identified as a thru-hiker and trail legend. This desire to be relabeled is not uncommon with the hiking community. It is a turning of the back on social expectations. This was an annual celebration of the suppression of Adam, and the step by step progression of Jack. He did not live in obscurity, and as long as we share his stories and our memories of him with others, he will not reside there in death either.

In the Real World I Hike Book Excerpt #1

This begins on page 10 of the manuscript I have nearly finished. It is also the first time I have publicly posted anything from it to be reviewed by anyone. It is not entirely edited yet, so please excuse any typos or poor structure. If you enjoy it even a little, please hit the like button and also share it with anyone you think would be interested in it. I will be posting a few other shorter excerpts in the weeks to come. Thank you for visiting and reading my post. Cheers and Happy Hiking.

In the Real World I Hike- By Michael “SY” Sisemore

This will not be a book about how to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), nor is it a book about how I hiked it necessarily. If you are looking for such a read, the library is full of eminently readable editions. I will have an obligatory chapter on how to hike the AT just to meet the standards of a hiking book. I will not regularly be describing what the shelters looked like, (some do stand out though) or how the trail was a picturesque image of paradise. It’s really not much to look at most of the time. 80% or more of the trail seems to be encased in trees. (it is often called the green tunnel) Even through the Shenandoah’s, known for its incredible vistas, the trail has few available to the hiker. It parallels the scenic auto road, and many a hiker, me included, has hiked the road through at least part of that section just to get a view of something besides more freaking trees. On one stretch of this heavily travelled section, I happened upon two randy bikers fornicating like rabid weasels on the trail (right in the middle of the trail, like legit on the trail) just off a parking area near one of the waysides. So yeah, I suppose that part of the trail was memorable. I have not looked at leather and bandanas in the same way since. They were still wearing helmets!

I recognize that I may be committing a serious blasphemy to the general hiking world in saying that the vast majority of the AT looks the same no matter where you happen to be standing along the way. But it’s true. Even the AT’s first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, said that the trail in 1998 was much harder and less interesting to look at than when he did it in 1948, and again in 1965. His comments regarding the placement of the trail up on the ridgelines and away from things that you would actually want to see, and better water sources for shelters have been echoed by many. You don’t find waterfalls of the tops of mountains, you don’t find many nice swimming holes, or scenic meadows on the tops of these mountains very often. This is farther down the ridgelines and in the valleys. You don’t need 6 months on the trail to figure out the trail’s placement is not one that considers the enjoyable hiking experience as a priority, or even a concern at all. There are a few picturesque views on the AT, but that depends on where you camp or how the weather happens to be that day. Sure, there are sometimes subtle and other times extreme differences in terrain, geography, and the footpath itself, but for the most part you are walking through a tunnel of brown and green. This is not simply a harsh critique of the trail, it is what it is. You will find beauty and awe on the trail, but if measured in time and distance, it will represent about 1 percent of the trails distance. Consider it may take all day to get to an overlook or clearing with a nice view, in a matter of minutes it’s behind you.

The trail is placed where it is going to be out of the way, and in spots that are going to be less likely to suffer encroachment from development. This does make it easier and more cost-effective to protect for future generations. It’s hard to build on the steep sides of rocky ledged mountains; and the population of the East Coast is not getting smaller. If you are looking for sweeping vistas, and nature in her most majestic of poses, you will find it sparse on the AT. The Grayson Highlands, The Balds, Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, the White Mountains, and Katahdin are certainly going to be at the top of most hikers lists. But, you really need to go out west to see massive spectacles of nature. The mountains of the east coast are old, weather-beaten, and tired, yet they are still rugged and physically demanding on the untried legs of fresh-faced ambitious hikers. However, do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking the AT. Hiking the AT is hard work.

My friend Jack admonished me on more than a few occasions for my “simple minded insolence” when speaking about the blandness of the AT’s corridor. But even he had to admit and preached at length, the trail is not about the trees, it is about the people. I could not agree more. For it is the people that we encounter along the way, and often form intense emotional bonds within very short periods of time, that take this footpath of more nearly 2,200 miles, and turns it somehow into a malleable river of a human community that at once flows in from all directions towards a mountain named Katahdin, or Springer if you’re one of “those hikers”. Just kidding, we love out South bound brethren. Regardless its position as your beginning or ending point, all paths lead to Katahdin. We are however, all coming from a great many starting points on our journey to get there. So many thousands of people coming from so many thousands of places, times, backgrounds, and experiences, coming together to end up on a singular path. It’s pretty magical if you think about it.

