One of the timeless practices someone encounters while hiking a long-distance trail like the Appalachian Trail is its rich history of traditions and the stories passed down from one season’s veterans to the next. Before the internet and the proliferation of social media, most trail news, recommendations, warnings, advice, shout-outs, etc., were relayed through handwritten notes in the journals at shelters, word of mouth from ridge runners, hostel keepers, and from NOBO’s to SOBO’s and vice-versa. This was a brilliantly efficient and simple manner to keep track of your friends, advise others of news, or the various excursions and blue blazing that some are prone to take. In today’s world of instantaneous delivery of all things at all times, I think today’s hikers are missing out on a significant part of this experience and the more fantastic opportunity to unplug from society. I have talked to recent hikers of the long distance trails who say they are never without music, audiobooks, daily contact with friends and family, blog posts, Instagram updates, and regular resupply services from Amazon. It may be better now in some respects due to technology, or not, but it is certainly different.
Getting to a shelter and reading the posts and messages left by others replaces TV’s entertainment and the many trivial distractions of the “real world.” It’s also a great way to decompress from a long hike and to recenter yourself. There are some incredible artists and storytellers that provide a generous and bountiful quantity of joyful anecdotes and social commentary about the things we are all going through on the pages of journals up and down the trail. These journals are often left for people to sign by a hiker passing through, and it is a rare blessing to be able to get one returned to you, filled with the history of an irreplaceable moment in time. I am fortunate to have two that belonged to Baltimore Jack. I will tell you about these journals in more detail towards the conclusion of this book. What he wrote and what others wrote in return give us many clues as to who he was. These shelter journals can arrive in the mail without warning, and at times with no notice of who the trail-angel was that sent it back to you. It’s just a kind gesture of sincerity and fellowship, as well as a colorful record of a specific time and place in the world, re-lived through the stories and recollections of those who experienced them. Some of these stories have become legendary and mythical in their telling and retelling. One such tale is about what happened at The Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, PA, in the summer of 1999. It involved a person in a severely deceased condition.
The Truth Behind the Legend-Man and Story
I have heard so many hikers tell this story, even going so far as to change the year that it happened to the year they hiked and placing themselves at the scene of the incident. I don’t think this is done with any malicious intent. It has just become such a well-known story. The centerpiece of the story, Baltimore Jack Tarlin, told so many people that they simply live it vicariously through the retelling. That being said, it would have taken a football stadium to house everyone who says they were at the scene, rather than the 2 dozen or so rooms the Doyle had at the time. The reality is, only about ten or so hikers were truly there to experience this unfortunate episode in person, and I am one of them. It was over 20 years ago now, June 26, 1999, to be exact, according to my journal, but some things you just don’t forget. So please allow me to set the record as straight as it can be. My trail name for the record was Super-fly SY. I still go by SY.
Foreshadowing of Death
“Baltimore Jack” always seems to be involved in some of the most absurd, unlikely, and at times shocking (to non-hikers) trail episodes. This story is no exception, and indeed he is a pivotal character in the telling of the story.
Side note: Baltimore Jack- aka L.A. Tarlin is one of the most legendary characters of the Appalachian Trail, with 7 or 8 consecutive thru-hikes depending on how you count them. The first was over a two year period. Only a few truly new him, my wife, daughter and I are fortunate to have been able to call him family. Some of his history is included in my book In The Real World I Hike.
We have to visit the night before the unfortunate discovery that this story is about was made. It was June 25th, at the Thelma Marks Shelter, an awful wet, fetid little shack of a shelter (a shithole is how I described it in my journal); Jack was regaling us with anecdotes about the Doyle and its former historical glory; as well as the legacy of the Anheuser Busch connection to the establishment. The building was purchased by Adolphus Busch in 1880 and later named the Johnson Hotel, but closed in 1920 due to the horrific failed social experiment we know as prohibition. It became The Doyle in 1944 after it was purchased by an Irish immigrant who had recently won the lottery. Jack lamented that it was in such disrepair, but even considering its far from mint condition, it was a must-stop for all thru-hikers. “Visit the Doyle” was and perhaps still is a common mantra heard up and down the trail. Spending the night there was seen as a rite of passage and milestone of hiking accomplishment of sorts. It also had a cheap bar in the basement.
