10 June, 2008

Dancing with a butterfly

It was a weekend of fear management.

As I woke up on a warm Sunday morning on the Appalachian Trail (AT), I faced 14 miles of walking in 98F heat, and blisters the size of small grapes on both my feet. I was not looking forward to hiking my way out of the mountains. But the weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains was difficult in more ways than my physical challenges.

Although I have expected the eventual end to dad’s predicament, my Friday night call with mother filled me with fear. More than my fear of dad’s expected passing, I fear for his comfort during his last days. But most of all (perhaps selfishly), I fear for my ability to make the right decisions. As he nears his end, we are faced with a most difficult final question; should we shorten the process and let dad go peacefully, or prolong the inevitable and spend limited resources for medical procedures that will briefly extend his life without addressing the core issue? What is a son to do when faced with these questions? These thoughts stayed on my mind all weekend.

We started our walk at VA-605 Saturday morning and planned on arriving at Harpers Ferry Sunday afternoon. By all measures, it was an ambitious goal. The portion of the AT we targeted is known as the “rollercoaster.” During our first 11 miles, the pace was slow as we fought the heat, the hills, our 50 lbs rucksacks, and ourselves. The landscape was a constant 1,000 ft up, and 1,000 ft down. Each step forward and upward was about conquering the fear of pain. It wasn’t so much the hurt that bothered me, but the anticipation of it. It was quite intimidating to descend 1,000 ft knowing that another 1,000 ft steep ascend was already staring me right in the face. It was a long day’s work and I enjoyed and hated every second of it.

However, rather than driving the demon out of my mind, the more I tried to focus on the trail, the more I thought about mother and dad. As I struggled to find the strength to fight that mountain, I could not but think about what the right decision is for dad.

The 2.5 miles downhill hike on the Ridge to River Trail was the longest walk in my memory. Looking at the topo map, we assumed that it would be well-worth the effort to get off the AT and camp by the Shenandoah River. Images of jumping into the water to cool off drove us forward. However, the mountain and the heat took a great deal of our energy and left our legs and hearts weak. While the S. River site was already taken when we got there, I could not have been happier to make camp by Sand Spring, dunk myself in the ice cold water, and enjoy the simple pleasures of food and relaxation before quickly falling asleep.

Day two was tougher than day one. With my blistering feet, I could no longer move quickly. Advising my hiking partner to move ahead to meet our ride without me, I was left to walk at my own pace. Having gained my solitude, I also earned the pleasure of monopolizing my own pains. Somewhere along the way at approximately 3 miles from our predetermined meeting spot, a butterfly with black and teal wings playfully danced around me, willing me forward for the next few miles home.

The AT always does wonders for me. It is a beautiful and challenging place that always gives me space to reflect and come away a different and hopefully better person. While I still question myself about my decision, I have my answer.

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