The people of the trail community are not relegated to just the other hikers you encounter. They are the townsfolk, the generous drivers that give us rides to towns and back, the Monks at Bear Mountain in New York, ridge-runners, hundreds if not thousands who volunteer to maintain the trail, all those who work at the trail clubs and the AMC, thetrail angels, hostel keepers, outfitters, curious day hikers, locals bellied up to the bar in some dive arguing over their favorite NASCAR drivers, the people that want to share the history of their little towns, they want to let you know what is important in their town, and how proud they are of it. Everyone has a story, and if you are willing to ask and listen, they will tell you. It truly is an experience like no other. As far as strangers go, hikers are such a curiosity, that it is almost like the travelling bards of medieval Europe. They come to towns for a short time, spreading stories and narrations of their exploits to anyone who wants to listen, collecting more stories and gossip from the towns people; and poof! they’re gone before you grow tired of them and a new group is there the next day. Since a thru-hiker is crossing the eastern part of the country at about 2.5-3 miles per hour, you can literally stop and smell the flowers any time you want. And you should, every time you get the chance. Unlike a road trip in a car, everyone you encounter is within an arm’s reach on the trail and in the trail towns. You need to stop once in a while to take a break anyway, spare ten minutes to have a conversation with someone, it may change your life.

These opportunities to interact and speak to different people are limited only by our desire and willingness to STOP and say hi. It is very easy to get caught up in the mileage and the destination; but sometimes you just need to take off your pack, sit down and have a chat with someone. It could change the course of your life. I’m living proof.

So often we are reluctant, as thru-hikers, to slow down and take in the sights when we are on the march. The pressure to meet certain mileages, stick to our carefully crafted plan, get to a specific shelter for the night, keep up with our hiker friends, get to the post office before it closes, gotta get back to work, school, spouse, and hundreds of other things that can detract from our just being present in the moment. Let’s face it, the odds are heavily stacked against us. Challenges and obstacles are endless. The fear of falling behind and failing can drive us forward with such momentum, that we are missing out on the most important parts of the journey. Most hikers will not complete this trek.

When looking at those challenges or even the many opportunities that we encounter, the fear of failure can be so overwhelming that many of us will not even begin the attempt. Just like the old phrase, it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. If we cannot get past the idea of getting our heart broken, we will never experience the joy of having mutual love and genuine affection with another human being. That is a lonely-assed existence. We should not allow ourselves to be so focused on the potential for failure, that it prevents us from taking risks and challenges. Measured risk is one thing, total avoidance is another thing entirely. My favorite quote is by William H. Murray from his book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951). It’s a long one, as quotes go, and he references a couplet often attributed to Goethe:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!” 

This quote epitomizes the thru-hiker ethos. You will not complete a thru-hike unless you are committed to it body, mind, and soul; and Providence is trail magic.

It is a curiosity to me now, as I cannot for the life of me recall when or where I first encountered this quote. I have no idea if it was pre or post-hike. If I had to guess it would be post-hike. The year after I completed thru-hiking the AT, I had moved from Georgia to Hanover, NH. and read over 200 books. It is reasonable that I encountered it then. The public library, The Dirt Cowboy– the BEST coffee shop you will ever find-, and local bar Five Olde Nugget Alley were my homes away from home. I had some great times there, and it allowed me the luxury of processing my hiking experience in a comfortable setting. Examining Murray’s quote in its simple complexity reveals why it has such an appeal to me. The first line parallels the absolute commitment I had made prior to taking my first steps on the AT. Hike or die, I was going to finish the trail or else, and I had eliminated all possibility of going back. There was nothing to go back to. I was definitely committed. Providence was regularly at work. Providence is defined as protective or spiritual care provided by God or nature. I am not religious, but I am very spiritual in my own way. Being within a natural setting is where my spirituality soars. Every step I took on the trail from the very beginning gave my spirit, soul, and body strength. I smiled so much in those first few days that it was hard to recognize myself. Providence was providing me a path to joy and fulfillment that had been missing for many years. I would be defined as homeless for the next 9 months, yet I never felt more at home in the world than I did on the trail. Sleeping on the top of a mountain had a greater sense of comfort and permanence than any bed I had ever slept on. Although waking up at 3:00am with a giant moose nose two inches from my own was a bit disconcerting. I successfully tested my theory that freezing every muscle in my body and holding my breath was a great way to not get stomped to death. Do you know how big a moose head is? It’s HUGE! The size of a small Russian car to be exact. He eventually meandered on his way. I had a snack and went back to sleep, but farther off the trail.

The fellowship and whatever else we are seeking is going to be found in the people we encounter, and the daily challenges that encourage us to become what we are supposed to be and can become. Unforeseen incidents will bring a moment of happiness, a laugh, a gesture of compassion or care from another human being, a moment of brevity, even a glimpse of the unrestrained beauty of nature in its rawest of forms can be transformative to your mood and possibly your relationship with the world or yourself. It could be lightning crashing across the hilltops, thunder exploding down the valleys and hollers, water suddenly cascading down the trail after a downpour, even a single wildflower demonstrating its natural tenacity by growing out of a crack in a rock wall. A tiny red newt could become a thing of wonder and curiosity as you watch it slowly make its way across the trail. It’s probably thinking, thanks for not stepping on me. The rainbows above a creek in the morning after a violent rainstorm gives a traveler pause on a steep uphill climb.