I commented to Jack that it couldn’t be as bad as he described it. He looked me in the eye and stated as seriously as one could, in his very direct and baritone academic professor’s classroom delivery, “Sir, upon entering the Doyle, it is immediately apparent that no fewer than 22 persons have come to their end inside this establishment. Either by suicide, natural causes, or murder.” Drawing out and emphasizing the word murder. If you know Jack, he was prone to err on the side of the dramatic to provide a useful embellishment to his narrative accounts of things. Boring, he was not. It may have taken far longer than necessary to tell a story, but it would not lack in detail. Jack was incapable of providing a concise account of things.
“…an awful little shelter”
No matter the place’s condition, I was looking forward to a town stop; and the opportunity to get a shower and some hot food that didn’t come out of my titanium MSR cook pot. Sorry for the shameless product plug. But seriously, that was $40 well spent, and 20 years later, I still use it! In the shelter, it was getting late, the bugs were out in biblical numbers, the fire was a smoky pathetic mess, and we all settled down for a damp, but hopefully good night’s rest. Did I mention this was an awful little shelter? A three-sided festering pox upon the landscape.
The trek into Duncannon was uneventful, and the weather was getting hotter, and things seemed to be dry everywhere except for the shelter we spent the night in. Pennsylvania is often called Painsylvania, due to the sharp rocky trails, steep exposed climbs, and long walks through open fields that bake in the sun, searing the skin and lungs of hikers that have little chance of escaping the blazing sun beating down like an inferno sucking the air out of your very soul. You can feel yourself cooking as you hike onward, one step at a time, and hear the crackling of the grass and whatever crops were in the fields, desperately attempting to not become desiccated stalks of chaff. It was hot. Really hot. Hikers have a different appreciation for cool, clean water when they are marching through a parched landscape. Any opportunity to jump in a creek, or pond, even a water trough was a welcome respite; and hikers would act like little kids splashing around fully clothed or bare ass nekkid.
The town of Duncannon is on the Susquehanna River, not far from Harrisburg. Its residents are very friendly towards hikers and annually welcome many hundreds if not thousands into their community. 20 years ago, the town was struggling a bit, and from what I have read recently, much has been done to revitalize it and its remarkable history. Jack would have stated at any time he told this story that this particular episode is in no way a reflection of the town, nor its residents, and in no way should be taken as a critique of the owners’ past and present of the Doyle Hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in town, and all the people we encountered were gracious and hospitable. I would recommend it as a must-see stop on the trail.
The prior week’s crazy hot weather would also become a crucial element in this story. As we arrived at The Doyle, we ran into a hiker who was a day or two ahead of us and had holed up for a while due to an illness. He ultimately would discover he had Lyme disease, if I recall. Fleischman was his trail name, and he was looking quite poorly and said that it “smelled like ass” upstairs. Jack said that was part of the charm, and we quickly noticed a chicken dinner sale being hosted by one of the local auxiliaries. Being hikers, we dove in like the starved, wanton, joyful savages that we were. It was pretty cheap, around $5, and I think most of us had more than one of the dinners comprised of ¼ roasted chicken, mashed taters, greens, rolls, and probably an apple side for dessert. Jack had a 2-liter bottle of fruit punch and drank the whole thing (foreshadowing). Most of us did not immediately check in to the hotel as there was no chance of not getting a room. Most rooms would have 4-6 hikers in them if it got crowded. Even a cheap room is cheaper when shared. We were all on the back porch in the shade, lounging around, feasting, and swapping stories. Generally having a wonderful time with each other. During the shenanigans, Jack managed to impale himself in the leg with a splinter as big around as a pencil on one of the weathered floorboards.
Our serenity was interrupted by him yelling at the top of his lungs, “pull it out; it hurts!!!!” This continued for a bit with some chuckling and jibes directed at his uncomfortable situation, “it can’t be that bad, don’t be a @#$%…” I commented about reciting lines for his part in the remake of Deliverance, and then I noticed just how big the offending object was. I reached over and yanked it out of his leg, and in Jack’s defense, it was about 3″ long, and only about 1 of those inches was not inside of him. So now he has ACE bandages on both knees, glasses taped together, severe chafing of the nether region, a gash on his forehead, AND a gaping hole in his leg that is gushing blood onto the porch. A bandana remedies the situation so that he can continue eating his and everyone else’s food scraps out of those Styrofoam containers that takeaways come in.
