Dear God- I Hope you got the letter
A Story by Michael Sisemore
This is the start to a much longer story/screenplay that was inspired by the song Dear God by XTC. It has been in the back of my head for a very long time.
Logline: After 18 months in prison for embezzlement, a reluctant and self-centered parolee takes a job in the dead letter office and begins answering letters sent to God in an unconscious attempt to redeem himself and to help others.
Genre: Drama, Spiritual
Characters:Main Adam Toller- Recently paroled, self-centered,”recovered addict” and working at the dead letter office as part of his parole agreement..
Closing Lines: “Can a single glance, smile, a few kind words change the trajectory of your life? What if it already has?”
#1 Scene opens with feminine hands struggling to write inside of a beautifully hand crafted card-
The song Dear God by XTC plays quietly in the background.
Dear God I have not a friend in the world,….
Then scenes of diagnosis, chemo, doctors office visits, arguments among family members about money, hair loss, notice in an email about losing her job. Scenes of personal tragedy and hopelessness. Losing the ability to use her dominant, right hand, friends refusing to return calls, or see her.
Then the trembling hands seal the card in the envelope, writing her name and return address, Emily’s hands put a stamp on it and address it to God in Heaven. We see her, eyes down, as she descends the stairs of her apartment, then walking down a busy street in a not affluent section in a large city, from her own POV, passing someone who says hello (never seeing her face) she responds with a small, timid wave, never looking up. We follow her as she walks a block to the mailbox on the corner, only seeing the ground and reflections in the store window. She is dressed as if she has been in the same clothes for days, with a knit hat on her head even as it is summer and hot out. Her right hand is only semi-functional due to her illness, and we see that her hand is almost clawlike in its paralysis. Her left hand holds the letter for a moment as she considers whether to drop it in the box or not. Finally she does so and lets the mailbox door fall closed with a loud bang, instantly cuts to the street signs above her of Winston and Chancellor avenues. Then fades away to the next scene
#2 A man in an ill-fitting but expensive suit is walking through the release gate of a prison, where he has just been paroled. A well worn two-tone blue mini-van is waiting for him.
I’m guessing you’re Adam Toller. Yeah that’s me. Well, I’m George, your new P.O. get in.
Adam looks at the vehicle with disdain. Wow, I used to drive a Masseratti. Now I get to ride in this. Great.
George-You also spent the last 18 months in prison, what were you driving in there, or should I ask, what was driving you? Get in!
Adam- So, you’re my fairy godmother or something?
George-Nope, I am your warden and I’ll be watching you like a hawk the next 18 months to see if you should serve out your sentence on parole, or go back to the pen.
Adam-great. Got any smokes?
George- sure do, but none for you. I’m taking you to the joint you’ll be staying at for the next several months to reintegrate you into society as a productive member. Sips his coffee.
Adam-you didn’t think to get me a coffee?
Adam-this is the start to a beautiful relationship.
They drive in silence for a few minutes and pull up to a multi-story housing unit on the outskirts of a beaten down city. People mulling about, and sitting in chairs outside. A couple of worn out couches serve as perches for the locals.
George-Go inside, ask for Tiny, give her this envelope, DO NOT OPEN IT! She will give you a transition bag with personal hygiene items, a pair of sweats, a voucher for some clothes at the Goodwill across the street, and then you get to listen politely as Tiny tells you the rules. You will be polite, and do everything she says. Any questions? I didn’t think so. (not giving a chance to answer)
#3 Going through the in-take with Tiny, a gruff no nonsense woman who runs the place like a cross between a Zoo keeper, prison boss, and a tough love den mother. You don’t mess with Tiny. She is about 270, built like a WWE wrestler, and may have been, she has tattoos up both arms and on her neck. Tiny gives Adam the layout, the “Speech” and instructions for what he will do his first night there, and the next morning. Ending with adamant directions that he will be sitting outside the PO office at 7 am sharp and ready to go to work if need be. If you’re late, it’s one point, if you don’t show it’s 5 points. 10 points and you go back to lock-up.
Scene ends with Adam climbing several flights of stairs to his small room on the fifth floor. The place looks as you would expect it. Decades of addiction, remorse, anger, violence, and despair etch the walls, floors, and ceilings. Even the lights seem to cast a shadow of doom and hopelessness. Sounds of the mentally ill arguing with themselves, pounding on the floor, and arguments on cell phones coming from the other rooms. Adam finds his room, #52, the two having long ago fallen off, leaving a shadow of where it had once been. It’s ajar, he pushes it in with his foot, revealing a dark, windowless, room with a small dresser, and a single bed with small mattress like he had in prison, and a metal spring bed frame. Cuts away to a memory of his luxurious bedroom of his pre-prison life.