Stop for a minute, be present in the moment, stop and watch the newt on the trail, it may stop to watch you, or it may be gone in an instant. You may be the only one to witness something like it on that day. Stopping for 5 seconds to take a photograph is not going to yield the same rewards. Our brains have a magnificent capacity to recall sensational details from an experience. Put the camera and phones away and just stand there. Breathe in the smells of what is around you, above you, beneath your feet. Feel the moss on the rocks, touch the tree next to you, splash the cold water dripping off the rock wall onto your face. Look and absorb every visible detail, listen to the sounds and let your brain make a permanent connection to this moment. You will be able to replay it in your head over and over. In another time and place you will see something, hear something, smell something, feel something similar and it will take you right back to that moment. It is a way to transcend time and place. That’s magic.

Physically, you can feel the strengths within your body growing quickly. This is another form of transformational magic that takes place. More quickly in men than women. And no, it has nothing to do with sexism, it’s just the physiology of our bodies. Men’s bodies give up fat faster than women’s bodies do. Biologically, men are not nearly as necessary as women are for the survival of our species, so nature has designed women to live longer in extreme situations. Basically, men slowly starve to death on the trail no matter how much we eat. The first three days I struggled to go 8 miles each day. The fifth day I went 15 miles, and day 11 I hiked for 20 miles. After three weeks a 20-mile day was as easy as walking across the road, it required little effort and seemed to pass by quickly. Every single day can be a victory worth celebrating. After only 6 weeks of hiking, I had lost 27 pounds. I weighed myself three times to make sure I was seeing it correctly. I had not been that weight since the Army 11 years prior. At that point I was only a few hundred miles into the trail and anxious for more. All too often hikers get overwhelmed by how many miles are left to go. The majority of hikers quit for this very reason. They hike very hard for 4-6 weeks and then look at the map and see they have so much more to go and it seems an impossibility. Commitment begins to soften, fade, or disappear entirely. I wanted it worse than ever and felt great inside and out. Many people quit before reaching Virginia.  

Hikers need to take care of themselves physically, and mentally. It can be hard to look back and appreciate how far you have come if you are fixated on how far you think you still have to go. Make every day a goal. Break this enormous impossibility of a two-thousand-mile hike into many small hikes. Every day you move forward or grow stronger is a win. Small goals accumulated over time lead to great accomplishments. We emotionally fragile humans tend to over think things, psyche ourselves out, let those voices from the real world get inside our heads. The commitment fades further, then one day is not there, and they go home. Some leave the trail with the intention of coming back after a few days or weeks, I think most do not.

A heartwarming story was told to me on my hike by the keeper of a hostel in the Georgia section of the trail. He had related that he had hiked part of the AT with his son, at one point they got off and went home with the intention of going back to finish it later. He never did, but his explanation resonated with me so strongly that I recall it to this day. I am paraphrasing but hope to be as true to his words as possible. Someone asked if he regretted not finishing the AT. His response was along the lines of I think that a lot of people that come to the Appalachian Trail have a hole in their heart for some reason, whether they know it’s there or not. After I had been home for a few days I realized that the hole in my heart was not there anymore. So, for me, the trail did its job and I didn’t need to go any farther. Other people need to get back out there and find what they need.

That’s real transformative magic right there! I will speak more about the therapeutic realities of hiking and nature, throughout this book and with the stories that others have shared. The trail is the greatest psychotherapist you could ever hope to find. Not only will nature listen, but nature will also challenge and push to be your best and to live your best life. It’s also free generally. Caveat, If you think that you will have this incredible revelation of self and life once you get to the summit sign of Katahdin, you will have wasted your journey. It is everything that you experience along the way that provides the growth and transformation.

Many of us have a hole in our hearts that needs to be filled. I know one person who may never have been able to fill the missing pieces of their own heart. I think this led to an endless search for redemption and fulfillment that may have proved in the end to be elusive. Or maybe it did fill that void so completely with a new ideology on life, that there was never a need to return to the real world so many find themselves stuck in. His name is Jack Tarlin, or Baltimore Jack as his trail name goes. As I said earlier, I will write about his story as I know it, and as some of those who knew him best have shared with me and trusted me to do right by our brother. There will never be a complete and accurate biographical accounting of his life, but I hope this one will demonstrate who he was to those who will never get the chance to meet him. He accomplished much, but outsiders would be quick to label him as a failure when using the artificial rubrics of the social world. We all fail at things, but how many of us have really and truly lived a life of our own choosing?

Hiking With “Peanut”

Most kids today will be found playing soccer or video games on the weekends, and for much of their summers. Not 12 y/o Natalie Sisemore, a 7th grader at Sunapee Middle High School. She will regularly be found with her father SY Sisemore, hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She has been hiking since she first clambered to the top of Mt. Sunapee at the age of 3. Natalie climbed her first 4,000’er, Mt. Moosilauke, at the age of 9, Washington at 10, and Katahdin at 11. On November 12th the summit of Mt. Moriah marked the completion of hiking all 48 of NH’s famed 4,000′ peaks. This is a difficult task for anyone, but for a 12 year old to accomplish it is quite a feat. 