After finishing our chicken dinners and cleaning up the porch, we break up to go get rooms or run town-stop errands. I went to the post office to see if I had any care packages. Boom! My older brother had sent me one! I only recall that it had a small bottle of Jim Beam in it. A lot of the towns near the trail are dry or inconveniently located to acquire booze. Pennsylvania is not one of these places. Beer and booze are readily available everywhere. It’s great. I loved hiking in PA. Anyway, I go get a room and go upstairs. The place reeks but, I dump my pack and go to take a shower. I had seen Jack on the way up to the room and told him I got some Beam in the mail, and we could share a drink or three later. After my shower, it seemed that the smell was worse. There are less than a dozen hikers here at this point; most went to the campground because of the smell. Jack had gone to get the caretaker about the stench.
They come upstairs and eventually notice the smell is emanating from one particular doorway. Then it is quickly determined that there is a buzzing sound coming from the room, and one of them looks under the door. It was locked from the inside, and there was a clear indication a person was in prone on the floor up against the door and clearly not moving. Consider that this was in July, and it has been sweltering for many days. This unfortunate person had been expired for quite some time at this point.
Turns out that people could rent rooms by the week/month and that this was a semi-transient person who had been a short-term resident. No one had realized that he had not left his room nor been seen in quite a few days. This author did not know precisely how long he had been deceased, but it had been at least four or five days in the hot PA. weather. These rooms did not have air conditioners, nor were the windows open in this particular one. It was a mostly sealed unit, baking slowly in the Pennsylvania heat. Until they could get the door opened.
Jack bangs on my door. I was just a few rooms down the hall, and he has a frantic expression on his face as I open it. He grabs me by the shoulders, I’m in my towel, and says, “Remember the other night when I told you about the 22 stiffs at the Doyle? Yeah, I do. WELL MAKE IT 23!”
NOW, WHERE’S THAT BOTTLE? He yells at me with a frantic, “I told you so!” and a thirsty look in his eyes.
The caretaker called the police. Most of us decided to vacate the premises while the authorities took care of things. Another hiker (Maggie) and I decided to go get ice-cream down the street, and as we were leaving, we went out onto the balcony; several first responder vehicles had shown up. One was the coroner, in a black pickup truck with the logo of an Asphalt and Paving company on the door. The driver had on what looked like a baseball coach’s uniform and held a magnetic sign that said…CORONER. The entire situation was becoming more and more surreal. He tossed the sign at his truck, and it stuck to the side door, then yelled up at the caretaker who was in the process of prying open the second-floor window to the man’s room from the outside while standing on a ladder. Where’s he at? At this point, Maggie and I decided to abandon ship. Here is where it all starts to go to hell. Up here he yells. Looks like it’s ……. I do not recall the person’s name. But we would miss out on witnessing the next few scenes in person. But would bear a graphic telling of them shortly thereafter.
An Essay (Backstory-I have been dying my beard different colors this school year; and this is written from the perspective of a letter to my students.)
Michael “Mr. SY” Sisemore 12-20-2017
Some of you may have noticed that I have taken to changing the color of my stylish facial coiffure. Quite a number of folk have expressed an interest in my motivations, and intentions, to engage in such a non-traditional expression for someone of a particularly seasoned antiquity. Trust in the process. There is indeed a reason and purpose for such a bold and audacious action. A little back story, last year I experienced a profound moment of unpleasantness and disappointment due to the actions of another adult. This interaction forced me to question my commitment to, and my capacity as a colleague, professional, educator, and role model. After a great deal of reflection, I decided to do something uncharacteristic to my typical modus operandi. Do something that would make myself very visible to others. I am most comfortable in the background, in the periphery guiding, and molding things to my liking. Kind of like an intellectual Ninja.