#4 Adam-This is bullshit! I have a master’s in finance and accounting and you want me to work in a cage in a basement? fuck that!
George- What is bullshit is you have a felony conviction for embezzling $280,000 from your former employer, and you’re a heroin addict.
I am a reformed addict, and it was meth!
Right, REFORMED addict, just waiting to fall off the wagon, I give it three days, and if you do not take this job, you are violating the terms of your parole and you will go back to prison. Today! You have 2 options, take it, or go back to the real cage we like to call… prison. You will live in a housing unit for parolee’s and you will attend twice weekly meetings with me, your PO, you’ll take weekly substance abuse tests, and will undergo counseling for your host of issues.
Your move hero, what’s it gonna be?
Adam-Fine, but how much am I getting paid?
George-$17 an hour, but 75% of everything you make goes towards restitution to your former employers. They want their money back.
Adam-Fucking hell, how am I supposed to live on that?
George-Your housing is free for the next 6 months, and so are 2 of your meals from the soup kitchen across the street. As long as you play by the rules.
Adam-So you’re telling me I have to work in a cage for 8 hours a day..
George-It’s 9 hours actually.
A cage for 9 hours a day, looking at fucking letters to Santa, the easter bunny and the tooth Fairy?
George- Him too. And Yes…. you are working in the mail recovery department as a temp, and will be sorting a lot of letters that are considered undeliverable. Most of it is junk mail, but there will be letters and cards to Santa, God, and every other kind of spiritual entity you can think of. It just gets sorted into different boxes and then sent to whoever gets them. The junk mail often just gets sent to recycling. But they’ll tell you what to do when you get there. In 15 minutes. You start at 7:30am today. to be fingerprinted and given safety and protocol briefings. They will also teach you how to do the job, you do what they say, don’t ask stupid questions. You don’t get to think, make suggestions, argue, or anything else. You do exactly what they say to do, and how they say to do it. Any Questions? You know the rest.
Later that morning-Adam-That was 2 hours of my life I will never get back, at least I’m not locked up in a cage any longer, (looking around at the small underground room, with no windows, and a long bank of steel bars and a gate that suspiciously looks like his former jail cell) (pushes the gate, yep it opens)
At least I’m not locked inside this cage, anyway. All right let’s get something going.
Sort sort sort, junk mail goes down the shoot to the recycling containers, santa in the giant red box, all other fairy tale letters go in the green box, god goes in the white box, (white? Hmm that fits I suppose) and Don’t read the letters!
Who would want to read this shit anyway, they told me Santa stuff goes to the North Pole, really? That’s a place?
God stuff goes to local churches sometimes, and sometimes dentists will get tooth fairy letters. Whatever, I’m here to just sort shit. Sift and sort, (shuffling stacks of letters and cards and tossing handfuls of junk mail down the shoot) only 17 months and 29 days left of this.
I should take some of this back to my room for some light reading, maybe some of it will be entertaining at least. (stuffing a large handful of tooth fairy, santa, and god letters into his lunch bag) How much trouble could I get into for reading letters to Santa and God.
5:00 I’m out of here.
(Going back to his room at the transient housing complex-the shanty as some call it, plaza royale by others)
In the small cafeteria area of The Shanty-Internal dialogue- That! was a lovely meal of dry meatloaf and french fries that I wouldn’t have given to a dog two years ago. I really adore the new ankle monitor to make sure I do not move more than 1,000′ from my job or home as it purposefully limits my entertainment opportunities. Not to mention they only gave me $50 when I got out. No dating life for a while I guess. Sure have missed the Maz and Cali-King bed. Cheapskates Feld’s and McKlintry are still doing just fine. They wouldn’t even miss a few million let alone the 280 large I smoked and gambled away. Hell Feld’s boat was a million two. If they paid me what I was worth, never would have ended up like this. Flashbacks to drugs, gambling, bars, women, more drugs, loud music, stumbling down stairs, waking up covered in puke….” Pricks!
Later in his room-Pulls out the stack of envelopes, mostly cards. Opens some and reads them, mostly dumb kids writing to a myth they still believe in, a few confessions to god, basic foolishness according to Adam. But-
Near the bottom of the stack, A gold envelope card inside. Even has a return address and full name, he has noticed that most of the god cards he has sorted have neither, as if the writer does not want, or does not expect an answer. Test of faith perhaps, do they even really believe if they don’t put a return address? He pulls out a handmade card.