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#48/48 Mt. Moriah 11-12-2017

“We have had a very busy season, 26 peaks since May this year. Many of them in the rain, clouds, even sleet and hail in June on Mt. Jefferson.” – SY

My daughter has continuously impressed me with her strength, both physical and the strength of self that she has. Her mother, Amber Grantham, and I have never looked at her as a child we are raising, but a future adult. We want her to have the ability to find her own path in the world; and to have the confidence and independance to be herself; and to overcome obstacles and challenges that present themselves along the way. Resilience, flexibility, and a creative approach to what life has to offer. 

cropped bubba
Mt. Osceola 2016

I have seen her resilience and adaptability grow to levels that surpass many adults I know. She has been intensely independent since birth, always has her own idea of how to do things, and being in the woods is the one place that she will defer to my expertise, usually. I have a strong background and history in the hiking community, and I firmly believe that the finest people on earth can and will be found on the trail. Hiking is where she and I can really bond and learn from each other, she can challenge herself with the understanding that I am there to protect and support her. I gave her the trail name “peanut” when she was much younger, due to her very small build. She is easy to underestimate, and that would be a mistake, she is far stronger, and more capable than her size might indicate.

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Glen Boulder

Her self confidence is matched by her modesty, or humbleness. A great example of this presented itself when she was 10. She came home from school one day very frustrated. I asked what was wrong and she replied BOYS! Haha I suggested this would be an ongoing source of frustration and asked her to explain. She said that some boys had told a bunch of their classmates that they hiked up Mt. Washington, and that girls couldn’t do that. I always made a point to demonstrate to her that being a girl would not prevent her from accomplishing anything she chose to pursue; and that it was never an issue in what we did. I told her we could go do Washington on Saturday if she wanted, and that we did. Up the Tuckerman’s ravine trail we went. She hiked brilliantly and we went down via the Lion Head route. When she came home on Monday from school, I asked if she told her classmates what she accomplished. She said “I don’t need to tell people what I can do, I know.” Oh Snap!

Note: The boys had hiked a much easier path up the mountain.

Her longest hike was this summer’s trek to Owl’s Head, an 18+ mile round trip that is generally regarded as the least pleasant of all the summits due to its remoteness. We did it in a single day with a trek through the woods off trail (known as bushwhacking) to save some time on the way in. She demonstrated her ability to use a compass, and determine direction and our location on the map quite well. She was not impressed with bushwhacking, and prefers to stick to the trail. 

While hiking she has learned about many aspects of human interactions unique to hiking, such as the concept of yogi-ing (the art of politely gathering food from other hikers/campers by means of conversation without actually asking for it. ) and hitch hiking. We have been saved some really long road walks due to the kindness of other hikers driving by and giving us a ride. I always return the favor by giving rides whenever we can. On Mt. Garfield she overheard a hiker talking about the really bad weather the day before on the Franconia Ridge. I went to talk to him and found out he was a AT thru-hiker and really needed a ride to Gorham to check on a very ill family member. We gladly drove him to town after we came off the mountain. This is all just part of the hiking community that she is learning to embrace.

Some anecdotes and insight from “Peanut”

  1. What are some of the biggest challenges that you have had hiking?

some of the biggest challenges i had when hiking was climbing over rocks, since i’m small,ice because it makes the trail slippery,weather, because it always depended on how the weather was for that summit, and the mountain itself, all of them were steep, so I had to work every step of the way.

  1. Do you remember your most difficult hike? what made it hard?

my most difficult hike would have to be the Flume Slide Trail. it was very steep and rocky, so it was kind of scary, and the rocks were all wet, so that made it harder to get up them.

  1. what advice would you give other kids who might want to go hiking?

. i would tell them that getting to the parking lot and just showing up to the mountain won’t get them the reward of a great view and feeling of accomplishment at the top, that you have to work for it every step of the way. the old saying, “One step at a time,” is true, every step gets you that much closer to the top. take your time, you have all day, and there’s no need to rush.

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Bond Cliff

  1. What have you learned about yourself and your abilities from hiking?

i’ve learned that im a strong, young girl, and that i can do anything i want. i know some people think girls are like snowflakes, unable to do anything for themselves, but im NOT A SNOWFLAKE. i am like an iceberg, strong, but my strength is not easily seen by those who think girls are weak, like baby horses. i can do anything in the world if i really put my mind to it.

  1. What are you looking forward to doing next, or this winter?

im really looking forward to taking a break, and skiing this winter, and having fun with my friends at Mt. Sunapee. me and my dad are planning on taking a little break next year, and just have fun, and spend lots of time with family.

  1. What helped make this final hike of the season special?

Baltimore Jack, we miss you, and wish you were still here with us. me and my dad finished the 48 4000 fters on November 12, 2017, Baltimore Jack’s birthday, so Happy birthday Uncle Jack.

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Baltimore Jack

Note: Baltimore Jack (Jack Tarlin-AKA Uncle Jack) is a legend of the Appalachian Trail having thru-hiked 8 consecutive years. One of our closest friends who passed away a year ago May.
Natalie is very humble and nonchalant about her accomplishment, to her it’s just hiking with dad. She is very confident in her abilities, and one afternoon several hikers were talking about the Appalachian Trail and someone asked if she was “going to try to do it one day.” She replied matter of factly “I’m not going to try, I’m going to do it.”