For those who think they know me; I am actually rather shy and reserved in most social and professional settings. It is outside my comfort zones to draw a lot of attention to myself, especially in larger groups. I have always struggled with anxiety and am self conscious about people looking at me. True story. By making the decision to purposely draw attention to myself, as dying my beard crazy, outlandish colors would do, I would not be able to remain in the shadows. I would have to accept the reactions of others as they came. Those reaction did indeed come. From everywhere.
Random strangers come up to me and start conversations, or simply to comment. The looks that I get are the most interesting. They range from genuine interest, curiosity, amusement, bewilderment, to disapproving glances from certain stereotypical demographics. There are also the loud yells across parking lots of “I love your beard!” I have determined the more obnoxious the colors, the more attention I get. Sometimes I forget that I have a colored beard, and am taken by surprise when someone comments. It is a gentle reminder that others are always seeing us as we appear to them, not necessarily as we appear to ourselves. We are a collection of labels applied both by ourselves and by others. We can only fully control one of those applicators. Others will see us as they wish to see us, and that impression is only going to be altered through a personal interaction. Which brings me back to why I am doing this.
It would be simple to look back at my tenure here at LHS, and write it off as Mr SY being Mr SY. But that would be simple and unsophisticated. I am a complicated amalgam of contradictions and provocations. There is always purpose in my actions, although I choose to rarely reveal them publicly. I think this lends a certain mystique and charm to my persona. As adults we should have developed the skills and coping mechanisms to confront adversity, and controversy. These skills are typically gained through the experience of surviving all the unpleasant things that have happened to us. Adolescents do not often have these skills; and are typically unprepared, or ill equipped to adequately respond to adversarial and emotional challenges. When they are feeling marginalized, or isolated because they are seen as different, it can be a catastrophic blow to their emotional and essential selves. Being different can be a challenge for most of us. Regardless of age, there will always be disagreeable people entering and leaving our lives. This does not end as we become adults. We have such an intense desire to fit in, to be a part of, a member of, something larger than ourselves, that many are willing to sacrifice their “self” to the group. The loss of individual identity for the sake of “fitting in” is dangerous and unhealthy in my opinion. A person should feel comfortable about who and what they are first, and as a member of society later. A social group is much stronger, and more representative if all the individuals have a powerful sense of self-worth and personal identity. We can only be one person well. That person is yourself.
Life is about actions and transformation; it is about challenge and resilience; it is about adventure and discovery. Attempting to be someone else, whom you are not-nor will ever be, is a path to unhappiness and misery. Living up to the ideals of others, the expectations of others is futile. We must be capable and willing to blend the ideals of society with our own hopes and desires to create an existence that brings us joy and fulfillment. If we are living our true life, those that are needed in our lives will find us. They will encourage and inspire us, they will challenge us to be an even greater version of ourselves, not to change who we are, to satisfy their own comfort. It is essential that we discover and represent our true selves. To do anything else will only increase our struggles in an already complicated world.
The changing color of my beard was a subtle gesture to everyone who has ever felt that they were different from everyone else. It is a gesture for anyone who has felt marginalized, ostracized, or simply felt misunderstood. My message to you is that it is okay to be different. In fact, I am telling you to celebrate your differences. Imagine how mundane life would be in a world of sameness. The horror! You can be many things in life; why be boring. Being just like everyone else it just that, boring.
My background is very different from every other adult at our school; and that is okay. My philosophy on education is very different from many other educators; and that is okay. My personal beliefs are very different from most other adults in this building; and that is okay. My values and professional goals are different from many adults here; and that is okay. Take whatever you feel makes you different, and use it as a tool to elevate yourself from the pack. Standing out and getting noticed can be a scary proposition. Sometimes you have to take a stand and represent. If you feel like a misfit, a dork, geek, nerd, outcast, loner…it’s okay. Everyone feels like that at one time or another. I’m a dork. I accepted that long ago. I also have a smokin hot accomplice in life and the best family I could ever have dreamed up. The journey was often difficult and painful at times. However, I made dorkness a part of my irresistible charm, dangled it out there like a spinnerbait and caught myself a keeper!
The greatest tragedy, an irrecoverable tragedy, is not living the life meant for each of us. Time cannot be unwound, once past it is a lost opportunity. To live our true life, we have to be invested and committed to it. We have to be present and engaged in that life. We have to….be. So do that, be who and what you are meant to be.