Adam begins to read, eyes focused on the handwriting, it is uneven and hesitant, almost childlike but from an adult.
Dear God… I have not a friend in the world, am crippled by chemo, have a paralyzed arm, and unable to walk more than a few minutes at a time. My family resents me because of the medical bills, and I have not experienced anything close to happiness in many years. I have no hair, and am hideous and alone. Why am I still here?
If you do not send me a reason to live by the end of the month, I will do whatever it takes to make sure that my time here is over.
I hope you get this letter, and can make it better…
In your hands-Emily
Whoa that’s messed up, she sounds as bad off as I was in prison. My family bailed on me also when I needed them the most. This is the third, she has three and a half weeks left to live if god doesn’t write back. Glancing at the return address, Whoa, she only lives about a mile from here on Winston Ave. I used to go to a diner there once in a while for lunch. I hope the church doesn’t screw around. (tosses it back in the pile)
I’ll sort these out tomorrow.
Weeks later, turning on the tv in the common room in the half-way house. Evening news
January 1st. “A 34 year old woman ,Emily Clarkson, was struck and killed by a public transport bus this morning at 9:00am on the corner of Chancellor and Winston Avenues. Witnesses told WXKY news that it appeared she purposefully walked in front of the vehicle after standing on the sidewalk for quite some time. One local resident said that she had been ill for some time, and it looked like she was crying when she did it. This is Carson Trent reporting.”
Adam-What in the actual hell! That had to be the woman whose letter I read. Didn’t the church write to her?
Holy shit! I wonder if they even got it. All she needed was a letter and she would still be alive? She was pretty messed up, but still, she had to have something to live for. (inner dialogue, should I have written, told someone, no I’d get fired and go back to jail, “DON’T READ THE LETTERS!” echoing in his head. Someone should have done something, where was her family? I’ve sorted hundreds of god letters in the past few weeks, how many more were like Emily’s? What should I do? This isn’t my problem, If I hadn’t read the letter I would not even know about this, it’s not my issue! Just do your job and you’re free in 17 more months with a clean record.
Adam-Tossing and turning all night, can’t get this out of his mind, Adam replays the scene in his head that he envisions is Emily’s life in the weeks before she died. Waiting for a sign, a SINGLE sign that she matters. And not getting one. A single letter. Adam recalls a story he heard in his Psych class in grad school. It was about a suicidal man who wrote a letter and left it in his apartment. It said that if a single person smiled at him, or said hello on his way to the Golden Gate Bridge, he would not jump. He jumped. Adam, having an existential crisis; Can a single smile or greeting have the power to save a human life? That’s absurd, but what if someone had said hello to that man, would he still be alive? Would it matter? Isn’t that just a condition of being a human being, we all just go about our own lives and rarely consider others. What am I saying? According to my therapist, That is legit exactly how I ended up here. What if I had put others ahead of my own selfishness and greed. Hell, no one else in the office gave a damn about anyone but themselves for sure. Adam- tormented about what he should or shouldn’t do. Sleepless, really wanting a bump, or five, starts sweating and appears to be going through withdrawals, even though he hasn’t used in over 18 months. A voice echoing in his head, “do as you must” “make your peace” as he drifts off to sleep.
Adam- muttering to himself as he gets ready, I do not need to add to my problems, just do your job, keep your mouth shut and get through the next 17 months. Looking at himself in the mirror. “Do as you must, make your peace” faintly heard in the distance. What is that? Looks out his door, there is a woman at the end of the hallway with a bible in her hands, speaking as if delivering a sermon. “The Lord gives us all the power to act in his image, to make your peace, and to do as you must! It is in our power to follow our destiny and to spread kindness where we go.”
Tiny hurdles herself up the stairs and grabs the woman, “I told you to stay out of here, this is a men’s only facility!” Get your bible thumping rear-end out of here!”
A comedian’s famous punchline comes to Adam-“here’s your sign!”
Adam- to himself, but out loud- I need to find out what happens to these letters.
The next day at work:
Supervisor- (Carl-on name tag on his jacket) “Sometimes the local churches come by and get a box, but there is no set schedule or anything. They are just as short staffed as everyone else. We haven’t had a pickup in several weeks. You can see the stacks of boxes over there where we consolidate all the sorted undeliverables, and the recycling is over there in the large dumpsters that get picked up each week.”
“So the santa, tooth fairy, and god letters just sit around til they get picked up?