Reviews are coming in Hot!

5-Stars

“This book shows the Author’s journey not only on the Appalachian Trail, but the journey and transformation to a new life. It is also a wonderful tribute to his trail family, his friend Jack, and his wife and daughter. As a person who has been a casual hiker since a very young age, this book stresses the importance of getting back to nature and finding your way. As he describes his thru hike, you almost feel as though you are walking with him on the trail. You celebrate his triumphs and you feel for his heartbreak. His candid and open message is not only refreshing but also shows a very brave side of the human spirit. A great book! Worth the read!”

5 Stars

A very thoroughly written book that not only covers all aspects of hiking with its encounters..but..ponders one to examine if they are truly living life.

5 stars

Extremely well written, people will relate to the words, informative, held my attention. Best book I’ve read in years. A great example of handling events that life throws at you. I loved this book.

Podcast #1

With Papa Bear Hikes. Please take a while to listen to our conversation that really examines the transformative nature of long distance hiking. Very important topics in addition to transformation that we cover include my friendship with Baltimore Jack Tarlin, The Ritual Process by Victor Turner developed in the 1960’s that perfectly describes the thru-hikers changes in perceptions of what the “real world” is, the idea that many hikers are in-betweener’s as in between major stages of life development, and hiking with my daughter. I would love to get your feedback on our talk, please leave a comment and or a “like”.

Happy Hiking!

https://papabearhikes.buzzsprout.com/1467697/8663442-michael-sy-sisemore-in-the-real-world-i-hike-transformation-of-purpose-and-self-in-5-million-easy-steps

Podcast Alert!

I recently had a great conversation with Steve aka Mighty Blue on the AT. Our talk just dropped this morning. We talk about running away from home as an adult and many aspects of change that a person who Thru-hikes can experience. Give us a listen.

https://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/7/f/b/7fb0cf5a7d557762/SY_mixed_show_FOR_UPLOAD.mp3?c_id=106472318&forcedn=attachment&cs_id=106472318&destination_id=426866&expiration=1625143160&hwt=9a8cd0df887f333b23aa3a4f7344961d

Robbers Roost Trail and Cave-Sedona, Arizona

Robbers Roost trail. Many of the directions posted on various blogs and travel sites are lacking details to say the least. My daughter and I put the pieces together and found this really cool cave. Turns out it was pretty close to where we were camping outside of Sedona off of 89a going towards Cottonwood. This is how we got there, with photos of landmarks/ signs to look for. Leave Sedona and head west on 89a towards Page Springs.

A few miles outside of town look for a sign on the right of 89a that indicates FR 525, FR is Forest Road. You will turn to the right, on the other side of 89a are more forest roads that go all over the place.

FR 525 is immediately paved, but it will turn to gravel right away. This road is fine for most cars, but it is bumpy. Camping is allowed all along this road. You will see the dispersed campsites as pull offs on both sides of the road. Basically all these forest roads allow camping unless there a specific signs that state “no camping”. Some are only big enough for one tent, others will accommodate a half dozen rv’s. Anyway, go approximately 4 miles on FR 525, then turn at the next fork onto FR525C. This road is slightly less smooth. Slow travel for most cars but you’ll be okay if you take your time. You will see a sign that says “Trail”

Not the trail!

this is NOT the trail you seek! I have no idea where it goes or what trail it is but it is not the Robbers Roost Trail. that hikers use. It may be a bike path trail that circles around though. After about 6.5 miles you will see a sign that says “End of Yavapai Maintenance”, (pic below)

turn right here. After another 4 miles, you will see FR 9530,

turn right onto FR 9530 and you will soon see the first parking lot. Unless you have an ATV, or a high clearance 4X4, park here. It is about a 1 mile hike to the second lot and trailhead. The cave is on the back side of the red rock/hill to the right as you walk into the second parking lot. Take the well beaten path down the hill. It only takes a few minutes to get to the cave. Have fun!

Window to the world.

What is Living?

 

The was a man among us. A man who, at one time, may have possessed everything the world had to offer. For a time, he did everything the world expected of him. He had the right education, a pedigree from a good family, and unlimited potential, it seemed. He could command a room with his charm and stinging wit; and could engage the most aloof in passionate conversation. He could entertain or maddeningly annoy at his choosing. His stoic self-deprecating manner was matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of all things he considered worth discussing. His generosity and friendship had no boundaries. Yet the world within which he resided offered little in the way of peace and contentment.  

He could have maintained the façade and continued to live the life expected of and demanded of him by that world he was supposed to be a part of. That would have dessicated his heart and soul. The essence of who he is was buried under the weight of a world in which he did not fit, nor one that appreciated his rejection of societal normalcy. His soul was a wandering one, as strong as iron, yet yielding with compassion and love for those he chose and claimed as his family. He gave of himself in many ways to many people. Was it some altruistic generosity, or was he seeking to fill an emptiness with his giving? We’ll never know. Some took more of him than they needed or deserved, but none of us got enough as it turned out. We are left with A longing that can never be sated but only teased with memories and celebrated with the gregarious nature of our storytelling, preferably around a campfire and a raised glass in remembrance. He gave until there was nothing more to give, and his heart, with no more to give either, hopefully, found that peace and contentedness he had for so long sought. And he rested, finally, and left it to us to wonder…who was he…really? 