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.”
A recent paper submitted for a class I just finished. More academically written with APA citations and references.
Providence is My Guide
By Michael “SY” Sisemore
The purpose of this paper, is to create a reflection based upon a selection of readings, both required and suggested, from the syllabus of a course titled Work as a Personal Journey. The term journey has a very special and intense connection with my philosophy about life. I see life as a purposeful engagement that one must be actively pursuing; life is not a spectator sport. I chose the books as a matter of necessity and gave little thought to the titles as I acquired them. Michael Singer (2015) tells us in The Surrender Experiment, we are better off “…participating in what’s unfolding, instead of fighting it.” (p, 6) So participate I did. By trusting the process and surrendering myself to the trust I have for my professors, unnecessary anxiety was eliminated. I had no expectations, nor hesitancy as I began to explore what lie within each book.
Two books immediately struck me as a direct reflection of my life’s journey and challenges. These were The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer (2015); and Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck (2001). The other books This Time I Dance (Kieves, 2004) and Awake At Work (Carroll, 2006) were not as inspiring. Perhaps this was due in part from my exposure to them after I grew an attachment to the prior readings.
Singer (2015) shares his story as someone who “…dared to let go and trust the flow of life.” (p.7) My own journey is one of many similarities to Singer and this idea of letting go; and trusting this mysterious and often frightening flow of life. Martha Beck (2001) references this conceptual struggle of life, and the process of living, in her book Finding Your Own North Star. The struggle is between our two selves, the essential and the social. An imbalance in the two leads to anxiety and stress, or careless and reckless behaviors. According to Beck (2015), the social-self desires conformity and routine, it is predictable and goes to work every day and pays its bills on time. The essential-self wants to go and play, to take that vacation, go on an adventure, quit your job and live at the beach for a year with a retired circus performer (Beck, 2015, p. 5). The struggle to do as society wants or what we need to do to be genuine and honest with ourselves is eternal and real. Conformity has destroyed many a dream before it ever begins to live.
Singer (2001) also speaks of the “…difference between creative inspiration and logical though” (p. 36). Logic without inspiration is dry and without a soul to guide the process of exploration. Over thinking everything is a common first world problem. Our adult lives are so burdened with rules and expectations that many of us have lost the ability to let go and take a chance on something unknown and mysterious. I was that way for many years until a life changing event would forever propel me into the unknown future. A journey without end.
My journey was unplanned, and I fought against it with everything I had. In the end, providence won the day. The ideas of having a North Star, as Beck (2015) claims, of our own, and letting life take over as my guide, per Singer (2001) resonates so loudly it is deafening. Up until April 1, 1999 I was committed to doing and being what everyone else expected me to be. Responsible, reliable, loyal and going to work every day, paying all the bills on time, buying a house, new cars and all the stuff that goes with being married. Life was all about duty and conformity, no surprise then that I was miserable and volatile. The social-self had won. I was a walking, talking rage machine with a hair trigger ready to explode. As the marriage fell apart I was resistant to allow it to happen, this would have been a failure and a disappointment to my parents, friends, and family. One question changed my approach to everything. “When was the last time you were happy?” my soon to be, ex-wife asked one night. I was appalled and horrified that I could not come up with even one instance in many years that I was happy about.
In short order, I fired my social-self and gave my essential-self a promotion. My only goal was to find a reason to exist. In the span of a few weeks I was divorced, quit my job, walked away from a $300,000 house that I had built, gave away, threw away, or sold most of my belongings, and drove my truck to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. I parked my truck, threw the keys on the front seat, grabbed my backpack, and walked the hell away, from everything! I did not just “burn bridges” I blew them up. My plan consisted of “walk North!” I had resigned myself to find a reason and purpose or die trying.
Singer (2001) talks about letting go and accepting opportunities as they appear, and to reject nothing that comes your way. Beck (2015) spends a great deal of time analyzing the concept of being on the right path of life, and that your North Star is metaphoric of being true to both of your “selfs.” I did exactly these things, long before I ever considered being a teacher, or pursuing a doctorate in Education. These defined and articulated ideas and concepts were unknown to me. Yet some guiding force was pulling me, pushing me to my true purpose. I just had no idea what that was, or where it would take me. Holy shit, what a ride it has been so far!