“No, Santa goes out every couple of weeks, We send it to North Pole Alaska, where they.. (Adam looking at Carl like he is BS’ing) No seriously, they send all these kids a card from Santa, and it is postmarked North Pole. Alaska.”
“The other shit sits around until we run out of room and then it goes into the recycling dumpsters. “
Ok thanks for the info. I was just curious what really happens to all this stuff I sort every day, Well, Back to my hole.
Adam to himself- If all it took was a letter from god to save this woman’s life, and no one is even reading them, (long pause)
How much trouble would I really get into if I wrote back to someone once in a while?
Should I read them all, or just the cards, maybe some of the letters too? I’ve noticed that only a few have names and return addresses. I could just take a few home once in a while, maybe just the cards, maybe those are the most sincere? Oh man, this could go bad in so many ways. Fuck what do I have to lose! I’m stuck in this hole for the next 17 months, (grabs a small stack of god cards) Maybe I should come up with a better name for these. Maybe… hell I am not qualified for any of this. What if I say the wrong thing? No, how do you screw up, “don’t kill yourself, you still matter” ? Is that enough, should it be more spiritual? More “godly” maybe quotes from the bible, what if they’re not christians? Wait, would they write to god if they weren’t? I’m a numbers guy, this sentimental shit is above my paygrade, Fuck, everything is above my paygrade nowadays, Oh yeah, this is going to be an epic shitstorm of a disaster. “Make your peace” echoes from the street preacher outside.
That night in his room.
Adam-Seriously, you write to god to “confess’ ‘ that you hate your husband’s cat? Just tell him, work it out. I should be a marriage counselor. You hate your kids, …you’re feeling guilty about stealing food, addict, addict, addict, addict, you need money for school, you want world peace, you voted for Trump and your family disowned you, you told your family your gay and that was cool, but they kicked you out after you said you were a republican, man that’s cold blooded. Be fabulous and conservative brother.
He picks out another card near the bottom. Scene cuts to a strong type-A looking man, a veteran most likely, staring down from the edge of a bridge overlooking a beautiful river gorge. He is thinking about how long it would take to hit the rocks at the bottom. I would never do it during the daytime. It would be an awful thing for kids and families to witness, Maybe very late on a weekday, non-holiday time. There goes my practical side again, nothing to chance, and always considering others first. Scenes from his childhood-Father telling him as a small boy “men don’t cry” and “Men don’t ask for help” “men get things done on their own, anything else is weakness!” “You never quit no matter what” “Don’t complain, suck it up, be a man”
Back to Adam-he takes a card out of the envelope. His eyes drawn to the carefully penned wording-
my world is one of darkness, I feel like nothing I do is good enough for anyone in my life. I feel like my presence here is without meaning, nor value. I go to work, pay bills, go through the motions of being a human, much of my life is spent pretending to be a happy functional human being. I just can’t do it anymore. I have not felt anything in so long, I no longer even remember what it feels like to feel something, anything. I think about hurting myself just to see if I can feel the pain of it. I have thought about killing myself, as I see no point in being alive, but I don’t want to be responsible for a mess someone else has to clean up. I cannot think of a single reason to go on besides feeling guilty about making a few people sad for a short while. I was also raised to never quit. Men don’t quit. But, what is the purpose of just existing to work, pay bills, and pretend? That’s not living. My life is almost an out of body experience. Like I am floating about a dark pitch black hole that I could fall into at any moment, but never do. I don’t feel anything towards anyone else either. Not interest, sympathy, empathy anything.
It is all absurd. I have everything one could want to have in their life, and yet it does not bring me joy or fulfillment. What is wrong with me? My wife is an amazing woman, and we have a terrific daughter. I love my job, but I confess that it has lost its shine recently due to covid and other nonsense that has tarnished my profession as a contractor. I have many successes in my life, a great house and dogs, I have accomplished much in my life. We are not rich, but we are not struggling either. We can pay our bills and have been able to put our daughter in private school. I literally have nothing to be unhappy about. But I have no one to talk to about this. I feel like I am less than a man simply for having these feelings. Men are supposed to have all the answers, and need to be strong, any sign of weakness is a sign that you just aren’t man enough. Men don’t ask for help, men don’t get sad, they suck it up and plow through the roadblocks, they take care of others. We don’t get to feel beaten or depressed. Men don’t do those things. That is what I was taught, and that is what I see everywhere I look. I am tired of doing everything on my own, but I don’t even know how to not live like this. I really don’t think anyone would miss me, until It came time to fix or pay for something. Everything about my feelings make me feel like I am the biggest failure to my family. I have been physically present in their lives, I say the right things, but I have no emotion to give strength to the words, they are hollow and cold. My wife has always been there for me, through some really hard times, she is my partner in everything we have, and everything we have done as a couple and family. She is everything that I am not, she always sees the good in people, she expects good things, and does not dwell on the negative. I wish that I had her ability to see goodness and kindness in others. That just has not been my experience. I am just so angry all the time. They deserve so much better than I can give them. I was the one everyone comes to for advice, and solutions to their problems. I have never been unable to solve my own problems, but for the first time I do not know what to do. I can’t go on much longer. I can’t live with this black chasm of emptiness, I can’t bear this complete lack of feeling, it is torture to myself, and to the family that I cannot give what they deserve.
