634 Miles, 9 Weeks In, Waterfalls and the Story Behind the Statistics

634 Miles, 9 Weeks In, Waterfalls and the Story Behind the Statistics
May 27, 2018 Heather Starbuck

Theo and I are currently curled up in the bottom bunk at the Woods Hole hostel, once again seeking refuge from the rain. Actually, this was the first preplanned hostel/shelter situation I’ve had so far on the trail. This hostel is renound for serving its guest meals right off the farm… not unlike the abundance of lush, fresh salad and meal I had back at the farm in Franklin. So Scissors and I pre-booked our stay two days ahead, setting a lofty 34 mile goal.

And so… we of course had to bust some booty and made a 19 miler yesterday. While there are hikers out here by some miracle doing 25+ mile days… I have not yet found their secret. They apparate perhaps? 19 miles has so far been my max and at the end of the day my feet are arguably 1-2 sizes larger, swollen and itchy. They do not yet agree with such high mileage days. Despite having been up til 11PM (hiker 3AM here), the terrain was fairly gentle and we culminated in a wonderful end of day shebang at Dismal Falls where we could jump from the top of a 10-15’ waterfall into the swirling, bubbling pool below.

Normally, I am the one to hesitate such cliff jumps, pace back and forth, “one, two, three” people would say to me but upon three I’d always pull back from my half-committed forward lean stance, having to restart the whole build up all over. Thrills and fear are different to me now though. When the worst thing that could happen to you already has, you get numb to the various other hazards life throws your way. Ive noticed on the various fire towers we’ve climbed, some old and billowing in the wind, my adrenaline doesn’t function on par as it should. The rush of nerves leaning over ledges is muted from what it once was. I no longer jump at scary movies I’d formerly only watch by near force through a crevice between my fingers. And so, in a weird way, I’m now more liberated to take the risks and thrills I never used to be.

Looking over the edge of that waterfall, as I gently hopped both feet off the edge, I instantly thought of Matt. Time stopped for a moment as I was falling and I felt alive in an exhilarating rather than excruciating way. Almost feeling a rush of Matt like he was there jumping with me. It’s hard to explain… but I likely sensed him since it was such a Matt moment. He lived for stuff like this.

Small little thrills, moments of pure joy and feeling 100% alive and in the moment. It could be a rush – jumping off a bluff into the Buffalo, tubing down the Boulder Creek in high water, to a calm serenity at the top of a peak or with stillness, fly rod in hand. Matt knew how to slow down time, savoring the small things. He’d spend hours tending to our small porch garden, cleaning, pruning and singing to his plants. He would talk to them while gently perfecting their habitat, when I’d giggle at it, he’d turn and tell me “plants are alive with feelings too, Heather”. Even drinking a craft beer was a whole experience for him. He’d take his time, savoring every flavor, then telling us about every flavor, fact, and note possible on each and every one. Sometimes as I had friends over he’d scamper around with bits of exotic cheese and a sip of this or that, enthusiastically hand delivering samples to everyone wherever they were in the room. A massive smile plastered across his face which lit up letting out a satisfied laugh and “yesss” when people enjoyed his offering. He was so passionate, so immersed, that he could draw anyone in, even those with no interest in bretonomisis, or cherry tomatoes.

The night before Dismal falls, I’d stayed up particularly late over the campfire with a fellow hiker’s partner who’d lost her brother three years ago to an accidental overdose. While I won’t divulge details, I found that we often spoke the same language – our guilt, questions, and tumultuous terrain of grief. While I cry a lot when talking to others sharing in this experience, I once again found solace in just sharing our stories. Hearing about her brother, their relationship, the hole left behind, different from the dynamic Matt and I had but yet so the same, above all the same love and pain left for us to tend to.

I presume while reading these entries you’ve started to understand how incredible our Matt was… you may have even fallen a bit in love with him too. I wouldn’t blame you. For those reading these entries, particularly if you haven’t been personally touched by this epidemic, I hope that my stories of Matt and others write a different depiction beyond the statistics. 174 people per day. It’s so easy for us to feel detached from the reality of such a daunting number. The devastating reality is, each of these losses is someone’s Matt. Someone who is loved, who likely has so much to bring to the world. Someone who’s life was cut far too short through a crisis that lacks resources, compassion and knowledge to properly fix. Every overdose brings a tidal wave of heartbreak, families across the country being shattered daily as beautiful people like Matt lose their battles. I’ve seen horror/scare tactic stories, viral photos families post of a casket or with their child hooked up to life support, but I feel these almost detach us further, not serving justice to the actual person, with all their unique quirks and subtleties that left their special mark on the world. They don’t force us to face the grave loss that has actually occurred beyond the addiction and its horrible outcome, the loss of a beautiful person. Personally, I hope in sharing the details, charming antidotes and memories, stories of character and integrity, Matt’s story will help other people see beyond the statistics, and foster a deeper, more humanistic empathy and understanding of not just ours, but all of these losses.

I certainly can go on, but it’s getting darker and they are about to offer up that farm fresh meal I’ve been hearing about along the trail for a week plus. Today is my Dad’s birthday. I want to give him a big air hug and thank you for everything he’s done. Through this experience, I’ve been awed by the incredible integrity and depth my Dad has. Matt was like a son to him, he was so heartbroken by this, probably most second to me from my family. But through it all, he’s picked me up (literally and metaphorically) when I’m broken to keep me walking and breathing through this nightmare. Right from the start, my Dad always gave Matt unconditional love and respect, even more aware than most at what a kind and genuine person Matt was, and how happy he made his daughter. I’d find them often immersed in their own conversations on the porch or garage, and then after my Dad taught him how to fly fish, riverside. I know how much this love and acceptance meant to Matt and it means so much to me as well. So thank you Dad, and Happy Birthday, I love you so much.



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