We have all heard the adage that a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. This is essential and true to any journey, yet it is very often assumed that since a journey has a beginning, it must have a specific course and it MUST have an end. This is something that I have developed an objection to. Our life can be, and should be a journey. Journeys have a beginning, and a before the beginning, and many segments of the journey. Some of these segments will be long and arduous, others quick and effortless. Death would seem to be the end of this journey. I have learned that this is simply not the case at all. Our personal journey is filled with interactions and encounters that do not begin, nor do they end, with the beating of our hearts. I will use my own journey as an example. It was far from planned, had no specific course or direction, and even fewer objectives.
My second life, as I call it, began that day in April when I abandoned my former self. Along the way, I began to transform myself both physically and emotionally. One very specific moment clarified that I was finally on the right path. It was only a few weeks into a 6-month adventure and it was raining and cold. I was settled into a shelter with 6 or 7 other hikers. Some were cooking dinner, others reading or writing in journals. I was lying in my bag watching the rain pour down. My new friend Antonio was to my left, a hiker named Load was to my right and Willow was in front of us at a table trying to light her stove. A realization hit me like a lightning bolt. I was 32 years old, in a shelter in the middle of the woods. I had no job, no home, no vehicle, not much of a plan, and nothing to go back to. I had no income, no bills, and no schedule. At that moment not a single person on the planet was relying on me for anything, and I was not relying on anyone for anything at all. For the first time in my life I had experienced what true freedom felt like. It was exhilarating, and terrifying. I was at that precise moment, unburdened.
My social-self had surrendered to my essential-self. I shared my thoughts with the others, and only one of them got it. They all had jobs to go back to, homes to return to, bills that needed to get paid etc. Their freedom was hindered with the reality of a life that required them to act on behalf of others, at some point in the not terribly distant future. Only Antonio got it. He was just not ready to let go of the past. He said that he envied me and was hopeful that I could hold onto it. At that moment, my path and purpose was clear. The life I sought was in front of me somewhere, and I would go wherever it took me.
My own North Star was still shrouded in mystery; and I spent the next few month’s searching inside myself to identify my weaknesses, and strengths. I sought answers to the questions- where had I failed others, and myself? What role did I actively play in my own misery? There were many “come to Jesus” moments. Some intensely painful yet cathartic, and at some point, I could finally accept that I was a good person, and that I deserved to be happy. Beck (2001) tells the stories of many patients that she has counseled over the years, having gone through very similar and painful process of discovery and awareness. Reading these books helped put words to my own experiences; and it was a little unnerving to witness myself in these pages.
Being happy is the only real reason we human creatures have for existing; and our true path is not up to us to determine, but to discover. I met so many people of such a great diversity of souls, who taught me more about life and living in 6 months, than an entire lifetime had to that point. One encounter would change the course of my life, and continues to do so today.
This encounter with a stranger, on the side of the trail, would lead to a lifelong friendship, and a home in a place I would never have considered in my old life. This encounter would lead to the introduction of a marvelous woman that, against all logic and reason, I have shared my life with for 18 years now. It would lead to our daughter, nearly 13 years old now, and a radical change in my idea of what a career should be and a reimagining of education as a meaningful part of my life. It would lead to this path that I could not have possibly embraced before.
My friend passed away unexpectedly 18 months ago; however, his journey is NOT over. We carry him with us every day of our lives, and our daughter is continuing his, and my, passion for hiking and the Appalachian Trail, as a unique path of discovery. Our own journey does not end with the final beat of our heart, it endures so long as those that we have encountered continue to affect the reality they follow.
My own journey is still taking me to places I still marvel at. I often look at myself as some sort of fraudulent being, totally out of place in academia, but this is where my path has taken me. I can question this place, but not my purpose. Every day something new is revealed and the path is clear for a time. I mentioned providence at the beginning of my own story; this passage from William H. Murray’s (1951) The Scottish Himalayan Expedition sums up the concept of journey. I gently suggest that it sums up all four of the books that I chose for this course.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. 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 dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” (p. 127)
Take the first step, begin it now, the destination is irrelevant, the power is in the journey itself. The answers to our questions are humbled by the pursuit. This is yet one more segment of my journey. Its purpose and consequence will be revealed when the time and condition is right.