An old classmate and friend of his once characterized him as a homeless vagrant after he died. This is such a trite, superficial, and ineloquent description that it is akin to identifying Galileo as simply being a heretic. Throughout his life, he was seen as having wasted his education, been a failure at marriage, a failed father, and failed at maintaining a career. Did this truly make him a failure? Society would like us to think that it does. The world can be a bitter enemy to those who do not conform to its demands. Perhaps he was running from something, or to something, or seeking out that one missing piece of his heart that would make him a complete being like everyone else society holds up to us as an ideal standard of success. Many saw him as just a guy who hiked a lot, a constant figure on the trail who never stopped hiking and never stopped telling stories. He was quite often a royal pain in the ass.  

Others chose to only see him as a drunk, a penniless addict and perennial fixture at hostels, outfitters, bars, coffee shops, and the trail. A guy who wasted every opportunity that came his way. Or…did he seize the only opportunity that mattered? Escape. Literature and history are full of these tropes. The outcasts, the anti-hero, the trailblazers in the age of exploration who shun society to forge their own path in life, making up the rules as they go. 

 He may have been some, none, or all of the things that others saw in him, and he saw or felt in himself. But one thing is certain. He knew his purpose and place in the world as it suited him best. He may have figured out the mystery of life was so simple that others cannot, or will not, believe it to be true. Regardless of the amount of monetary wealth we accrue, or the rooms full of stuff that clutter our homes and complicate our lives, no one gets out alive, and you can’t take that stuff with you. Is that how you want to measure the content of your existence when you do that final inventory before the lights go out? Can a life be wasted if it was filled with experiences and friendships? A handsome corpse does not represent a life truly and fully lived. Our possessions and labels are too often used by our self and others to judge the levels of societal success we have attained. But is it real? Us hikers are often asked by the curious passersby that engage us what we do in the “real world,” as if it is incomprehensible that we are just hikers. We must be something more in their eyes, it gives them comfort that we are not actually unique or better off than they. We must be labeled with something familiar and comforting. Being a hiker is so distant from the typical social hierarchy…that we simply must be something more familiar to them. This is only important so that the non-hiker can better connect with how we fit into their world view. If the non-hiker is a doctor and I am a lowly carpenter, they feel better about themselves because I am beneath them and I won’t be missed by society. As a doctor, they are too important to take so much time off. If they are a doctor, and I am an engineer, they feel better about themselves because I give them hope that there is something more out there. 

This man’s place, this man I speak of, his place and purpose in the world were made very clear at the conclusion of a conversation he had with a curious and kind mannered gentleman one afternoon. After the typical questions we always get asked, where did you start, how far do you hike every day, what do you eat, where do you sleep…? The gentleman finally asked him “well, what do you do in the real world?” To which he, L.A. “Baltimore Jack” Tarlin, replied without hesitation, and maybe with just a hint of indignance, “In the real world I hike!”  

Death, and Decay at the Doyle Hotel: A Jack Tarlin-Appalachian Trail Story.

:

The Doyle and “Baltimore Jack” Tarlin

 By Michael “SY” Sisemore  AT’1999, Aconcagua-2004, Mt. Whitney 2000. NH 48-4k’s 2017…

One of the timeless practices someone encounters while hiking a long-distance trail like the Appalachian Trail is its rich history of traditions and the stories passed down from one season’s veterans to the next. Before the internet and the proliferation of social media, most trail news, recommendations, warnings, advice, shout-outs, etc., were relayed through handwritten notes in the journals at shelters, word of mouth from ridge runners, hostel keepers, and from NOBO’s to SOBO’s and vice-versa. This was a brilliantly efficient and simple manner to keep track of your friends, advise others of news, or the various excursions and blue blazing that some are prone to take. In today’s world of instantaneous delivery of all things at all times, I think today’s hikers are missing out on a significant part of this experience and the more fantastic opportunity to unplug from society. I have talked to recent hikers of the long distance trails who say they are never without music, audiobooks, daily contact with friends and family, blog posts, Instagram updates, and regular resupply services from Amazon. It may be better now in some respects due to technology, or not, but it is certainly different.

Getting to a shelter and reading the posts and messages left by others replaces TV’s entertainment and the many trivial distractions of the “real world.” It’s also a great way to decompress from a long hike and to recenter yourself. There are some incredible artists and storytellers that provide a generous and bountiful quantity of joyful anecdotes and social commentary about the things we are all going through on the pages of journals up and down the trail. These journals are often left for people to sign by a hiker passing through, and it is a rare blessing to be able to get one returned to you, filled with the history of an irreplaceable moment in time. I am fortunate to have two that belonged to Baltimore Jack. I will tell you about these journals in more detail towards the conclusion of this book. What he wrote and what others wrote in return give us many clues as to who he was. These shelter journals can arrive in the mail without warning, and at times with no notice of who the trail-angel was that sent it back to you. It’s just a kind gesture of sincerity and fellowship, as well as a colorful record of a specific time and place in the world, re-lived through the stories and recollections of those who experienced them. Some of these stories have become legendary and mythical in their telling and retelling. One such tale is about what happened at The Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, PA, in the summer of 1999. It involved a person in a severely deceased condition.