I’ve never even been to church, I don’t know why I am even writing this. Maybe because I know you will never read this, nor reply. But if you have any advice, I will listen.
Adam- looking up, oh no, this is not good. What do I say to this guy? He is on the edge and slipping fast.
What does he need to hear? He has all these torments inside his head, and he isn’t talking to anyone. Maybe tell him to see a therapist? No God would not say that, a priest, he’s not religious and doesn’t sound like he wants to be either. This is a desperate man here. Who can he turn to?
His wife? He says that she is his partner in everything, but he hasn’t told her what he has been going through. She probably doesn’t even know there is something wrong. He is acting out a role that everyone recognizes to hide the pain he is in. No one knows! He has to talk to his wife. Do I just say that in a letter?
How does god write, what does he/she/it? Sound like? Flashbacks to being an intern at the finance office, Adam’s mentor telling him “listen, if you are going to lie, keep it simple so you can remember it, keep it vague so there are few details, that’s how you get through the BS around here.”
Keep it simple. Yeah, keep it simple.
Adam pulls out a blank note card. Looks at it for a few seconds, then begins to write. We cannot see what he is writing. He puts it in an envelope, and addresses it to Amicus.
No return address. Stamps it and puts it in his lunch bag.
The next morning, Adam walks to the corner, and drops it in the metal mailbox and goes to work.
Several days later, Gregory walks outside on a Saturday morning, his daughter is playing in the front yard with a friend, and his wife, Sylvia, is in the backyard mowing with a self propelled mower Gregory bought her because she insisted on doing the mowing as one of the household chores. And she really liked the satisfaction of seeing her work progress every time she made a pass around the yard. He goes to the mailbox and pulls out a large stack of items. Ads, junk, life insurance, credit card offers, the community newspaper, several other solicitations from political candidates, and a small envelope containing what seemed to be a card inside. Addressed to him, but no return address. A postmark from (wherever Adam lives).
That’s odd. I’ll check it out after my coffee. Gregory walks inside and tosses most of the mail in recycling, and looks tentatively at the card. Looks out the window and sees his wife still happily mowing the grass. Probably 20 minutes left. His daughter opens the front door and asks to go to her friend’s house across the street. Sure go ahead, just watch for cars, look both ways-twice! He chuckles.
He has a sense of foreboding, and fills a cup with coffee, black, no sugar. I don’t know why but I think I need to go upstairs to open this. He climbs the stairs and walks to the room they affectionately call the library. It is really just a room that they converted into book storage and a place where they could do homework or read, whatever they wanted to do and have some privacy.
Gregory sits down and puts the coffee on the side table. Looks the envelope over and slides his finger under the sealed flap and pulls it open, tears if open actually. It is just a simple cream colored card, small even for a note or a thank you card. Only the word Hello is stamped on the front of it. Nothing else, just blank except for the single word. He flips it to the back, nothing. Stares at the card for a few more seconds then opens it.
We do not see what he sees. His eyes go blurry, and we hear sobbing and mournful wailing as if someone’s very soul is being wrenched from their still living body. A sobbing so complete and all consuming that it is choking Gregory and he falls to the floor. The table turned over and the coffee spilled. Uncontrolled guttural sobbing. And then darkness.
Gregory feels like a hole has opened up and he is falling out of control into a void that is at the same time crushing him from all sides, is this what dying feels like? Blackness overcomes him as he continues to fall.
We pan above to see Gregory unconscious, his chin and shirt soaked with his tears. His skin pale, and body lifeless. The card, upside down, stained with the spilled coffee, is near him. We hear the mower stop and minutes later Sylvia comes into the kitchen and she yells for Gregory. “Let’s have drinks on the patio, we can admire my mowing skills!”
