Trail Stories

Early sunrise in Maine Photo by Devon “O.R.B” Snedeker

When SUNDAY Smiled

By Andrew Davidson

After two decades of providing

therapy to Navy Sailors, SEALs, and Marines returning from war, I thought I knew about grief. When my son was killed in a motorcycle accident, I knew nothing until I picked up my pack and started to walk. “If you aren’t at Katahdin, you ain’t nothing,” a hiker told me. But I found that it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. It was the 2,198.2-mile journey from Georgia to Maine that took me to up the tops of mountains and down to deep despair. Tears of happiness during the day and tears of loss flooded my heart at night knowing that Aaron wasn’t here to walk with me.

I dealt with the void left from the death of my son the year before by filling it with hope that I found along the Trail. With the lightest gear I could afford, one pair of shorts, two shirts, and a floppy hat, I took to the Trail after an eleven-hour bus ride.

My gray beard grew as my clothes got baggier. I looked like something that climbed out from under a Grimm’s fairytale bridge. The Trail gave me the space to have a talk with the one I was most angry with — God. God’s world opened up when everything I owned was on my back and my only concern was the next white blaze.

My thru-hike was a struggle with the weight of my pack matched with the weight of grief. I thought about quitting every day, but every day I picked up my pack and I walked. On July 27, 2014, the one-year anniversary of Aaron’s death, the weight was unbearable. The sweat poured and my heart pounded as we hiked up Mount Killington in Vermont. My knees ached and my quads quivered. It wasn’t just the roots or the rocks that were getting in my way; discouragement and anger flooded my footprints. A fellow hiker, “Tiger Bob” and I took a spur trail to the Killington Ski Resort. Aaron had been a lift mechanic at a ski resort, so as I watched the gondola making its turns, I felt his presence. Unafraid to hide my tears, I ate a gourmet burger in the late hours of the morning, between drying my eyes and wiping my mouth.

Tiger Bob and I left this sanctuary, hiked down the mountain, and up our last climb for the day. Tiger was five yards behind me the entire way when we dropped our packs at the powerline clearing in full view of the A.T. In the distance were Mount Killington’s special ski runs. I only wanted to shut my eyes to erase this day from memory — until I bent down to get my tent poles. After 1,800 miles, my pole bag somehow fell out of an eight-inch-deep pocket. It was past five-thirty. Somewhere between me and Mount Killington lay my poles; and I needed them.

Armed with only my cell phone, I ran into the woods. Twenty yards in, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. Shoulder-high on a nub of a sapling hung my tent poles. I held them close then I lifted them to the sky. “Oh God, oh Aaron, thank you, thank you,” I said.

The coldness in my heart broke that day. Grabbing my poles and raising them up, I repeated, “Thank you, thank you.” Then I said more. For the first time in a year I said, “Thank you, God, for taking care of my son.” After walking back to our site, I saw “Sonic,” a young female hiker. Her eyes were closed and her face was pointed to the heavens; she looked angelic. Music played from her iPod. “Sonic, Sonic,” I exclaimed, “let me tell you what just happened,” repeating my story. “Well, let me tell you this,” she replied. “I stopped here to pray because I felt the presence of angels.” I fell backward.

Armed with the knowledge that Aaron and I were cared for, I set my sights on Katahdin in Maine, the terminus of the Trail. Whenever I thought about quitting, I pictured the sign on top of Katahdin, so I picked up my tent poles and walked across the White Mountains and into the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. New Hampshire has the White Mountains but Maine has the wilderness. And Maine has Katahdin.

We had few fires on the Trail, but on my last night in Baxter State Park, I built my first fire. I needed the warmth of the fire and the people who sat around it. Everyone wanted to be up early. I couldn’t sleep — it felt like the night before Christmas.

In the morning, after checking in with the Park Ranger, the first mile-and-a-half was a gradual climb to one last waterfall. As I walked around the rocks and over the roots, the Trail turned upward and tough. I used to think about quitting; now I thought about finishing. Adrenaline filled my muscles but peace filled my soul. After getting to the top of the boulders, I paused to look back but could only see the low-hanging fog hovering over the countryside. The fog was a familiar site that I now welcomed as a friend.

The Trail leveled off with two miles to go and the ground was marked “fragile.” Tufts of grass grew between the rocks and an impromptu spring ran down them. One last time, I tried as best as I could to keep my feet dry as I straddled the puddles and brushed against the roped-off Trail. And there it was — Katahdin — painted on an understated wooden A-frame sign atop Maine’s tallest peak. For a second time in more than 2,000 miles, I was stopped in my tracks. Like seeing your tree decorated on Christmas morning — you know what it looks like, you may have seen it for weeks, but on this day, it’s different. On this day, it’s Christmas.

I choked up. I went to one knee and thanked God. I clutched my wooden cross and Aaron’s Keystone lift maintenance hat. I wept. It was Sunday, August 30, 2015, Aaron’s birthday. He would have turned thirty-two. Instead of hiking part of the Trail with me, Aaron was there the whole way. He was there in the thunder at Tray Gap in Georgia and in the Hiker’s Parade at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. He was there with me at the James River, and when I downed a half-gallon of Neapolitan ice cream at Pine Grove Furnace. He was there on the streets of Duncannon where he grew up and on the top of Killington Ski Mountain. And he is still in the wind at Katahdin.

“When Sunday Smiled” was chosen as the Grand Prize winner of the ATC’s myATstory contest this past spring. These stories highlight the community that makes hiking the A.T. one of the most inspiring and unique experiences in the world. To read other contest finalist’s stories and to watch myATstory videos now visit: