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!”