Beck, M. (2001). Finding Your Own North Star. New York, NY: MJF Books.
Carroll, M. (2004). Awake At Work. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
Kieves, T.J. (2004). This Time I Dance. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
Murray, W.H. (1951). The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. London, England: J.M. Dent & Sons.
Singer, M.A. (2015). The Surrender Experiment. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
This is an article I was tasked with writing in a recent class I took. The course is titled Work as a Personal Journey and we were assigned to “imagine that a magazine (of your choosing) is going to do an article on your life and work and sends someone to interview you.” I found this an easy topic at first due to the many adventures I have been fortunate to experience. However, there was an extensive list of criteria and prompts to include that teased out a much greater understanding of who we see ourselves as, and what we value and envision in our future. Here it is for your consideration:
A Journey Worth Taking is Never Complete…
By Michael “SY” Sisemore
It has often been said that a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is certainly true of the journey that has been taken by Doctorate student and high school educator Michael “SY” Sisemore. More specifically, Sisemore tells Outside Magazine that this journey “…is ongoing…” and is nowhere close to being completed. SY, as he is more commonly addressed, looks at the journey of life, as a series of segments that provide an array of challenges, intentions, encounters, and goals. This journey of his was revealed to me recently, when an article was published in a local Upper Valley newspaper that featured his 12-year-old daughter Natalie. She and her father, SY, had just completed their final climb to the last summit (Mt. Moriah)0 of New Hampshire’s 48 tallest mountains. Completing what is commonly known as the NH 48 4K (mountains higher than 4,000′ in elevation) is a big deal, and even more so for a 12-year-old.
Introducing Challenges and Opportunities…
Our readers regularly ask for stories about adults who make a difference, and are bringing the next generation into the outside. Sisemore is doing just that with his daughter, but also with his students. For three years in a row, he has organized the entire freshman class of the high school he teaches at; and has taken them on a hike up Mt. Kearsarge- in Wilmot, NH. It is only a 4-mile round trip, but as Sisemore tells us, “for many of these kids, it is the first time they have ever set foot on a trail of any kind.”
Sisemore compares the hike to their time at high school. For some they will race to the top seemingly without effort, others will have to work harder but will still enjoy it and have a good time with their friends, a few of them will struggle a great deal, and may want to quit. But with determination and the support of others, they can persevere and make it. So far over 450 kids have made this hike with only 2 or 3 not making it all the way to the top. “Introducing kids to the outdoors is something that I am especially happy to do. I struggle to say that it is a source of pride, but it is incredibly rewarding, and I believe they see and feel the value in making this hike. It also provides them a chance to bond with each other, and several staff members in an environment away from classrooms.”
Seizing the Opportunity…
Hiking and being in the outdoors has been a big part of who Sisemore is since he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1999. Once his daughter was of an age to begin her own steps on a trail, he seized the opportunity. Natalie hiked her first mountain, Sunapee, at the age of 3; her first 4,000’r at 9 (Mt. Moosilauke) and has even hiked to the summit of Katahdin in Maine, at the age of 11. “She is the best hiking partner a dad could want. We have grown very close and it is a pretty cool way to bond with my little girl.” Hiking in the White Mountains of NH is rarely a simple thing. This is some of the most rugged and aggressive terrain in the East Coast. Many of the trails here have claimed hikers’ lives, and each year several people die, or are severely injured in these mountains. “Natalie is a natural. She has a wonderful manner about her, and has embraced the hiking world. It has taught her to be nimble, resilient, decisive, and strong. I use the hashtag #notasnowflake when I post pictures of her. The youth of today often gets labelled as fragile, ineffective, over entitled brats. But who makes them that? Not me.”