“Gregory” “where are you? Sees a couple of bills on the counter. Where is he? She goes up the stairs and calls out for him again. No answer, She opens the door to the library and sees Gregory on the floor. Panicking, she runs to him and turns him over, shaking him and yelling his name.
Gregory quickly comes around and opens his eyes, but they are unfocused and he is confused about where he is, and what happened. She gets him to sit up and wants to call 911, but he tells her no, he’s okay.
What happened Gregory!? She is visibly panicked and worried. Gregory is holding his head trying to get his bearings. He looks down and sees the card in the middle of the mess on the floor. Picks it up and time slows as he turns it over, we can see now that it reads,
“Your wife, your partner, Do as you must, Tell her, Make your Peace”
Gregory instantly breaks into an uncontrollable sobbing and tear streamed fit of choking and crying.
Sylvia is horrified and shocked by what she is seeing. This is the strongest man she has ever met, she has never seen him ever visibly shaken or without a complete sense of confidence. Telling him over and over that it will be okay, and to tell her what is wrong, they will get through it together like they always do. I love you’s flow out of her mouth in a soothing voice that one might use with a small child, she is comforting him and holding him so tight that nothing could pry her away from him. Protecting him from whatever demon he is struggling with, refusing to let him go as he is wracked with waves of guilt and pain. Long moments pass before the grief begins to wane. His breath coming in deep gasps for air, and low moans of inner turmoil. Sylvia holding him with relentless protection and fear for whatever is tormenting him. Slowly he becomes calm, while she continues to assure him that she loves him and that she is here for him.
“Tell me what it is and we can fix it together” “You know we can beat anything together”
He takes a deep breath and looks her in the eye, then away, she grabs him by the face with both hands and turns him so they are eye to eye. “Tell me”
He looks down, then back up, “I can’t do it anymore”
“Any of it, I don’t want to be alive anymore, I just can’t do it”
She grabs him with all of her body and strength and tells him they will do it together, and we are going to get you help. Anything you need, we are going to get you. We are partners and you’ve never let anyone down, now I am not going to let you down. You are going to tell me what you are feeling and why right now.”
They embrace and for the first time he feels like the weight of the world just got a little lighter, and the sunshine the tiniest bit brighter.
“I wrote a letter to god.”
Sylvia looks confused and unsure of what to say.
“He wrote back”
He shows her the card that is stained and the ink has runs from the tears and coffee that was spilled on it.
“Tell me what you told god, and we will figure this out together. We’re a team and we don’t let each other struggle alone.” “look at me, we got this”
“What did the letter say?”
Gregory-Dear God. My world is full of darkness………..
The song by XTC begins playing softly in the background.
Summary: A young woman (Emily) sends a note to God, in the mail, unbeknownst to her, this would set off a chain reaction that no one could have predicted. Ex-con Adam, who is also obsessed with his Masseratti that he no longer owns, is mandated to work in the basement of a letter sorting facility for undeliverable mail, (Dead letters as a condition of his early release from prison for embezzling from his employer. Adam takes a stack of letters to his dorm at a halfway house and reads them. Finding the card from Emily, he is shocked at her condition but does nothing to help her. Three weeks later she kills herself and Adam is confronted with a dilemma that changes his life and that of others he will never meet. He begins to write back to people.
A series of events confirms to Adam that he needs to do this, not only for others, but as a path to his one redemption and salvation. In this story we get a glimpse into the secret lives of those who are silently tormented with a host of issues that they cannot speak to with anyone in their lives. In desperation, they write to god, pleas for help, confessions, and the expressions of the deepest depressions and thoughts of hopelessness. Adam’s first letter goes to Gregory, who is an Army veteran and has spent years pretending to be everything everyone else thinks he is. But he has been hiding the darkest thoughts and desires to end it all from those closest to him. Adam will write to others as we learn about their struggles via a brief letter, accompanied by first person imagery of their lives past and present, before he reaches out to them. The audience will witness the changes, both wonderful and tragic, in those that he writes to.
Ultimately, Adam must confront his own demons and accept that, instead of blaming society, his former bosses, and everyone but Adam, he is in fact guilty of the crimes and poor decisions that he has made in his life. He must give himself permission to accept his faults, and failures, and that a kind gesture may take you farther than a fancy car.
Closing scene- Adam completes his work-stay period and fulfills his parole conditions. Weeks later, he writes his own letter.
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:
Thank you for your consideration.
Michael “SY” Sisemore EdD
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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!”
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”
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.
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!”