The Truth Behind the Legend-Man and Story

 I have heard so many hikers tell this story, even going so far as to change the year that it happened to the year they hiked and placing themselves at the scene of the incident. I don’t think this is done with any malicious intent. It has just become such a well-known story. The centerpiece of the story, Baltimore Jack Tarlin, told so many people that they simply live it vicariously through the retelling. That being said, it would have taken a football stadium to house everyone who says they were at the scene, rather than the 2 dozen or so rooms the Doyle had at the time. The reality is, only about ten or so hikers were truly there to experience this unfortunate episode in person, and I am one of them. It was over 20 years ago now, June 26, 1999, to be exact, according to my journal, but some things you just don’t forget. So please allow me to set the record as straight as it can be. My trail name for the record was Super-fly SY. I still go by SY.

Foreshadowing of Death

“Baltimore Jack” always seems to be involved in some of the most absurd, unlikely, and at times shocking (to non-hikers) trail episodes. This story is no exception, and indeed he is a pivotal character in the telling of the story.

Side note: Baltimore Jack- aka L.A. Tarlin is one of the most legendary characters of the Appalachian Trail, with 7 or 8 consecutive thru-hikes depending on how you count them. The first was over a two year period. Only a few truly new him, my wife, daughter and I are fortunate to have been able to call him family. Some of his history is included in my book In The Real World I Hike. 

      We have to visit the night before the unfortunate discovery that this story is about was made. It was June 25th, at the Thelma Marks Shelter, an awful wet, fetid little shack of a shelter (a shithole is how I described it in my journal); Jack was regaling us with anecdotes about the Doyle and its former historical glory; as well as the legacy of the Anheuser Busch connection to the establishment. The building was purchased by Adolphus Busch in 1880 and later named the Johnson Hotel, but closed in 1920 due to the horrific failed social experiment we know as prohibition. It became The Doyle in 1944 after it was purchased by an Irish immigrant who had recently won the lottery. Jack lamented that it was in such disrepair, but even considering its far from mint condition, it was a must-stop for all thru-hikers. “Visit the Doyle” was and perhaps still is a common mantra heard up and down the trail. Spending the night there was seen as a rite of passage and milestone of hiking accomplishment of sorts. It also had a cheap bar in the basement.

Thelma Marks
Thelma Marks Shelter, Ma, Hiking Pole, Jack and Dogbone,

I commented to Jack that it couldn’t be as bad as he described it. He looked me in the eye and stated as seriously as one could, in his very direct and baritone academic professor’s classroom delivery, “Sir, upon entering the Doyle, it is immediately apparent that no fewer than 22 persons have come to their end inside this establishment. Either by suicide, natural causes, or murder.” Drawing out and emphasizing the word murder. If you know Jack, he was prone to err on the side of the dramatic to provide a useful embellishment to his narrative accounts of things. Boring, he was not. It may have taken far longer than necessary to tell a story, but it would not lack in detail. Jack was incapable of providing a concise account of things. 

“…an awful little shelter”

      No matter the place’s condition, I was looking forward to a town stop; and the opportunity to get a shower and some hot food that didn’t come out of my titanium MSR cook pot. Sorry for the shameless product plug. But seriously, that was $40 well spent, and 20 years later, I still use it! In the shelter, it was getting late, the bugs were out in biblical numbers, the fire was a smoky pathetic mess, and we all settled down for a damp, but hopefully good night’s rest. Did I mention this was an awful little shelter? A three-sided festering pox upon the landscape.

 The trek into Duncannon was uneventful, and the weather was getting hotter, and things seemed to be dry everywhere except for the shelter we spent the night in. Pennsylvania is often called Painsylvania, due to the sharp rocky trails, steep exposed climbs, and long walks through open fields that bake in the sun, searing the skin and lungs of hikers that have little chance of escaping the blazing sun beating down like an inferno sucking the air out of your very soul. You can feel yourself cooking as you hike onward, one step at a time, and hear the crackling of the grass and whatever crops were in the fields, desperately attempting to not become desiccated stalks of chaff. It was hot. Really hot. Hikers have a different appreciation for cool, clean water when they are marching through a parched landscape. Any opportunity to jump in a creek, or pond, even a water trough was a welcome respite; and hikers would act like little kids splashing around fully clothed or bare ass nekkid.

           The town of Duncannon is on the Susquehanna River, not far from Harrisburg. Its residents are very friendly towards hikers and annually welcome many hundreds if not thousands into their community. 20 years ago, the town was struggling a bit, and from what I have read recently, much has been done to revitalize it and its remarkable history. Jack would have stated at any time he told this story that this particular episode is in no way a reflection of the town, nor its residents, and in no way should be taken as a critique of the owners’ past and present of the Doyle Hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in town, and all the people we encountered were gracious and hospitable. I would recommend it as a must-see stop on the trail.