The Journey leads to adventure and Family…
I am having drinks at the place where SY, and his accomplice in life (as he calls her) Amber, and Natalie call home. They live in the semi-rural town of Sunapee, NH not far from a private beach and Mt. Sunapee, a very popular skiing destination, where he works as a snowboard instructor. Inside the 1850’s cape are many projects in various stages of completion, he works on them as he feels interest, and as time allows. The walls have many images of their travels and adventures together, and of himself and his daughter hiking and exploring NH’s mountains. His favorite photo is of Natalie at the age of 9, the sun is backlighting her in the woods, and the image is slightly out of focus, giving it an ethereal look. It could be any kid really “but she was singing to herself and looked so at peace with the world. I was lucky to get this picture, it is her true self.”
One of their most prized items hangs on an upstairs wall. It is an original sign board from 5’Olde Nugget Alley, a long-time institution (now closed) in Hanover, NH that represents so much of their lives. “We were introduced there, right after I moved to Hanover, from Georgia, after completing the AT in 1999. We spent countless nights and afternoons at 5’Olde. So many friends were there, we knew the owners, and all the regulars. Our lives as a couple began there and allowed us to truly grow as a family. We are nothing without the human connections that we make on our life’s journey.”
He was given the artifact by a friend, who rescued it from the dump, when the establishment was closed after many decades. “I owe most of what I have in my life today, to a few people who have made a huge impact on me. Amber is the capstone that has allowed me to be who I am. She has encouraged me to pursue challenges and opportunities that I may not have on my own.” Sisemore believes that with incentive and motivation, the human element can accomplish nearly anything. Wealth and power may incentivize some, but those are fleeting and elusive pearls of success. Friends and relationships are where the real treasures of life will be found, easily held onto, and nurtured to bring a richness that economics cannot quantify.
It is easy to appreciate the intimate ease that SY and his partner Amber carry their relationship. It is clearly one of independence and an awareness of self, but has an intense strength and reliance of two people who have combined their intricate identities into a symbiotic symmetry that works well for them and their daughter. “We know who we are, but more importantly, we understand that we are individuals as well as a family. We all need to do our own thing occasionally. And that’s okay.”
A Life’s Work…
You have a very strong grasp on your personal life, what is going on in your professional life, where are you focusing your energies and interests? I have had a few careers in the past, really, but they were just jobs. A means to an end most of them were. At the time is was okay. I find that I am inherently lazy when it comes to being motivated to do certain things. The most important factors that motivate me these days are other people, not simply monetary gains. What I do now I consider to be my life’s work, a continual pursuit of skills and abilities to enhance my professional presence. Being an educator is a process of exploring knowledge and people. Teachers are not just repositories of information, designed to deliver it to students. We should continually pursue learning and push our own understanding of we are not growing ourselves, how can we expect to nurture or encourage others to challenge themselves.
Teaching is incredibly complicated and relies upon relationships and sincere interactions to be highly effective. I find students to be a fantastic mirror to our abilities. They provide great challenges and motivational inspiration to be better at what we do/. They will be stark and honest in their feedback if they trust you.
The world of education is where I have found and developed my work passion. The rewards are far more that financial in nature. Which is a good thing, as teaching does not pay particularly well. I think that passion allows our work to transcend the idea of a jobs burdens.
One of my best achievements is discovering and becoming me, my true self. This part of my journey was arduous, transformative, opened many doors and opportunities. This achievement is forever connected to the most difficult time of my life. A difficult divorce after 10 years in a miserable relationship led to a desperate search for purpose and joy in life. The divorce was the end of one life segment and the beginning, or catalyst to start another, better existence. The search took place on the AT, and involved a complete severing of all prior ties to friends, and community. A literal manifestation of the idea that we can “walk away from it all.”
That’s a great sense of awareness that you have. Considering that, what would you tell your younger self if you could? “Oh, that is an easy one! I would say-RUN AWAY NOW!!! And put every cent you have into Apple Stock.” Winning on both fronts there. Brilliant advice to be sure. What would you tell our readers, a piece of advice or wisdom that you could pass on? I would encourage them to not take things too seriously, laugh at yourself and your mistakes, chill out, have fun with your friends, talk to strangers, listen to loud music, and go outside every chance you get.”
What do you see in your future? “I am going to be better then than I am today, strive to be as good a dad and accomplice in life as I can, change the way high school is conducted, and in two years I will sachet across the stage and accept my Doctorate in Education. This will happen.”