 The prior week’s crazy hot weather would also become a crucial element in this story. As we arrived at The Doyle, we ran into a hiker who was a day or two ahead of us and had holed up for a while due to an illness. He ultimately would discover he had Lyme disease, if I recall. Fleischman was his trail name, and he was looking quite poorly and said that it “smelled like ass” upstairs. Jack said that was part of the charm, and we quickly noticed a chicken dinner sale being hosted by one of the local auxiliaries. Being hikers, we dove in like the starved, wanton, joyful savages that we were. It was pretty cheap, around $5, and I think most of us had more than one of the dinners comprised of ¼ roasted chicken, mashed taters, greens, rolls, and probably an apple side for dessert. Jack had a 2-liter bottle of fruit punch and drank the whole thing (foreshadowing). Most of us did not immediately check in to the hotel as there was no chance of not getting a room. Most rooms would have 4-6 hikers in them if it got crowded. Even a cheap room is cheaper when shared. We were all on the back porch in the shade, lounging around, feasting, and swapping stories. Generally having a wonderful time with each other. During the shenanigans, Jack managed to impale himself in the leg with a splinter as big around as a pencil on one of the weathered floorboards. 

Magge and Jack
Magge and Jack on the back porch of the Hotel eating chicken, prior to Jack getting impaled.

      Our serenity was interrupted by him yelling at the top of his lungs, “pull it out; it hurts!!!!” This continued for a bit with some chuckling and jibes directed at his uncomfortable situation, “it can’t be that bad, don’t be a @#$%…”  I commented about reciting lines for his part in the remake of Deliverance, and then I noticed just how big the offending object was. I reached over and yanked it out of his leg, and in Jack’s defense, it was about 3″ long, and only about 1 of those inches was not inside of him. So now he has ACE bandages on both knees, glasses taped together, severe chafing of the nether region, a gash on his forehead, AND a gaping hole in his leg that is gushing blood onto the porch. A bandana remedies the situation so that he can continue eating his and everyone else’s food scraps out of those Styrofoam containers that takeaways come in.

 After finishing our chicken dinners and cleaning up the porch, we break up to go get rooms or run town-stop errands. I went to the post office to see if I had any care packages. Boom! My older brother had sent me one! I only recall that it had a small bottle of Jim Beam in it. A lot of the towns near the trail are dry or inconveniently located to acquire booze. Pennsylvania is not one of these places. Beer and booze are readily available everywhere. It’s great. I loved hiking in PA. Anyway, I go get a room and go upstairs. The place reeks but, I dump my pack and go to take a shower. I had seen Jack on the way up to the room and told him I got some Beam in the mail, and we could share a drink or three later. After my shower, it seemed that the smell was worse. There are less than a dozen hikers here at this point; most went to the campground because of the smell. Jack had gone to get the caretaker about the stench.

     They come upstairs and eventually notice the smell is emanating from one particular doorway. Then it is quickly determined that there is a buzzing sound coming from the room, and one of them looks under the door. It was locked from the inside, and there was a clear indication a person was in prone on the floor up against the door and clearly not moving. Consider that this was in July, and it has been sweltering for many days. This unfortunate person had been expired for quite some time at this point.

      Turns out that people could rent rooms by the week/month and that this was a semi-transient person who had been a short-term resident. No one had realized that he had not left his room nor been seen in quite a few days. This author did not know precisely how long he had been deceased, but it had been at least four or five days in the hot PA. weather. These rooms did not have air conditioners, nor were the windows open in this particular one. It was a mostly sealed unit, baking slowly in the Pennsylvania heat. Until they could get the door opened.

      Jack bangs on my door. I was just a few rooms down the hall, and he has a frantic expression on his face as I open it. He grabs me by the shoulders, I’m in my towel, and says, “Remember the other night when I told you about the 22 stiffs at the Doyle? Yeah, I do. WELL MAKE IT 23!” 

NOW, WHERE’S THAT BOTTLE? He yells at me with a frantic, “I told you so!” and a thirsty look in his eyes.

      The caretaker called the police. Most of us decided to vacate the premises while the authorities took care of things. Another hiker (Maggie) and I decided to go get ice-cream down the street, and as we were leaving, we went out onto the balcony; several first responder vehicles had shown up. One was the coroner, in a black pickup truck with the logo of an Asphalt and Paving company on the door. The driver had on what looked like a baseball coach’s uniform and held a magnetic sign that said…CORONER.  The entire situation was becoming more and more surreal. He tossed the sign at his truck, and it stuck to the side door, then yelled up at the caretaker who was in the process of prying open the second-floor window to the man’s room from the outside while standing on a ladder. Where’s he at? At this point, Maggie and I decided to abandon ship. Here is where it all starts to go to hell. Up here he yells. Looks like it’s ……. I do not recall the person’s name. But we would miss out on witnessing the next few scenes in person. But would bear a graphic telling of them shortly thereafter.

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